Bosnia - living nightmare of nationalism gone mad

`What did the war achieve? Sure, we now have our own country with its own name. But soon we will also have no people'

On a lonely road linking the two halves of Bosnia, the Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat federation, a couple in their late fifties are sitting in a weather-beaten white Volks-wagen. The woman has driven up to the internal border from Sanski Most on the federation side. The man has taken a bus ride up from Prijedor on the Serb side.

They sit and chat by the side of the road like this every two weeks, which is as often as they can afford to see each other. She has brought him some freshly baked cakes. He jokes about taking a quick roll in the bushes. Contrary to first appearances they are not late-flowering sweethearts, or not exactly.

They are in fact married, and have been for 32 years. But she is a Croat and he is a Serb, a mix that never seemed important in the old days but has now conspired to destroy their life together.

The couple refuse to give their names, for fear that publicity might scupper even these rare meetings between them. But they talk willingly about their old life in Sarajevo, when they both worked as engineers and owned two flats as well as a country house near Sanski Most.

After the first two years of war, the mounting inter-ethnic tension caused them to flee to the country. But then government troops took Sanski Most, destroyed their house and made it clear that the husband could not stay.

So he crossed the lines and eked out a new life for himself in the formerly Muslim village of Kozarac near Prijedor, where every last house had been destroyed by the Serbs and the entire population massacred.

The couple have lost their homes, their money, everything, and now live as refugees in what was once their own country.

The fact that they are still apart, more than 18 months after the Dayton peace agreement was signed, and have no hope of being reunited anytime soon, is eloquent testimony to the sheer desperation into which Bosnia - and much of the rest of the former Yugoslavia - has slumped.

Buffeted by nationalist pressures and bled dry by a virtually non-existent economy, most people with the opportunity to leave the country have already done so. The old middle class has been destroyed, as the couple in the car so graphically illustrate. Educated young people can see no future and are applying in droves for asylum abroad - around 20,000 applications are estimated to be under consideration by foreign embassies.

"What did the war achieve? Sure, we now have our own country with borders and its own name, with institutions and a constitution and the various branches of government. But soon we will also have no people," observed Miodrag Zivanovic, a philosophy professor and prominent anti-war activist who heads the anti-nationalist Liberal Party in Serb-controlled Banja Luka.

Logic might dictate that ordinary people would appreciate the scale of the disaster and turn away from the nationalist politics that pushed them into this mess. But nationalism is not a rational ideology, and instead every step of Bosnia's decline only reinforces the conviction that the respective problems of Serbs, Croats and Muslims are caused by the treacherous behaviour of the other two national groups and the international community.

"Fanatics cannot be persuaded to give up their beliefs just because they are poor. They would rather die for their country than have a piece of bread," said Dragan Veselinov, a political leader in the Serbian province of Vojvodina. "Nationalism is a fanaticism that cannot be bought."

He was talking about the similar cycle of economic disaster and political repression in Serbia, rather than Bosnia, but the phenomenon is identical. One can go further and say that nationalism in the Balkans has become a massive con-trick: convincing the people that their suffering is a necessary sacrifice for the sake of the nation, while at the same time exploiting them further through the organisation of smuggling and crime rackets.

Mafia activity in Serbia and Bosnia has become an epidemic. In the absence of a real economy, the few sources of wealth - essential supplies such as petrol, cigarettes, coffee, cars, food and building materials - have fallen into the hands of a few senior politicians working outside the state system for their own gain.

In Serbia, where state salaries are being paid up to a year in arrears for lack of state funds, no more than 20 families control the country's chief economic interests. They have even hijacked revenue from taxation and customs duties and control the money supply from outside the official banking system.

In Bosnia, where smuggling rackets cannot function without communication between the different national groups, a strange sort of double game is being played whereby Serb, Croat and Muslim politicians denounce each other by day but talk intensively about their private business interests by night. "After dark they drop the nationalist rhetoric and become normal again. They are like vampires," Mr Zivanovic said.

Foreign diplomats see this unorthodox economic activity as a first step towards normalising relations between Bosnia's ethnically pure mini-states.

But ordinary people are still terrified to cross the line for any reason other than dire necessity. The danger is real, but it is also pumped up every night on the respective party-controlled television stations.

And while information remains strictly controlled, there is little prospect of the population, economically and intellectually impoverished as it is, working out what the true state of affairs is.

The tragedy is that the people who might still have a chance to soften or reverse the nationalist craziness are finding life intolerable. This is the real failure, on a human level, of the Dayton accords.

If they leave, as they are in ever greater numbers, the future threatens to end all semblance of morality or the rule of law, bringing in their place a takeover by bands of rival nationalist gangs who will feed off the growing desperation of the Bosnian people.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Arts and Entertainment
musicOfficial chart could be moved to accommodate Friday international release day
Sport
Wes Brown is sent-off
football
News
i100
Sport
Italy celebrate scoring their second try
six nations
Sport
Glenn Murray celebrates scoring against West Ham
footballWest Ham 1 Crystal Palace 3
Arts and Entertainment
Drake continues to tease ahead of the release of his new album
music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Bookkeeper / Office Co-ordinator

£9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This role is based within a small family run ...

Recruitment Genius: Designer - Print & Digital

£28000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This Design and marketing agenc...

Recruitment Genius: Quantity Surveyor

£46000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This property investment firm are lookin...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales / Telemarketing Executive - OTE £30k / £35k plus

£18000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company specialises provid...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003
Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

Dinner through the decades

A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

Philippa Perry interview

The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

Harry Kane interview

The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

Michael Calvin's Last Word

For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?