Never forget: life on the edge of Europe

Although the most damaging European massacre after WW2 – the Bosnian genocide in Srebrenica – occurred more than 17 years ago, not many things gave changed in Bosnia. Radovan Karadzic is on trial at the International Criminal Court for his alleged role in ethnic cleansing and war crimes.
With a highly complex mix of religious and ethnic groups, including the Bosniak Muslims, Bosnian-Croat Roman Catholics and Bosnian-Serb Serbian Orthodox, deep divides still exist within the political system. Bosnian and Herzegovina’s ambition to join the European Union has been put on ice, along with almost all other Balkan countries, with no guarantee of the process re-starting. But, 20 years after the star of Yugoslav wars, how much is really known about the complex conflict and what characterises Sarajevo today?

On 5 April 1992, more than 100,000 Bosnian and Herzegovinian citizens joined a peace rally in Sarajevo. The wide ethnic and religious diversity that embodies Bosnia and Herzegovina was represented on all sides. A united message from the people that they wanted peace and democracy to prevail. But the cowardice of a group of hardline Bosnian-Serb politicians looked increasingly likely to turn into violence, to knock the tender wheels of democracy off course. Their belief that Bosnia and Herzegovina should remain part of Yugoslavia was out-voted in a referendum three months earlier, but a genuine fear that they were prepared to enforce their belief down the barrel of gun ran throughout the population.

On that day what is widely accepted as the first victims of the Yugoslav civil war fell whilst participating in a march that demanded the very opposite to war, peace and democracy. But against all the odds, hope has endured. In surviving the war and rebuilding Bosnia and Herzegovina’s cultural, economic and political character, the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are quickly shaping a modern nation that is shaking off the traditional memories of civil war and the former Yugoslavia.

My tour guide in Sarajevo is a mind of information, effortlessly reeling off dates, names and numbers as we walk down the street. Sarajevo was home to the first public toilet, to Europe’s first electrical powered tram system, and to the first European coffee bar. Indeed, Sarajevo was also the site of the assassination of Austrian-Hungarian Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand that triggered the start of the First World War.

To my astonishment, my guide proudly announces he is just 19 years old. As a Sarajevo citizen, he was born during the siege of Sarajevo, in 1993. This incident was a particularly terrifying ordeal that caught the attention of the world. The Bosnian-Serb Commander Ratko Mladic is reported to have ordered his men to “shoot at slow intervals, shell them till they cannot sleep; don’t stop till they are on the edge of madness.” Later on in my tour, after pointing to the memorial in their name, my guide starkly and seriously states the number “five hundred and twenty one” and clarifies with one harrowing sentence, “the number of children killed during the siege of Sarajevo.”

It is not un-common to find plaques and stones engraved with the message ‘1992-95. Never forget.’ In amongst designer clothes shops and trendy coffee bars, some buildings still stand lonely and untouched since 1995, the scars of war displayed in the shape of bullet holes chinked into the side of buildings, or the infamous Sarajevo rose displayed in the street beneath your feet – old mortar holes filled in with red concrete.

The brutal atrocities of the Yugoslav civil war sent such ripples through time that we all too often fail to see past them. So it was with great delight that when I visited Sarajevo I found myself casually seated in a fashionable coffee shop just off the main street, sipping an excellent macchiato and watching the hustle and bustle of shoppers, business people and tourists scuttle by.
Today, according to the World Bank, foreign direct investment has increased three fold since 2000. In addition, its export markets are growing and The World Tourism Organisation estimates Bosnia and Herzegovina will have the third largest tourism growth rate in the world between 1995 and 2020.

At the heart of Bosnia and Herzegovina is diversity, and in order to understand its diversity you must first understand its history. Successive waves of empires, immigrants and traders have all left a lasting and visible mark on the areas. Today this diversity can be seen everywhere. Evening prayer sings out from the Mosques and echos off the walls of Orthodox and Catholic church spires. Turkish coffee meets Austro-Hungarian architecture. The cuisine takes influences from Middle Eastern, Mediterranean and traditional Balkan produce.

But despite its remarkable progression, Bosnia and Herzegovina still have a long way to go. Its GDP per capita is still amongst the lowest 20 percent in Europe; over 100,000 people remain displaced from the civil war, and although it can be little felt in day to day society, the political structure is still largely based on the Daytona Peace agreement with both Serbian and Bosniak-Croat administered areas.

However, it is the genuine optimism and true commitment in the daily lives of those who, regardless of religion or race, call Bosnia and Herzegovina home that has helped such a remarkable country through a difficult time. I have no doubt that in the not too distant future, Herzegovinian wine will become common place on our supermarket shelves and a city break to Sarajevo will be as common as one to Paris, Berlin, Budapest or Istanbul.


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