Learning from Post-Conflict Recovery in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Sarajevo, nicknamed the “Jerusalem of Europe,” has long been lauded as an epicenter for religious diversity. In fact, up until the twentieth century, it was the only major European city where you could stand on the steps of a mosque and be only blocks away from a Catholic Church, an Orthodox Church, and a synagogue, at the same time. Still, since the end of the Bosnian War in 1995, many people seem to have forgotten Sarajevo’s history as one of the most welcoming cities for practitioners of all faiths in favor of a gruesome narrative of violence. It is easy to observe the shelled buildings lining the streets as a reminder of the chaos that consumed Sarajevo for half a decade during the early 1990s, but it is only once we discuss Bosnia’s future with the locals that we are reminded of the resilience of Bosnian identity.

Thus, it is not surprising that during his visit to Sarajevo on June 6, Pope Francis emphasized the importance of interreligious dialogue as “an indispensible condition for peace” and “a duty for all believers.”  This message was not only directed to the various religious leaders present at the meeting, but also to all individuals living in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the twenty-year aftermath of the Bosnian War, the most horrendous conflict on European soil since World War II, the Pope was eager to reiterate the importance of authentic dialogue between practitioners of different religions to promote “moral values, justice, freedom, and peace,” but with the caveat that such dialogue must “presuppose a solid sense of identity” in order to be effective. Still, his speech demonstrated that he too overlooked Bosnia’s legacy of coexistence and underestimated the unity of Bosnian identity today.

Pope Francis continued his speech by praising the work of the local Council for Interreligious Dialogue in “bringing together Muslims, Christians, and Jews.” Indeed, the Council for Interreligious Dialogue in Sarajevo works to “promote dialogue and coordinate common initiatives” according to its mission statement. But when I sat down with Igor Kožemjakin, its Secretary General, the organization’s work he emphasized most was that which develops relations with state authorities rather than religious communities:  “We focus on [bringing] together people from different religions because we need to [make] a solid front to the government.”

When asked about the state of relations between Christians, Jews, and Muslims, he revealed, “I am a Jew, but I do not I see much tension between Jews and Muslims, or Christians and Muslims, or Jews and Christians. We just need to [come] together so the authorities can see that we want the same things—peace, safety, happiness.”

What Kožemjakin said reveals a new perspective: the struggle in post-war Bosnia is not necessarily between people of different religions, as international efforts might suggest, but between the people and the government. At first, this revelation is perplexing. During the Bosnian War, the city of Sarajevo, with a Muslim majority, was under siege by Christian Serb forces for 1,425 days. At this time, violence based on ethnic identity plagued Sarajevo as Serb forces attempted to cleanse the city of its Muslim Bosniak population through continual shelling, mass killing, sniping, and mortar attacks.  Thus, as I began my research on interreligious efforts in Bosnia, I was struck by the emphasis on developing mutual understanding between individuals with different beliefs so that together they can move on from the horrors they faced during the war. This suggestion appears to make sense from an outside perspective, but upon discussing the situation with locals like Kožemjakin, it becomes apparent that it is much more complicated—recovery requires more cooperation from the government, which is nearly impossible to attain.

Saša Madacki, Head of the Human Rights Centre of the University of Sarajevo, reveals that the problem with the Bosnian government is that it is simply not efficient. Bosnia and Herzegovina’s government is reputed by political scholars to be the world’s most complicated. As a result, action to improve the economic situation in the country, reform the government, or address new concerns is often out of the question.

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s government was established by the Dayton Peace Accords, which ended the bloodshed of the war by freezing the conflict along ethnic lines.  It instituted a tripartite presidential system that governs over two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska, based on ethnic and religious groupings. Madacki states, “[this] means that we rely a lot on international help. If the world doesn’t give [us] funds or send an organization to start a project, nothing gets done. Plus, the people do not trust the government. I mean, how do you trust a government where [some of] the perpetrators are still in power?”

Despite the complications of Bosnian government, Madacki is proud of his work at the Human Rights Center of the University of Sarajevo, where he helps his country move forward as a transitional justice scholar. Transitional justice, a branch of human rights that helps countries overcome past rights abuses, aims to prosecute war perpetrators and assist with democratization by promoting reconciliation efforts. Because of its focus on democratization, transitional justice is at the center of efforts from international organizations, which often lead the charge towards recovery by providing foreign aid.

But such transitional justice efforts often complicate progress. Although international governments and organizations have been aiding in Bosnia’s recovery for the past two decades, there still seems to be a misunderstanding of the situation on the ground. Foreigners are eager to offer their well-intentioned advice, for example that Bosnians should focus on developing a unified identity by promoting interreligious dialogue, as Pope Francis suggested. However, these efforts often come as a prerequisite to receiving aid. As a result, organizations like the Council for Interreligious Dialogue are forced to highlight their work in creating interreligious dialogue even when they identify the true challenge in current-day Sarajevo as governmental reform.

Back at the Council for Interreligious Dialogue, Igor Kožemjakin reminds us that interreligious dialogue efforts are probably less pressing than outsiders make them out to be. He wholeheartedly trusts other Bosnians to promote peace no matter what they believe. He has faith in the Bosnian people, whose identity is not fragile, but resilient in the face of challenge.

Ibrahim (last name omitted for privacy), guardian of the King Fahd Mosque near the heart of Sarajevo, shares the same sense of Bosnian identity that Kožemjakin first revealed at the Council for Interreligious Dialogue. While visiting the newly constructed mosque, I asked him whether he had sensed tension from other religious communities as more mosques are rebuilt after the war. “The only tension I feel is about international issues, for example, about Palestine, as if we Bosnians have anything to do with what happens there.” He elaborates, “I think people are confident [about] the Islam we practice in Bosnia. They know we are not extreme. We are Bosnians and they do not fear we are outsiders who want to hurt our own [countrymen].”

If there really is minimal tension between ethnic and religious groups in Bosnia due to a strong sense of Bosnian identity, as Kožemjakin and Ibrahim have confirmed, then international organizations and nonprofits must work harder to understand the complications of post-war recovery in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Foreign organizations are prescribing too much time and effort to interreligious dialogue, which is not at the heart of the challenges facing Bosnia. Instead, foreign efforts could use their resources to confront the unique challenges facing Bosnia today—they could push for constitutional reform, address brain drain from the region, or tackle governmental corruption.

The importance of learning from the current situation in Bosnia is uncontestable. Methods of transitional justice and human rights worldwide are still developing, and the situation in Bosnia could inform practices far into the future. The real challenge is accepting the mistakes of human rights efforts and correcting them to aid in post-conflict recovery. In fact, when I asked Saša Madacki of the Human Rights Centre why he would dedicate his career to working with human rights after it clearly failed to aid his country during the forty-four month Siege of Sarajevo and the Genocide at Srebenica, he optimistically responds, “Human rights have not failed Bosnia. Maybe it was lack of understanding… but we still have a lot to learn.”
Dianne Kaiyoorawongs is a junior Ethnicity, Race & Migration Major in Ezra Stiles College. Contact her at dianne.kaiyoorawongs@yale.edu.