September 27th, 2007
While on our trip from Mumbai to London, we spent three weeks passing through the states that used to comprise Yugoslavia: Serbia, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Slovenia (unfortunately we didn’t make it to Macedonia). Encircled by European Union states1, they feel totally European — great public transport, drinkable tap water, lots of consumer goods on display, relatively little poverty, and a great café culture.
However only twelve years ago these republics were at war.
Bosnia and Herzegovina still wears the scars of the Bosnian war openly on its sleeves. Mostar still has plenty of bombed-out buildings and bullet-holes visible everywhere. Sarajevo is almost completely reconstructed, but you can still see the impact of mortars on the streets. Where they caused casualties they have been painted red to make “Sarajevo roses” in remembrance of those who died. In addition to the museums, you can see a display of artifacts from the war just off a main street in the centre of town, and buy the Sarajevo Survival Guide in bookshops. We went on two tours of the city. Both of our guides (who would have been teenagers during the war) spent a lot of time discussing the siege of Sarajevo with visible but restrained anger, as well as unrestrained sarcasm towards the UN. Although the war ended and the siege was lifted nearly twelve years ago, it is still startlingly fresh in people’s minds.
The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina claimed around 100,000 lives, of which 66.5% were Bosniak Muslims. Although half of the Bosniaks who died were soldiers, they were poorly supplied — for instance they had no tanks or heavy weaponry — since a UN arms embargo prevented them from arming. The Serb and Croatian forces, on the other hand, had access to equipment from the JNA (Yugoslav People’s Army). Nevertheless the Bosnian army kept the Serbs out of Sarajevo for the duration of the war: the siege of Sarajevo was the longest siege in the history of modern warfare, lasting from 5 April 1992 to 29 February 1996. It is estimated that around 12,000 people were killed during the siege.
The UN failed to cover itself in honour during the war. In June 1992, two months after the start of the siege of Sarajevo, the UN negotiated an agreement which gave the UN Protection Force (UNPROFOR) control of Sarajevo’s airport. In September UNPROFOR began distributing humanitarian aid, which arrived in transport planes. Under the terms of the agreement, fifty percent of this went to the Serbs. The aid that actually got to the Bosnians was a bit of a mixed bag. Our guide remembers shipments of condoms, shipments of malaria medicine (there is no malaria in Bosnia), tins of pork (by the end of the war, Sarajevo was around 87% Muslim), and leftover rations from the Vietnam war.
Our Bosnian Muslim guides were also proud of the stories of people from different religions helping each other out during the war. Although most of the (mainly Orthodox) Serbs left Sarajevo during the siege a few signed up to serve in Bosnian army, knowing that if they were captured by Serbs they would be murdered. There is a story that a precious medieval copy of the Koran was kept in the synagogue during the siege to prevent its destruction in the event of Sarajevo being overrun. Finally there is Sarajevo’s status as a “little Jerusalem”, with a church, mosque and synagogue within one square kilometer of each other in the centre of town. There are plans to build a Buddhist temple.
However not everyone is in favour of tolerance. As well as the obvious examples of the Serb and Croatian aggressors, Wahabbi Sunni muslims are present in Sarajevo and Mostar, as are Shi’as affiliated with Hizbollah. Both provided financial and military assistance during the war, and the Saudis provided cash to rebuild mosques damaged during the war. Although they operate at the fringes of society, our guides were worried at the effect they could have on the disaffected. So far, the powerful memories of the war have inoculated most people against turning to extremism.
The Bosnian war is a reminder that UN intervention can be a good thing. Had the UN had the backing of the major powers to intervene more effectively in Bosnia, many lives could have been saved. The same is true of the genocide in Rwanda, which occurred at around the same time. Realpolitik prevents intervention in the internal affairs of the powerful nation states who have the capability to enforce their sovereignty2. Nevertheless there are several clear example of countries where the UN could usefully intervene today if the political will existed: Sudan (still waiting for the implementation of UN security council resolution 1769), Burma and Somalia. In Sudan, over 200,000 people have already died in the Darfur region since 2003. Bosnia’s example shows that even in a region with ethnic divisions, it is possible to make peace (despite what Jonathan Steele will have you believe).
Two jokes from the siege of Sarajevo:
A woman slinks to and fro on the swing in her garden. Her friend comes up to her and asks, “why don’t you do something constructive?” The woman replies, “I am! I’m fucking with the snipers.”
Two Bosnian soldiers are digging a trench. One of them is digging an alarmingly deep hole. His friend asks, “why is your trench so deep?” He replies, “I’m trying to find oil. Then maybe someone will help us.”
1 With the exception of Albania, which is a potential candidate state, and Slovenia, which became a full member in 2004.
2 The principle of respect for state sovereignty is one major reason why Russia, China and India don’t want to get their hands dirty in Burma (along with lucrative energy contracts of course). It is interesting to note that the UN security council resolutions on Sudan all include in their preamble a paragraph “reaffirming [the Security Council's] strong commitment to the sovereignty, unity, independence and territorial integrity of Sudan…”. China in fact has five principles that govern its relations with other nations: the “five principles of peaceful coexistence” that were promulgated in meetings between Zhou Enlai and Jawaharlal Nehru in 1954 following China’s occupation of Tibet (these principles are known as the pānch shīl in India). The principles are:1) mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty; 2) mutual non-aggression; 3) mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs; 4) equality and mutual benefit; 5) peaceful co-existence. These principles didn’t stop China and India going to war over Arunachal Pradesh (or “South Tibet” depending on whose claim you support) eight years later though.