Postwar Bosnia Hamstrung By Ethnic Divisions

Workers in Sarajevo paste campaign posters to a wall ahead of Sunday's election in Bosnia-Herzegovina. i i

Workers in Sarajevo paste campaign posters to a wall ahead of Sunday's election in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images
Workers in Sarajevo paste campaign posters to a wall ahead of Sunday's election in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Workers in Sarajevo paste campaign posters to a wall ahead of Sunday's election in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Elvis Barukcic/AFP/Getty Images

Fifteen years after the end of the Bosnian war, Sarajevo appears to be a city healed.

In a central square, pavement tiles serve as a giant chess board, and elderly men loudly offer suggestions as two players move oversized pieces. Young women — tall, elegant and self-confident — stroll along Ferhadija, the central pedestrian street lined with sidewalk cafes and trendy shops.

War-damaged buildings have been replaced with new glass and steel high-rises.

But divisions remain throughout the nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The wounds of war, which raged from 1992 to 1995 after the breakup of Yugoslavia, are still deep and painful.

Rival nationalist parties of the country's three ethnic groups have a firm grip on power, but the unwieldy arrangement means there is little in the way of national consensus. In Sunday's elections, the voters will include 18-year-olds who have no memory of the war, but many of them live in segregated Muslim, Croat and Serb communities.

The 1995 U.S.-sponsored Dayton agreement put an end to the war, estimated to have killed about 100,000. The peace pact split Bosnia into two semi-autonomous entities — one dominated by Bosnian Serbs, the other a joint Bosnian Muslim-Croat federation.

Education, which should foster a multicultural society, has instead been manipulated by each ethnic group. There are separate education ministries, and each draws up its own ethnically based curricula and textbooks.

'What's Our Future?'

Education expert Melissa Foric says segregated classes sometimes take place under the same roof.

"So many years after the war, we are extremely divided, and we are producing new generations of citizens who are thinking the same way they were thinking 10, 15 years ago," she says. "So what's our future?"

So far, the election campaign by each of the incumbent nationalist parties has focused on defense of their ethnic identity.

The country's dire economy has been all but ignored. Official unemployment is running at 43 percent, and 20 percent of the population lives under the poverty line.

Some Bosnian citizens are beginning to protest. Recently, a few dozen people — members of the small, non-nationalist Nasa Stranka, or Our Party — staged an impromptu rally outside parliament with a banner reading: "Let's wage war on the ethnic mafias."

Dino Sarija, 19, is one of 80,000 young Bosnians eligible to cast a ballot for the first time, but with no memory of the war. He is aware many people his age are disaffected, but he hopes to help mobilize them.

Men in a Sarajevo park play chess on a giant board. i i

Fifteen years after the war, the routine of life goes on in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Here, men in a Sarajevo park play chess on a giant board. Sylvia Poggioli/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Sylvia Poggioli/NPR
Men in a Sarajevo park play chess on a giant board.

Fifteen years after the war, the routine of life goes on in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Here, men in a Sarajevo park play chess on a giant board.

Sylvia Poggioli/NPR

"Young people need to get things going in this country, because the old folks are still waiting. They are thinking nothing is going to change," he says. "Something must change, now or never."

Lingering Effects Of War

But in many towns and villages, few refugees displaced during the war have gone back to their homes. More and more young people are segregated: They've never met anyone from the other two ethnic communities.

Confronting the brutal past of the Bosnia war is not easy.

Bojona Blagojevic, a Bosnian Serb high school teacher from the city of Banja Luka, says it is still too early to talk about genocide in the classroom.

"Every student has someone who was involved, or they hear of a neighbor," she says. "If I have to deal with that in classroom with 18-year-olds, I personally am not ready to have that on the table yet."

She was at an internationally sponsored seminar held recently for high school history teachers from all over Bosnia to discuss how to teach the history of the Yugoslav wars of the 1990s.

Edin Jahac, a Muslim teacher from Tuzla, agreed that it is too soon to teach the recent wars.

"It's not problem to explain to children, but adults are a problem. We have to make better political climate in Bosnia, then we can talk about this," Jahac says.

In the town of Travnik, a one-hour drive north of Sarajevo, church bells still peal but there are hardly any Catholics here anymore. A mixed Croat-Muslim town for centuries until the war, it is now predominantly Muslim.

At the Hotel Lipa, a group of citizen activists are holding an election workshop for young people and first-time voters.

The activists show graphs demonstrating that the ruling parties have delivered only 5 percent of their election promises. But no more than a dozen people have bothered to show up.

Organizer Emin Mahmutovic is aware how hard it is to break the nationalist parties' lock on power.

"Young people, they are starting to think that ethnic divisions are normal," he says. "And it is really bad, and if something doesn't happen to change this, there will be no change."

Another citizen activist, Darko Brkan, is more optimistic.

"There's the new media, like the Internet developing. The world is opening, much more than it used to be a couple of years ago," Brkan says.

The great majority of young Bosnians are Internet-savvy, and Brkan is convinced that the Web could be the tool to overcome ethnic divisions and promote the rights of what he calls the society of "others."

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