Bosnia’s Nobel Prize Winner, Ivan Andrić, in The Bridge on the Drina, tells the story of the country’s rich life across the centuries through the history of a bridge crossed by travellers, traders and different waves of invaders. It is a story of persistence, resilience, and adaptation. For this reason, while working recently in a programme with Serb, Croat and Bosniak youth, I suggested that we adopt the image of a bridge as a possible national symbol of communities coming together, of mediation and reconciliation for a divided society. Bosnia Herzegovina (B-i-H) has several beautiful bridges across several beautiful rivers. A Bosnian colleague gently pointed out that it might not be a good idea: dead bodies were thrown over the bridges during the 1992-1995 Balkans wars.
The memory of the Bridge on the Drina came back to me when the sentence of life imprisonment was given to the Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladić in The Hague. News of his sentence had been awaited with some trepidation. Anything less from the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Jugoslavia would have been seen as a terrible betrayal by Muslim Bosniaks. Srebrenica, the genocidal murder of 8,000 Bosniak men and boys, had been given international coverage and attention, but it was only part of Mladić’s war crimes. New mass graves were being discovered only a couple of years ago elsewhere. Sarajevo suffered terribly.
As in most modern wars, there were the television pictures, the iconic press photograph of emaciated men in concentration camps that communicated the brutality and horror of the war. Walking down by the river where the valley narrows in Sarajevo, the city stretched out along it, through the old town with roads running parallel between the two mountains, I found myself summoning up images of snipers during the siege picking off desperate people below venturing out for water and bread, images I had never seen. It must have taken intense hatred and dehumanisation to have a woman trying to feed her family in your sights and pulling the trigger.
Mladić’s sentence and punishment, however appalling his war crimes, cannot be a moment of unalloyed joy for the Balkans. Justice had prevailed. The top brass had not got away with it. Yet Mladić had survived on the run in Serbia, clearly protected, until 2011. A 2009 survey suggested that significant number of Serbs felt he had been doing his duty. For some he is still a hero. Much the same sentiments would be expressed by some Croats and Bosniaks about the perpetrators of crimes committed by some of their own armed forces during the wars. Mladić in court was unrepentant, in denial, shouting defiance and abuse to the last. The trial had lasted five years. This was not some final closure.
Mladić’s poisonous legacy lives on in the struggle to find a common narrative, a modicum of shared symbolic capital between the three historical experiences, Croat, Serb and Bosniak, in the families woken by their father’s night-time screams, in additions to extensive war memorials in the town centres. There is even lacking a shared youth music culture; no one pop star is equally accepted by each of the three groups. Though youth want to leave the past behind.
The 1995 Dayton-Paris Accords, an extraordinary piece of mediation, brought hostilities to an end. Yet what emerged was the hybrid Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and Republika Srpska, politically a creation that made Lebanon look like a centralised state. This political framework has allowed a political class in each ethnic group to play the ethnic card in power games and in the accumulation of assets and resources. B-i-H lies at 83rd in Transparency International’s Corruption Index next to Jamaica and Lesotho.
Young people in B-i-H are acutely aware of and resentful of the divisions in their country. They are united in a shared contempt for their respective political classes. Their future lies largely in emigration to Germany, if they can manage it, though the country has obvious underdeveloped tourist and other economic potential. They feel particularly sore about Croatia being granted membership of the European Union and not B-i-H.
B-i-H needs support. It is significant that it was NATO that brought the Balkans wars to an end not the European Union. And the major international interventions have come from UN agencies and the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, OSCE. Yet this was the worst outbreak of violence and genocide in Europe since the Second World War. If the European Union is to move forward with a serious foreign policy, it could start now with a co-ordinated attempt to help B-i-H. The youth need a future that enables them to continue their efforts to overcome ethnic divisions and to avoid leaving their homeland to make a living. The trial of Mladić, far from being a closure, needs to be treated as the beginning of a concerted effort to overcome the legacy of the 1992-1995 wars visited on the next generation.