As the train passes through green hill after green hill, it’s easy to be lost in the beauty of Herzegovina’s surroundings. However, in each rustic village that is passed through, a perfect white marble Muslim cemetery, settled below the hilltops, hints at the nation’s troubled past and uncertain future.
Bosnia and Herzegovina is the land that the West forgot.
How unlikely that statement must have seemed just 22 years ago, when the horrors of the Bosnian conflict raged on every television screen across Europe and America. The war’s position as the first extended conflict to take place in the context of 24/7 global TV coverage meant few in the West were not aware of the atrocities and the horrors that occurred in those green hills.
The visible scars of the war are now fading. Grass grows in the land that was once laden with landmines. Sarajevo – the scene of the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare – now buzzes with its moniker as ‘little Istanbul’ and that great symbol of freedom in our time: Bosnia’s first McDonalds. The emotional wounds however will remain, an ethnically patch-worked nation where a population of 48 per cent Bosniaks (Muslim), 34 per cent Serbs (Christian Orthodox), and 15 per cent Croats (Catholic) once lived harmoniously, torn apart by the great shadow that hangs over the breaking up of the former Yugoslavia.
The death of Josip Tito in 1980 heralded the end of communist Yugoslavia. With the final collapse of Communism in the 1980s across Europe, the restive population began seeking solutions to provide economic and political stability for Yugoslavia in a post-Cold War world. In this state of indecision and uncertainty, the Serbian Communist party leader Slobodan Milosevic began pandering to Serb nationalism, and quickly became the unchallenged ruler of Serbia – the largest country within Yugoslavia. Milosevic’s main concern was the consolidation of power across Yugoslavia and he used the Yugoslav National Army to achieve that aim. The Bosnian government – critical of Milosevic’s attempts at control of the federal government – sought independence. Milosevic, through Serbian army general Ratko Mladic, enacted brutal attacks on the Bosnians in an attempt to consume them within Milosevic’s ideal of a Greater Serbia.
The ruthless control of Yugoslav state media meant there was fierce propaganda from Serbia, directed at Bosnian Serbs, depicting Bosnian Muslims as extremist fundamentalists and showing images of Serbian-led atrocities whilst claiming they were being carried out by Bosniaks. This immediately polarised the nation and caused many of the Bosnian Serbs to support Milosevic’s plan for ethnic cleansing as a means of creating Greater Serbia. Since the Bosnian Serbs did not inhabit a single specific territory in Bosnia and lived alongside Muslim and Croat neighbours, the prospect of war across Bosnia in every town and village was very real.
The siege of Sarajevo is perhaps the most well known aspect of the conflict. Muslim, Croat, and Serb residents opposed to a Greater Serbia and the rule of Milosevic were cut off from food, utilities, and communication. The Bosniaks were unable to defend themselves as an arms embargo had been placed by the West on the region. Through three long and cold winters, Sarajevans dodged sniper fire as they went to markets and sourced fuel whilst trying to get to their jobs. The most chillingly post-modern aspect of the war, was the ability of those who had been shot to watch footage captured by television cameras of their own injuries whilst recovering in the hospital. The average weight loss per Sarajevan was more than 30 pounds. More than 12,000 residents were killed, 1,500 of them children. All the while the West stood by, typified by British Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, criminally claiming that arming the Bosniaks would be escalating the fighting. Of course no one could have foreseen the atrocities that were committed by the Bosnian Serbs, however when they began much more could and should have been done to intervene.
The most upsetting part of the West’s failure and the hardest-hitting as a Brit is the attitudes of the British government in response to the conflict. Britain’s political leaders encountered a situation where the 24/7-television coverage was bringing images of unimaginable horror to the screens of its constituents. The British people were quite rightly questioning what could be done for the Bosniaks and Croats living in Bosnia at the time. The public consensus was one of shock; the Yugoslavs were like themselves in every conceivable aesthetic capacity. However, to justify the lack of political action by the government, statements from the Foreign Office continued to refer to the victims as ‘Muslims’. The process was one of disengagement, to refer to the people of the Balkans as different, to make their plight seem less identifiable. The policy of using the terms ‘fundamentalism’ and ‘ancient ethnic quagmires’ was designed to distance everything that the British audience was seeing and to make the lack of intervention during genocide more acceptable. The British attitude characterised the sentiments of the UN at the time, which treated the siege of Sarajevo as more akin to a humanitarian disaster such as a drought – one that should be managed rather than stopped – than a conflict.
The West will argue that there is peace on the streets now: the Dayton agreement stopped the violence in late 1995, at which point the war had been going for three years – an inhumane amount of time when you consider the land mass involved – Iraq is 8.5 times the size of Bosnia and Herzegovina – but the Dayton agreement also irrevocably damaged the relations between the ethnicities. The Bosnian Serbs were given ‘Republika Srpska’, a separate political, constitutional and judicial entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina, a measure which is hard to view from the Bosniak side as anything other than unjust. No longer do the two ethnicities mix so easily; prior to the conflict mixed marriages between the ethnicities were not unusual, however a recent UN study has shown that 60% of Bosnian citizens are against mixed marriages. It seems that even though the violence has stopped, the tensions have not diminished within the country.
Earlier this year President Obama set up an Atrocities Prevention Board, a signal to the rest of the world, no doubt, that America is planning tough action in the fight on crimes against humanity. However, it also implies awareness that genocides, holocausts and the like don’t just happen – there are steps that can be taken to prevent Auschwitz, Rwanda and Bosnia from ever happening again. Steps that, in the case of Bosnia, could have been made far sooner and with far greater force, had the West not failed the Bosnians so completely some 22 years ago.
Words and Images by Jamie Timson