Bosnia became independent 30 years ago, but divisions in the region remain

Bosnia and Herzegovina was created in 1992 from the remains of the former Yugoslavia, setting off a sectarian war in which Serb forces committed genocide against Muslims, known as Bosniaks. While the war ended 30 years ago, as Special Correspondent Kira Kay reports, ominous sectarian tensions remain. The story is part of our ongoing initiative, 'Exploring Hate: antisemitism, racism and extremism,’ and is produced in partnership with New York University’s Global Beat program.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    The country Bosnia and Herzegovina was created in 1992 from the remains of the former Yugoslavia, setting off a sectarian war in which Serb forces committed genocide against Muslims, known as Bosniaks.

    The war ended with the Dayton peace agreement in 1995, which carved the country into two autonomous entities: the predominantly Serb Republika Srpska; and the predominantly Muslim-and-Croat federation.

    Though the war ended 30 years ago, as NewsHour Weekend Special Correspondent Kira Kay reports, ominous sectarian tensions remain. This segment is part of our ongoing initiative 'Exploring Hate: antisemitism, racism and extremism.'

  • Kira Kay:

    March 1st is a national holiday for Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was 30 years ago that a referendum vote created this independent country. For many the anniversary is a moment for reflection and pride.

  • Harnes Safić:

    There is no bigger value for me than my country. I was born here and I want that my children live here and I will live and die in Bosnia.

  • Kira Kay:

    But this commemoration is also a protest.

  • Reik Kurtalić:

    We have mixed emotions, both happiness and sadness, because the young generations really want to live together and want to contribute to developing their country, but for the last 30 years politicians have led us on the wrong path.

  • Kira Kay:

    This anniversary is only celebrated in the Bosniak and Croat part of the country, because ethnicity permeates politics here. In Republika Srpska, not everyone wanted to talk about March 1st.

  • Kira Kay:

    The war began when most of the Serb community refused to be forced into the new country of Bosnia. while there were war crimes on all sides, 80 percent of the estimated 100,000 people killed were Muslim Bosniaks.

  • Kemal Pervanić:

    Where we are standing right now, used to be a mass grave. The remains of six hundred people were recovered from the village.

  • Kira Kay:

    Kemal Pervanić is one of thousands of Bosniaks trying to resettle in the villages from which they were once cleansed, now officially sitting in Republika Srpska.

  • Kemal Pervanić:

    There were two brothers from that house. One is in Slovenia. The other one is in Germany.

  • Kira Kay:

    While destroyed homes are being rebuilt, they are only occupied for short summer holidays. and the trauma is still fresh. As a young man, Pervanić was taken to a concentration camp.

  • Kemal Pervanić:

    And there is Miroslav Zoric, my high school teacher, sitting behind a desk in his army uniform. I was lucky because he didn't send me to death. We'll never know how many people he sent to their death.

  • Kira Kay:

    In the first decade after the war, Pervanić was optimistic about his country.

  • Kemal Pervanić:

    Positive changes taking place everywhere, state institutions being built. Support from the international community. And then the same international community probably believed very naively that local politicians would finish the job, which they started.

  • Kira Kay:

    But he says, those local politicians soon realized: sectarianism cemented political power.

  • Kemal Pervanić:

    Then local politicians, you know, started justifying war crimes, even worse, blaming people like myself for the conflict. And then you get a similar type of reaction from the other side. I can find a million reasons why I think there's, there's not going to be another conflict, but, I'm not the one who decides whether there's going to be another conflict.

  • Kira Kay:

    In recent months, the country's uneasy political peace has started to crumble.

    In October, Milorad Dodik, who represents the Serbs in the country's multi-ethnic presidency, made what some are calling secessionist threats: to establish independent versions of significant state bodies, including the council that appoints all the country's prosecutors and judges, and the army.

    Then, Republika Srpska held an anti-terrorist exercise just outside predominantly Muslim Sarajevo and onJanuary 9th, its Independence day, Dodik watched the parade with Vinko Pandurević, a former Bosnian Serb army officer who was convicted of war crimes during the Srebrenica genocide.

    Rising tensions can be felt in the town of Prijedor, in Republika Srpska, not far from Kemal Pervanić's village and where more Bosniak Muslims have returned.

  • Kira Kay:

    Omer Redžić is the imam at Prijedor's rebuilt mosque.

  • Omer Redžić:

    Our mosque was set on fire and demolished in 1992. When we came back here, we found a parking lot in its place.

  • Kira Kay:

    On that January 9th celebration weekend, he was having dinner with his family when he saw torches and a parade on the street outside. He pressed record on his phone.

  • Omer Redžić:

    A group of young men were chanting about Ratko Mladić, a war criminal convicted for genocide and their ethnic hero. They chanted "thank you mother of Mladić" and "Long live the general." The message they sent is that Bosniak Muslims, after all our traumas, are not welcome in this city. I decided to publish my video, because as much as I promote the good, I should also point out what is evil in society.

  • Kira Kay:

    Around Prijedor there were other troubling signs: an image of Mladić stenciled behind a supermarket. His name graffiti-ed on a corner. And this new, nationalistic mural, blending Serb world war two heroes with the start of Bosnia's ethnic war.

    Prijedor's deputy mayor, Žarko Kovačević, is proud of his town. And he is also proud of that mural, that he helped pay for and says he would do so again. He explained that people still have a lot of questions about the truth of the war, that should be explored in a scientific conference. And about that march at the mosque:

  • ŽARKO KOVAČEVIĆ:

    As I found out later, those were underage boys. Few of them over 18. And there were no more than 150 of them. If someone thinks something bad actually happened, he has a right to take it to the country's prosecutor in Sarajevo. But believe me, it also got publicity it shouldn't have.

  • Kira Kay:

    There are some Prijedor residents trying to reduce tensions, including Branko Ćulibrk, who took me on a tour of his home town.

    He showed me the war memorial to fallen Serb soldiers, with his own father's name on the wall.

  • Branko Ćulibrk:

    In a way, I feel responsible for everything that I and others live now. And what will happen in the future has a connection to the past.

  • Kira Kay:

    Ćulibrk runs a program that is trying to build bonds between young people from different communities, and help them understand that history here does already have an established – and shared – truth. He takes them on tours of significant war locations, and introduces them to survivors.

  • Branko Ćulibrk:

    It is very important to talk to young people at such locations and think critically. Most of them don't know that in this city, where more than 3000 people died, there is not a single monument dedicated to those people. But in most of the places and institutions we have memorials dedicated to fallen soldiers of the Republika Srpska army, with the aim to defend national interests. By offering that perspective, we give them space to raise questions for themselves and to not allow themselves to be dragged into the political manipulation that we live every day.

  • Kira Kay:

    There is a new genocide-denial law here, created by Bosnia's high representative, a European official that still oversees the peace. But it has enflamed rather than calmed tensions and allegedly made Dodik begin his secessionist threats. He called the law a "nail in the coffin for Bosnia."

    Snježana Novaković-Bursać is a parliamentarian representing Dodik's party. She recently introduced a re-written version of that genocide law, calling the original discriminatory.

  • Snježana Novaković-Bursać:

    Our proposed law was intended to regulate the abuse of the term genocide because the term is used so broadly that it is devalued, and also it is very often used from the highest political offices to discredit the Republika Srpska and one ethnic group. But my colleagues did not understand that, so my bill was not adopted.

  • Kira Kay:

    She says the current law is just another example of the international community eroding Republika Srpska's rights given to them by the Dayton peace agreement, leading it to push for its own, independent institutions.

  • Kira Kay:

    The High Representative has said that by creating a separate judiciary council, taxation system, army, that that is equal to secession.

  • Snježana Novaković-Bursać:

    It is not equal to secession. These combined state institutions were created under the name of better functionality and understanding but instead brought us into conflict and non-functionality. Even if we once agreed on something, we still have a right to withdraw again.

  • Omer Redžić:

    It is sad that in the 21st century such a law needed to be imposed.

  • Kira Kay:

    Imam Redžić is grateful for the genocide-denial law, but he does worry about its impact.

  • Omer Redžić:

    Bosniaks have already felt what it's like when somebody wants to secede. And we know how it ended. I'm afraid that a new wish for such things won't be good, not only for Bosnia and Herzegovina but for the whole continent.

  • Kira Kay:

    There are signs that the international community is waking up to Bosnia's deepening crisis. diplomatic efforts have increased and the U.S. has sanctioned Dodik individually, for destabilizing and corrupt activities.

    And the European stabilization force that has been in Bosnia since nato pulled out in 2004 has doubled its troop presence – announced on the same day Russia invaded Ukraine, a few hundred miles away.

    That war is further increasing concerns here. Russia has a close economic and political relationship with Republika Srpska, and Russia's ambassador to Bosnia has just threatened the country with the, quote, Ukraine example, if it seeks to join nato.

    For now, Bosnia celebrates its 30 years of independence, while waiting and watching for what comes next.

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