Bosnia: the nation left behind

Fifteen years after the end of the Bosnian war, a country lives with brutal memories

Photo Essay,Andy Spyra,Introduction,Marcus Tanner
Saturday 04 December 2010 01:00 GMT

Sarajevo's Jezero paediatric hospital officially reopened late last month. It should have been a joyful moment – but as is so often the case in divided Bosnia, it was bittersweet. The hospital didn't close in 1992 for repairs because it was old; the Bosnian Serbs, then besieging the city, wrecked it at the start of the war with a well-aimed artillery shell. Six newborn infants perished in the rubble.

Many events of this kind in Bosnia leave the same kind of curdled aftertaste. Far from symbolising renewal and rebirth after an agonising war, they reawaken dark memories in a country that is yet to experience proper reconciliation.

That the anger has never gone away, and that the country still feels so haunted 15 years after the war ended is not surprising. I never visited the Jezero because it was put out of action so early in the war. But as The Independent correspondent in Sarajevo during the 1992-5 war, my colleagues and I spent plenty of evenings in other hospitals, pacing dark corridors because the besiegers had cut off the power. With the BBC's Allan Little, I visited Irma Hadzimuratovic, 5, in the Kosevo hospital, where she lay crippled by shrapnel and suffering from meningitis. Allan's determination to bring her plight to Britain's attention nudged John Major's government into having her airlifted to London. It was too late and she died anyway – one of about 1,500 children killed in the siege.

The tender age of so many victims of the conflict helps explain why memories of the war remain raw and alive in Bosnia. Those children's parents, then in their twenties and thirties, are only middle-aged now. The country is full of men and women widowed in their twenties and still only in their forties.

That isn't the only reason why Bosnia hasn't "moved on" since 1995, much to the shame of its friends and indeed, of many of its own citizens. Elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia, the wars of the 1990s ended on a decisive note. In Croatia and Kosovo, the Serbs lost hands down and when their police and soldiers withdrew, most of the Serbian population fled with them.

There was no decisive finale in Bosnia. Instead, the Americans imposed a kind of armistice in the summer of 1995, which stopped the fighting simply by freezing the various armies where they stood. The Bosnian Serbs had to abandon Sarajevo. But under the terms of the Dayton peace deal they retained half of the country while the Muslims and Croats were squeezed into the rest.

Most shockingly, the town of Srebrenica, site of the July 1995 massacre of 7,000 Muslims – and an overwhelmingly Muslim town before almost all its male inhabitants were murdered – was included in the lands awarded to the Serbs. After 1995, the world handed over guilt money for reconstruction, dragged a token number of war criminals to The Hague to trial and told everyone else it was time to start getting along. There was no Truth Commission. There haven't even been any unambiguous apologies. Survivors groups like the Mothers of Srebrenica make their annual pilgrimage to the town where their husbands, sons and brothers were killed knowing that almost all the killers got off scot free and in some cases are still walking round the town.

No wonder a country put together in such a clumsy fashion has never prospered and remains a limb badly set. Since 1995, a large proportion of the country's brightest and best have left. For those who remain there is not all that much to do. Except tend graves, of course. There are plenty of those.

Marcus Tanner was Balkan correspondent for 'The Independent'

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