Changing Planet

Bosnia: A Nation United in Disaster, Strained in Peace

Supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, I’ve been exploring Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It took nearly four years to end the violence, a feat that was achieved through a power sharing agreement between Bosnia’s ethnic groups know as the Dayton Peace Accord. As we approach the 20th anniversary of Dayton, I’m learning how ethnic divides have affected the reconstruction of the city, as residents try to shape a new multicultural Bosnia. (Read all posts in this series.)

In the lead up to Bosnia’s national election, a makeshift cross was erected under the cover of night in the Republika Srpska, on a hill overlooking Sarajevo. Others removed it in December. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

“Look at the rainfall. That hit both entities,” Nasiha Pozder, an urban planner at the University of Sarajevo, said to me. In May of 2014, Bosnia was hit by devastating floods, affecting citizens in both the Federation and the Republika Srpska, who might not otherwise have reason to commiserate collectively. Numerous accounts emerged of average Bosnians overcoming their differences, helping those in need regardless of ethnicity. But politicians were criticized for their uncoordinated response, using the disaster to point fingers and only offering help to their own ethnic communities. In Sarajevo, “It was my students who ultimately provided the relief,” Mr. Pozder explained. “They asked to cancel finals to go out and help people. Of course the University said yes.”

But the floods could not fully wash away old divisions, and those who hoped for change were then dismayed when all three ethnic groups elected nationalist politicians in the countrywide elections the following October. Milorad Dodik, who has served as the president of the Republika Srpska since 2010, was re-elected, and is seen as a particular threat to Bosnian unity. Once considered the moderate alternative to Bosnia’s wartime Serbian leaders, Dodik has now emerged as the most vocal Bosnian Serb nationalist politician. More and more, independence for the Republika Srpska is an open objective.

The Bosnian Serbs were widely blamed for the worst atrocities of the war, and some of them feel unfairly portrayed and aggrieved today, especially in Sarajevo.

That resentment took an unusual form in the weeks leading up to the October election. On a Sunday morning in September, Sarajevo residents noticed a white piece of piping jutting out from Trebević mountain, just over the border in the Republika Srpska. Occupying a former Serb sniper position, the piping was in fact a crudely assembled 32-foot (9.75-meter) cross, reportedly erected overnight by Bosnian Serbs who had been held prisoner in Bosniak detention camps during the war. Though no one immediately claimed responsibility, the group had been agitating for the cross to honor the more than 6,600 Serbs who they say died in and around Sarajevo during the conflict.

Shortly after the cross was erected, vandals attempted unsuccessfully to chop it down, leaving it crooked. In response, Milorad Dodik assigned an ostensibly 24-hour watch by Republika Srpska police, despite the fact that the cross was erected illegally. But it did not work—someone issued a final blow in December, having grown fed up with the cross looming over the city.

That sentiment was shared by many Sarajevans, who viewed the cross as a provocation rather than a symbol of mourning. “They put it on a mountain, to make the population fearful on the other side! It’s like the dogs that piss their own territory,” a Bosnian artist known only by his first name, Shoba, told me.

He is the sculptor of his own monument in Sarajevo, titled “Monument to the International Community from the Grateful Citizens of Sarajevo,” which was selected through pubic voting. It is a statue of the canned beef that U.N. aid agencies provided to citizens during the war, said to be too disgusting for even cats and dogs.

With its message that speaks to all who endured the conflict, Sarajevans appreciate this monument’s irony regardless of their ethnicity.

Read All Posts in This Series

Cara Eckholm is a National Geographic Young Explorer with a speciality in urban geography. She spent Fall 2014 conducting research on the post-war reconstruction of Sarajevo. She now works for the consulting firm, ReD Associates, out of Copenhagen. Follow her @CaraEckholm
  • Vladimir

    I have just read it, but can’t help wondering what the blog is about. Floods? Cross? Is this the best this author can do? What a waste of time. Sarajevo has indeed become a Mecca for all sorts of quasi analysts, writers, and other opportunists.

  • Lexi

    I am an American who has researched and traveled around Sarajevo extensively and will be returning in October to teach at the university. Cara, I know you mean well by these articles, but they are very similar to many previous books/articles about the Balkans that highlight how “backwards” and “primitive” it is, while paying little attention to the positives. I know the situation in Sarajevo is grim right now, but there are many parts of Sarajevo that are thriving–why does your article and photos simply focus on the negatives? While including photos of the negative, please also include more photos of the best parts of Sarajevo, such as the National Library, the beautiful Ottoman architecture such as the Faculty of Islamic Studies, Coppersmith’s Alley in Bascarsija, the Bosnian Jewish Museum, pictures of the beautiful mountains in the morning, Vrelo Bosna in Illiza, ect. For many of your readers, these articles are the only taste they will get of Sarajevo besides photos they might remember from the war or a brief association with the start of WWI from high school history. Sarajevo is a wonderful city with a lot to offer and none of the positives of the “Jerusalem of the East” come through in your articles.

  • Sofia

    It is articles like these which still, in 2015, perpetrate Sarajevo, and Bosnia as a whole, as an unstable place still struggling with war. It is undeniable that Bosnia is still heavily affected by the aftermath of the 90s war and genocide, but to only write about those negative consequences is doing a great injustice to the culture, people, and livlihood of the country. Bosnia, and Sarajevo in particular, is modern and welcoming to tourists; beautiful and full of phenominal architecture from both previous empires and today’s architects; bountiful in nature, greenry, and wildlife; full of culinary experiences; and is, mostly, aching for people to realize that it is a gem hidden under hundreds of thousands of articles just like yours. Articles which make Bosnia seem like a war-torn mess, not worthy of its own people, let alone foreign interest.

  • Cara Eckholm

    Hi Sofia and Lexi,

    I’m sorry that you feel the series portrays Sarajevo in an unfairly negative manner. These articles were originally intended as one coherent piece and later got broken up, and I hope you’ll find the upcoming instalment more positive (it actually highlights some of the elements of Sarajevo you describe).

    I too think Sarajevo is a gem, and was time and time again stunned by the beauty of the city and kindness of the people I interviewed. But everyone I spoke with also highlighted the need to change the Dayton political system, which reinforces old divisions. My intention with the articles was not to make Sarajevo seem like a war-torn mess that is unsafe for tourists. Rather, I wanted to show some of Dayton’s unintended consequences–in the hopes that it would draw attention to the need for reform. In examining the national museum’s struggle to stay open, for instance, I wanted to to rally interest in resolving the situation, not to make Bosnia look primitive.

    But I understand your point and I’m sorry that the message is not getting through. I hope the next post resolves some of your concerns.


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