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Scientists at work: tracing the path to peace in Bosnia-Herzegovina

One of the walls in my office in the town of Sanski Most, northwest Bosnia-Herzegovina, is covered with posters. Each depicts a different answer to the question “What is peace?” They range from the intellectual and practical, to the personal and provisional.

One proposes “harmony and unity in public and private relations”, while a second describes peace as “living free from injustice, inequality and pain”. Another suggests that “peace can be found within”, while another still describes a rather more mundane solution that doubtless many can relate to, identifying peace as “when my brother is far away from me”. These posters are a daily reminder that defining peace is hard enough, without then having to make it happen.

Writing on the wall. Author provided

Here in Sanski Most, I’m seeking to understand how reconciliation emerges from conflict. My workplace is an organisation called Centar za Izgradnju Mira (CIM) – the Center for Peace Building. The organisation’s slogan is Našput je mir: “Our way is peace”.

My role is to investigate the issues that have made post-conflict reconstruction in Bosnia so difficult, looking at the political system, the state of the economy, the role played by international organisations and the processes of justice and reconciliation.

Bosnia’s 1992-1995 war erupted out of the political struggle that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia. It was one of the first violent conflicts of the post-Cold War era.

The war was fought along ethnic lines, dividing the country into its three main groups: Bosniaks (Bosnian-Muslims), Bosnian-Serbs and Bosnian-Croats. There was ethnic cleansing and genocide, mainly against the Bosniak population, and concentration camps were established around the country.

The violence was ended by the 1995 Dayton Accords. It was decreed that the Bosnian State would be rebuilt as two entities – the Serb Republic (Republika Srpska) and the Bosniak/Croat Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Sticking points

As I investigate Bosnia’s contemporary problems two decades after the war, however, many disturbing problems remain. There is talk, for example, of young people being vulnerable to radicalisation.

A memorial in Sanski Most. Author provided

Mistrust and ethnic hatred are often passed from generation to generation. That seems to be true here in Bosnia, a country that has yet to come to terms with its violent past. Young people have only known a Bosnia defined by ethnic divisions and often develop hardened views about other groups, adopting attitudes that may risk a renewal of ethnic-based violence.

Particularly disturbing is talk of Bosnian foreign fighters joining Islamic State in Syria. Islamic State has targeted Bosniaks, focusing particularly on those from deprived and marginalised backgrounds. For these youths, who often face unemployment and poverty in Bosnia, offers of housing and better economic prospects overseas are a great incentive to leave.

Many of the people that I have met also say that they are disillusioned with politics and the ethnic rhetoric spouted during electoral campaigns. Some believe that politicians seek to frustrate ethnic divisions and the partition, promoting fear and mistrust to bolster their own positions.

State activity grinds to a halt in the process as ethnic politics hinder national decision-making. One side vetoes the other and the result is stalemate. This situation also fosters corruption and instability as parties and public officials often rely on nepotism and clientelism, establishing self-serving ethnic networks at various levels of government.

Starting with the young

The education system and media don’t always help. Instead of being tools for reconciliation, both have become channels for spreading political rhetoric and fostering ethnic divisions.

Bosnia’s media is seen as biased, often giving an unhelpful ethnic angle to all kinds of issues. Schools generally remain segregated along ethnic lines, too. Some are mono-ethnic, others split up students in subjects deemed “sensitive”, such as language, religion, history and geography. Programmes such as the “two schools under one roof” system, whereby students attend school in different shifts in order to avoid contact with different ethnic groups, continue.

High levels of unemployment – and particularly youth unemployment – pose another threat to the Bosnian economy and generate a pessimistic view among citizens about their country’s future.

Fresh hope

But it’s not all gloom. All sides feel a need to find a way for their country to open a new, more prosperous chapter, even if they don’t agree on how to get there.

I’ve also been learning about peace-building initiatives that focus on youth and gender issues, transitional justice and creative ways of dealing with the past. There are also forums for inter-ethnic dialogue between Bosniaks, Bosnian-Serbs and Bosnian-Croats.

An example of this is CIM’s Peace Camp: a week-long retreat that brings together young people from various ethnic backgrounds to meet and debate Bosnia’s more sensitive topics.

Although this research has highlighted the many problems faced by modern Bosnia, it is an inspiring place. People have a zest for life which is often reflected in Sanski Most’s embracing environment, the friendly disposition of its inhabitants and during the many refreshing and sunny evenings I have spent by the river Sana. Many people are incredibly friendly and open to receiving researchers like me. I even get a free, one-minute lesson in Bosnian every time I visit my local bakery. It’s the little things that give us hope.

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