BiH* Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
I must admit, I don't always stop to think about what it's like in BiH today. The focus of my writing is on the "ethnic cleansing" campaign by nationalist Serbs in the early 1990s, and the aftermath on the psychological, social, and economic well-being of survivors. I hear from people I have met who are part of the diaspora in the U.S. and abroad, or who live in Bosnia itself, of the political challenges that plague Bosnia. It is the hope of most Bosnians that the country enters the European Union, but it still has a ways to go as many benchmarks must be met first.
When Bosnia was a republic of Yugoslavia, most people thought of themselves as Yugoslavs first, while quietly observing their religious and ethnic affiliations. Prior to, and particularly during World War II, ethnic divisions led to bloodshed, and the prevailing view that the Balkans have mostly seen tensions between the three primary ethnic groups: Bosniaks, Serbs, and Croats, and that this must have been what the 1992-1995 Balkan War was about. The voter-approved referendums for independence away from the Yugoslav Federation cemented divisions that have carried forth to today. The nationalism of the majority of Serbs in BiH in the late 1980s and early 1990s led to the massacre and displacement of Bosniaks and Croats in a plan to "ethnically cleanse" those two groups in rder to create its own republic in Bosnia. Ending this war took NATO and U.S. military intervention, and then the U.S.-brokered Dayton Peace Accords, which resulted in Republika Srpska (RS), an entity established in 1995 for its majority Serb population, that lies within BiH. In conjunction with majority Bosnian Croat communities and its political party, and Bosniak communities and its party, there continues to be a significant challenge to the governance of BiH. For an interesting discussion, I refer you to a piece by the Wilson Center titled, "Whither Bosnia?" (March 2, 2021). This, coupled with the denial and revisionism that genocide and other heinous war crimes were committed by nationalist Serbs and their goal of "cleansing" BiH of all non-Serbs, seems to require the dedication of those who seek justice and reconciliation within all ethnicities in BiH to step out of the quagmire that currently stagnates future growth.
The war between 1992 and 1995 in BiH did as war often does. It pitted ethnicities and religions against one another under the authoritarian falsehoods of preservation of one's very existence being threatened. Whipped into a nationalistic frenzy, many Bosnian Serbs perceived themselves endangered, which resulted in plans to eradicate Bosniaks and Croats that led to mass killings, rape and sexual assault, trauma-related mental health problems, and displacement of those targeted by the perpetrators. The systematic genocide of two ethnicities was led by Slobodan Milosevic, Radavan Karadzic, and Ratko Mladic, the former having died in prison awaiting sentencing, and the latter two in prison for life convicted of genocide. The national trauma for Muslims and Croats in BiH remains almost thirty years later. Denial and revisionism has a firm hold on many who either participated as bystanders, perpetrators, or are their children. There is a small minority of brave ethnic Serbs who literally risk their safety and well-being advocating for recognition of, and reconciliation for the crimes committed.
To move forward in BiH, it is critical to upend the denial by many in RS, Serbia and elsewhere who claim that none of the atrocities took place, or that their actions were justified to defend their rightful place as Serbs in Bosnia. This is one very important pathway to getting political parties to work for the betterment of all in BiH. Though it will not be easy, courageous leaders on all sides must strive for political reforms that will greatly enhance and advance BiH. There are small, yet wonderful examples of entrepreneurial organizations seeking to benefit BiH as a whole.
Recently, I attended the BiH Diaspora Conference held virtually. It featured many younger people, professionals, who want to see BiH succeed. One of the presenters was from an organization called ReStart (restart.ba). Their mission is to act as a broker between foreign investors and business partners in BiH in order to build a thriving economic future. The second organization is called BH Futures Foundation (bhfuturesfoundation.org). This very forward-thinking non-profit is seeking to shape the next generation of change makers in BiH through education, technology, and leadership training. One of its founders, Eddie Custovic, epitomizes the drive that BH Futures Foundation seeks in its participants, and excellence it strives for in its goals. I encourage you to learn more about these two organizations.
So, what is the future of BiH? Is it mired in ethnic divisions that continue to erode, or is it willing to promote a more inclusive set of principles that guide it as a nation going forward?
*Bosnia and Herzegovina
(photo credit: renewablesnow.com; 2019)