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June 1996

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In Focus: Bosnia

Text by Priit J. Vesilind (Excerpted from the June 1996 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC.)

The Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina is like a trauma patient kept alive through heroic measures and invasive technology. The attending physicians are the United States and European powers, which prescribed the Dayton Peace Accord last December [1995], ending nearly four years of internecine war.

Since then 60,000 NATO-led peacekeeping troops from more than 30 nations, including 20,000 from the U.S., have been dispatched to separate the combatants—giving Serbs, Croats, and Muslims a chance to recover from the worst atrocities and destruction in Europe since World War II.

From a population of 4.3 million Bosnians in 1991, 200,000 are now dead; 200,000 more are injured, including 50,000 children. More than 2.5 million Bosnians have been driven from their homes.

The last time it was healthy, Bosnia (shorthand for the republic) was one of the six republics that made up Yugoslavia, a federation of contentious peoples pulled together in 1945 by communist strongman Josip Broz Tito. Today that federation is history, and Bosnia has been divided into hostile political entities and subdivided into military sectors controlled by the U.S., France, and the United Kingdom. Bosnian Serbs are entrenched in the Serbian Republic, and Bosnian Croats and Muslims grudgingly share the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A central government, the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, will handle such matters as banking, foreign policy, trade, customs, and immigration.

The solution satisfies no one: Many Bosnians had wanted to preserve a multiethnic state; Serb and Croat nationalists wanted to destroy it. Before the first shot was fired, Serbia and Croatia had agreed on the partition of Bosnia. Why they wanted it is rooted in 19th-century nationalism, intensified by the memory of the savage struggle during World War II between Tito’s multiethnic, communist-led Partisans, members of Croatia’s Nazi-allied Ustashe movement, and royalists called Chetniks, who wanted to restore the Serbian monarchy. Today Bosnians who had lived together peacefully for decades once again do not hesitate to say they hate. Mutual revulsion is so deep that when Bosnian Serbs fled Sarajevo to avoid living in a Muslim area, some took with them the remains of their relatives.

Cynics assume that the Dayton accord is an interim step that will allow the Serb and Croat entities to link up with Serbia and Croatia proper, but only after another round of bloodshed. “It’s a fragile, two-headed monster,” says a State Department official. “If they want to go back to war, they’ll go to war.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina spreads across the gnarled reaches of the Dinaric Alps, a region possessed of enough bracing mountain beauty, enterprise, and gusto to have landed the 1984 Winter Olympics at its capital, Sarajevo. Even in this rugged corner of the Balkan Peninsula, the wash of empires—Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, Austro-Hungarian—deposited layer upon layer of culture.

As William E. Curtis reported from a calm Sarajevo for the February 1903 issue of NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC (“The Great Turk and His Lost Provinces”), “In the bazaars may be seen daily examples of every national costume worn from the Straits of Gibraltar to the Yellow Sea of China; and they all live together in peace and harmony....”

The Bosnians themselves are descended from Slavs who migrated into the Balkans in the sixth and seventh centuries A.D. War and conquest plagued the region throughout the Middle Ages, but these were not ethnic conflicts. As John Fine, professor of Balkan history at the University of Michigan, recently told the GEOGRAPHIC: “These were wars between nobles or factions of nobles against the king, fighting for land and hegemony. Bosnians maintained independence through the Middle Ages but succumbed to the Ottoman Turks in 1463, then to Austria-Hungary in 1878.”

The Slavs who settled Bosnia likely preceded the Slavs who migrated into what is now Croatia and Serbia. Unlike most Europeans, Bosnians were indifferent to formal religion, and three Christian faiths—Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and a Bosnian Catholic sect—coexisted. Under Ottoman rule many landowners converted to Islam to take advantage of tax breaks offered to Muslims.

Ethnic identity became important only in the mid-19th century, when nation-states centered on common ethnicities and religions began to emerge in the Balkans. “Then, in Bosnia, if you were Catholic, you were automatically assumed to be a Croat,” said Fine. “If you were Eastern Orthodox, you were a Serb. This was the first time the labels Serb and Croat were used in Bosnia.”

When Robert Paul Jordan analyzed Yugoslavia for the magazine in May 1970 (“Yugoslavia: Six Republics in One”), a Serb journalist could still catalog his countrymen with humor: “‘We’re all Slavs...shaped by time and place. Slovenes and Croats are industrious, methodical, reserved. Macedonians are poets at heart. Montenegrins make better warriors than workers. Bosnians and Hercegovinians are more stubborn.’

And the Serbs?

“ ‘Ah!’ exclaimed this Serb, revelation upon him. ‘We are short-tempered, rude, and spiteful. We mind our neighbor’s business. We yell and curse and make jokes, and our critics call us uncouth.... Yet they envy us for our pride and independence. We have spirit.’ ”

* * *

Bosnia in the last days in the life of Yugoslavia was 44 percent Muslim, 31 percent Serb, and 17 percent Croat. Intermarriage—chiefly in the cities—had blurred the lines between the groups, religious devoutness within any group was rare, and urbanites in such cities as Sarajevo, Mostar, and Tuzla paid little attention to ethnic labels, preferring to think of themselves as Yugoslavs. All spoke the same language, Serbo-Croatian. But large Croat and Serb communities in the countryside of Bosnia held tightly to their historic grievances against each other, and against Islam and the Turks.

By the time the magazine published “Yugoslavia: A House Much Divided” in August 1990, Tito had been dead ten years, and with him the strong central power that kept old animosities in check. “Six republics—six bows drawn tight,” wrote Kenneth C. Danforth. “The bowstrings sing of hatred, group against group.”

When the Yugoslav federation collapsed, politicians fanned the flames of nationalism. The Serbs had always seen themselves as the dominant culture in Yugoslavia: The federal capital, Belgrade, was in Serbia, and the army was staffed largely by Serb officers. Serbs had felt thwarted under Tito.

In 1991 Serbia’s president, Slobodan Milosevic, contrived a new Yugoslav federation under Serb leadership, attracting only Montenegro. Slovenia and Croatia took advantage of the government’s paralysis to break free. Only Macedonia managed independence without armed conflict.

Bosnians were left with two disastrous choices: capitulate to the Serbs or go it alone, provoking violence from rural communities of Croats and Serbs, whose fear of the Sarajevo government had been sharpened by television propaganda from Serbia and Croatia that painted all Muslims as rabid fundamentalists. Radical Bosnian Serbs, led by Radovan Karadzic, a man now under indictment by the war crimes tribunal in The Hague, made rumblings about forming their own republic in November 1991, and Serbia’s Milosevic stoked the fire by claiming that if Bosnia declared independence, its 1.3 million Serbs would be forced from “Yugoslavia” against their will—Yugoslavia and Serbia now being the same. He called for a Greater Serbia to include Serb-dominated Bosnian as well as Croatian territory.

When Bosnians voted for independence in March 1992, with Alija Izetbegovic, a Muslim, as president, the Yugoslav Army was still based there in large numbers. In the countryside the self-styled Karadzic government conscripted a Bosnian Serb army of marauders and told them to defend Christianity and Serbian civilization by routing the Muslims. Militant Croats, equally contemptuous of an independent Bosnia, set up their own political fences around Mostar and other Croat enclaves in the south.

Thus began, in the spring of 1992, the abhorrent process of “ethnic cleansing,” the siege of Sarajevo, the concentration camps and massacres, the panicky exodus of Bosnians—Serbs, Croats, and Muslims alike—from their homes of generations.

The war for Bosnia defied reason, confounded diplomats, raged on through cease-fires, and frustrated and humiliated the United Nations. Even topography conspired against peace. In mountainous isolation entire villages were destroyed by their neighbors without the world knowing.

Harry Bader, a University of Alaska professor, spent two months last winter crisscrossing the countryside in an armored Land Rover with graduate student Jonathan Andrews. They were matching infrared satellite images taken over Bosnia during the previous five years with sites on the ground, to prepare damage assessments for the UN.

“The destruction is enormous,” said Bader. Sixty percent of the houses in Bosnia, half the schools, and a third of the hospitals have been razed or damaged. Power plants, roads, water systems lie in ruins. Fields and vineyards are abandoned, rivers contaminated by toxic wastes from bombed-out industrial plants. The soil is polluted with millions of leg-shattering land mines.

The satellite images will disclose disturbed areas that could be mass graves. They will also help locate areas where refugees could be resettled. Meanwhile, a biologist in Zagreb, who reports that brown bears have stumbled onto deadly land mines, is using the images to identify the best remaining wildlife habitat.

“We have to determine where reclamation efforts should be focused first,” Bader said. “I liken it to environmental triage.” The immediate task is to repair the infrastructure, create jobs, and bring people home. Anne Willem Bijleveld, the representative from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees to the U.S., calls it “the most complex and the most challenging operation we’ve ever done. We are giving some type of assistance to 90 percent of the people in Bosnia.”

The World Bank, organizing an international economic-recovery effort in Bosnia, estimates that at least five billion dollars over three years is needed. Michel Noël, a World Bank official, said, “All that we do is on the condition that NATO succeeds—that people and goods can move unimpeded. This is a shattered place—both physically and psychologically. Every person you meet has a son or daughter, a husband or wife, maimed or killed.”

Although the prognosis for Bosnia changes daily, each day of peace improves its chances for survival. “The major asset in Bosnia is the skill and dedication of the people,” Noël said. “They are absolutely determined to rebuild the nation. In Sarajevo I heard someone ask President Izetbegovic how they would cope. ‘Life will take care of it,’ he told him. ‘The only solution is life.’”

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