To the place I love

It started on my birthday. I’d just turned eleven and, on 8 February 1984, I was probably more interested in presents and cake than in the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics. Within a few days though, Sarajevo was on the family map and we were glued to the bobsleigh, the slalom and, best of all, the ice dancing. Despite sporting prejudices ingrained at an early age along the recalcitrant border of Northern Ireland, we were captivated by two English skaters. Torvill and Dean were magical. Their rather risqué take on Ravel’s Boléro mesmerised audiences – live in Zetra Hall and across the planet. It even reached a houseful of kids watching in Technicolor (our geriatric black-and-white TV had finally been replaced) in the wilds of South Armagh.

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We hadn’t a clue about what might constitute artistic impression but, for one rare occasion, we hoped the Brits would win! Willing the purple-clad pair of them on, we awarded them 6.0 scores from the instant the rink swelled with music until the tumbling climax. The judges endorsed our opinion. The BBC commentators almost exploded with patriotic pride – grating to Irish ears but, in retrospect, understandable. Boléro wasn’t your average chart hit but it featured on Top of the Pops. While, like many’s the schoolgirl, I had a crush on Christopher Dean. It didn’t last too long though. And, ten years later, I’d realise he’d never been my type. But Sarajevo lingered in my memories. Yet little did I know that a teenager who was then helping out with the biathlon would become my partner through the lutzes and twizzles of life.

After only another two Olympiads, the spectators of the world gazed again at Sarajevo. Astounded… but this time not by skating expertise. Instead, viewers were shocked at the horror wreaked on the city by those determined to destroy it. For three and a half years, humanity’s suffering was synecdoche, Sarajevo. But, through the longest siege of modern military history, Bosnia’s capital didn’t surrender. Even when 68 of its citizens were killed in a brutal attack on its central marketplace on 5 February 1994. Despite the dithering of the international community, which added further fuel to the war. The deal that eventually halted this bloody conflict was hammered out in Dayton, Ohio, in November 1995. It was met, initially at least, with relief among Bosnian people. For my ex-Olympic-volunteer and I, it meant tears and kisses. The war was over, that was all that mattered.

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However, the structures created by this agreement were never uncontroversial and these have since hampered Bosnia’s peace-time progress. Tensions between the country’s two Dayton-drawn entities (the ‘Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina’ and ‘Republika Srpska’), lack of co-ordination among the cantons of the Federation, reams of bureaucracy and ubiqutious corruption have brewed dysfunction. Though this seems to be to politicians’ tastes… It ensures that the ‘ethnic card’ can be played to secure election and block essential parliamentary business. From the perspective of citizens, as oft reiterated by family and friends, politics in Bosnia is an expensive farce. Its chief posts rotate within an elite all-boys’ club, which likes to engage in well-paid games of (six or seven) musical chairs.

Meanwhile Bosnia is stuck in a political and economic quagmire. The government, irrespective of which parties are in power, is chronically unwilling to agree on legislation. Even when this relates to fundamental matters such as the issuing of identity numbers to new-borns. The impact of this quarrel on children’s health was a catalyst for demonstrations in Sarajevo and other Bosnian cities in June 2013. For a month, the peaceful and multi-ethnic protests of this ‘Babylution’ raised hopes. Though, within weeks, momentum dwindled. Was it because of politicisation, or that a souped-up version of the necessary law was drafted, or did those involved simply run out of steam? Analysts can ruminate over the reasons. But prolonged demonstrations are difficult to sustain and, considering the financial pressures and the risk of intimidation faced by people in Bosnia, it wasn’t surprising that this movement for change fizzled into coffee and ‘šta ćeš’… back to paralysis.

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Still, although last summer’s events wrought few ‘achievements’, they were a baby-step in a positive direction. Bringing thousands of people together for a common cause set an important precedent. Protests are nothing new to Bosnia – over recent years, groups of farmers, redundant employees, war invalids and others have held demonstrations and camped outside public institutions calling for their rights to be respected. They’ve never got much hearing from the powerful. The protests in June were, at least, more prominent. And, since then, dissatisfaction has only grown. On Wednesday, 5 February, it flared up again in the industrial city of Tuzla, when workers who’d lost their jobs due to the privatisation of state-run companies, took their grievances to the local authorities. A heavy-handed police response stoked citizens’ ire. By Thursday, larger protests had spread to Sarajevo and beyond. The next day there were demonstrations in most major cities – mainly in the Federation entity but a gathering in Banja Luka, the administrative centre of Republika Sprska sent a message of solidarity across the boundaries of ‘ethnicity’.

But now there were no cute babies with symbolic soothers smiling at the cameras. Instead the protests on Friday were charged with a Swiftian sense of ‘savage indignation’. Confronted by riot-ready police, some participants turned to violence. Government buildings and the premises of political parties were burned in Sarajevo, Tuzla and Mostar. Part of the National Archive was housed in a gutted section of the Presidency in Sarajevo and, though the damage to records is still being assessed, documents of historical value may have been reduced to ash. Stories of this apparent loss aroused the concern of the international media. Threats to cultural treasures, from Timbuktu to Damascus, tend to garner such laments while human strife is often less bemoaned. Nevertheless, scenes of Bosnia ablaze, broadcast on the main Irish news (all 20 seconds of coverage) revived old nightmares.

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Graffiti, government building, Tuzla: Stop nationalism, stop the national division of the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), united BiH

Naturally, political leaders in Bosnia seized on these acts of arson as a convenient means of undermining the protests – condemning those responsible as ‘hooligans’ and worse. But what outsider can judge the disenfranchised youth of a post-war generation whose future has been eroded by a self-serving ruling class? While last Friday’s rioting was regrettable, it can’t diminish the huge social injustice behind this latest, and predominantly non-violent, wave of discontent. Nor should it divert attention from the thuggery of politicians who crowds across Bosnia openly label ‘thieves’.

Subsequent daily demonstrations have been peaceful. Citizens in several cities have organised public meetings and compiled demands addressed to their political representatives. Some officials have resigned – although it remains to be seen whether this will lead to genuine reform. Nationalistic rumbles could splinter the fragile unity evident in these popular manifestations. Disillusionment and the practical strain of maintaining what might be a fruitless effort could stifle the protests. As a foreigner, it’s not for me to speculate. Yet the reports emanating from Bosnia, even the sketchy accounts in the Western press, can’t be ignored by anyone with a connection to that country.

Protest poster: We are hungry in three languages (Bosnian, Croatian, Serbian)

On the internet, I’ve been looking at people thronging through Sarajevo, reading placards which express what voices there have said for years. Views we heard and shared when we lived in the city over a decade ago, declared on streets I know well. Streets I walked down to the school where I worked as an English teacher or pushing my eldest daughter in her buggy to see her grandparents. She’s probably the only Bosnian-Irish kid who’s ever made a snow-dog in the grounds of the cantonal buildings… without a permit. Just as, now, I’ve got scarce licence to toss my tuppence worth into the blizzard of comment on current developments that’s been blowing in from afar. All I’ll say is the austerity we’re still struggling with in Ireland bears no comparison to the hardship endured by so many in Bosnia.

This is a short and bitter month. But, maybe because I was born in it, I find it a kind of watershed. A time when snowdrops and crocuses battle into bloom, the beginning of the ancient Celtic spring… A season of change – as a metaphor it’s being married by hashtag to ‘Bosnian’. History will decide if this link is premature. Its annals for Bosnia already attach significance to February: from Sarajevo’s agony of twenty years past, to Olympian moments which still rank among that city’s finest. Torvill and Dean returned there this week for an anniversary performance in a stadium rebuilt after its destruction in the war. World focus has done a strange figure of eight as Sarajevo reclaims a brief spot in the news. Now the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina deserve to emerge as winners. Though the ice they skate on is thin and the results are far from certain. Like on Valentine’s Day in 1984, I’m here in distant Ireland, watching Sarajevo. Half hopeful and yet anxious… Wishing something good may come out of what’s happening in Bosnia, the country of my beloved.

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The second of my three daughters decided to make her own poster – an eleven-year-old’s message!

This post was published in Balkanist magazine on 16 February 2014, please see: http://www.balkanist.net/to-the-place-i-love/

It also appeared in Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 28 February 2014

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When Ireland met Bosnia…

It’s not every day that starts with a text from a friend saying: ‘the minister wants to know if we can meet him’. Or words to that effect… I had to read the message a couple of times to believe it was indeed an invitation! So how, in the name of whoever-you-fancy, did three plebs end up in Government Buildings on Tuesday 28 January? Well, it transpired that the Irish Minister for European Affairs, Paschal Donohoe, had scheduled an official visit to Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Thursday of that week. Before his departure, he was seeking some perspectives on the current situation there – hence his contact with us.

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This in itself was a small victory for activism. Over the last year, my husband and I have been in frequent correspondence with Minister Donohoe and other Irish politicians on themes relating to Bosnia. While our friend, who sent the text, has done so much lobbying, awareness raising and protesting in the rain for Bosnia since 1992 she deserves to have a street called after her in Sarajevo. And that’s not even to mention the hands-on support and understanding ear she’s offered Bosnians in Ireland. Or the fact that she’s been equally active on issues pertaining to Kosovo. Or that she now devotes almost every waking hour to the Syrian crisis…

Anyhow, the three of us met on a mizzly Merrion Street, a bit nervous but not over-awed by the occasion. Not until we got inside the palatial hub of Ireland’s administration. Being unused to the corridors of power, I must confess there were murmurs such as: ‘wow, the stained glass window!’ ‘ooh… nice soft carpets!’ and, directed at our Bosnian aficionado of national artwork, ‘nemoj dirati slike!’ However, as we waited for the minister, we were struck by stark reminders of Bosnia’s multitude of problems. Glancing at our phones, our Twitter feeds filled with reports from earlier that morning about the joint appearance of Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladić at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. The latter’s refusal to co-operate with what he called a ‘satanic court’ highlighted the resistance of those indicted for war crimes to any concept of atonement. It showed how far the victims of atrocities are from justice – how far Bosnia and the wider Balkan region has yet to travel on the road towards genuine reconciliation. Reading these headlines was all the more chilling on the day after the annual commemoration of the Holocaust.

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The legacy of war still throttles Bosnia. In our discussion with Minister Donohoe, we illustrated aspects of its impact. Ranging from the country’s constitution (Annex 4 of the Dayton Peace Agreement of 1995), to the political structures this has created, to the attempts of certain leaders to destabilise the state by consolidating power bases within its separate entities – Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. We talked about how the consequent lack of normal functioning affects ordinary life. About a society in which politicians won’t agree on basic measures to protect human rights, never mind tackle the economic difficulties which have led to widespread unemployment and poverty. Instead, they seem more interested in institutionalising division, for example, by segregation in the education system. Discrimination and skewed versions of history aren’t confined to schools, they percolate through public affairs. Genocide denial by prominent officials in Republika Srpska continues to cause serious offence. The fate of over 100,000 people who remain internally displaced due to ‘ethnic cleansing’ is unresolved. Past trauma lingers in a country with almost 8000 missing persons and thousands more still suffering from the physical and psychological wounds of war. Meanwhile, although flashy new buildings can be seen in Sarajevo and other cities, Bosnia’s present condition is best described as one of stasis.

Inertia seems the default mode of its governing elite. Stagnation serves to benefit a top tier of politicians who are well remunerated for constant bickering. But the role of the international community, which has supervised an uneasy peace for over eighteen years, must also be queried. Can these privileged players offer the Bosnian people any hope for the future? Or will they allow Bosnia and Herzegovina to backslide as surrounding countries progress? During the last decade, several Balkan nations have already become part of the European Union. Admittedly, EU membership won’t cure the region’s ills. Nevertheless, it’s the sort of club that when one’s neighbours start to join, it’s prudent to try to keep up with the Joneses. Following the accession of Slovenia in 2004 and Croatia in 2013, European integration has emerged as a key policy goal across the states that once formed Yugoslavia. However, some are making a lot more headway than others. While Serbia, Montenegro and Kosovo edge forward, Macedonia and, above all, Bosnia lag behind. Our meeting with Minister Donohoe focused, therefore, on the question: how can Ireland support Bosnia’s EU aspirations?

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The EU has many reasons, legitimate but possibly also convenient, to regard Bosnia and Herzegovina’s prospects as bleak. The country is yet to fulfil the criteria necessary for its Stabilisation and Association Agreement (signed in 2008 as an initial step towards membership) to come into force. The chief condition is the implementation of a judgement handed down in 2009 by the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR). This concerns the case of Sejdić and Finci – representatives of Bosnia’s Roma and Jewish communities respectively – in which the ECHR vindicated the right of minorities to full participation in Bosnian politics. It requires the removal of restrictions which ensure that positions in Bosnia’s three-person presidency and one of its two chambers of parliament (the ‘House of Peoples’) are limited to those who belong to the state’s ‘constituent peoples’ – namely and exclusively Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats. Four years have since passed, but Bosnia hasn’t adopted the ECHR’s ruling despite countless rounds of EU-brokered negotiations. Stalemate on this issue has caused the country’s EU accession process to stall indefinitely. This means that, while a clique of high-ranking politicians and international stakeholders engage in what appears to be an interminable circus, citizens face further isolation. And this case is only one of numerous sources of disagreement among political parties in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

More than other EU members, Ireland can empathise with the frustration felt by the majority of the Bosnian population. The failure of the Haass talks to reach consensus on sensitive topics in Northern Ireland is analogous in ways to the ‘Sejdić-Finci’ saga. Intransigence tends to win out over any will to compromise in post-conflict ‘democracies’. As we in Ireland know, ethnically oriented voting patterns often prevail in divided societies where fear is a crucial factor in electoral choices. And if votes are cast essentially on the basis of ethnicity, there’s little onus on politicians to consider people’s needs. Campaigns can succeed simply by ramping up tension. Plus the social clout of political figures in Bosnia facilitates corruption and heightens the risk of voter manipulation. Bosnia and Herzegovina thus presents a more complex scenario than most of the other EU candidate states. It demands thinking outside the clichéd box.

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Or so we tried to tell Minister Donohoe. I’m not sure how well we explained things… none of us are politicians! We just spoke from experience, from the heart, as articulately as we could. However, we were encouraged by the minister’s interest in Bosnia and how he viewed his visit as not merely a bureaucratic obligation. This was also apparent two days later, both in the lecture he gave at the School of Economics and Business of the University of Sarajevo and in media coverage of his high-level political engagements. His repeated expression of Ireland’s support for Bosnia was certainly to be welcomed. Although the Irish government must prove this fresh commitment by advocating innovative approaches and working, along with its EU partners and Bosnia, to find sustainable solutions. Expecting Bosnian leaders to be cajoled into bridging differences by a smidgen of Irish charm is a tad optimistic. Granted, outstanding obstacles – like the Sejdić-Finci impasse – provide the EU with a plethora of excuses for inaction. But the international community can no longer sit on the side-lines and let Bosnia languish. And Ireland should be more than the country’s occasional cheerleader. Given how much the Irish people, whatever their gripes, have gained from EU membership – a point Minister Donohoe stressed in Sarajevo – Ireland has a responsibility to use its European voice on behalf of another peripheral state with a similarly fraught history.

It’s worth remembering too that Ireland can attribute its EU status to the laxer entry requirements of times past. In 1973, Ireland and Britain were accepted as members of the EEC when both nations were embroiled in bitter conflict – their applications were approved during the bloodiest period of the Northern Ireland ‘Troubles’. We could also ask whether Ireland’s penchant for corruption would’ve deemed it ineligible for EU integration if it’d been assessed in line with modern standards. And did new ‘European’ credentials suddenly eradicate the Irish culture of ‘brown envelopes’? Furthermore, would the ECHR rate Ireland’s record as impeccable, when it has taken the court’s intervention to force this country to address many fundamental issues? These range from the decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1993 (five years after an ECHR decision in favour of gay rights activist, Senator David Norris) to last week’s ruling that the Irish state was liable in a case of child abuse which occurred in a primary school in the 1970s. It appears that existing EU members are better at preaching than practicing the ‘values’ they insist budding candidates should share.

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Yet the EU is what qualifies politically as ‘Europe’. Not the ragged-edged continent with an eastern boundary running from the Urals to the Bosphorus. Sometimes – when it suits –geography welds the arbitrary crack between countries of the ‘Union’ and their cousins on the wild side of the European family. In a centenary year, for instance, when former imperial powers want to rhapsodise or analyse their involvement in a war which engulfed the world. A war triggered by an assassination in Sarajevo. Undoubtedly, many dignitaries will descend upon the city in the months ahead. It may host premiers, presidents… perhaps even a pope. The Vienna Philharmonic has confirmed a concert in June and – here I’m rumour-mongering – might U2 make a comeback? Surely Bono knows that Sarajevo is much more fun than Davos!

With or without the Irish band, the anniversary of the beginning of World War I is already being billed as an unmissable event. It seems the mighty prefer to mourn the dead of 100 years ago than to stop the slaughter in Syria today or respond to the fallout of war in still-scarred countries like Bosnia. But returning to Franz Ferdinand, the Archduke whose demise had such tragic repercussions across Europe… Maybe one way of marking the significance of Sarajevo in 1914 would be to ask how the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina can be accorded their rightful place within an inclusive European Union. We hope that Ireland, which through the last century has felt the birth pangs then the growing pains of statehood and gone on to establish a unique EU niche, can lend them real support.

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This post was published in the Bosnian weekly Novo Vrijeme on 14 February 2014, available online at: 

http://novovrijeme.ba/when-ireland-met-bosnia/