SREBRENICA, BOSNIA, June 2008
Thirteen years after the end of its civil war, Bosnia Hercegovena is taking its first step (June 16th 2008) towards joining the European Union – by signing what is known as a stability and association agreement. It may well be another decade before Bosnia actually joins the EU – which sets up stringent economic and democratic benchmarks that countries have to meet before joining. As Humphrey Hawksley reports, though, the work to turn Bosnia from a land of genocidal conflict to a modern European nation is dogged, detailed and takes years – and it could be a blue-print for other failed states.
“We must show them we’re working together,” announced the police chief of Srebrenica, striding into the mayoral office without knocking.
“But it’s a lie,” retorted the deputy mayor Ramo Dautbasic. “Because we don’t.”
“We will,” said the police chief, sitting in an arm chair across from the coffee table, as my interpreter whispered a translation of what they said.
The police chief, Zelko Vidovic, is a stocky, tough, Serb, with a shock of grey hair, dressed in a neatly pressed blue summer uniform, his eyes darting around the unfamiliar room. The deputy mayor, Ramo Dautbasic, is a local Muslim from Srebrenica itself. He wore a dark, crumpled jacket, hair cropped to the skull, his face a mix of anger and frustration.
He’d just been telling us how, in Srebrenica in July 1995, he helped six members of his family escape Europe’s worst genocidal massacre since the Second World War – by hiding and walking for six days, keeping mainly to woodland, until they reached safety. His father, though, failed to escape and became one of the thousands of Muslim men and boys who were murdered by Serb militias. He’d been showing us his father’s photograph, which now lay on the table amid a pile of city hall documents.
Police Chief Vidovic had nothing to do with the massacre itself. “I was fleeing from another army at the time,” he said dismissively with the wave of a hand.
The tension in the room was edgy and suffocating. It didn’t take much imagination to visualise how a few year ago these two men – instead of arguing – could simply have tried to kill each other.
Dautbasic began a string of complaints with an accusation that three years ago Serb extremists tried to blow up the memorial built for victims of the massacre.
“You found explosives, he said. “But why have you closed the investigation when no-one’s been arrested. Are you covering up a war crime?”
Vidovic shook his head. “We only have normal crimes in Srebrenica,” he countered. “There are no ethnic crimes and we’re working closely together on it.”
“That’s not true,” snapped Dautbasic, drawing out document from a folder. “And what about this. We have two vehicles given to us by the Turkish government and you’ve only registered one. Why can’t you register the other one?”
A sharp exchange followed, until I interrupted. “Hold on. How often to do you two guys actually meet, because you’re meant to running the town together….aren’t you.”
It turned out they rarely did meet.
The view from the hills overlooking the Bosnian capital Sarejevo is one of church towers, mosque minarets and a fair number of cemeteries. Some moments you can hear the call to prayer mingling with the sound of church bells because for centuries this country was both melting pot and frontier between the Islamic east and Christian Europe.
It was also the starting point of two wars last century, the 1990s civil war and in 1914 the First World War – with the assassination there of the Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Serb nationalists.
Bosnia could now become a blueprint for what is known in diplomatic terms as ‘state-building.’
The country of about four million is self-governing, but the ultimate authority still lies with an internationally-appointed High Representative, who has enormous powers. He can fire politicians and order in troops.
At present, the job’s done by a Slovakian diplomat, Miroslav Lajèák, who believes the days of ethnic-massacres are over, and that by far the majority of Bosnians are determined now to join the European Union – although that could be another ten years away.
“Would it be possible to rebuild Bosnia if there was no goal of European Union membership,” I asked. “Do you need that beacon?”
“Oh sure,” he said. “To face the challenges, there must be a vision and the only possible vision for Bosnia is the European Union.”
From the coffee shops to the new skyscrapers of Sarejevo, the EU vision is everywhere, but it’s barely begun to seep through to more out of the way places like Srebrenica.
In the town hall, as the bickering between the police chief and the deputy mayor reached full flow, I asked what each could do to make the other’s job easier.
“He needs to implement the decisions of the city council,” said Dautbasic, jabbing his finger across the table. “And he doesn’t”
“May-be we should meet more often,” continued Dautbasic.
“May-be we should,” retorted the Serb police chief, getting up. He shook hands with each of us, then offered his hand to the Muslim deputy mayor, who deliberately didn’t respond. His eyes were locked on the documents and the picture of his murdered father.
For a few unpredictable seconds, no-one spoke. Then Dautbasic turned and took the police chief’s hand, his expression reflecting the huge and complex personal decision that he had just taken – one that will be replicated time and time again throughout Bosnia as it moulds itself into a modern European nation.