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The Arson Might Have Stopped, But Bosnians Still Want Change

Protesters are out every day on the streets of Sarajevo.

by Jack Davies
13 February 2014, 7:00am

Government buildings were torched during last weekend's violent unrest. Despite now being empty, they remain a focus for protesters' anger.

Sarajevo is a tinderbox waiting for a spark. The crowd may have calmed considerably since the explosions of anger last Friday and Saturday, but Bosnia is no less a country on the brink of revolution.

Eighteen-year-old activist Max has been truanting from school since the protests began last week to join his countrymen on the street. He told me, “We are peaceful now, but it will not last. I am a calm person, but I am already frustrated. If demands don't begin to be met within the next few days, we will not stay peaceful.”

The activist isn’t really called Max. For his safety we agreed it was better that I didn’t know his real name. In fact, the majority of people I’ve spoken to have done so on the condition that I didn't take their name. This is because, as Max put it, “Bosnia is now a police state.”

At every protest I’ve attended so far there have been at least a dozen plain clothes police mingling with the crowd, listening in and reporting what they hear to the armour-clad special forces cops lurking around the edge of every demonstration.

There was a heavy police presence at Sunday's protests, with authorities fearing a repeat of the previous two days' carnage.

On Tuesday night, I witnessed a group of special forces police threatening Kristian, a young local man. I spoke to him afterwards, and he told me how the police grabbed him by the back of his neck and told him: “We are going to arrest you tonight. You should leave now. You have no reason to be here.”

When I confronted the officers about the incident, they first denied the conversation took place, then changed their statement to say that Kristian had reported the content of the conversation incorrectly. But they then refused to comment on what the content of the conversation actually was. I asked if they were calling him a liar; no comment. I asked to speak to the officer in charge; he wasn’t there. In that case, on whose orders were they intimidating him? No comment.

The protesters are afraid of the police, and rightly so; on Sunday afternoon, protesters arrested during Friday and Saturday’s violence were released from custody to a crowd of over 1,000 people who had spent the day noisily demanding their freedom. Most of those set free were only teenagers. One of the youngest, a 15-year-old boy, took centre stage in the crowd. Surrounded by photographers and news cameras, he removed his shirt to reveal fresh bruises on his back, which he claimed were inflicted on him during his time in jail.

Everyone I’ve spoken to who's been taken into custody has reported physical abuse during their time inside. Many have also claimed they were denied access to legal counsel. But speaking to members of the crowd, it's not just those involved in Friday and Saturday’s violence who have something to fear. Many protesters have spoken of comrades’ homes being raided in the middle of the night, and the stories usually involve similar beatings in custody.

It wasn’t clear what intelligence the police were acting on in these raids until Prime Minister Nerman Niksic came on TV at the beginning of the week. He warned that the police and interior ministry have begun trawling through photos taken during the protests and matching them against social media profiles.

On Sunday, when this photo was taken, this woman's son was in prison after being arrested during the protests.

It’s for this reason that protesters are reluctant to be photographed by the press. One person who was happy to be photographed, however, was 62-year-old Mubea Campara. Her monthly pension is €160 (£130), which she can’t survive on. But she’s not demonstrating because of that. “I don’t care if they find me," she said. "I’ve been in the front row of the protests every day, and they can do what they want to me. This is a question of the future, and I’ll be here until there are real changes.”

Mubea has a 15-year-old grandson, and she doesn't want him to grow up in a country where “politicians steal from the people through institutions of government". She continued: "It’s not fair. They are so rich and we are so poor. And they call me a hooligan?”

She was referring to the government’s denunciation of protesters old and young as mere “hooligans”, out purely to scrap with the cops. This accusation is further amplified by the local media, which local journalist Dino Zoletic told me in an email “are all being paid right now from various political parties to blame young people for these riots, to call them hooligans and delinquents – vandals, etc”. He’s not the only one to notice; one of the largest banners at Tuesday’s demonstration was calling for the closure of the state TV company.

The general opinion among the protesters is that the “hooligan” label sits somewhere between untrue and under-qualified.

Yes, there is a small contingent of very angry young men in the crowd. And yes, they're up for a fight. But as 18-year-old Sumira told me on Monday, “I know these boys – I’m friends with some of them. Most of them lost both their parents in the war and have been abandoned by the government. Of course they’re angry.”

That being the case, how does she feel about last weekend’s violence? “I feel OK about it because the government ignore the people when they’re peaceful,” she said.

A burned out trafika (miniature corner shop) opposite the presidency. One of several destroyed during Friday and Saturday's violence.

The following day, her friend – a well-paid computer programmer – told me: “I hope they do throw rocks again. A government can only be accountable if they are afraid, and last Friday was the first time in 20 years that the government has been afraid.”

And that view of the violence seems to be the consensus: it was unfortunate that the destruction took place, but ministers have already begun resigning, so it appears to have worked. For the first time in the federation’s history, protests have forced the government to sit up and listen to the pleas of their downtrodden, largely unemployed, underpaid and exploited constituents.

The first meeting of the people of Sarajevo took place yesterday evening. In a printed sheet circulated beforehand there were four statements – the first three were demands, and the final one read: “AND THAT’S JUST THE BEGINNING. We believe in one another and continue to work for the good of us all.”

Tomorrow evening, a people's spokesman will be elected, which – in the context of the country's history – is a large step. As 29-year-old activist Lejla Kusturica said on Tuesday night: “As a young person – as a worker of this country – for the first time after years of apathy, you have the feeling that something is happening.”

What that something will be remains to be seen. The protesters have noble aims, but their calls for the creation of a unified Bosnia under a single presidency worry some Bosnian Serbs. Dissolving the country’s current messy and stagnant structure will mean doing away with the Dayton Agreement, which brought an end to the Bosnian war and some of the worst ethnic violence Europe had seen since WWII. The agreement created the current three-president constitution in the hope of preventing any one ethnicity gaining superiority over another. It’s unwieldy and effectively undemocratic in the stalemates and backroom deals it creates.

There's a level of acceptance that the police are just people being paid to do a job in a country where having one is a luxury. As Lejla Kusturica put it, "The police are suffering just like us. They're workers too, but they have to protect the oligarchy."

Doing away with this system would almost certainly mean living under a Bosniak president, with unofficial figures showing that the predominantly Muslim, South Slavic ethnic group make up more than 50 percent of the country's population. The Bosniak people were subjected to ethnic cleansing and genocide by both Bosnian Serbs and Bosnian Croats during the war, so the eventuality of a president from the formerly persecuted ethnic group is a worry to some. 

Rumours have been circulating through the press in Republika Srpska – the Bosnian Serb Republic, one of two political entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina – that Bosniaks are collecting weapons in preparation to force the unification of Bosnia. However, no evidence has been provided for these claims so far, and inter-ethnic conflict seems unlikely.

It's clear that while there's a popular demand for radical constitutional change, there is also opposition and fear. Theatrically over-eager protesters are planted in the crowd every day and attempt to enflame or divide the protesters. Just as it has with the hooligans, the crowd has done a good job of self-policing its younger, more violent elements, picking out these planted troublemakers and silencing them. But these inserted elements are proof that there is opposition to the movement.

Change will come to Bosnia and Herzegovina, but how much and at what cost? On Sunday night I stood in the no man’s land between the riot police and protesters outside the parliament building. I asked three young protesters what would happen next. In unison, they deadpanned: “Civil war.”

Follow Jack on Twitter: @jackoozell