Bosnia protesters: "People are unemployed and hungry"

Riot police in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo on Tuesday. Photo by Edis Jasarevic.
 
Protests against government corruption and unemployment have continued in Bosnia-Herzegovina for more than a week now. After last weekend’s violent unrest – the worst since Bosnia's civil war ended in 1995 – activists are demanding that the entire government step down.
 
The violence began last Friday in the northern city of Tuzla. Groups of youths and recently laid-off workers rioted in the former industrial hub, setting off a wave of violent unrest across the country. Rioters set fire to government buildings in four cities, including Tuzla, the capital Sarajevo, and Mostar.
 
Protesters in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo on Tuesday. Photo by Edis Jasarevic.
 
The demonstrations have exposed a deep undercurrent of social discontent in the tiny Balkan state. Successive governments – which are fragmented along ethnic lines, often resulting in stalemates on key issues – have made little economic headway in almost two decades of peace that have followed the brutal civil conflict. As a result, many of Bosnia’s 3.8 million people struggle to make ends meet. Though the country’s official unemployment figure stands at 27%, it jumps to 45% once the informal economy is taken into account. According to the World Bank, youth unemployment is around 57%.
 
Now, so-called ‘plenums’ are springing up across the country: open-air forums with the aim of bringing people together to figure out a common plan of action. Our Observers tell FRANCE 24 that the goal of these citizens’ forums are to create a leaderless platform that “speaks for everyone", as they believe opposition parties have attempted to hijack the protest movement in order to win votes.

"I was right in front of policemen that were pushing me back – me and my nine year old son"

Valentina Pellizzer is an Italian activist who has lived in Sarajevo since 1999 and has taken part in the protests.
 
What happened in Tuzla was like the fire that sparked the protests: the police attacked the demonstrators who were just unemployed people. Every day now there are protests: people usually start gathering around noon. Once, I was right in front of policemen that were pushing me back – me and my nine year old son. Wednesday we’re going to hold a plenum – an open-air meeting – for anyone who wants to help us figure out how to resolve the crisis. We don’t want a small group of self-appointed representatives deciding what happens behind closed doors.
 
A protester in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo on Tuesday. Photo by Edis Jasarevic.
 
The protesters have a range of demands. We want all the politicians currently serving in the government to step down. [The prime minister of the Bosniak-Croat Federation, which together with the Serb Republic makes up post-war Bosnia, has dismissed these demands, and has proposed holding early polls instead.] We want a government of technocrats chosen by the people to ensure the smooth functioning of the country’s institutions until we find a political system that works better. We want the police to stop provoking and arresting people [Editor's note: activists contacted by FRANCE 24 accuse the police of arbitrarily arresting people without due process. This has been denied by the authorities]. People want transparency. They also want equal rights and services for all the citizens. The welfare situation is currently unequal. In certain parts of Bosnia you get nothing, whereas in other parts you might get 100 euros a month.
 

"The current pension is around 100 Euros a month. Can you imagine living on that?"

Nikola Zilic is from the central Bosnian town of Travnik.
 
I have been protesting since Friday in Travnik, the municipal city of the region of Central Bosnia. On Friday there were around 1,500 people protesting in Travnik. The government building was being bombarded with stones and eggs. On Monday there were fewer people: around 800 came. Today even less came: maybe 200 at maximum. People are staying away because the police are everywhere, they’re scared. Some of my friends got beaten and arrested.
 
The reasons behind these protests are purely economic. It’s got nothing to do with ethnicity or nationality. Politicians have tried to emphasise our different nationalities to make us fear each other for years [Editor's note: the three main ethnic groups of Bosnia are Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Croats and Serbs]. Meanwhile they privatized everything, which was catastrophic for our economy. The current pension is around 100 euros a month. Can you imagine living on that? For the last 20 years we’ve had nothing good. We just get into deeper debt through IMF loans. The money to pay for pensions is being directed from the coffers of the IMF. That’s catastrophic: it’s me and my children who are going to pay for that in the future.
 

"Some politicians have salaries dozens of times bigger than the average salary"

Damir Imamovic is a musician from the capital Sarajevo.
 
I’ve lived in Sarajevo all my life. My role during these protests has been to share information. I’ve travelled abroad and met people involved in protest movements around the world. They all told me that one of the most important things was how misinformed the public is. It’s crucial to spread information efficiently. People are connecting with each other through email, Facebook and Twitter.
 
Riot police in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo on Tuesday. Photo by Edis Jasarevic.
 
I have lots of Facebook followers and Twitter contacts so I gather information about what’s happening and bring that to the attention of the public. It’s similar to what happened during the Occupy protests. The first thing that becomes difficult to manage is the media. In Bosnia, the media tend to cooperate with politicians to persuade the general public that these protesters have nothing substantial to bring to the table. They’ve even accused the protesters of taking drugs. The truth is that people are in the streets because they’ve been fired from their jobs – they’re hungry. Meanwhile, some politicians have salaries dozens of times bigger than the average salary.
 
This article was written by France 24 journalist Andrew Hilliar (@andyhilliar).
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