By Miloš Maggiore
Miloš Maggiore (Italy/UK) is pursing a Masters in International Relations at Johns Hopkins University, SAIS.
As a European citizen studying international relations and security, the importance of the Yugoslavian wars always seemed very salient to me. Considering that it was the first instance of armed conflict, both internal and external, on European soil since the Second World War, I have caught myself wondering why this was not taught in our schools more. Instead, I properly discovered the topic during my undergraduate studies. I conducted a qualitative study on perceptions of the conflict amongst Serbs and Croats living in the Netherlands, as well as a brief examination of the events that took place in Srebrenica. After graduation, I undertook a master’s degree in international conflict, in which this case was prominently featured. A majority of our time was spent analysing the legal developments that followed the conflict with the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY).
I’m not writing all of this down just to boast about it. Suffice to say that all this academic research led me to feel fairly confident in my factual knowledge of the conflict, including the events that happened in Bosnia-Herzegovina. However, when considering whether to take part in this trip, two thoughts came to mind:
1) None of my knowledge about Bosnia-Herzegovina included any conception of what happened after the conflict ended. Sure, the Dayton Agreement, NATO bombings in Kosovo, and The Hague tribunals almost seem trivial. But what about the country itself? What does it look and feel like now that almost thirty years have passed? Who were the actors in charge of bringing the country out of its dark past?
2) Looking at the current conflict in Ukraine, what parallels, if any, can be drawn between these events? While surely different, there are similarities between the conflicts, and understanding what happened in Bosnia may help inform us about the future of Ukraine. Post-conflict rebuilding and setting up a viable conduit for reconstruction and reconciliation is of particular interest to me, not only for Ukraine, but for any conflict where similar levels of destruction to infrastructure and population occur.
In the five days we were in Sarajevo, we did not get a single ray of sunshine. The thick cloud (and smog) cover was low enough to cover the top half of the surrounding mountains, which combined with the two or three inches of snow we got on the first day, created a mystical effect reminiscent of an alpine skiing town. The grey concrete buildings added to this effect, though upon closer inspection, the bullet holes left in certain buildings’ exterior rapidly broke that illusion and reminded us where we were. Indeed, when the taxi driver, who brought me and three others to the hostel from the airport, explained how he had been a soldier for four years, I was acutely aware of the fact that in all probability, most of the elderly population would have been involved in the conflict in one way or another. This is not something you often find in the rest of Europe. This sense of proximity followed us during the trip. Unlike the black and white memories of WW2, some of us are old enough to have been born at the time of the conflict.
That being said, the snowy landscape only added to the charm that Sarajevo already exuded; the river gently flowing through the city’s centre created a sense of openness and fresh air that Bologna distinctly lacks. The concrete homogenous buildings were often put in contrast with older, more architecturally aesthetic buildings. Crucially, the old town centre, Baščaršija, with its short houses and cobblestones surrounding the central mosques, reinforced the feeling of cultural diversity and mixing that added so much richness to the place. In the words of our war tour guide during our first day, as much as Europe likes to think of itself as diverse, Europeans do not know the true meaning of cultural diversity until they have come to Sarajevo. Every day, he said, he would talk to people from different ethnic backgrounds and religions, walking past three different types of places of worship. He laughed as he explained how marrying across cultures is a brilliant thing, as the government’s multicultural make-up would readily concede to allowing multiple holidays during the year, depending on how many religious traditions were in the family.
As far as the organisations we met were concerned, I could go through each of them and give detailed accounts of our discussions, but I think that could rapidly become boring. Instead, I will attempt to report on the key lessons I obtained from a security and post-conflict reconstruction perspective. Needless to say, absolutely all of the meetings were worthwhile and fascinating to attend, and all the people we met who worked there were a pleasure to talk to and offered valuable insights into their work.
The first round of brilliant wisdom was offered to us by Haris Imamović, former advisor to President Šefik Dzaferović. Unlike in other meetings, Imamović came to meet us in our hostel, which created an intimate feeling of honest communication between us. He highlighted the withdrawal of NATO peacekeeping forces in 2004, which in his eyes was premature. While the force was stationed in BiH, he argued, it offered a credible accountability mechanism and a deterrent to any party, group, or individuals that may push a divisive agenda along the country’s ethnic divisions. According to Imamović, since NATO’s withdrawal, these divisions have manifested themselves more clearly, the prime example being the increasingly-loud rhetoric of Milorad Dodik, president of the Republika Srpska and recent Serb member of the presidency. The current peacekeeping force, named EUFOR or Operation Althea, is mandated by the EU under its Common Security and Defence Policy (CSDP), and has only offered a fraction of the deterrent power that the NATO force provided.
We were able to meet the EU delegation on our second day of meetings. Located in the same building as the German embassy, it is the representative office of the EU in which officials work to align the EU’s interests with Bosnia’s, and of course offer guidance as to how the country can accomplish its accession goals in order to obtain full membership in the not-too-distant future. The majority of the presentation they had prepared for us centred around the accession procedure and what still needed to be done to obtain that goal. The discussion then shifted to a deeper explanation of EUFOR’s mandate and composition: its main mission is to assist the local armed forces and police in their respective operations. It is composed of about 1100 troops from 23 EU member states as well as from certain non-EU countries (Canada was mentioned as the largest).
I took the opportunity ask whether they thought it likely that the EU could, in the future, have military capabilities independent from NATO and the US. The response was a disappointing one to me, as someone who believes that some form of EU defence would be incredibly beneficial not only to Europe, but to wider transatlantic security. Currently, they said, while there is some momentum to keep the CSDP pushing forward more comprehensively, there is resistance from two camps: countries who are against EU reform in this context and would oppose further pooling of resources in this way, and states who realised how dependent they still are on the American security umbrella, and thus are not motivated to detach themselves from that anytime soon in the current format. Under the Berlin Plus agreement, EUFOR is able to use NATO assets and capabilities for its needs, another factor disincentivising the institutional and fiscal reform that would be needed for independent EU military capabilities. The “concentric circles” format, a proposed model of the EU in which some member states can choose to pool their resources more than others, was mentioned. For now, the EU and EUFOR are focused on working with what they have. The Balkans are rightly considered the “soft belly of Europe”, and as such need to be managed very delicately, despite the conflict having officially ended in BiH nearly thirty years ago. The concept of a conflict “ending” is not as simple as a mere ceasefire between belligerent groups.
In terms of magnitude, the contrast between the EU’s modest shared office with the US embassy, was incredible. Located in the northern end of the city, it occupied a whole block, with tall fences surrounding an array of concrete buildings that by-and-large occupied an area the size of a mid-sized public park. Security was the most stringent here, as can be expected, with phones needing to be switched off, computers not being allowed on the premises, and our bags needing to be emptied of any food or drinks. I couldn’t help but chuckle when asked whether I was carrying any weapons, before realising that no one was joking and hastily answering that I was in fact not carrying any. The meeting itself was very interesting. We met with three foreign service officers, each with varying levels of experience in the role. While one of them, who had only just joined, spoke excitedly about the job and the positive influence he was ready to project, his more senior colleague took a more pragmatic approach, realising that the situation in BiH was immensely complicated, and the necessity of the US playing a delicate role. Despite this, they reiterated what was said by Haris Imamović, that the US had the political leverage and could offer some “muscle” to the work done by BiH and by the other international institutions working in it. The magnitude of the work that needed to be done was most apparent in this meeting, as I realised how a complex network of national, international, non-governmental, and local organisations all had to figure out how to work with one another whilst not wanting to seem like they are interfering too much, and at the same time be able to contain a potentially volatile situation.
I think I speak for most of the group when I say that our last day was the most impactful. After getting up very early, a coach drove us to Potačari, to the warehouse that had been used as a UN safe zone to welcome the thousands of residents of Srebrenica, fleeing the Bosnian Serb army. The joyful, exploratory mood that we had been feeling for the past few days quickly disappeared and became one of apprehension about what we would discover there. The warehouse has since been turned into a memorial museum, with various rooms providing photos, videos, audio, and documents detailing the events that had happened there in 1995. Going through the various exhibitions, the evidence of the series of poor decisions made by the Dutch UN battalion, trying to appease all sides, ultimately leading to a massacre was painful to take in. We then met with the Women of Srebrenica group, which consisted of all the women in Srebrenica who had lost someone in their family during the genocide and who had decided to come together to offer mutual support. The meeting was very intimate, with us all sitting in a circle, listening as the women explained who they were and what their group’s objectives are. We were relying on our guide to translate the conversation both ways. When it came to us asking questions, while their spokeswoman took the floor most of the time, many of the women would stand up and interject with their own experiences and reflections on the topic, in a very open way that conveyed how close their group was.
The pain of their loss was still very visible. From wiping away tears, to comforting each other, it was clear that the memories were still very present in their minds. It struck me, again, how recent this conflict was. Some of the archival footage was of the same quality as videos of me as a toddler. That footage highlighted that this is a recent piece of history, as opposed to World War II, which is spoken of a lot more yet seems much more distant. The eyes I was looking into are the same eyes that witnessed the unimaginable horrors of those days.
Yet, when we asked them what message or key lesson we should bring out to the world after having concluded the meeting with them, they exchanged looks and answered the following: the world has no place for hate, love is the only way to move forward and to ensure conflicts like these never happen again.
The strength of these women is quite unmatched to anything else I have seen in my lifetime. Sadly, some of them talked of the repression of Bosniaks still taking place, with some of them and their children being mocked and harassed due to their religion. I found it truly hard to fully comprehend how this was possible: how two groups allowed to live next to each other and amongst one another, when members of one had attempted to wipe out the other. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, it is easy to criticize the Dayton Agreement. Nevertheless, the thought that kept coming back to me was whether post-war Germany would have stayed intact if its territory was divided between a Jewish sector and a Nazi one. Ultimately, it was a good choice to go to Potočari on our last day, as it drove home what all the work done by the institutions we visited prior was for: to ensure that the atrocities of 1995 are never allowed to happen again, and to help the country heal. What a pity it was, then, to encounter a group of senior Austrian military officers at the memorial centre, sent as part of EUFOR, and having them ask us about what actually happened here, and calling the accounts of the Women of Srebrenica “biased.”
The lesson I took away from Bosnia is that rebuilding a country after a conflict is incredibly difficult. How do you organise governance institutions? How do you ensure equal and fair treatment across ethnic groups when those groups are not keen on collaborating? How do you ensure a shared history of the country that accurately points to the facts without bias or distortion?
Sadly, I was not able to come up with answers to these questions. But as I look to the ongoing war in Ukraine, I’ve come to the realisation that the conflict itself may just be the beginning, and that beyond the institutional rebuilding following its end, safely restoring the nation as a group of people may be just as convoluted. The situations are obviously different, but at the end of the day, people and group dynamics can resemble each other across different contexts. Clearly, the dynamics between ethnic groups have long lasting common memories that can extend into years beyond the conflict. While in Sarajevo, an idea was discussed; was it possibile that perhaps the war ended too soon? Perhaps there should have been a clear victory prior to interventions by the UN, NATO, and other foreign actors. That seems to echo the call for a clear victory in Ukraine before any kind of territory-conceding negotiations take place. Failing that, conceding territory and giving any kind of voice to Russian-backed separatists could extend to a protracted ceasefire dominated by ethnic tensions and territorial disputes. I suppose it is still too early to tell. Let’s just hope that the people in charge of writing the hopefully-soon-to-come “Ukrainian Dayton” accords have taken notes from the Bosnian situation and its aftermath, and take the adequate steps.