A House Divided: Navigating Social, Ethnic, and Political Divisions in Bosnia, Two Decades After the War

By Skyler Inman

With a population of just under thirty thousand, Široki Brijeg is not a city often in the international spotlight. In October of 2009, however, the small municipality in southern Bosnia and Herzegovina made headlines when fans of its soccer team clashed with those of the visiting team from Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo. An argument between soccer fans escalated into a citywide riot, ending in one death, thirty-one injuries, and accusations of police brutality and political corruption.

Soccer fights in Europe are rarely more than drunken brawls, but in Bosnia, where ethnicity and politics go hand in hand, sports matches can become the tense battlegrounds of nationalist sentiment. In 2009, fourteen years after the Dayton Peace Agreement put an end to the Bosnian War, these riots belied a problem far larger than a soccer rivalry.

Abroad, newsreels showed footage of burning cars and, more alarmingly, police officers seemingly engaged in the brawl rather than attempting to separate the two sides. When asked about the riots, Široki native Ivan Matej shook his head in exasperation: “It was all ethnically fueled. The Sarajevo fans were mostly Bosniak, and the Široki fans were mostly Croat.”

Despite its location just 15 miles southwest of Mostar, a city once known as a beacon of Bosnia’s proud multiculturalism, Široki is anything but diverse. “It’s completely Croat. Insanely Croat,” Matej said. The numbers agree—census estimates put the city’s population at around 98 percent Croat. Like many Bosnian cities, Široki’s population verges on complete homogenity.

“It’s a very right-wing part of the country,” Matej said of Široki Brijeg, “Everybody’s just into religion and soccer. Growing up, you watch Croatian TV and follow the Croatian soccer team. My grandfather will watch daytime TV from Croatia and the Croatian news, but never the Bosnian news.”

Matej, now a junior at Yale, vividly recalled the riots in his hometown.“We had 15,000 people in the streets—that’s half the city. Everybody was protesting; everybody was unhappy.”

Reactions from the international community were mixed. While some dismissed the riot as nothing more than a part of Bosnia’s postwar growing pains, others marked it as another on a long list of signs that Bosnia, although no longer at war, was also not quite in a state of peace.

For the most part, Bosnia’s recent political situation has been just dormant enough to fall off the radar of the mainstream media. But the same ethnic tensions that led to the riots are, in visible ways, still paralyzing Bosnia’s progress towards coexistence.

. . .

In the Balkans, ethnicity, nationality, and religion have existed in complicated relation to one another for millennia. Over time, the region’s three major ethnic groups—Roman Catholic Croats, Eastern Orthodox Serbs, and Muslim Bosniaks—have settled into a kind of geographic Venn diagram. Bosnia, sandwiched between Catholic Croatia and Orthodox Serbia (and long a stronghold of the Ot- toman Empire), prided itself for generations as the crossroads of all three major groups—a kind of Balkan melting pot, the geographical epicenter of the region’s diversity.

Marshal Josip Tito, however, envisioned a future for the Balkans in which ethnicity and religion took a back seat to political doctrine. In the period following WWII until his death in 1980, Tito sought to keep the Balkan states united under the umbrella of Socialist Yugoslavia, bound together by the glue of socialist brotherhood.

But despite the highly propagandized rhetoric of unity through communism, many Yugoslavs privately carried on their cultural traditions and religious practices. “If you were a member of the Communist Party, you weren’t allowed to go to church,” said Dejan Gvozdenac, a freshman at Yale. “But I see a lot of people who were alive when Tito was alive and when everything was going really well. They are, I think, the most religious ones. Any time you have suppression, people just keep it secret, and once you remove that suppression, it’s just going to flourish.”

And flourish it did. When the heavy hand of Tito’s Yugoslavia lifted, ethnicity and religion again became acceptable aspects of personal identity, and this major societal change came hand in hand with a political one. While Communist regimes crumbled across the rest of Eastern Europe, politicians in the former Yugoslavia—members of Tito’s own party—turned to ethnicity as a way to divide and conquer. Through half-histories and references to war crimes committed during the first and second world wars, politicians pitted neighbor against neighbor, fanning flames that had been suppressed under Tito’s regime. Along with this intensification of political rhetoric came the renaissance of the ‘Greater Serbia’ and ‘Greater Croatia’ movements, factions that called for the creation of nations intended to encompass all Croats and Serbs within their borders.

For Bosnia, home to significant Serb and Croat populations, these developments had grave implications. In order for a ‘Greater Serbia’ or ‘Greater Croatia’ to exist, it would need to be at the expense of Bosnia. Not only would its neighbors destroy the country geographically, they would also, many feared, ruin the multiculturalism that had come to define Bosnia. Bosnian Muslims—Bosniaks— were particularly fearful of the consequences of being overtaken by Serbia and Croatia.

Following a referendum in Bosnia, its representatives to the Yugoslav Congress declared independence from the Socialist Federation in April of 1992. According to the Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo, the ensuing war claimed the lives of nearly 100,000 people, 40 percent of whom were civilians. It was only in 1995, after three years of mass rape, torture, displacement, genocide, and confinement in concentration camps, that the international community was able to bring leaders of the warring parties together to negotiate peace.

. . .

“I’m not nationalistic… I’m not even patriotic,” Dejan Gvozdenac cautioned, “But most people are.” Gvozdenac has called the city of Banja Luka home for as long as he can remember. Before the war, the city’s population hovered around a 50-30-20 percent split between Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats respectively. Now, after a wartime influx of Serb refugees and a mass expulsion of the city’s Bosniak and Croat citizens, the city of about 200,000 has an overwhelming Serb majority. Gvozdenac’s family was one of many who came to Banja Luka after the war, choosing to stay in a majority Serb community out of fear. Like most Bosnian Serbs, they live past the line that divides Bosnia into its two major subsections; Banja Luka is the capital of what is known as Republika Srpska—the Serb Republic. “A lot of people didn’t move back [after the war] because they lost trust in other ethnicities.” Gvozdenac remembered: “People just didn’t feel safe.”

Although the Dayton Agreement of 1995 successfully ended the ethnic cleansing, genocide, and wide-scale destruction Bosnia endured during the war, it failed in many ways to set out a plan for long-term ethnic re-integration. The peace accords, which still function as Bosnia’s constitution, divided the country into two major parts: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is where nearly all of the country’s Bosniaks and Croats live, and Republika Srpska, home to a vast majority of Bosnian Serbs.


Bosnia’s political divisions after the war. To the north and east, Republika Srpska, the ‘Serb Republic,’ where nearly all of Bosnia’s Serbs live; to the west and throughout central Bosnia, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, where most of the country’s Bosniaks and Croats live. Bosnia’s biggest cities, like Banja Luka and Sarajevo, are largely monoethnic as a result of wartime displacement. Some cities, like Mostar, remain multiethnic, but deeply divided. (Map courtesy of Wikimedia Commons/CIA World Factbook)

Bosniaks and Croats are also unevenly distributed across the Federation. Most Croats, like Ivan’s family in Široki Brijeg, live in the historical region of Herzegovina, whereas most Bosniaks live in the central region, closer to Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo.

“Before the war, Sarajevo and Banja Luka were almost 30-30-30 percent, but now in every city it’s closer to 90 percent of one ethnicity,” Gvozdenac said, “and in Herzegovina, you know, you have [Croats] who are saying, ‘I’m not Bosnian, I’m Herzegovinian.’ ”

Although diplomats argued in favor of the Dayton Agreement’s structure because it accomplished the set goal of ending the war, many now feel as though the nationalist goals that started the war were actually accomplished through the peace accords. Bosnia may not have been divided between Croatia and Serbia, but it was divided among itself.


Bosniak women at a 2007 memorial for the Srebrenica Massacre, one of the war’s most notorious acts of genocide. Memories of mass killings, forced displacements, city-wide sieges, and other wartime acts continue to make reintegration in Bosnia a struggle. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

“I would say that the real problem is that most people don’t have anyone to integrate with,” Gvozdenac said, referencing the homogeneity of most regions in the country. “But in the places that you do have different ethnicities, no one is doing anything to make it any more integrated.”

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The divisions enacted by the Dayton Agreement permeate Bosnian life at every level, from simple geography to a split government and education system. Rather than a single head of state, a three-member “Presidency” governs Bosnia, whereby one president exists for each of the country’s three main ethnic groups. This conflict-avoiding arrangement is as inefficient as it sounds. For each of the three presidents, Bosnia maintains a parallel system of federal ministries, along with a heavy subset of local governance under each.

Kristina Coric, one of the founders of the Bosnian youth coalition OKC Abrasevic, had harsh words about postwar governance: “Politicians are actually entrepreneurs, mismanaging, selling and stealing… purely for personal gain.” According to Coric, more than 65 percent of Bosnia’s public funds go towards the country’s federal and local bureaucracy. “Some statistics show that we have at least six times more public servants per capita than any other developed country of the western democracy.”

“When you saw Romney and Obama during the American elections, they talked about tax rates and real issues,” said Matej. “In Bosnian elections, I’ve never even heard the term ‘tax rates.’ Nobody talks about the economy; it’s always about ratios of representation.”

According to Coric, the stagnancy of the Bosnian political dialogue is exactly what politicians want. By avoiding issues like the economy, which affect all Bosnians, they instead use the divisive status quo to hold on to power and “buy time.”

“The same nationalist parties [who] started the war, fought the war, and signed peace after the war are still in power more than 20 years later,” she said, “they play the same arguments, not for the sake of agreeing but [for] prolonging their positions [of power].”

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Beyond the repetitive cycle of Bosnia’s political dialogue, the most shocking consequence of the country’s split government may be the parallel existence of three distinct Ministries of Education, and, therefore, three separate school systems. For the most part, Croat children, Bosniak children, and Serb children attend separate schools with separate teachers and separate curricula.

“Children are taught different versions of history and facts [about] the recent war,” Coric said. Bosnia’s segregated schooling is one of the country’s most divisive forces, and not just because of the different curricula, she explained: “It creates [a] new generation so far apart [from] one another.”

Like most Bosnians of the postwar genera- tion, Senija Steta initially attended a segregated public school. Now a junior at Wellesley College, Steta said she rarely saw her Croat classmates as a child. “The school was basically divided into two sides, and two different curricula.”

Steta’s elementary school was a part of the controversial “two schools under one roof” system in place in Bosnia’s more diverse cities. “We had one or two classes together, but for the most part, our teachers were different, our classes were different… We were operating in entirely different educational systems.” Oftentimes, these parallel educational worlds have little or no relation beyond their shared roof.


An aerial view of Mostar, Bosnia and Herzegovina. The city lies on both sides of the Neretva River, and is united by the iconic Stari Most, or “Old Bridge.” (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

Just north of Široki Brijeg lies the old city of Mostar, Steta’s hometown and one of the few Bosnian cities that still contains a fairly mixed population. Mostar’s mixed demographics are slightly misleading—the city may not have its own Berlin Wall, but it might as well. When Bosnians speak of the city, they refer to it as two entities: Eastern, Croat Mostar, or Western, Bosniak Mostar. Bulevar, one of Mostar’s most important avenues, splits the city.

Once a frontline in the Croatian-Bosnian fight for Mostar, Bulevar still remains littered with crumbling buildings almost twenty years after the war’s end. Not far from the bullet-marked facades, however, stands one pristine, bright orange building: United World College in Mostar, an international boarding school with a special focus on fostering coexistence through education. Steta, a UWCiM alumna, expressed gratitude for her multiethnic high school experience. “It’s very different for me than it is for someone who’s never been in an international environment,” she said. But only a small minority of Bosnian students get such a chance. Although UWCiM strives to be the model for future reintegration, it is one of the few integrated, multiethnic schools in the country.


An aerial shot of Mostar in 1997. (Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons)

“Mostar is the most multiethnic city in [Bosnia],” Coric said, “but instead of becoming a paradigm of how the country can be organized, it is a deeply divided community.” Coric’s organization, OKC Abrasevic, is devoted to bridging the gap between Mostar’s two sides, and sees promise in the younger generation. Working alongside UWCiM, Abrasevic is what Coric referred to as “a kind of oasis in the city,” a safe space for youth of different backgrounds to meet and mingle. According to Coric, as a multiethnic but deeply segregated city, “[Mostar] is literally the biggest problem in [Bosnia],” but could serve as the “solution model” for the country.

. . .

Amidst all of these separations and self-segregations, one thing is universal across Bosnia: a pervading sense of being stuck. Despite this feeling of stagnancy, change is possible on the generational level—slowly, and over a long period of time.

“I think it’s silly,” said Gvozdenac of the international community’s expectations, “It hasn’t even been 20 years [since the war]. It’s too early to see what will happen.”

Steta was similarly hopeful. “People are starting to communicate more and interact, to get past the ethnic hate and all that,” but she cautioned, “you just can’t tell someone who lost their entire family in the war,‘Don’t be mad, don’t hate them.’”Coric agreed that Bosnians still need to grapple with the past to move forward.

But even in the face of a poor economy, a largely segregated population, and a highly corrupt government, it’s hard not to have hope for Bosnia. Just over twenty years ago, many in the international community had written of the Balkans as a hopeless place—too mired in its own ethnic hatred to be saved. In those years, Bosnia fell victim to hateful political doctrines. The country saw genocide, mass rape, and wide-scale displacements—the kind of destruction that can wipe a country off of the map. Despite all odds, Bosnia made it through to the other side, but not without significant scars.

There’s a song by Bosnian rap artist Frenkie that addresses the country’s presidents: “You represent three different peoples, he says, but you steal like a team.” Steta almost laughed as she translated the song’s title, “Bring Them Down.” While there certainly aren’t any calls for mutiny in Bosnia, it does seem as though a rally for governmental change could bring Bosnians closer together. After all, in a land whose history saw Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Austro-Hungarian rule; in a land that has been home for centuries to many peoples of many faiths, it would take more, one hopes, than three years of war to destroy that legacy.

Skyler Inman ’17 is in Jonathan Edwards College. She can be reached at skyler.inman@yale.edu.