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Bosnians' Worst Enemy Is Their Own Government

Earlier this year, civil unrest and a natural disaster helped unite Bosnians against a common foe — their own dysfunctional system of government.

by Eric Fernandez
Aug 18 2014, 7:20pm

Photo par Eric Fernandez/VICE News

Watch the VICE News documentary, 'After the Flood: War Remains in Bosnia.'

Between 1992 and 1995, a bloody conflict engulfed Bosnia-Herzegovina (BiH). About 100,000 thousand people were killed and tens of thousands were raped in the midst of merciless ethnic cleansing.

The war was brought to an end by the Dayton Accords, which, in an attempt to cool ethnic tensions, imposed a government that split power among Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks), Croats, and Serbs. That unwieldy system was meant to be a temporary fix; 20 years later, it still exists.

Today, BiH has an unemployment rate of 42 percent and a GDP that's among the lowest in Europe. And heading toward the October 2014 elections in the wake of nationwide protests and a natural disaster, Bosnians are expressing mounting frustration with the political state of their country.

"Everybody has failed terribly," a woman named Sumeja Tulic told us while we were in BiH filming our documentary After The Flood: War Remains in Bosnia. "People are fed up, each year. Every time we would have municipal elections, there's nobody favorable to vote for. This time, really, there's nobody favorable to vote for."

The Dayton Accords formed two separate government entities: the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, which consists of Bosniaks and Croats, and the Republika Sprska, which consists predominantly of Serbs. Each has its own president and vice president, its own parliament, and a total of 145 municipalities. It's a political labyrinth that many citizens say they don't even understand — and that does a terrible job of running the country.

"The government system is extremely conducive to what you could call corruption, but really it's endemic to the system," said Robert Donia, a visiting professor at the University of Michigan and author of Sarajevo: A Biography. "There is a great deal of bureaucracy involved in starting a business, making it almost impossible. Pensions are so terribly low that they aren't able to support a single human being."

* * *

In May of 2014, catastrophic floods pounded the country, destroying infrastructure, killing 60 people, and displacing hundreds of thousands more. Amid the devastation, remnants of the Bosnian War began to quite literally emerge; human remains from previously buried mass graves were unearthed as the water receded.

"It was immediately like salt on a wound — a wound that never fully healed," Salim Bradaric told us while we were in Jablanica. Bradaric found out through word of mouth that local investigators suspect his three brothers, who went missing during the war, may be identified in a mass grave that surfaced as a result of the flooding in Doboj.

Watch the VICE News documentary, 'After the Flood: War Remains in Bosnia.'

Additionally, rain-induced landslides and subsequent floodwaters dislodged and relocated many of the 120,000 land mines that were left in the country at the end of the war.

"Currently as an expert team, not even we know where those mines can be or how far they travelled," said Nedzad Kukuruzovic, director of BiH's Mine Action Center. Kukuruzovic served as an Army officer during the war, often planting mines or instructing his soldiers to do so. Since end of the war, he has worked on the country's demining efforts.

Nedzad Kukuruzovic. Photo by Eric Fernandez/VICE News

Outraged Bosnians complained about the government's apparent inability to provide them with adequate relief services after the floods. But that provided a silver lining to the disaster — ethnic differences seemed to vanish.

"A lot changed," Bradaric told us. "Nobody was checking who was a Muslim, Croat, Serb. People just went to help."

The floods occurred weeks after anti-government protests, briefly dubbed the Balkan Spring, rocked the country and presaged the unity brought on by the disaster. Protests began in the northern town of Tuzla — sparked by the privatization of four factories — and morphed into a nationwide uprising demanding change in the clunky political structure. Government buildings were burned while riot police used tear gas to neutralize the protesters in the worst episode of civil unrest since the war.

"The principle difference between the 2014 protests and previous protests — like those that happened after the war — is that these were not ethnically colored," Sumeja Tulic, a Sarajevo activist who took part in the protests, told VICE News. "There was never the question of who is gathering and what ethnicity do they represent. The problems people experience in their daily life are very indiscriminate when it comes to ethnicity. Everybody is affected equally."

* * *

And so no matter their ethnicity, many Bosnians are united in their dislike of the government. The question is, what can now be done?

"If you ask the Bosnians, they'll tell you the international community should step in and do something," Donia said. "If you ask the international community, they'll say it's up to the Bosnians."

While shooting the documentary, we spoke to Valentin Inzko, the High Representative for Bosnia-Herzegovina who oversees much of the implementation of the Dayton Accords. He told us that Bosnians just need a functional governmental system in order to turn around their country's poor economic performance and thrive.

"Well, I think he's absolutely right," Donia said. "Although in some sense, it's his job to fix that."

Watch the VICE News documentary, 'After the Flood: War Remains in Bosnia.'

Follow Eric Fernandez on Twitter: @wakeupitsfern