After 17 years away, I returned to Bosnia last week as part of the OSCE Election Observation Mission. It was in part exciting, rewarding, and disheartening.
Much was improved from 1997, to be sure. In Sarajevo, there were not tanks on the street corners. The library has reopened, and one Wednesday night in the old part of the city, Baščaršija, dozens of small and medium-sized restaurants were crowded with customers. Across much of the country there is very good mobile phone service, and in even small hotels and cafes outside Sarajevo is plenty of free Wi-Fi.
The people were as I remembered – smart, generous, hard-working. The young people I met were not necessarily an accurate cross-section – they all spoke English and/or owned cars, to serve the week’s 180 international observers. In the more suburban and rural areas I observed, the people setting up the polling stations seemed capable and dedicated.
There were some other differences from 1997, though. In Sarajevo and a town to the west where I was based, there were more shops and advertisements in Arabic. Cafes noted they were “halal.” A significant number of young women dressed in head scarves, a few in abayas, and a couple of women in the niqab. The locals advised me these were Arabs, on vacation in Sarajevo, but they were in the towns and rural areas as well.
Conversations with most of the people I met focused on the lack of political progress since the war. Everything was still divided by ethnic group – especially the politicians. Provisions of the Dayton Accords that had ended the war in late 1995 seemed archaic and dysfunctional two decades later.
The country still has three presidents, one Serb, Croat, and Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim). Indeed, anyone who self-identifies as another identity – Yugoslav, Bosnian, Roma, Jew, or other – is not eligible to be a candidate for president. Most (but not all) of the 65 political parties and 24 coalitions are based on ethnic identity.
The young people I met seemed much more interested in making “Bosnia” work than serving their own ethnic groups or ethnic regions. This is typical of many Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), though.
But it was one of my first conversations in Sarajevo that made perhaps the biggest impression. I sat down for a while with two 20-something women in fluent English. They were probably born during, or just before, the war, and had no real memory of it. Their wishes weren’t about Kosovo Polje or Ustashe or Srebrenica. They said what the country needed was jobs and health care – echoing my own university students in Washington. They agreed corruption was the problem, but the needs were jobs and health care. They said they would issue a challenge to Bear Grylls – the famous television adventurist/survivalist – to try to survive medical care in Bosnia.
The two then went back to their beverages and cigarettes, headed for a short night of rest before another long day serving the Americans and Europeans who breeze in for a week, absorb some of the local flavor, and return home with stories of adventure. When a colleague and I complained about how early our flights were, one Bosnian hardly hid his contempt, uttering, “Lucky.”