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EA Interview: Remembering the Bosnia War, 20 Years Later

Bosnian refugees, fleeing the enclave of Srebenica, in Tuzla in March 1993 (Photo: Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty)

With the civil war in Syria growing deadlier by the day, a look back at another conflict --- this one on the European continent and less than 20 years old --- and an interview with a woman who witnessed it:

Bosnia and Herzogovina is now an up-and-coming tourist destination, but not long ago, it was the site of a war of mass killing, rape, and ethnic cleansing. From 1992 to 1995, up to 200,000 people were killed, and hundreds of thousands wounded.

There are echoes of the war today in the work of the United Nations' International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. More than 160 defendants have been indicted, from foot soldiers to Presidents, with the intent of showing that international law can be upheld.

But beyond that quest for justice are there other understandings that can be taken from this bloodshed, applying the lessons to political situations in other unstable and ehtnically-divided regions?

The backdrop to the conflict:

1. During the Communist era after World War II, the Tito regime held together Yugoslavia’s six socialist republics of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Macedonia, Montenegro, Serbia, and Slovenia.

2. Tito died in 1980 and, over the following decade, tensions began to rise between the numerous ethnic groups in Yugoslavia. A collective system of politics failed to accommodate ethnic nationalism and calls of autonomy from Croatia, Slovenia, and Serbia.

3. Violence escalated in Slovenia and Croatia and the federation broke down in 1991 with both countries declaring independence. The Yugoslav National Army (JNA) under Serbian dominance was sent into both countries to prevent the breakup of the country. Fighting in Slovenia lasted just ten days whereas the Croatian war dragged on for another four years.

4. Meanwhile tensions grew between Croat, Serb, and Bosnian Muslim populations in Bosnia and Herzegovina. A referendum for independence was passed in 1992 but was boycotted by Serbs. who instead formed a separate republic. War erupted in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s deeply-dived society, as factions fought for territorial and ethnic dominance.

Senada Omerćió is a Bosnian Muslim. At the time of the conflict, she was raising a young family in Tuzla, a diverse city in northeast Bosnia.

Q: What was the relationship between Communism and nationalism in Tuzla before the war broke out?

A: My father was a Communist before the decline of the Soviet empire. When I was a child and asked him about engaging with the ideology, he always seemed to shun me away, instead promoting my Bosniak heritage.

This was something I found very puzzling. Tito was portrayed as a hero although links with Serbia were also prevalent. It was widely believed that, ahtough he was born in Serbia, his interests were with the Yugoslavian people rather than the Russians. Now we know that he has birth origins rooted in Slovenia and Croatian and that Tito had clear links with the Soviet Union.

Q : What was ethnicity like before the war broke out?

A: Tuzla was a mixed community. We were friends with many Croat and Serbian families --- it was like these deep rooted ethnic tensions arose overnight.

Before the war. Yugoslavia was a clear republic, and the population saw themselves as Yugoslavian first and second as a Croat, Serb, Bosnian, etc. Serbia was. however. was always portrayed as the elite ethnic group. Military service was compulsory for all citizens. yet was located in Serbia; resources were manufactured in the smaller republics with the wealth flowing solely to Serbia' and the unitary government was centred in Serbia whilst subordinating legislation to the smaller regions.

Q: After Communism fell. did you believe nationalism would take hold throughout Yugoslavia?

A: I noticed that the republics all wanted separate presidents. but they still confided within the same unitary government. Politics was so corrupt that the majority of the population had no real influence; everything seemed to occur behind closed doors. I believe ethnic tensions were manipulated by the politicians; there was never any real hatred.

During the Croatian war, Serbian-led JNA convoys going to the front were met with riots when passing through Tuzla. It was obvious Bosnia was not exempt from the bloodshed. By the time the war spread to Bosnia, the country was left with little choice we could either become part of greater Serbia or try and declare independence.

Q: When the Bosnian war broke out, did you identify with a certain side?

A: The war became confusing very quickly. My father was an artillery commander in the 21st Srebrehićka Brigada fighting for Bosnian-Herzegovina. He was given orders from above that he disagreed with, yet carried them out because it was his job and duty. Militia groups such as the Green Berets also started to form and claimed they were protecting the people; yet in reality, they stood for personal gain and looting.

I became discontented with the war because it was no longer about territorial gain. People did not know what they were fighting for and soldiers began to take advantage of their responsibility amidst the lack of law and order.

Q: How did you live during the war?

A: We lived in the cellars on little food and were always listening out for shells landing in our neighbourhood. My family always kept an eye on one another and I remember that. when our street was bombarded. an explosive almost killed my son while he was sleeping. When a Serbian friend sought shelter with us he was seen as a traitor among his peers and threated with death. Perhaps this intense fear provided the environment for people to turn on their neighbours so quickly.

Tuzla is situated in the middle of a valley with combatants firing missiles from either side of the city from the mountains. My father often came to Tuzla during the night after firing shells over the city during the day with us in the middle. We were waiting for the worst to happen, whereby soldiers would storm the many communities of the city and commit atrocities against civilians.

Q: How did you manage to get out?

A: My husband worked in the supply corps and he managed to smuggle us out of Bosnia in 1993 using military transport. We flew to Italy on a transportation plane sitting alongside a tank, and when we landed were sent to a Red Cross refugee camp. We did not know where we were going, and even when we were at the refugee camp, did not know the intentions of the personnel or even our location because no one spoke our language. I found it strange that my children were allowed as much food as they wanted as this was not the case in Bosnia; similarly, I saw pictures previous refugees had drawn, yet I did not where they were. I feared the worse.

From the refugee camp we were taken on a private plane with other families to Birmingham Airport [in Britain]. When I saw a number of ambulances approach the plane after landing, I knew we were safe, although I was astonished that they went to different hospitals. The operation was conducted by the acclaimed Sally Becker, who is also known as The Angel of Mostar due to her tremendous charity efforts during the war.

It took the hospital a couple of days to find a translator. and we finally understood where we were and how we got there. My children still shuddered when they heard the ambulance sirens thinking it was an incoming attack.

Q: What did you think of the UN during the war?

A: Originally we welcomed the Blue Berets, although we were quick to notice that they did nothing while mass killings and war atrocities were going on around them. They subsequently left and returned in the same fashion and over time we lost faith in them.

By the time of the NATO mission it was too late for redemption, and the war had already chewed out the lion’s share of the country. In many ways. they made the war even more confusing as they had no clear intentions from my perspective.

International tribunals are a move in the right direction because former Yugoslavia does not have the capacity to undertake such a tremendous task. They do however take time and I find it hard to believe that many of those accused take the process seriously.

Q: What are your reflections on the war and would you return to Bosnia?

A: I see my life here now. I still maintain my Muslim traditions and heritage, but because I believe humans need to integrate beyond ethnic identity and culture. I myself attend Christian church weekly. I believe that if I did return to Bosnia too much would have changed --- I still view myself as a Yugoslavian but the culture in Bosnia now represents something entirely different and to a certain extent embodies embarrassment.

Despite what has happened the Balkan region remain corrupt and the minority status of the Bosniak people has not improved. Money continues to flow into the hands of wealthy Serbians within poorer regions of Bosnia-Herzegovina, although more covertly now.

I hope that the world learns from the conflict that we need to work together and not dwell on what divides us.

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