Independent Bosnia Herzegovina marks its 20th anniversary still haunted. You would not know it to look at Sarajevo today that it suffered under modern history’s longest siege, in Europe’s worst conflict since 1945: the 1992-95 Bosnian war.
Twenty years ago, Yugoslavia split up. First Slovenia and Croatia, then Bosnia declared independence, in 1991. Before international recognition, there had to be a referendum. The Muslims and Croats voted to break away from the Yugoslav Federation. The Serbs boycotted the poll.
Journalist Senad Hadzifejzovic said: “I very vividly remember between March and April in 1992, the period of wondering whether there would be war. On April 2, I started the main news bulletin with the sentence: “Good evening. This is war”, the most horrific thing any journalist in the world could have said. The people didn’t know it was coming, but everyone else did.”
For a month, the diplomats of the US and the EU and the UN had looked for ways to prevent war. What followed were not only battles, but mass raping, massacres and (a new horrible term) ‘ethnic cleansing’, describing the expulsion of a population from a given territory. After 100,000 deaths, the NATO countries intervened.
Bakir Itzetbegovic, the Muslim member in a tripartite presidency and son of the first president of Bosnia Herzegovina, remembers bitterly.
Itzebegovic said: “There are only a few countries in which the International Community invested so much energy, money and time. But certainly, looking back over a distance of 20 years, we can say that there was not enough resolve. They recognized Bosnia and Herzegovina. They asked us to declare ourselves, and after we did they introduced the weapons embargo, knowing that it would only affect the defenders. Not protecting them was to leave them to be slaughtered.”
The Western-imposed Dayton agreement providing for a multiethnic state might have had more hope of success had crimes against humanity not been committed on such a scale. But the country’s Muslims, Croats and Serbs have never been reconciled. Political and economic turmoil is the norm. Half the population live very poorly.
A leading civic activist, Zdravko Grebo, said: “People in Bosnia and Herzegovina live in fear, in poverty, with wounded feelings. I am not distinguishing between Bosniaks, Serbs or Croats. The majority of all the people in this country live like that.”
March 1 is a holiday only for Bosnia’s Muslims. Many Bosnian Croats no longer celebrate independence. The Serbs remember this was not what they wanted either.