Balkan Spring

Tuesday's World Events   —   Posted on March 28, 2006

(by Greg Dabel, SARAJEVO – When a Lufthansa flight enters Bosnian airspace, the German pilot maintains 9,000 feet until the last possible moment. Then he abruptly angles the commercial jet into a chilling nosedive straight into Sarajevo International Airport. Officially this landing approach is necessary to avoid tricky winds that swirl through the snowy mountain passes surrounding Sarajevo. But for veterans of the Balkans’ long war, it’s an eerie reminder of the combat landing patterns used to avoid rocket launchers and snipers once hidden in the hills.

It has been a full decade since peace treaties halted the war in Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia. U.S. Ambassador Douglas McElhaney declared, “Bosnia is at peace and will remain at peace,” earlier this year at a 10th anniversary celebration. “The prospect of renewed hostilities is remote,” he said.

That optimism, however, is not secure in the hearts of the Bosnian people, nor is it apparent in the landscape. Fallout from war glares like a flashing neon sign: German soldiers patrol Sarajevo’s downtown office buildings and public facilities disfigured by mortar blasts; in northern cities, Turkish troops stand guard between bullet-riddled apartment buildings. UN helicopters buzz over the countryside, and the carcasses of entire villages–destroyed by bombs, bulldozers, or intentional fire–are reminders of “ethnic cleansing” that swept Bosnia in the 1990s.

While most urban areas have been declared “mine-safe,” even in downtown Sarajevo dozens of neighborhoods are cordoned off with crime tape and ringed with land-mine warning signs. At one 20-story apartment building, so pocked with bullet holes that it looks like a giant block of Swiss cheese, Fikret Vukovic, a retired Bosnian special forces soldier, lives with his wife. A Serb from birth and evangelical Christian since 1999, Mr. Vukovic and his wife were forced from their home by Bosnian Muslims during one of many ethnic cleansing episodes meant to purify neighborhoods by ethnicity and religious background.

“Fundamental problems still fester,” he told WORLD. “The very day that the United Nations and European Union troops leave Bosnia is the day the ethnic wars will start again.” His wife Safeta agrees. She refills the coffee cups, lights a cigarette, and, referring to Bosnia’s centuries of conflict, says, “The biggest problem our country has is that people do not forget.”

Inter-ethnic bloodletting has long been a part of Bosnia’s way of life as the three major ethnic groups–Muslims, Serbians (mainly Orthodox), and Croats (mainly Catholics)–coexist in overlapping proximity across Bosnia, an area half the size of West Virginia. “We lost our homes when the Muslims invaded our land,” said Rifet Kovic, a Serbian farmer whose family has worked the same plot of land for 300 years. But his family’s loss doesn’t date from the 1990s conflict; he’s referring to events in the year 1389 when Muslims invaded Bosnia and launched 500 years of domination over Serbs. Mr. Kovic can describe those events as if they appeared in yesterday’s newspaper.

After World War II Marshal Josip Tito brought an uneasy peace to the region by creating the federal state of Yugoslavia, consisting of six republics: Bosnia-Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia. Tito quelled ethnic fighting and held Yugoslavia’s national groups together by playing on the fears of intervention from Russia or the United States. Still, the dictator knew internal peace was tenuous and said, “Let us work as if peace will last 100 years, but prepare as if war will start tomorrow.”

Following the collapse of communism in the 1980s, ethnic discord and nationalism grew within Yugoslavia. In 1991 Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic capitalized on the tension by adopting a policy of “all Serbs in one state.” His strategy plunged Bosnia-Herzegovina into an unholy war. Serb forces captured 70 percent of Bosnia, expelled hundreds of thousands of non-Serbs, and killed thousands more.

The war, coupled with international economic sanctions, caused a drastic decline of living standards in Bosnia. The crippled economy sped into hyperinflation. In November 1995, with NATO troops and UN peacekeepers patrolling the restive region, Milosevic was forced to negotiate the Dayton Accords as a way to end the conflict. Indicted by a UN tribunal for genocide in Bosnia and other war crimes in 1999 and driven from office in 2000, Milosevic was eventually extradited to stand trial and died of an apparent heart attack on March 11 in his cell at The Hague (see interview).

From the beginning, said the Serbian farmer, Mr. Kovic, ethnic cleansing was a “near-impossible” undertaking. “The three major ethnic groups in Bosnia are all ethnically the same Slavic race. We all look alike and speak the same language,” he said. The differences are defined mostly by religious loyalty: Serbs have their nationalistic heritage tied to the Eastern Orthodox Church; Croats are loyal to their Catholic roots; Bosnian Muslims are former Serbs who were forcibly converted to Islam 550 years ago. Each group identifies strongly with its religious heritage, yet all are very secularized.

As the majority group in Bosnia, Muslims control the nation’s religious climate. Public schools teach an Islamic curriculum and the countryside is dotted with mosques. At 6:00 every morning, hundreds of mosques broadcast pre-recorded Arabic prayers from towering minarets. For most Bosnians the prayers are nothing more than a tinny-loudspeaker alarm clock because they do not speak Arabic. Locals jokingly define a “Bosnian Muslim” as someone who drinks liquor, eats pork, and does not pray five times a day. There are no laws opposing evangelicals in Bosnia, yet many churches meet in near-underground conditions because of the overwhelming pressure and influence of Islam.

That pressure may be growing due to an influx of millions of dollars into Bosnia from countries like Saudi Arabia. Most of that money is pouring into the construction of new mosques. “Our people are hungry and the Saudis spend millions to build mosques,” says shopkeeper Hiba Mehic, who makes traditional Bosnian crafts for export in Zenica. An evangelical convert from Islam, Ms. Mehic complained, “We are forced to listen to those Arabic-language prayers echo throughout the city five times each day.” She also said that the Saudis are paying women $40 to $50 per month to wear traditional Muslim head coverings in public. With high unemployment and average monthly wages at $100 per month, “the financial incentive is enticing women to wear the head covering,” she said.

Most of Bosnia’s middle class fled the country to find jobs in Australia and the United States. Many who remain are unemployed and aimless. Chinese merchants are beginning to fill the void by importing cheap products and setting up storefronts. At a coffee shop in downtown Zenica, Enis Vukovic, 24, laments the state of the economy. “There is no work. I do odd jobs.” His description of “odd jobs” sounds more like petty criminal activity. To substantiate his claim of few job opportunities, he need only point to the steel factory in Zenica. It once employed 22,000 workers but now has 4,000 and pays one-tenth its pre-war salaries. “The only real jobs are in Germany,” said Mr. Vukovic. “Those who go there to work never come back.”

The United States has pumped millions of dollars into Bosnia, over $40 million annually in recent years and approximately $1.15 billion since the war to rebuild Bosnia’s infrastructure, government institutions, and banking system. In Sarajevo, a U.S. embassy spokesman (who asked not to be named in keeping with State Department protocol) described the Bosnian government as “very inefficient” but declined to call the current government corrupt. Brokered talks among Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats continue, he said, to diffuse ongoing tensions and to reform the country’s constitution. Membership in the European Union and NATO is depending on such reforms, but he admitted that already “some of the [U.S.] money pumped into constitutional reform may have been sidetracked into corrupt hands.”

To make up the difference, the United States recently assisted the Bosnian government in putting forward a 17 percent national sales tax. The “VAT Spat” that resulted over the unpopular tax led Prime Minister Adnan Terzic to offer his resignation after members of his own party threatened to go against the tax in parliament. But the prospect of a government collapse prompted an about-face on all sides: Coalition parties agreed to support the tax and Mr. Terzic withdrew his resignation. That made consumers the losers. “The tax will only force more economy underground and guarantee cash for corrupt officials,” said Enis Vukovic, sipping coffee in a Zenica cafe. “There will still be no jobs, no future.” Most Bosnians agree they must work harder to integrate with Europe, but not if being more European just means higher taxes and rising unemployment.

With the approach of spring, winter snow on Bosnia’s mountain slopes is beginning to melt. The retreating icy-white blanket reveals crushed brown grasses from the previous summer. No new green growth is yet evident. Some in Bosnia wonder when springtime will really come.

Copyright 2006 WORLD Magazine, April 1, 2006. Reprinted here with permission from World Magazine. Visit the website at