War and Purgatory

What Syria can learn from Bosnia and its post-war mistakes.


Bosnia and Syria are often mentioned in the same breath — and in particular by Sarajevans, who see in horrors such as the siege of Aleppo a re-enactment of their memories of the city-siege in the 1990s. Who can read headlines of post-2011 Syria — rape as a weapon war, the targeting of civilians, fracturing peace talks — and not recall late 20th-century Bosnian stories? Worse, Bosnia’s post-war atrophy in the absence of meaningful justice provides an alarming example of what Syria might look like in 20 years, even if fighting were to stop today.

The millions of Syrians displaced and traumatized by the three-year conflict would likely accept any peace agreement if it meant fighting would end immediately. (In the photo above, emergency responders rescue a boy after a barrel bomb attack in Aleppo.) But it is for this reason that Bosnia — as a lived reality for Bosnians in the last two decades, not merely as totemic buzzword for diplomats — must be kept as a touchstone, a reminder that a successful peace process entails moving beyond a militaristic conception of peace as the absence of war. And that meaningful peace needs peace-work and civil society at its heart.

Even as Syria’s Geneva II peace talks foundered earlier this year, Bosnia’s citizens, who have a "peace agreement" for a constitution, were protesting on their cities’ streets. Throughout February and March, Bosnia and Herzegovina has seen the largest demonstrations and unrest in almost 20 years, briefly making international headlines on Feb. 7, as protesters burned government buildings.

The recent Bosnian protests began in the northern industrial city of Tuzla as a worker’s strike following an ongoing dispute with four companies that filed for bankruptcy shortly after they were sold off by the state to private contractors, one of the country’s many recent botched and un-transparent privatization processes. As the protests spread to other cities in both of the country’s two federal "entities," the protesting workers — and other Bosnian citizens who soon joined them in protest — began articulating more fundamental civic concerns about Bosnia’s post-war stagnation. Frustrated at their national elites and politicians, who are among the highest paid in Europe, protesters viewed the recent privatization move as a symptom of endemic political and administrative corruption.

Despite early attempts by ethno-nationalists to brand the Bosnian protesters "terrorists" or co-opt their demands, the demonstrators of what began to be called "Bosnia’s Spring" were adamant that the movement was a call for social justice and against corruption and the ethno-nationalism that has dominated the brittle post-war period. Bosnians have begun to articulate widespread frustration at the post-war set-up in the movement’s weekly "plenums" — direct-democracy citizens’ meetings that have taken place in all of Bosnia’s main cities, from Muslim-Croat Mostar to Republika Sprska’s Banja Luka.

The demands articulated by the plenums remind us, almost two decades since the international media shifted their focus away from the country, of the reality that the 1995 Dayton Accords have brought to Bosnia. That the voices of Bosnians themselves are occasionally peeking through into global newsprint now is also a timely reminder of what these voices can teach Syrians about how to rebuild. For if Rwanda 20 years after is seen by some to offer signs today of how a nation can hope to heal from mass atrocity, Bosnia sadly serves to remind Syria that war is not always followed by peace. Sometimes it is followed by purgatory.

Almost a whole generation has grown up in Bosnia’s post-war period with no direct memories of conflict, but with their landscape still covered in landmines, with segregated schools teaching three exclusivist nationalist narratives of their parents’ war, with a 50 percent youth unemployment rate, and with the humiliation of visa restrictions that were unthinkable even in socialist Yugoslavia. Next door to an EU-aceeded Croatia, the new Bosnia has ethno-nationalist politicians and a political framework that rewards them for stirring up tensions over providing essential services for its citizens.

Bosnia’s peace was always a failure in any meaningful sense, due to four main factors: an unjust and unworkable constitution; a stark lack of women and civil society representatives in the peace process; no regional-level transitional justice; and no post-war social justice. If Syria is to have any hope of a lasting peace after the fighting stops, it must avoid the pitfalls that led Bosnia into this twenty-year purgatory.

The signatories of the Dayton constitution — war leaders Franjo Tudjman, Alija Itzetbegovic, and, to seal the deal, Slobodan Milosevic as Radovan Karadzic’s representation — were a shameful start to a new state. Although much has been written on why the compromises of the Dayton constitution were necessary to stop the war as it reached its genocidal height in 1995, this does not negate the fact it froze Bosnia in an "ethnopolis" with an unworkable structure of government, a triumvirate presidency, a physically severed territory, and a political structure that privileges ethno-nationalist discourse.

Any future Syrian peace process must also learn from who was not at the table at peace talks and post-war constitution drafting sessions: In Bosnia’s case, as noted by Madeleine Rees, the most painful absence is women. The widespread use of rape as a weapon of war documented by the Women Under Si
project shows that, as in Bosnia, the brutalities of Syria’s war have played out on gendered lines as exclusivist wartime identities have entrenched patriarchal norms. (Although there are important differences, the use of sexual violence against men is under-documented and under-reported due to the specific stigmas that come from wartime cultural constructions of masculinity.)

This tragedy would have a second tragic echo if Syria repeats Bosnia’s failure to include women in its peace process after brutalizing them throughout the war. Research by Valerie Hudson, professor of political science at Texas A&M University, on gender and peace has shown how the involvement of women is the single most significant predictor of a country’s post-conflict stability and success. Although Bosnian and Syrian women activists have conferred "under the radar" in the past year on how to push for a place at the peace-process table, the Geneva II talks mirrored the 1995 Dayton talks’ alarming exclusion of women and civil society voices.

Egypt’s unsteady course since 2011, with its two constitutions in two years, shows that inclusive constitution drafting is central to securing legitimacy. Dayton Bosnia, too, is an insistent reminder that who is at the table of the talks dictates the course of your peace. The imported, top-down peace of Dayton, and the post-war limbo it entrenched, created two conditions that ultimately fueled this year’s popular protests: the lack of transitional justice, and the failure to provide for social justice. With incomplete lustration and judicial vetting processes on the ground in post-war Bosnia, the International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague became the focus of post-war justice rather than initiatives within the country. This failed on two grounds, one structural and one situational.

The fact that the ICTY’s remit focused on high-level war-time leaders meant that the "everyday" war criminals were often left untouched and at large, brushing past their victims in the street. Situationally, as documented by Slavenka Drakulic in her 2004 work They Would Never Harm A Fly, the construction of a narrative by post-war nationalist leaders in Croatia, Serbia, and Bosnia in which the ICTY was "alien," imposed, and inevitably "biased," led to the popular imagining of defiance of the ICTY as an act of patriotism.

For its part, for all the inevitable difficulties of their task, the ICTY committed inexcusable mistakes, such as losing key evidence and the personal belongings of genocide victims, and in the eyes of many Bosnian Muslims, allowed Karadzic (finally caught in 2008) to use the tribunal hearings as a grotesque theater. Mass graves are still being uncovered in rural Bosnia today, and many hundreds of victims are yet to be buried — also a reminder that it will take a generation for Syria to process its dead even after the fighting stops.

The work of Natasa Kandic heading the RECOM initiative to bring about a "truth and reconciliation" process since the late 2000s — an initiative that would speak to the transitional justice needs of those who suffered during the war — is a poignant indicator that civil society of the former Yugoslavia sought justice and reconciliation, even as their ethno-nationalist leaders continued to stir resentments and frame all war-justice processes as a zero sum game between ethnic groups.

As explored in Ed Vulliamy’s 2012 work, The War Is Dead, Long Live The War, the absence of transitional justice led the "peace of daily life" to swell and curdle in Bosnia. The international aid that came in the country was not regulated, and was ultimately unable to better the inherently unjust postwar structure — both the political institutions and the political rhetoric the institutions foster — as it manifested in, for instance, the ethnically-segregated Dayton education system.

A generation of Syrian children, in Zaatari, in Lebanon, in Turkey, and in Syria itself, are growing up not only deeply traumatized but are also missing years of education. The impact of Bosnia’s "lost generation" — those who missed years of school and suffered the impact of war — is still felt today by millions of former Yugoslavians. It was compounded by the failure to establish adequate post-war education. The segregated education system in Bosnia, initially supported by the OSCE, instills the exclusivist narratives of war in a new generation of children. It is all the more alarming when considered in light of the fact that before the war, around one in three Bosnian families were "mixed" or multi-confessional, if such identity-lines even had any salience.

The absence of transitional justice and the unworkable Dayton constitution encouraged Bosnian politicians to focus their energies on gaining votes of "their" ethnic blocks rather than focusing on civic initiatives such as improving healthcare facilities, clearing landmines, and stabilizing the economy. No transitional justice means no social justice, and eventually that will lead to popular unrest and a generation quietly growing up in the shadow of war without reconciliation, as we are seeing in Bosnia today.

If Syria today is its own specific kind of hell, and the urgent goal is to stop armed conflict as quickly and effectively as possible, those concerned should take from Bosnia — with its famous wartime graffiti "Welcome to Hell" — the warning that a country can be frozen in a rotten post-war limbo, even a generation after the fighting has stopped.

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