A few weeks after returning from Ukraine, when most foreign media had reduced their presence in the war-torn country, I was asked to look into the potential impact of the conflict in other parts of Europe.
There were fears that inter-ethnic violence could spill over into the Western Balkans and most likely flare up first in Bosnia and Herzegovina. These fears were fueled by repeated threats by the political leadership of the Serbian entity of the country to separate from the rest of the state institutions of the country. Ambitions that have repeatedly met with the support of Russia.
When I landed in Sarajevo, the nation’s capital, I warmed at the thought of once again encountering communities that I had seen go through many changes and trials during my reporting over the years since the end of the three-year war there in 1995.
I knew that the arrangements established by the Dayton Agreement were not always to the liking of the various Bosnian, Croat and Serb components of the population, and many issues were far from being resolved.
But I wanted to know exactly if the current tensions are as serious as they are portrayed by the media and the international community, and to what extent people are ready to go through another cycle of violence. After all, they survived the bloodiest conflict of the 20th century on European soil since World War II.
“Serbs, Bosnians and Croats work together and survive together,” Erwin told me.
“The government creates disagreements, confusion, plays on fear. They push people to close in on their ethnic groups and their 1992 positions. It helps politicians hold on to power and abuse the state while people are just trying to survive and make ends meet,” he added.
Ervin, a Bosnian who returned from a military camp, lives in the small town of Kozarac in Republika Srpska, a Serb-ruled entity in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
He explained to me that the biggest problem facing the area is unemployment, as it ends up pushing a large number of young people out of the country. He also acknowledged that ethnic problems do exist, as few Bosnians can find employment in state-owned companies and services under the current Serb administration in the nearby town of Prijedor, on which Kozarac depends.
A former prisoner of one of the local military camps, he sighs, taking me back to an ominous place.
“There are no signs that there used to be a detention camp here, and the Prijedor authorities refuse to acknowledge the crimes committed here against Muslim Bosniaks and Croats,” he says.
The 1990s war remains a bone of contention between communities and has been seized on by ultra-nationalist groups. Nikola Dabić is a 28 year old Serbian artist and co-founder of one such group called Self Respect.
He is irritated by what he sees as the Western world’s denial of the crimes of Croatian Ustaše extremists against Serbs during World War II, and blames “Muslims and Croats” for starting the war in the 1990s.
“Peace will come when the other side finally admits they were wrong. That they were wrong too! We can’t be the only bad guys. We’re not the only bad guys!” he declares, doubtful that I will convey his words.
Feelings are no doubt heightened by growing resentment that Bosnia and Herzegovina’s candidacy for the European Union has yet to be accepted, when it took the bloc only a few months to grant Ukraine candidate status.
“Not only Bosnia and Herzegovina, but all the countries of the Western Balkans have been abandoned by the European Union,” Prijedor Deputy Mayor Žarko Kovačević frowned before adding: “We have never had the opportunity to sort out our relations on our own, without solutions imposed on us from outside “.
Direct reference to the powers of the High Representative of the International Community in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Under the Dayton Agreement, he has the power to legislate, change institutions, or fire local politicians in the central government and both countries: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, populated mostly by Bosniaks and Croats, or mostly Serbs. inhabited the Republic of Serbia.
“When there is sensible action in this country and all political bodies assume their responsibilities, there will be no more interference,” High Representative Christian Schmidt told me.
“My message is: dear colleagues, do your job. Work for your country, for European integration, and everything will be fine. As long as you don’t, you must count on me! he added.
Plagued by political corruption and a dysfunctional judiciary, the country is still far from fulfilling the conditions set by the European Union to start the integration process.
Another source of discontent that the controversial Serbian political leader Milorad Dodik is using to justify his separatist ambitions. This will no doubt be tested in the national elections scheduled for October.
I ended my trip in Srebrenica by meeting Jovana, a 34 year old Serbian. A member of the association, she spent many years trying to find her father’s remains. He died in the war and is still missing, like many other civilians.
However, now her main concern is to ensure a peaceful future for her four children. When asked if she shared concerns about a possible resurgence of ethnic violence and if she would like Republika Srpska to withdraw from state institutions, she brushed aside both questions:
“There are things that people will never come to terms with while they are alive. But in general, the communities live together, quite normally. Personally, I believe that the root of the problem is politics. And those who suffer from collateral damage are humans. I am not worried about whether I will live in Bosnia and Herzegovina or [an independant] Republic of Serbia. In any case, I don’t think anything will change.”