There are many ways a curious traveller can choose to visit Bosnia-Herzegovina in the year that marks the 20th anniversary of the beginning of the war. There’s the regular option of flying to Sarajevo, or going there via Croatia, paying less and getting a glance at the Adriatic Sea. Or, as I recently discovered, one can opt for something called a “political tour”, a journey that, according to its organisers, promises to deliver “current affairs at first hand”.
Among trips to “Libya – Post Revolution”, North Korea, Ethiopia and Georgia, there is an option to visit “Bosnia & Serbia” (with the ampersand making it look as if the countries are engaged in some kind of double act). There is lunch to be had in the mountains overlooking Sarajevo, from where the city was shelled to cinders, a picnic en route to Srebrenica and dinners with local genocide survivors, plus bus tours along the old frontlines.
There is even an optional trip to Mostar, my home town, where doubtless the war tourists stand on the dividing line, with a local guide telling them how “this side is Muslims, this side Croats”. At a visit to the parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina, local politicians introduce the current political crisis as the continuation of the 1990s war, which itself was a product of the region’s previous wars, and will probably be a forefather of many wars to come. I pictured the visitors, £2,400 lighter after their nine-day trip to the region, ingesting horror stories with their lunch, picnic and dinner, and finally, on their flight back home, finding relief in an airline meal, free of the chorus of cyclical conflict.
The anniversary-pegged release of Angelina Jolie’s film In the Land of Blood and Honey, written and produced shortly after the Hollywood star’s visit to Bosnia in 2010, felt like a venture in similar vein. Presumably swept by a wave of sentimental indignation at the horrors of war and injustices of postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina, Jolie vacuum-packs the cliches that put the country, and the region, in the “beyond help” category.
Apart from the commendable highlighting of the largely ignored reality of wartime rape camps, Jolie renders her Serb protagonist a reluctant villain overpowered by a father made rotten by the historic ethnic hatred with which Yugoslavs from all sides are so often tagged.
In a bewildering sequence, a Muslim baby is thrown out of a building by a carer demented with fear over a violent break-in by the Serb forces. The film’s message, echoing the general view of Bosnia-Herzegovina, is clear: the people here, if not killed off at the start of their lives, are stuck in a cycle of violence, their ability to love one another reduced to a mistrusting bitterness and sadism that seem to have no outcome other than more violence for generations to come.
It’s sad that 20 years on, Bosnia-Herzegovina still has nothing but the labels “war-torn” and “troubled”. One of the numerous articles written after the film’s release stated that Jolie’s film “put us back on the map”, as if, like a child starved for attention, anything was better than being ignored. For some countries, which have been lucky enough to have had the ability to move on, war becomes part of their history, with other events putting it in chronological order, moving it to the past. But for Bosnia-Herzegovina, no phoenix has arisen from the ashes – instead, the quotidian passionate recounting of irremediable suffering combined with blame apportioning and high-level political and economic dysfunction has meant that Bosnia-Herzegovina’s history is like a pair of cement shoes its people have to wear.
Held down by an inadequate and corrupt state infrastructure – an unscrupulous justice system, high unemployment and a politicised education sector, among others problems – as well as an exaggerated emphasis on religious and national belonging, there is little opportunity for those interested in progress and true reconciliation. Positive signs, such as attempts at forming political parties that strive for the rule of law and multi-ethnic co-existence are too often obscured by the flag-wavers whose rhetoric permeates every aspect of life.
As an old Balkan saying goes: “When everyone says you’re drunk, you’d better start rolling around on the floor.” This may be a case of self-fulfilling prophecy. If the politicians of Bosnia-Herzegovina don’t do anything to change their divisive nationalist rhetoric and tackle the perception that its people are warmongering haters, the idea that the only spark that is flickering 20 years on is that of ethnic hatred may well prove to be true.
Vesna Maric is the author of Bluebird, a memoir charting her arrival in the UK as a teenage refugee from Bosnia in 1992.