Despair. The world is awash with it this week. Blood staining the streets of Cairo as fumes of slaughter poison Syrian children. Leaders condemn… and do nothing. We’re watching with a sense of déjà vu. That’s how it was two decades ago in Bosnia. Happening over, sparking the question, what can we do? I wish I had some answers. All I know is that – whatever the issue – indifference can be a passive way of legitimating injustice. So here I’d like to explore a few practical responses. Based on how members and friends of the Bosnian diaspora in Ireland have been raising awareness of current concerns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Ideas which could be applied to many contexts…
During the first six months of 2013, Ireland held the presidency of the European Union. As Croatia neared accession, the topic of EU enlargement was back in vogue. Attention spread to other Balkan countries which appeared to be making progress. In particular, Serbia and Kosovo were praised for their endeavours to bury old disputes, at least on paper. Meanwhile, almost unnoticed, Bosnia and Herzegovina was languishing at the bottom of the EU candidates’ league.
Bosnian and Irish activists sought to put the country back in focus. They highlighted how, eighteen years after the end of the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina still flounders. How the international community acquiesces in a political system which perpetuates division and leaves the state economically crippled. They stressed to Irish politicians that the EU, as a major player in this nexus, must act in the interest of ordinary Bosnian citizens. As a result, the situation in Bosnia was discussed in May by the Irish Parliament’s Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs. It was also raised by a member of parliament, Deputy Patrick Nulty, in a parliamentary debate later that month. He questioned Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Eamon Gilmore, about the EU’s engagement with Bosnia and Herzegovina. In reply, Minister Gilmore admitted this required a ‘comprehensive review’.
At this point, my husband and I got more personally involved. Over the years we’d always been active on matters Bosnian (as outlined in my post ‘Love in a time of protest’). Then kids arrived and the stratospheric house prices of ‘Celtic Tiger’ Ireland left us stranded far from Dublin. It was difficult to keep up with campaigns sustained by our stalwart friends. Or those were our excuses… but now they’d worn thin. We started by writing an article, examining the role of the EU with regard to Bosnia and Herzegovina. It was published in the Irish Times and generated plenty of feedback. This motivated us. E-mails to the members of the Irish parliament’s Joint Committees for both Foreign and European Affairs were our first follow-up. We appealed to these politicians to do their utmost to place Bosnia on Ireland’s European agenda during the remaining weeks of the Irish presidency. However, as we were sending these messages, news of demonstrations in Sarajevo began to emerge.
By early June, public frustration in Bosnia and Herzegovina had reached fever-pitch. It finally erupted at the government’s failure to pass the ‘JMBG law’ – essential legislation to regulate the issuing of ID numbers (see my previous post ‘Three baby girls’). The JMBG debacle meant that a seriously ill baby, Belmina Ibrišević, couldn’t get a passport in order to travel abroad for medical treatment. Outcry ensued. Mothers of small children gathered in front of the parliament building in Sarajevo to express their anger. In subsequent days, protests spread to other cities. For a fleeting moment of history and the first time en masse since the war, people of all backgrounds were galvanised by a simple demand: basic rights for their country’s youngest citizens.
As parents, we couldn’t but respond. Initially we followed threads which popped up on social media, adding to comments and images of support from across the world. On-line activism is easy in a cyberspace full of virtual Che Guevaras! Still, at 2 a.m. on a Sunday morning, making posters brought me back to the early nineties. Then, during the war, our slogan was ‘Let Bosnia Live!’ Now, we were uploading the JMBG movement’s message: ‘Svi smo mi Belmina’ / ‘We are all Belmina’. Different times… but, sadly, not much fundamental change.*
It’s one thing ‘liking’ and ‘sharing’ from the comfort of your couch, but old-fashioned solidarity is hard to beat. To coincide with large-scale demonstrations held in Sarajevo on 11 June, we organised a small protest outside the Irish parliament. It was all pretty spontaneous, but the rain cleared for an eye-catching little spectacle. Tourists and school groups were attracted by our colourful mix of placards, flags and football hats, while the sweets on offer soon disappeared. More importantly, though, it gave us a chance to speak with representatives of Ireland’s main political parties. We delivered letters – explaining latest developments in Bosnia – to the Ministers for Foreign and European Affairs and to members of the Joint Committees for these policy areas. We also had an in-depth meeting with an official from the Department of Foreign Affairs who had responsibility for matters relating to the Western Balkans during Ireland’s EU presidency.
After that, we thought we’d done our bit. However, by the next weekend, the tragedy of another sick baby filtered through the internet. Two-month-old Berina Hamidović died when her emergency transfer from Bosnia to a specialised hospital in Belgrade was delayed due to problems with documentation caused by the wrangling over the JMBG law. The death of little Berina forced us to renew our appeals to Irish politicians to use their influence, in whatever way they could, on behalf of the Bosnian people.
The visit of the international community’s High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina, Valentin Inzko, to Dublin on 25 June gave us further impetus to act. Addressing the COSAC Conference of European parliamentary committees, Mr. Inzko told a large assembly of parliamentarians from across Europe that it was necessary to ‘rethink’ policy towards Bosnia. Mr Inzko was challenged, however, by one of the Irish delegates – a member of both Joint Committees with which we had corresponded. Deputy Eric Byrne spoke for Bosnia’s ‘wonderful diaspora’ in Ireland by asking the High Representative why Bosnia and Herzegovina had been so ‘neglected’ in comparison to its Balkan neighbours. In his answer, Mr. Inzko conceded that a ‘mistake’ had been made in presuming EU ‘pull factors’ would be sufficient to persuade Bosnia’s leaders to co-operate for the common good.
Other members of the Irish parliament, Deputy Robert Troy and Deputy Maureen O’Sullivan, also responded positively to our lobbying. They questioned the Minister for Foreign Affairs about Ireland’s position regarding the JMBG crisis. In a parliamentary debate at the end of June, Minister Gilmore described the Bosnian government’s handling of this issue as ‘deplorable’ and explicitly lent his support to the citizens’ protests. He reiterated these views in early July and expressed his condolences to the family of baby Berina Hamidović.
Of course, it’d be naïve to think these statements can impact directly on the realpolitik of Bosnia and Herzegovina. A cynic would say that foreign politicians are adept at criticising their counterparts in other countries while avoiding difficulties in their own. Yet raising awareness among public representatives – even if it gleans no more than a quotable phrase or two – is surely better than nothing. During the summer, we met some people who’d been involved in the demonstrations in Sarajevo and talked to international analysts working there. We learned a lot about the plethora of complex problems plaguing Bosnia. The JMBG outrage was just the tip of an iceberg of dissatisfaction fractured by underlying tension. From a distance, we can do little except, perhaps, to inform a wider audience.
Last week we had the opportunity to meet the MEP for Dublin, Emer Costello, and to speak to her about challenges facing Bosnia and Herzegovina. Her personal interest in the country and her consideration of the matters we discussed was most encouraging. We hope she’ll convey our concerns to her colleagues in the European Parliament. Small mentions – they’re all we can contribute. Alone, they don’t change policy. But they could accumulate. So, maybe, communication is what counts. A constructive response instead of a sigh of despair… For every reaction can lead to positive action.
Read more about the Bosnian-Irish connection:
Irish Times, 3 June 2013 – Bosnia must not be left ignored on margins of EU: http://www.irishtimes.com/news/world/europe/bosnia-must-not-be-left-ignored-on-margins-of-eu-1.1414957
Radio Sarajevo, 4 June 2013 – BiH ne smije biti ostavljena na margini EU: http://www.radiosarajevo.ba/novost/114604/nocache
Sarajevo Times, 6 July 2013 – Action in Ireland for Bosnia and Herzegovina: http://www.sarajevotimes.com/action-in-ireland-for-bosnia-and-herzegovina/
* Since this post was published in August 2013, baby Belmina, whose name became a desire for change in Bosnia, has passed away. The least we can do, in her memory and that of baby Berina, is to try to keep issues relating to Bosnia and Herzegovina from falling out of international focus. In recent months, we’ve followed the action outlined here by writing further reports and letters and sending these to Irish politicians.