The open wounds of Bosnia- Herzegovina

The consequences of the war in Bosnia still remain. “The majority of the young Bosnians want to leave.” Alma, Anela and Srđan tell us about the reality of a divided country. The experts then explain to us what happened.

By Ignacio Urquijo Sánchez / 28.8.2013


© Alfons Rodríguez

© Alfons Rodríguez


“The coffins were arriving in their hundreds. The entire nave was a space full of death and grief. I observed it all in silence. I walked slowly from one place to another with my heart in my fist. I saw the family crying for their loved ones, I raised my camera and took some photos.”

Alfons Rodríguez recounts the scene that he witnessed; he is a Spanish photojournalist that has covered conflicts in Congo and Iraq for publications such as National Geographic. On this occasion, Rodríguez found himself in Bosnia-Herzegovina photographing the moments of a family burying their relatives, 15 years after they were killed in Srebrenica. The photo was taken in 2010 but it could have been taken this year. There are still 2,000 victims that await identification and a burial.

Srebrenica is in fact a small locality situated to the east of the Republic of Srpska. This area, the majority of which is Serbian, is one of the two regions that makes up the state of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The other half is called the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the majority of people that live there are Bosnians and Bosnian Croats; therefore Bosnia is a decentralised state with two political entities and three nationalities.

Before the war took place in the nineties, there were neither entities with abbreviations nor territories with duplicated names. Until 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina was one of six territories which, together with two autonomous territories, formed the whole of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

The foundations that supported Yugoslavia were made up of three pillars – Marshal Josip Broz ‘Tito’ as Head of State, the Communist League as a tool of political control and the federal army as an instrument of dissuasion against internal disagreements and external interference. After the death of Tito in 1980, the two remaining pillars fell like a house of playing cards. The process of disintegration left five wars between 1991 and 2001.

Kosovo, a territory whose independence has been recognised by the United States and France but not by Spain or Serbia, demonstrates that the process still hasn’t finished. Bosnia-Herzegovina, with a state paralyzed amongst political entities, rotating presidencies, and a rate of unemployment at 45 per cent, corroborates Kosovo’s position.

What happened?


Sarajevo © Alma Telibecirevic

Sarajevo © Alma Telibecirevic

In the early spring of 1991, Slobodan Milošević, the president of Serbia, and Franjo Tudjman, his Croatian counterpart, met in Tito’s old farmhouse. It was a secret meeting; nobody could know that they were on the brink of breaking up a country that was not theirs, Bosnia-Herzegovina. The excuse was that amongst the just over four million Bosnian habitants, 31.3 per cent were Bosnian Serbs and 17.3 were Bosnian Croats. The majority, at 43.7 per cent, were of Muslim origin and were also known and Bosniaks. Not one western government seemed interested by these plans.

Milošević told the Serbs, distributed throughout Yugoslavia, that he yearned for a Greater Serbia. This was the pretext he used to maintain power. However, as soon as he could, he washed his hands of the Serbs from Krajina (territory in a Croatian zone). In reality Milošević yearned for a Great Milošević, and Tudjman was looking for something similar.

With Tito dead, and the Slovenian leaders abandoning the Communist League, the pillars that supported the Yugoslavian state were hardly there at all. Furthermore, the last pillar ie. the federal army had shown itself to be inefficient in the first conflict against Slovenia. The leadership of the army was made up of a majority of Serbs whilst the base of the army was formed of all Yugoslav nationalities. This produced the consequence of bringing Croatian or Slovenian men to mobilise against their own people. During a moment when the USSR languished, and Yugoslavia found itself without its cohesive pillars, the majority of the political leaders of the Yugoslav republics adopted a simple strategy. This was to grasp onto nationalism in order to maintain power and incite the hatred of their neighbours to win voters.

“Like in many other states with such a prolific history, Yugoslavia had a past in which some groups – not always ethnic groups- had been violently confronted. Therefore politicians found it easy to use certain feelings of rejection and even ethnic hatred to appeal to the past. In this way they could maintain the political control of their republic, region or province. That is, they substituted an ideology in which everyone participated in, one being communism and the other being nationalism, with the objective of perpetuating themselves with power, basing their superiority on mechanisms of majorities and minorities, very arbitrary and with little identity content.”  María José Pérez del Pozo, a doctor of Information Sciences and professor of Central European and Oriental International Relations at Madrid’s Complutense University, explains the drift of the 1990’s that took place.

“The fundamental origins of the wars were based on political and ethnic reasons rather than religious ones. I repeat, the old elite communists that perpetuate themselves with the power of different republics are using a new nationalist discourse. That was the objective. If we look at the ethnic based state projects (like in Croatia and Serbia), they used ethnicity to ‘localise’ the conflict and justify the ethnic cleansing.” said Pérez del Pozo.

The wars practically spanned the whole of the nineties and affected all of the republics within the former Socialist Federal Republic. Bosnia, which is one of the poorest countries in the region, took the brunt of it.

The Bosnian war was an absolute mess as the army, which consisted of three nationalities, was mixed with the paramilitary, neo-Nazi volunteers, Mujahideens, communists, mafia groups and last but not least, NATO. If hell on earth had existed in recent years, it would have been in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, where snipers earned more points if they killed a child.

Under these circumstances, on 11th July 1995, the troops who were directed by the Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladić entered Srebrenica – a settlement under the protection of 400 Dutch peacekeepers. Its secure zone status attracted more than 60,000 civilians that fled the conflict. In less than ten days, Mladić’s troops killed more than 8,000 people in an ethnic cleansing operation.

The Bosnian war lasted for more than three years. It ended in 1995 with 100,000 dead (the figures oscillate between 25,000 and 330,000 depending on the source). 1.8 million people became displaced persons or refugees.

After various attempts by Europe, it was American diplomacy that got the implicated parties to sign a treaty to end the war in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Dayton in the United States. Laja Destremau, a political expert at King’s College who specialises in Bosnian conflict explains the Dayton agreement. “The Dayton agreement was the only possible solution to put an end to the bloodbath in Bosnia. The political system and state ordered that it was implemented however it was not viable at all. Having had 3 Presidents (one Serb, one Croat and one Bosniak) which rotated every 8 months has obviously led to a political dead end. No reforms are possible. In addition to that, it reinforces nationalist feelings that are already present. The system is based on ethnic separation (children in schools are divided and the law doesn’t treat all the citizens equally – for instance: only people from the 3 main ethnicities can run for elections). The political standstill does not encourage politicians to make long-overdue reforms (Constitutional reform). Reforming the Constitution would mean that they have to give up some power. So, the Dayton agreement was indeed necessary and at the time was probably the only possible solution. But it is also partly responsible for the political standstill in which Bosnia now finds itself”.

“Despite the tensions that can be felt on various occasions, it would be very rare for the violence to reappear,” continues Destremau, “the future of the region is bound to the European Union and they have made lots of progress for the country. However, to reach full reconciliation, they would need decades. The European Union cannot demand that the Bosnians live happily after what happened in the nineties. Having reached a stable situation is the first step.”

There are certain aspects that the Dayton agreement could not resolve. “We could mention the everyday tensions between communities. For example, there are very few marriages between couples of differing nationalities. But these were very common before the war” certifies Destremau, who recalls that “If war is a continuation of politics, by other means, then the opposite is also true”.

What is happening now?


Alma Telibecirevic © Vanja Cerimagic

Alma Telibecirevic. © Vanja Cerimagic

For several years, in Berlin it has been easy to find parties which embody elements of Balkan music. It is not about the use of folklore but instead, electronic music. The DJs select samples with Balkan rhythms and use them to create endless songs  which people frantically dance to and they always use them in a continuous crescendo. German youngsters, like the other nationalities that populate the heterogeneous Berlin, have accepted it as their own and nowadays it is not uncommon to find parties exclusively dedicated to this type of music. Neither does it seems strange to anyone that in right in the centre of Berlin there is a club named after the capital of the republic of Srpska, “Banja Luka”.

This Balkan influence may owe itself to the fact that during the nineties, Germany was the country that exerted most effort in housing refugees from the Bosnian war. In total 320,000 Bosnians went to Germany to flee the conflict.  Many of them, like Anela Alić, were just children. “I was born in Sarajevo and I lived there until the war begun. My mother happened to be in her hometown, Gorazde with me as a baby when the war started. She left Gorazde and we moved to Konstantz, Germany.” She lived in Germany until she turned seven, it was after that that her family decided to return to Sarajevo. After a short time they had to move to a new city. “My mother and father were unable to find a job in Sarajevo, so my mother decided to look for a job in her hometown. She moved to Gorazde by herself and then my father, brother and I later followed. I lived in Gorazde for 8 years.”

There were still more changes awaiting Anela. “In the second grade of my high school I applied to the United World College in Mostar (Bosnia-Herzegovina) where I spent 2 years of my life. After graduating from UWCiM I decided to go where most of my friends went, America. I never thought of it before and I was not attracted by it, but circumstances in Europe and scholarship issues brought me to live in Maryland. It has been three years since I moved to the States.”

Anela is now 21 and could be confused with any other American student her age. Everything seems happy and normal in her life until you ask her how the war affected her. “The aggression on Bosnia affected me in two important ways. The first was that I had to spend most of my childhood in Germany, far away from my family and my father who was in Sarajevo. The second was that my grandfather was killed in Gorazde, and I never had a chance to meet him. I am lucky that nothing else happened to other members of my family.”

Despite her distance from Bosnia and the fact that she studies Art, Anela has not disengaged from the political matters from her home country. “As a child of two Yugoslavs who never paid attention to a person’s name or religion, I was raised in anti-nationalistic family. My father and mother lived in the same building with Serbs, Croatians, Jews and Muslims. I was very naïve and thought that the resentment was gone and that it did not exist. In coming to UWCiM and living with kids who came from places with only Croatian or Serbian populations, I realised that anger existed. Never amongst my friends and I, but I could see the anger from all different angles. As I grow older I see that there are crowds of people in all three groups that will always be frustrated and angry. Who wouldn’t be? None of us are living well – people from the Republika Srpska, Federation of Bosnia and the Croatian part all have the same difficulties in life. There are no jobs, the economy is terrible and the agricultural situation is awful. Moreover, we have three presidents, and again no one is satisfied with them. The division of Bosnia-Herzegovina into Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia shows you the resentment amongst the population”.

Anela thinks that the division of Bosnia into two political entities “was the only good solution for both sides in 1995”, but doubts that it is that good now. “It is segregating us more and more. Bosnian Serb politicians want a separate country, that’s why our education, economy, politics and everything else is different. Kids in Republika Srpska have no idea what is going on in the Federation and vice versa. I have a feeling that we are raising new generations with hatred and segregation.”

Srđan Beronja is 22 years old and comes from the Serbian side of Bosnia. When he was younger he had to move around the region various times with his family so as to avoid the zone of conflict, until establishing themselves in Banja Luka – the city in which he lived until 2010. Since then, he has moved to the United States and is studying International Relations and Economics at Brown University. Srđan agrees with Anela in the current ineffectiveness of the political division of the country. “I think that the solution to divide Bosnia into two political entities was positive at the time, in order to stop the conflict, but now it is a bit redundant because it means that the government is too inefficient. Now it seems to me like a political game which deepens the divisions, instead of trying to resolve them and work on positive economic strategies. The government has used nationalism and political divisions in a way that means people concentrate on them and they forget about the constant economic failures that the current government has made.”

Srđan also finds problems on other levels. “Unfortunately nowadays many young people seem like nationalists, without really understanding why and without any good reasons, although it is much less than in the past. This happens more often than not in small closed communities. Thanks to travel, mutual events, the internet, common feelings and various schools such as the ‘United World College’ in Mostar, it is all improving.”

However the experience of ‘United World College’ is not common in Bosnia. As Alma Teliberic recalls, it is normal to have “two schools under one roof.” One part being for the Serbian children and the other for the Croatian and Bosnian children. For Alma the consequences of the conflict “are not over at all.” From her point of view, Bosnia Herzegovina “is very divided and anyone can feel this sentiment in the air”.

Alma was hardly a teenager when the war started. She was born in Sarajevo in 1978 and remembers the city of her childhood as “a very hippie area, full of music and a good atmosphere. I was young but I remember the Olympics in 1984 and the atmosphere surrounding it.” The neighbourhood where she was living was occupied and her family had to leave. “So we left all our stuff behind and became refugees. My father was assassinated by a sniper at the end of 1992. I was 14.”

Alma, who has lots of experience organising festivals and cultural projects, continues to be enamoured by the city. “Sarajevo is one of the most beautiful cities in the world. It is neither big nor small, but has enough space for a decent life. There is a mixture of east and west. People even call it “The European Jerusalem” because in an area of 500 metres, there are Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim places of worship. The food is great and the people are very friendly.”

Despite these cultural riches, Alma notes that “many young people want to leave.” The reason being that “it seems that Bosnia-Herzegovina’s situation has never been worse… The percentage of the population in unemployment has gone up to 55 per cent. The European Union has said that we are not making any progress and they are cutting aid. Nobody invests money here. It is such a corrupt and deeply divided country, and according to studies we have dropped to last place in the economic development of Europe. The majority of young Bosnians want to leave, including me if I see an opportunity.”

Meanwhile, Anela can only see one solution. “The key is in the education of our children, to encourage moral values and look at the positive aspects, casting aside the hatred between different ethnic groups. Our country is very young and it hasn’t been long since the war ended, so it is understandable the people are still hurting and don’t want to cooperate, therefore we need to work to build a better future for ourselves and for generations to come.”


I would like to thank Alic Anela, Srđan Beronja, Emir Bihorac, Laja Destremau, Maria Hardt, Una Hajdari, Enesa Mahmic, Cristina Marí, Milena Nikolic, Nada Nowicka, María José Pérez, Alfons Rodríguez, Gervasio Sánchez, Xavier Servitja y Alma Telibecirevic for having the immense kindness to tell me their visions about these events and for helping me to get in contact with the appropriate people. Some testimonies have not been able to be included due to length constraints, however without your help I would not have been able to achieve what I intended to do. That was to create a picture of the current complex situation of the marvellous Bosnia-Herzegovina and send a plea to the senselessness of the war.


J. Ignacio Urquijo Sánchez (Spain)

Studies / Works: Journalism and International Relations

Speaks: Spanish, English and basic German

Europe is… a mix of amazing cultures, from Shakespeare to Cervantes, from the monastery of Rila to the sunset in Roque Nublo.


Twitter: @nachourquijo


Cathy Moscardini (England)

Studies: Spanish and Chinese

Speaks: English, Spanish and Chinese

Europe is… for exploring!


Clare Jordan (England)

Studies: German and Spanish

Speaks: English, German and Spanish

Europe is… a fascinating continent rich in culture, with the foundations of incredible history and with the aspirations of a bright future.

Author: Anja

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