Bosnia 20 years on – Part 2

By Ivana Davidovic

It was a full house at the Frontline Club, the audience gathering to mark two decades since the ill-fated weekend in April 1992 when first shots were fired in Bosnia. The worst carnage in Europe since World War II was about to unfold. Over 100,000 people were killed, out of whom about 11,000 in Sarajevo, which was under siege from Serbian forces for almost four years.

Ed Vulliamy, writer for the Guardian and Observer, was on the ground from the start.

By July 1992 the Bosnian Serbs “unleashed a hurricane of violence” across the land, burning Muslim and Croat villages and towns to a cinder.

Vulliamy, together with Penny Marshall of ITN, was first to discover concentration camps in the far north-west of Bosnia – Omarska and Trnopolje – into which thousands of non-Serbs were gathered like cattle. Many were killed, countless tortured and raped. Survivors were deported.

Vulliamy‘s new book The War is Dead, Long Live the War: Bosnia: the Reckoning charts this discovery. What is even more illuminating is that he has kept in touch with many of the people he met two decades ago, who are now scattered all over the globe trying to come to terms of what has happened to them.

It is an insight into what life is like for the survivors now, long since the attention of the world’s media shifted elsewhere.

Vulliamy writes about the Bosnian war’s aftermath, revealing the human consequences as well as the traumas, joys and challenges of exile or homecoming.

His message is that only through the eyes and memories of the survivors and the bereaved – and, in different ways, the perpetrators – we can really understand the bloody catastrophe in Bosnia.

Vulliamy was keen to stress that he does not see the Bosnian war as “civil war,” as it signifies a “perpertratorless war” where all parties are as “bad as each other.”

He also offered a damning assessment of the (lack of) involvement of Western countries,in particular the UK, which he believes should have protected the persecuted, mainly Muslim and Croat population.

“It is a typical British thing, to side with the local bully. Because, after all, that is stability old boy!”

“We found concentration camps, we saw people being slaughtered and deported. We saw the mass rapes, the sexualisation of war, the shelling of civilian towns. This went on for three years before we got to Srebrenica. And somehow, this was OK, while the repulsive political and diplomatic class contrived yet another pointless peace plan.”

“This is not a prescription for Iraq, but in 1995 NATO basically sacked the UN and they bombed some Serbian forces, damaging basically a couple of chairs and a garden shed, and Karadzic and Mladic caved in immediately."

“I am convinced, and I am not the only one, that had NATO conducted moderate air strikes earlier things would have been different.”

When asked about the aftermath of war and what the ICTY – International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia – in Hague achieved, Vulliamy called it “an act of ambition and contrition.”

“It is also a great big tax free bonanza for some international community types. But, some really great people work there and prosecute there.”

What was on most people’s minds was the question of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s present and future.

Its fairly complex political structure was created in 1995 during the Dayton peace accord, which ended the Bosnian war.

Two separate entities were set-up; a Bosniak-Croat Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina, and the Bosnian Serb Republic, or Republika Srpska, each with its own president, government, parliament, police and other bodies.

Overarching these entities is a central Bosnian government and rotating presidency. And to complicate things further there exists the district of Brcko which is a self-governing administrative unit, established as a neutral area placed under joint Serb, Croat and Bosniak authority.

With a country so ethnically divided, where “ethnic-led corrupt” politics offers very little to the young people and where justice for minorities in their respective entities is still elusive – the question on everyone’s mind was: Is there hope for Bosnia?

“If there is any hope of redemption in Bosnia, it comes from the extraordinary strength of will of individual Bosnians, it has nothing to do with the UN, nothing to do with the diplomatic and political strata, which have established themselves as basically parasites earning nice tax free salaries there.”

“Women have been much better at it than men. Irrespective of their ethnicity, they come together and form organisations that help victims of rape and human trafficking. They have done some amazing work.”

“One thing is for sure, Bosnia as a way of life, Bosnia as a way of enjoying yourselves will never die.”