Back to Bosnia


All photos taken by our Observer Jim Quirk in Bosnia. 


[This post has not been edited by FRANCE 24]

By Jim Quirk

After 17 years away, I returned to Bosnia in October as part of the OSCE Election Observation Mission. It was in part exciting, rewarding, and disheartening.With the ballots counted, the presidents named, and the parliamentary coalitions in the making, we can begin to make notes about the future of Bosnia.

Much has improved since 1997, to be sure. In Sarajevo, there were no tanks on the street corners, and the National Library has reopened. On one Wednesday night in the old part of the city, Baščaršija, men prayed outside the Gazi Husrev-beg Mosque while dozens of small and medium-sized restaurants were crowded with diners. Across much of the country there is very good mobile phone service, and in even small hotels, cafes, and town squares outside Sarajevo is plenty of free Wi-Fi.

Voters at a polling station.

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 200 international observers. In the more suburban and rural areas, the locals setting up the polling stations were friendly, open, capable and dedicated.

There were some other differences from 1997, though. In Sarajevo and a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) 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 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. While Bosnian Croat and Bosnian Serb areas get some support from their ethnically-related neighbors, an international official in Sarajevo told me that Turkey and Saudi Arabia are competing for business and influence in the capital and in Bosniak areas. One refurbished mosque we visited, for example, had bright green carpets with white crossed swords and "gift from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia" printed on each one.

Outside a mosque.

One international official noted that there is a small amount of attraction to ISIS or other jihadi groups – he estimated that 150 people had gone to Syria. Bosnia recently made this illegal, and in September Bosnian police arrested 16 people as jihadi recruiters. The Bosniak people I met acknowledge this small-but-not-zero attraction, but said they believe the motives are more economic than religious.

But most conversations with the people I met focused on the lack of political progress since the war. Provisions of the Dayton Accords that had ended the war in late 1995 seemed archaic and dysfunctional two decades later.Everything was still divided by ethnic group – especially the politicians. Most (but not all) of the 65 political parties and 24 coalitions are based on ethnic identity, as is much of the media. The country still has three presidents, one Serb, Croat, and Bosniak. Indeed, anyone who self-identifies as another identity – Yugoslav, Roma, Jew, or other – is not eligible to be a candidate for president. The Office of High Representatives still exists, a "sword of Damocles" held by the EU over Bosnia's politicians.

A farmer at work.

These divisions are resented by some of the postwar generation. I sat down for a while in Sarajevo with two 20-something women who spoke 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. While international officials talked about the "silver bullet" of education, the young people I talked with said what the country needed was jobs and health care (echoing my own university students in Washington, D.C.). The young women agreed that corruption and ethnic divisions were the problems, but that 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 an EU colleague and I complained about how early our flights were, one young Bosnian man hardly hid his contempt, uttering, “Lucky.”


*Judgments here are the author's and not those of OSCE. Information on the OSCE Election Observation Mission is here.