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.