Watching Belfast riot… in Bosnia

The first time I visited Sarajevo was in July 1996, shortly after the end of the war in Bosnia. Even the journey there was quite an adventure. A charter flight from Dublin to Split, packed with Bosnians who’d been displaced during the conflict. From Croatia, we travelled onwards by bus – a rickety old vehicle about the same age as me (then twenty-three). We wound our way between the moon-crested mountains of Herzegovina, crossing the River Neretva over a dodgy pontoon. Dawn broke through ruined farmhouses as we neared the city. Gutted factories and shell-struck suburbs welcomed us. Approaching the centre, it seemed that every trace of civilisation had been smitten by destruction. The rebuilding of lives from the rubble had only begun.


We spent a month there. For me, it was both a privilege and an eye-opener. As well as a chance to meet my future in-laws… Though I’m not sure if my grunge-chic arrival, around seven o’clock in the morning, made an ideal impression! I’ve since discovered much about Bosnian etiquette and customs. But one of the things I noticed, right from those early days, was the constant talk of family. In Ireland, initial conversations tend towards less personal themes. The notorious Irish weather offers an ample source of banter. Chatting was a little different in Sarajevo. Questions about my folks served as ice-breakers. And, as history would have it, their fate soon became a matter of international concern. Watching the evening news on Bosnian TV, I could understand why. The main reports were of violence in Belfast. Protestors hurling petrol bombs, police in riot gear. It all looked pretty scary… even if I didn’t seem too worried. Afterwards, I was advised to phone my parents. When I got through, my mother was blasé about the media role-reversal of Northern Ireland making headlines in Bosnia.

Belfast 2

The coverage showed a summer ritual in the pocket of the world where I was raised. Not one shared by everybody, like a day at the beach or ice-cream, but typical nonetheless. Because, for some, July marked the height of the ‘marching season’. A mid-year spate of parades that were always more controversial than carnivalesque. My parents were unaffected – the marchers didn’t come from ‘our’ area. ‘They’ belonged to other villages, parts of counties, halves of towns. Places where the kerbstones were painted red, white and blue… with matching floral displays in the better-kept hamlets. Streets down which the Union Jack was flown. Wherever a majority of the population identified itself as Unionist/Loyalist/Protestant. Or some combination of those labels. ‘Our’ pavements were edged with green, white and a shade of tangerine that passed as gold. Telegraph poles sported the Irish tricolour. At the time of the Falklands war, you might also have seen the odd Argentinian flag. Perverse support for Galtieri’s junta… such was the local knowledge of South America. The allegiances of the Nationalist/Republican/Catholic ‘community’ were, indeed, eclectic. The Palestinians were viewed as ‘our’ brothers-in-arms. While ‘thon crowd’ held pro-Israeli sentiments. And the stereotypes went on…

Palestine 2

Unfortunately, they still do. Sectarian narratives persist. In Sarajevo, this summer, we read in the Bosnian newspapers of riots flaring again in Belfast. They’re now a traditional fringe to the ‘glorious’ Twelfth of July, anniversary of the Battle of the Boyne. Needless to say, opinions vary as to whether it’s worth commemorating the victory of the Dutch (Protestant) William of Orange over the English (Catholic) James II along the banks of an Irish river in 1690. Especially as the marches held in King Billy’s honour often encroach onto hostile territory. Since the Good Friday peace agreement of 1995, bodies have been established to reduce the resulting tension. However, despite the efforts of the Parades Commission to negotiate between the Orange Order (the bowler-hatted, sash-clad eminences of Unionism) and the none-too-enamoured residents of Nationalist districts intersected by the march-routes, trouble isn’t always averted. Add a fair amount of social discontent – a lot of the ‘flashpoints’ are areas of significant disadvantage – and you’ve got a cocktail of flammable factors. And, once more, it has exploded. A glitch in the reconciliation process is clear from recent disturbances relating both to parades and to a bitter row over flag-flying. So serious that US diplomat Richard Haass arrived in Belfast last week to chair new talks on these specific issues and on the underlying question of dealing with ‘the past’.

Orange parades 2013

If Dr. Haass is successful in his attempts to achieve consensus, perhaps he should head to Bosnia. Each year, when we go to Sarajevo, I end up saying, ‘this place is getting more like Northern Ireland’. Polarisation seems to be gnawing away at diversity. It’s not surprising, given the intensity and brutality of the war. Yet, although Bosnia’s problems might be trickier than those besetting the north-east corner of the ‘island of Ireland’, there are many similarities between these post-conflict situations. One is that identification with a particular ‘ethnicity’ is almost a prerequisite for inclusion in society. The politicisation of the upcoming census in Bosnia and Herzegovina demonstrates how populations can consequently be manipulated. Increased division among the country’s ‘three constituent peoples’ (Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks) and scant recognition of ‘others’ (members of minorities and those who opt for geographically rather than ethnically oriented identifiers), appear its likely outcomes. While Northern Ireland may have slightly mellowed in this regard – the 2011 census showed a rise in the number of individuals defining themselves as ‘Northern Irish’ as opposed to solely ‘British’ or ‘Irish’ – the entrenched sense of attachment to either of the region’s two exclusive camps remains strong.

                        Herzegovina sign 3Derry sign 2

On an everyday level, attitudes and their (sometimes bizarre) expression are also comparable. From the spray-painters of Herzegovina who obliterate Cyrillic place-names on dual alphabet signage to those of the ‘six counties’ who religiously score out ‘London’ along all roads leading to ‘Derry’. Or those Balkan/Ulster pejoratives that can, in jest, be used self-reflexively. In our house, they get bandied about a good bit. The ‘Chetniks’ of Belfast’s Shankill meet the ‘Ustashe’ of the Falls, according to a ‘Balija’ who knows his ‘Taigs’ and ‘Prods’. Black humour twists insults… but who can take the in-joke? Names are coded – be they Gaelic, be they Islamic. The hints, the insinuations, that feeling of ‘whatever you say, say nothing.’ And so lives are led, treading the fault-line between ‘naš’ and ‘nije naš’ – between those who are ‘ours’ and those considered ‘not ours’. For the sake of real peace, we must try to bridge this gap.

A version of this post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 4 October 2013


One thought on “Watching Belfast riot… in Bosnia

  1. Good post, I like the build up – in your other pieces too – to the political and the peek into ordinary life, that become, in the end, a reflection of a political statement. I’ve never been to Ireland, only read about it. Certainly Bosnia & Ireland have the Troubles in common.I understand it – but I wish it were different.

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