14 Years After War's End, Ethnic Divisions Once Again Gripping Bosnia

Fourteen years ago, Bosnia-Herzegovina was devastated by violent conflict and ethnic cleansing.
By Craig Whitlock
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, August 23, 2009

SARAJEVO, Bosnia -- Fourteen years after the United States and NATO intervened to stop war and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the old divisions and hatreds are again gripping this Balkan country.

In June, the international envoy who oversees the rebuilding of Bosnia invoked emergency powers that he said were necessary to hold the country together. Although U.S. and European officials have been trying to get Bosnia to stand on its own feet for years, many Bosnian leaders say the only thing that can permanently fix their gridlocked government is for Washington to intervene -- again -- and rewrite the treaty that ended the war in 1995.

The economy is in tatters, with unemployment exceeding 40 percent. Serbs are talking openly of secession. Croats are leaving the country in droves. Religious schisms are widening. In December, street protests erupted after Bosnian Muslim school officials in Sarajevo tried to ban "Santa Claus" from delivering gifts to kindergartens.

The national government answers to three presidents, who agree on one thing: Corruption, political infighting and bureaucratic dysfunction are paralyzing the country. In May, Vice President Biden visited Sarajevo and lectured Bosnian leaders to put aside their differences. But the squabbling has only worsened since then.

Zeljko Komsic, a Croat and chairman of Bosnia's tripartite rotating presidency, said the country has increasingly hardened along ethnic lines. Even as Bosnia dreams of integrating into NATO and the European Union, its population has become more segregated than ever.

Many Bosnian Muslim and Croat students, Komsic noted, attend school together but are separated in the classroom so they can learn different lessons about history, geography, religion and language, based on their ethnicity.

"What kind of message are we giving to these children?" he said. "As an individual, you almost don't exist in this society. You are just a member of a certain ethnic group."

The European Union, the United States and other donors have spent billions of dollars trying to rebuild Bosnia since the 1995 signing of the Dayton peace accords, brokered largely by U.S. diplomats. An estimated 100,000 people were killed during the war, which erupted in 1992 after Bosnia declared independence from the former Yugoslavia.

Serb and Croat nationalists, supported by leaders in next-door Yugoslavia and Croatia, tried to carve up the country along ethnic lines. Nearly half of Bosnia's prewar population of 4.3 million either fled the country or were forced from their homes.

A 'Dependency Syndrome'

On the surface, Bosnia's wartime scars appear healed. Sarajevo's Old City, which was bombarded for three years by Serbian forces, bustles with smiling families snacking on cevapcici, a minced-meat kebab venerated as the national dish. Thousands of damaged houses, churches and mosques in the hilly countryside have been rebuilt with foreign aid. Ethnic violence is relatively rare.

But the international campaign to transform Bosnia into a pluralistic democracy is still limping along with no end in sight. The struggle serves as a cautionary example for U.S.-led efforts to rebuild much larger nations hamstrung by ethnic and religious factions, such as Iraq and Afghanistan.

Bosnia is still overseen by an international viceroy, known as the high representative, who holds unchecked authority to dismiss local officials and set policy if deemed necessary for the welfare of the country.

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