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.

Sport
Alexis Sanchez has completed a £35m move to Arsenal, the club have confirmed
sportGunners complete £35m signing of Barcelona forward
Voices
Poor teachers should be fearful of not getting pay rises or losing their job if they fail to perform, Steve Fairclough, headteacher of Abbotsholme School, suggested
voicesChris Sloggett explains why it has become an impossible career path
Sport
world cup 2014
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
newsJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Life and Style
It beggars belief: the homeless and hungry are weary, tortured, ghosts of people – with bodies contorted by imperceptible pain
lifeRough sleepers exist in every city. Hear the stories of those whose luck has run out
News
Mick Jagger performing at Glastonbury
people
Life and Style
fashionJ Crew introduces triple zero size to meet the Asia market demand
Sport
Santi Cazorla, Mikel Arteta and Mathieu Flamini of Arsenal launch the new Puma Arsenal kits at the Puma Store on Carnaby Street
sportMassive deal worth £150m over the next five years
Arts and Entertainment
Welsh opera singer Katherine Jenkins
musicHolyrood MPs 'staggered' at lack of Scottish artists performing
Life and Style
beautyBelgian fan lands L'Oreal campaign after being spotted at World Cup
Arts and Entertainment
Currently there is nothing to prevent all-male or all-female couples from competing against mixed sex partners at any of the country’s ballroom dancing events
Potential ban on same-sex partners in ballroom dancing competitions amounts to 'illegal discrimination'
News
business
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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

Business Analyst Consultant (Financial Services)

£60000 - £75000 per annum: Harrington Starr: Business Analyst Consultant (Fina...

Systems Administrator - Linux / Unix / Windows / TCP/IP / SAN

£60000 per annum: Harrington Starr: A leading provider in investment managemen...

AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer

£600 - £700 per day: Harrington Starr: AVS, JVS Openlink Endur Developer JVS, ...

E-Commerce Developer

£45000 - £60000 per annum + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: Exciting opp...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice