Bosnia’s Search for Bones and Truth

A year after Bosnia’s largest mass grave was found in Tomasica, the incredible story of its discovery highlights victims’ families desperate attempts to gain justice from the authorities.

17 October 2014
Jessie Hronesova
BIRN, first published:


Mourners at the reburial in July of bodies found in the Tomasica mass grave. Photo: Beta/AP/Amel Emric.

It was the summer of 1992 when Hava Tatarevic saw her six sons and her husband for the very last time. Since then, she has been searching for the truth about their fate. Until last year, when their bodies were found lying next to each other, perforated with bullets, in a grave that was never meant to be discovered – Tomasica.

“Tomasica is finally proof of how they murdered my children. I saw them taken away and I knew they were going to be killed,” Tatarevic said.

For over two decades, Tomasica has been a fact that no one wanted to address, which everyone knew about but actively avoided acknowledging.

Four hundred and thirty-five bodies of men, but also women and children, have been recovered from the grave after it was finally discovered in October 2013. So far, 284 murdered residents of villages surrounding the Bosnian town of Prijedor have been identified and buried. The full story of Tomasica, however, remains to be told.

According to Mujo Begic, the Bosnian Krajina regional director of the Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the investigation aimed at locating the Tomasica grave was extremely protracted. While searching for missing people from the Prijedor area, he suspected that a large grave had to exist. But there did not seem to be any witnesses. The response he got from residents in the Tomasica area was simply: “I know nothing.”

But it is difficult to imagine that the location of a mass grave the size of a football pitch was unknown to locals whose houses are only 300 metres away.

Tomasica lies outside Prijedor, the seventh biggest city in Bosnia, in the north-west of the country, and is part of Republika Srpska, the Serb entity of Bosnia.

The pit where the victims’ remains were found is nine metres deep and the site takes up 100 square metres. Dozens of soldiers must have been assigned to dig a hole of such width and depth and transport all the dead bodies there. Even 22 years afterwards, the driveway to the site is clearly visible on aerial photographs.

As long ago as 1996, a Swedish journalist called Bengt Norborg reported about the potential existence of a mass grave near Prijedor. Norborg gathered information about atrocities committed in north-western Bosnia from eyewitnesses, which – together with reports by Human Rights Watch and other journalists – resulted in the estimate that around 1,000 people went missing in the area in 1992.

“The stories we did (Tonci Percan and I) that winter of 1996 in central Bosnia all came about because of rumours we picked up in Zagreb from Zvonimir Cicak, a member of the Croatian Helsinki Committee, rumours of more mass graves and concentration camps than the ones already discovered in the Prijedor area,” Norborg explained.

“Tomasica was another mining complex with dots of small hamlets around the area. We asked the people in the closest villages about the existence of mass graves and the rumours of killings during the summers of ‘92 and ‘93. The villagers all denied hearing about it (these were Serb villages), but the feeling was, after having talked to them, that this was probably not entirely true,” the Swedish journalist continued.

“We continued asking and finally came to people living outside of the villages. These were Croats that had stayed in spite of the ethnic cleansing. They were terrified but spoke on condition of anonymity and told us about the transports of people. They had heard others (Serbs from the village) talk about the killings and burials and they felt the smell from the area,” he said.

An open secret

The fact that Tomasica was discovered as late as 2013 is even more incomprehensible because the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had already investigated some of the crimes committed in and around Prijedor during the war.

The former mayor of Prijedor, Milomir Stakic, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the extermination and murder of the non-Serb population in the area and the creation of detention camps. So far, 26 people from the Prijedor area have been sentenced for similar crimes by local courts and the ICTY.

Tomasica also appeared in the notorious diaries of Ratko Mladic as a site where bodies were dumped to cover up the Prijedor violence in 1992.

During the war, there were mass killings of Bosniaks and Croats by the Bosnian Serb Army in the Prijedor municipality. The infamous Trnopolje, Omarska and Keraterm concentration camps were close to the city.

The Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Centre estimates that over 5,400 people were killed in Prijedor and the surrounding areas.

Immediately after the war, witnesses of crimes were intimidated or even killed if they spoke out. “No one wants to be a traitor to one’s nation,” said Mujo Begic, explaining why there is still so much reluctance to provide any information about the remaining mass grave sites in Bosnia.

When asked, not a single Serb resident in Prijedor and surrounding villages was willing to share his or her views on Tomasica. A disabled Bosniak war veteran explained this by using a Bosnian saying: “Suti, moze te cuti” – “Stay silent, someone can hear you.”

Norborg said that people didn’t dare to speak out because they were terrified of reprisals.

“This was war and people were killed for nothing. You had paramilitary gangs roaming around the area looking for reasons to kill and steal. I think even many ordinary Serbs were frightened,” he explained.

“So most people knew about it but kept their mouths shut – either because of fear or out of loyalty to their own.”

Eventually, a former Bosnian Serb soldier, who was a direct participant in the killings, decided to come forward and contacted the Missing Persons Institute. “He was haunted by the eyes of a girl he shot,” Begic explained. But it still took two years of persuading and negotiating to find the exact location.

Rights and recognition

So far, 22,000 missing people have been identified since the end of the war. But the more time elapses, the more difficult it will be to find the bodies of the remaining 9,000. Witnesses and perpetrators will die, and with them any hope of finding the exact location of the graves. This is probably what many unprosecuted perpetrators are counting on.

The issue also stands in the middle of much broader disputes over guilt and punishment in Bosnia.

Viktorija Ruzicic-Tokic, programme officer at the International Commission on Missing Persons, said that a fund to compensate missing people’s families has never been set up because of continuing disagreements about who was responsible for the conflict.

“According to the law, a fund for families of the missing would have to come from the state budget. This would mean that neither entity [the Serb-led Republika Srpska or the Bosniak-Croat Federation, the two political entities that make up Bosnia] would have direct control over who receive compensation and who does not,” Ruzicic-Tokic explained.

The fund would in essence distribute money to all families of the missing, regardless of their background. This would lead to an unprecedented shift in the general approach to the 1990s war, making the loss of all victims equal – be they Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks. A move which would be truly revolutionary in Bosnia.

Bosnia does not have a state-level compensation system for civilian victims of war, and support for families of the missing varies, depending on where they live. Bosniak civilian victims of war living in Republika Srpska are often exposed to discrimination and obstruction; the situation of Bosnian Serbs in the Bosniak-Croat Federation can be similar.

Hava Tatarevic made headlines in Bosnia in July this year as the mother who lost six sons and a husband and had been living on just 150 Bosnian Marks a month (75 euro) – her spouse’s pension – since the end of the war.

But the Republika Srpska authorities had already decided earlier in 2014 that she was not even eligible to receive this money. Now for her to gain the status of a civilian victim of war, which would entitle her to benefits, she must prove exactly how her sons were killed.

Tatarevic’s house in the small village of Zecevi, about 20 kilometres from Tomasica, is decorated with a Bosnian Army flag and pictures of her sons and husband.

In the run-up to this month’s elections in Bosnia, she was visited there by a series of politicians seeking to portray themselves as sympathetic to her cause, and by journalists fascinated by her story. “They come nearly every day, taking pictures and asking me about my health,” she sighed.

The media reports caused diaspora Bosnians to offer donations, which have improved her financial situation, but the attention seemed to have exhausted her. She no longer remembered the exact birth dates of her sons. “The youngest was born in ‘75. Or ‘76? No, I think it was ‘75,” she said, struggling to recall the year.

Tatarevic has filed a case in Republika Srpska, asking to be defined as a civilian victim of war, a process that requires an investigation into the killings and a definition of the crime committed.

But while excavations at Tomasica are due to continue, now the elections have passed, her case is unlikely ever to be properly investigated and resolved, as is so often the situation in Bosnia.


Searching for the missing

Funeral of identified missing persons, BosniaFuneral of identified missing persons, BosniaLee Bryant

Myriads of often-unspeakable traumas are generated by wars. Together with killings, rapes, plundering, and mutilations, the trauma of not knowing what happened to loved ones is a burning and everyday issue for thousands of people around the world. Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), the most multi-ethnic country in the former Yugoslavia, emerged from the 1991-1995 conflict in the region with the highest number ofcasualties, devastation, and also missing people. By the end of the war, approximately 31,500 people in Bosnia alone were unaccounted for. Given Bosnia’s catastrophic devastation, it soon became the primary playground for international transitional justice efforts. Alongside the first UN ad hoc international tribunal, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which was established in 1993, Bosnia’s fate also set in motion a global search for the missing through the creation of the International Commission for Missing Persons (ICMP) in 1996.

The scale of the atrocities committed in the 1991-1995 Yugoslav wars indeed mobilized human rights advocates and policy makers, engendering massive international involvement in the post-war reconstruction of the Balkans. The United Nations, NATO, OSCE, the European Union and global and regional charities have directed most of their attention to BiH, investing significant resources in its post-war recovery.According to the IMF, BiH alone has received more per capita in foreign aid than any European state after the Second World War. Only between 1996-1999, US $3.7 billion were sent to the country. Post-war justice was meant to come with the ICTY’s judgments and the evidence produced before it. However, the degree to which this has been achieved is so far disputed, especially in terms of its direct benefit for the survivors, as studies such as Meernik and Guerrero’s from 2014 showed. Notwithstanding its debatable nature, the ICTY has spearheaded a new era of universal international criminal prosecution and the extensive evidence presented before it has at least reduced the number of “permissible lies”, to quote Michael Ignatieff.

With the ICTY gaining the transitional justice spotlight in the Balkans, the existence of the ICMP, through which the Balkans have been teaching a global lesson on how to deal with questions of truth and justice in post-war situations, is too often forgotten. Its track record so far is quite impressive. Out of the original number of missing, by 2014, the fate of “only” 8,500 people from Bosnia was still unknown. Over 75% of the missing have been identified – the highest percentage of all post-war countries (e.g. Iraq, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Columbia. In Columba, only around 3,000 people have been identified out of the nearly 70,000 missing persons).Unlike the ICTY, the ICMP was established in BiH with its headquarters in Sarajevo and offices in Tuzla, and Banja Luka (as well as Pristina in Kosovo). It is funded by donor governments (including most European countries, the US, and even the Holy See), the EU, and the C.S. Mott Foundation. Since 2003, when its mandate was extended beyond the Western Balkans, the ICMP– staffed by Bosnian citizens at a rate of 85% – has been functioning as the world’s hub for the search for missing persons. Its role in Bosnia has been irreplaceable since its establishment.

First, its technical and scientific expertise was fundamental for locating mass graves and identifying bodily remains under extremely difficult circumstances: during the conflict, bodies were dug out of primary graves and moved into secondary and tertiary sites, making identification a tortuous and expensive process. Initially, searches were carried out exclusively on the basis of information obtained from witnesses and families (as well as perpetrators), and the identification of bodily remains had to be made personally or through blood samples from family members. To simplify the identification procedures, the ICMP developed a new technology, which has since 2001 allowed for DNA-based computer-processed matching of body parts to family members. This required the creation of a DNA bank through the gathering of blood samples from relatives, including from members of what is now a very large diaspora. The Bosnian diaspora was mobilized across the world and the ICMP carried out several waves of blood samplings abroad. The technology eventually achieved a certainty of 99.9% accuracy rate for identifying a person, and has now been applied in other areas in the world, such as for the remains of the victims of the 9/11 in New York.

Second, the ICMP’s work has demonstrated that a seemingly technical process of forensic identification can have far-reaching healing properties. Resolving the fate of the missing is a crucial step towards restoring social relationships. Several academic works such as Stover and Shigekane’s from 2006 showed that finding bodies of family members helps bereaved families to deal with the war trauma by moving on and directing their grief at one physical site. Recovering, identifying and laying the bodies to rest brings peace to their mind but also allows them to come to terms with the “other” groups. Existing research shows that families of the missing often feel doubly victimized – by the original disappearance of their loved ones and by the culture of silence among the other groups about their fates. Not being given information about their missing friends or relatives, victims find it difficult to trust members of the other groups and are unable to forgive them.

Third, the ICMP’s pressure on domestic institutions has also led to some local reforms, though these have so far not been progressing as originally hoped. Similarly to the ICTY, which encouraged and eventually led the process of establishing a local war crimes court, the ICMP supported the concept of a Bosnian Missing People’s Institute (MPI) in 2005 with the aim of bringing the search for the missing into Bosnian hands. The 2004 Law on Missing Persons, as the first national legislation related to missing persons in the world, prescribed the opening of the MPI, the creation of a central database of the missing (CEN), and the establishment of a fund for the families of the missing. The MPI’s role was to replace the existing regional commissions on missing persons and unify them as one body. Since its official opening in 2008, it has been establishing offices across Bosnia with the primary aim of communicating with the families and prosecutorial offices, matching the technical work of the ICMP with highly localized communicative strategies.

Fourth, the question of the missing has been of great political significance in terms of collective memories and legitimacy of the existing regional governments. Forensic anthropologists can provide solid evidence about how a person died and whether it was a civilian or not, which is documented in the study of Baraybar and Gasior from 2006. The more bodies which are identified, the more facts about their causes of death that are obtained, and the more “truth” that emerges. This poses serious challenges to a country with multiple collective truths and narratives. Actors in each regional government[1] and each of Bosnia’s three dominant ethno-national groups – Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats -have been trying to establish singular narratives about the war in order to justify their role during the conflict. These narratives are more often than not in direct opposition to one another. Many Bosniaks see Bosnian Serbs as carving out an artificial semi-state out of Bosnia via ethnic cleansing and genocide. Many Bosnian Serbs respond by saying that they fought to prevent Bosnia from being Islamicized by the Bosniaks and insist that the crimes committedhave not been as serious as generally presented. Many Bosnian Croats, for their part, see themselves as caught between the Serbs and Bosniaks and their role in the war in purely defensive terms. The tangible evidential imprint on bodies which have been found thus stands as a potential challenge to collective war narratives presented by the three opposing groups. For these reasons, the aforementioned Law has never been fully implemented and the central register of missing persons together with the Fund have so far not been established.

Lastly, the search for missing people has been redefining the role of the state in post-war periods. The state is now expected to tackle the question of the missing in a more substantial way than ever before – the right to know the fate of the missing has entered into human rights parlance and practice and thus defined a new obligation of the state towards its citizens. It has also pointed to the important role of the civil sector and the survivors. Families of the missing and civil society have been driving the continued identification process and insisting on this new obligation of the state towards its citizens. They have been pressing not only for a system of support during the actual search but also for a set of reparation schemes – both in practical (financial) and symbolic (commemorative) terms. These developments have been further anchored in the international system via new global institutions, including the ICMP.

The domestic political hurdles in Bosnia and Herzegovina notwithstanding, the ICMP serves as an example of an effective transitional justice institution, which has avoided some of the mistakes of its better-known sister organization, the ICTY. The Institute has been based in Bosnia and it has directly involved victims in the process. Bosnia still has a long way to go in uncovering the last graves (if ever) and in improving the network of support for the families of the missing; importantly, it must ensure the full implementation of the 2004 Law. The ICMP’s role in this process will probably be only a limited one, while the domestic MPI will take over. During its nearly twenty years of work in Bosnia, though, the ICMP’s track record has been quite impressive given the challenging conditions it has faced and it has been instrumental in uncovering the fate of hundreds of missing persons around the world.

Keywords: ICMP, ICTY, missing people, war crimes, civilian victims, Bosnian war

ICMP Figures:

Number of missing people from the former Yugoslavia as of 1995 40,000
In Bosnia and Herzegovina 31,500
Still missing as of 2015 in the former Yugoslavia 13,000
In Bosnia and Herzegovina 8,500
Number of blood samples for the former Yugoslavia 91,451

To know more:

Baraković, Devla, Esmina Avdibegović, and Osman Sinanović. 2014. “Posttraumatic Stress Disorder in Women with War Missing Family Members.” Psychiatria Danubina 26(4): 340–46.

Baraybar, Jose Pablo, and Marek Gasior. 2006. “Forensic Anthropology and the Most Probable Cause of Death in Cases of Violations against International Humanitarian Law: An Example from Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Journal of forensic sciences 51(1): 103–8.

Clark, Janine Natalya. 2010. “Missing Persons, Reconciliation and the View from below: A Case Study of Bosnia‐Hercegovina.” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 10(4): 425–42.

Hronesova, Jessie. 2012. Everyday Ethno-National Identities of Young People in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Prager Schriften Zur Zeitgeschichte Und Zum Zeitgeschehen. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

Ignatieff, Michael. 1998. The Warrior’s Honor: Ethnic War and the Modern Conscience. Macmillan.

Meernik, James, and Jose Raul Guerrero. 2014. “Can International Criminal Justice Advance Ethnic Reconciliation? The ICTY and Ethnic Relations in Bosnia-Herzegovina.” Southeast European and Black Sea Studies 14(3): 383–407.

Nettelfield, Lara J., and Sarah Wagner. 2013. Srebrenica in the Aftermath of Genocide. Cambridge University Press.

Rowen, Jamie. 2013. “Truth in the Shadows of Justice.” In Transitional Justice and Civil Society in the Balkans, Springer Series in Transitional Justice, eds. Olivera Simic and Zala Volcic. New York, 123–40.

Sebastian-Aparicio, Sofia. 2014. Post-War Statebuilding and Constitutional Reform in Divided Societies. Beyond Dayton in Bosnia. Palgrave Macmillan.

Stover, Eric, and Rachel Shigekane. 2002. “The Missing in the Aftermath of War: When Do the Needs of Victims’ Families and International War Crimes Tribunals Clash?” Revue Internationale de la Croix-Rouge/International Review of the Red Cross 84(848): 845–66.

Wagner, Sarah E. 2008. To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica’s Missing. University of California Press.

First published here:

[1] Bosnian governance is based on a sui generis ethno-national federal system consisting of two entities, one is mono-ethnic (Republika Srpska) and one bi-ethnic (Federation of BiH), de facto following the military border of 1995.

Book Review: Unbribable Bosnia

Just got a book review published of this piece “Unbribable Bosnia and Herzegovina: the struggle for the commons”, edited by Damir Arsenijevic, Southeast European Integration Perspectives, vol. 10, Baden-Baden, Nomos Verlagenschaft, 2014, 182 pp., €39 (paperback), ISBN 978-3-8487-1634-0

Jessie Hronesova (2015): Unbribable Bosnia and Herzegovina: the struggle for the commons, Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, DOI: 10.1080/14683857.2015.1015321

Bosnia: voting for the devil you know

The Bosnian electorate failed to make a choice that would bring real change, in spite of signs throughout 2014 that the discontent for the current political set-up was about to reach a tipping point. “Voting for moderate parties, which would base their programmes on other than Dayton-linked demands, is simply too risky. People opt for the devil they know rather than the devil they don’t”, argues Jessie Hronesova.

To any external observer, the October 12 general elections in Bosnia might have seemed as a great opportunity for people to take power back into their hands and hold their corrupt political elites accountable for embezzling billions of dollars. But the electoral results, unsurprisingly, will hardly lead to a game-changer. Even if past year’s events were truly unprecedented in the Bosnian post-Dayton history, they have not changed the general cowed approach to electoral risk-taking in Bosnia.

There are several reasons for this electoral behaviour.

Bosnians’ most-cited reason for their predictable electoral choices is the fact that there is simply no meaningful pool of parties to choose from. This is firstly because of the extremely high clique-like characteristics of the party system in Bosnia. Bosnian political parties are based on strong and autocratic party leaders such as Bakir Izetbegovic from the Party of Democratic Action in the Federation, Milorad Dodik from the Alliance of Independent Social Democrats in the second entity Republika Srpska, and Dragan Covic from the Croatian Democratic Union representing Bosnian Croats. Political platforms are irrelevant. Although they publicly compete for political posts, they are eager to cooperate with each other in order to stay in their regional power units. Divide et impera is their main rationale.

Moreover, over the years, political parties in Bosnia have transformed into catch-all (i.e. one’s ethno-national group) parties, with no ideological programmes. It was difficult to distinguish the Bosnian Social Democratic Party’s campaign from the rest of the parties targeting mostly the Bosniak electorship (Party of Democratic Action, Alliance for Better Future, the Democratic Front). Only small and moderate parties such as Nasa stranka (Our party) have offered voters some tangible propositions. However, their moderate character with no ethno-national rhetoric disqualifies them from competing with the rest of the established parties across the country.

As Valery Perry recently argued, the fear of wasting votes as well as ethnic outbidding have been deeply rooted in the behaviour of Bosnian voters. The strategy of taking the least risks manifests itself in practice in the sustained voting for parties openly representing one’s ethno-national group (Bosniaks, Bosnian Serbs or Bosnian Croats) AGAINST the demands of the other(s).

Voting for moderate parties, which would base their programmes on other than Dayton-linked demands, is simply too risky. People opt for the devil they know than the devil they don’t. Effectively, this is a very rational behaviour for several reasons.

The Bosnian political system looks highly unstable and uncertain. The High Representative of the International Community, whose office was introduced as part of the agreement, has wide-ranging powers that allow him to interfere within Bosnian political life (such as sacking elected representatives and imposing decisions).

Rule-of-law in its narrower and broader sense remains an unattainable goal. Comparatively, Bosnian parliamentarians have some of the highest salaries in Europe but their main source of income is public procurement. Tenders are always pre-determined. In a 2012 UNDP survey, only 39.7% Bosnian citizens reported they had trust in the Bosnian judicial system.

In addition to public procurement, employment, education, and even private business are based on what one could call a “contactocracy”, rather than anything remotely reminiscent of meritocracy. Stela, i.e. personal links to potential employers, is the best education one can attain in Bosnia. As an example can serve the case of the son of the outgoing Prime Minister of Republika Srpska Zeljka Cvijanovic, who received a post in a state firm Elektroprijenos, though his results were far worse that those of the rest of the twelve candidates.

In addition, Bosnia suffers from Linz and Stepan’s “stateness” problem – being internally challenged as a legitimate state by the populous Bosnian Serbia minority (forming over 35% of the country) as well as torn allegiance to the state on the side of Bosnian Croats.

Bosnia also has one of the most complex governance systems in Europe with an extremely weak central state. The labyrinthine administrative and political system of the state only encourages highly corrupt behaviour as transparency is not only unwanted, but also highly difficult to exercise. With 147 ministries in a country of 3.8 million inhabitants, transfer costs are high and decision-making procedures are difficult to monitor. It comes as no surprise therefore that politicians and political parties are the least trusted Bosnian institutions. A 2014 PASOS survey reported only a 14.5% trust level in political parties.

The list of problems is much longer – most analyses of Bosnia reduce themselves to call it a ”deadlocked” country or a highly malfunctioning state. This is difficult to dispute. It is certainly true. However, the above-mentioned reasons aside, there is another – and often overlooked problem – which rationally explains the unwavering electoral behaviour of Bosnian voters. It is purely in the realm of economic welfare.

The Bosnian electorate is 3.28 million according to the Central Electoral Commission’s records. In total, 7,748 candidates put their names on the electoral lists. 98 political subjects (50 parties, 24 coalitions and 24 independent candidates) registered to compete for 518 mandates in total. This means that every 413th citizen of the country has put his or her name of the list of candidates.

A standard Bosnian family has around five members, but this does not include the extended family, which would be ten or more members. Taking into account municipal elections, which will be organized in two years, the math is simple: almost every second family in Bosnia is somehow linked to a political subject through one of its family members. In a similar exercise, Bosnia was labelled as a country with the most per capita parties in the world – one party per 20,000 citizens.

Since jobs are attached to party allegiances – just like the entire civil service – it would be a highly irrational behaviour to vote for a (moderate or new) party, which could generate uncertain changes and would not have links to the current job-procurement system. Voting for a non-established, and non-national party would be too risky not only in the well-known “ethnic outbidding” logics but also for economic reasons. Entire families depend on one or two salaries of some of their members.

From this perspective, Bosnian electoral behaviour is highly rational and pragmatic. Unless the structure of the political competition is changed and the number of political subjects reduced, it is difficult to expect any major changes in Bosnia engendered through elections.

This article was first published on It was republished on

The money making business of development aid?

Next time you organize a fundraiser think twice about how you send the collected funds to those who really need it.


In an effort to at least a little help those affected by the disastrous flooding which has swept across some parts of the Balkans two weeks ago, Oxford students came together and organized a benefit concert and a fundraiser. The event was a success in every respect. But it was a sobering experience to deliver the money to those who needed it the most. It was a real Odyssey.


 The benefit concert was quickly put together at one of the Oxford graduate colleges – St Antony’s. There was no time for serious organization but people volunteered to play life music, to lend us their equipment, to open the bar and staff it on a very short notice, and we made t-shirts in a joint effort. The College administration tried to protest presenting a list of security hazards, but we convinced them.


It was a worthwhile effort. We managed to get people’s attention about what was happening and we collected nearly £1,300 within three hours. It was touching to see all the students and Oxford residents from the former Yugoslavia to work together in perfect unison for a common cause. The same stories about people’s cooperation and solidarity we read about in the news coming from Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, were replicated here. Suffering does bring people together – no matter where you are.


One of the main organizers of the benefit concert, who also came up with the idea, is a Serbian student. The president of the student group who sponsored the event is a Bosnian. The fundraising desk was manned by a Montenegrin and a Croat, and the most vigorous, persuasive and utterly unrejectable fundraiser was a Macedonian. It was heart-warming to watch them and it was even more heart-warming to realize that over 150 people in Oxford – the cradle of the English elite – cared enough to come and donate quite a respectable amount. The message was clear “Oxford is with you!”


The original plan was to send all of the profit to the British Red Cross Balkan Floods Appeal. But on a second thought, reading news about the protracted arrival of humanitarian aid and customs complications on the borders, another way seemed more logical. Part of the money should be sent to the most affected places as a direct donation. But how and to whom?


We transferred over £800 to the British Red Cross as agreed and as advertised during the fundraiser – after all, that is for what people have donated their money. But after some discussion we decided to send the rest of the funds to Doboj, which made headlines due to the catastrophic extent of the flooding there. Through various personal channels, we managed to get contacts for local organizations, which were helping people to get places to stay and to save them from the worst. They needed medicine, anti-tetanus shots, disinfection, tools, gloves, Wellington boots, and many other things that were coming in too slowly.


It all seemed easy – we finally got a contact for one person. All we wanted was to transfer several hundreds pounds as soon as possible. But the process took a week.


Internet in Doboj was not working. Banks were also not fully functioning. That was expected, but someone could travel to a different city and get the money from another bank branch. But the transfer would take 12 working days and would cost around €40. That was not an option. PayPal could have worked too – but no one there had a PayPal account and even if they would have set it up, it would have taken days for the accounts to be verified and the money to be sent through. Moreover, PayPal does not seem to be working well in Bosnia terms of money collection. It was not a trusted way how to urgently send money. So we contacted friends across Bosnia and Serbia, trying to find someone who could bring the money in person and who had an international account. Same problems, same fees, same delays. We could not find anyone this quickly.


Western Union remained as the only option. For a fee of £37 (!) the remaining collected funds were transferred to Doboj. The exchange rate of marks to British pounds was 2.2834 (it was 2.404 for 31 May 2014 on Bloomberg). So the total real cost of the transfer was over £55. We had to suck it up and pay. There was no other option.


Waiting in the queue at Western Union in Oxford was an eye-opening experience. We were the only whites there. I peaked to see how much the customers in the  before me were sending. It was £900. I did not catch where but only the fee they paid was over £60. I bet that is what they earned in three or more days.


We had to send the money quickly so there was no other option. They probably had no other option either, even if they had time. Given the legal obstructions accompanying transferring money online to the majority of what we call developing countries, and the monopolies on financial sectors many governments have, Western Union is part of a giant remittances business. They know we have no other option how to deliver money quickly to places with limited banking infrastructures (especially countries with cash-only economies) or where international bank transfers are not allowed. They know we will pay the price. And so they make money. Unethical money.


Next time we talk about alleviating poverty in developing countries and sending humanitarian aid to disaster-stricken areas, we could also discuss who actually makes the most profit in this story. Western Union and similar institutions are certainly on top of the list. 


Having said that, we don’t give up. If you would like to help us raise money, which I will take to Bosnia and Serbia in cash this time, contribute here:

On Saboteurs and Junkies in Czechoslovakia and Bosnia

Politicians love diminishing the value of brave public acts by individuals, who do not fear to revolt against them.

Jan Palach, who burnt himself 45 years ago in protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, was labelled a lunatic, so that his act would lose a moral value in the eyes of the public. Driving public attention away from the reasoning behind his act, the communist regime needed to turn this heroic move into a meaningless accident.

Sabotage was the word of the era – whoever tried to stand against the regime, was a “saboteur” [diverzant].

But the Czechoslovak political propaganda failed to force out the memory of his self-immolation as well as the ensuing popular demonstrations against the totalitarian regime governed from Moscow. People remembered.

In 1989 people took to the streets in Czechoslovakia and subsequently forced the regime to remember too, no longer believing in any of the images the regime was trying to force upon them.

In a similar fashion, the Bosnian authorities are trying to present the current protests as actions driven by junkies, vandals and hooligans, who spend their lives on drugs and drunk, when they should be looking for jobs.

They skilfully use the media to support this discourse. Some journalists at their service show images of beautiful historical buildings vandalized and on fire after the last round of protests. They make references to burning books by the Nazis and the fire in the Bosnian State Archive (which is stored in the Bosnian Presidency, hence unintentionally suffered some minor damage).

They are using the same strategy as the communists did. They need to drive public attention away from the causes of the problem and shift the blame onto someone else.

Today, the word diverzant is not appropriate but “hooligan” or “junkie” – to go with the geistzeit – might do.

Yet another irony of history and politics. Times change, so do names and terms, but people tend to use the same means.

Angry Bosnians Setting their Country on Fire

The Inshallah-attitude of the Bosnian political elites is over. People are no longer happy to duly tolerate the leadership’s corruption and nepotism. They want jobs, decent living standards, and a functioning state. They are very angry. And this time they know whom to blame.

Bosnia-Herzegovina had more than enough of wars, poverty, corruption, and incompetent governments. One can dispute the fact that there exists a people of the name “Bosnian-Herzegovinian” but one can no longer claim that Bosnians would be silent in view of the dumbfounding extent of state capture and incapacity of the political leaders to deliver some fundamental services to its citizens.

The largest violent clashes since the end of the war in 1995 erupted across the country in early February 2014. Enraged and distraught people are aggressively letting Bosnian authorities know that they no longer tolerate their wanton plundering of the state resources at the cost of the citizens’ wellbeing. “This is not a violent protest, this is a protest out of hunger!”, one protestor summed up the situation. “We cannot live like this anymore. This is not living but surviving.”

Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), on paper a federative state of two entities – Republika Srpska and Federation of BiH  (and a shared district) – has been in a state of political and economic stalemate for some time now. BiH is a conglomerate of three ethno-national communities (Bosniaks/Bosnian Muslims, Serbs, Croats) and two political units (entities), where each entity runs on different administrative and even legal rules. Both entities operate as separate units and state-level political reform efforts have repeatedly failed. Not only politically but also economically Bosnia-Herzegovina does not function as a country. The result is inefficiency and bureaucratic chaos, which is hard to navigate through.

The protests started in Tuzla, in the north eastern part of the Federation of Bosnia, on 4 February 2014, when a group of former state company workers took streets in protest of their lay-offs, unpaid salaries, and criminalized privatization. The rally soon turned violent after the police tried to arrest some of the protestors. In what followed more people joint the protest in solidarity and set on fire governmental buildings and police vehicles. Over a hundred of people were injured and a number of public buildings vandalized. After three-day long violent clashes, the cantonal prime minister of Tuzla resigned.

Immediately after the first street clashes in Tuzla when images of battered people spread across social networks and the media, other major Bosnian cities like Mostar, Zenica, Bihac, and the capital Sarajevo revolted and followed suit in trashing political institutions. The police and special units reacted violently and arrested tens of people in the capital. By 8 February 2014, 156 people were injured in Sarajevo, 23 in Tuzla, and 40 in Zenica. Not only political and governmental buildings were set aflame but even the State Archive in Sarajevo was under attack. Executive and political institutions in the main cities were rained with grenades. Zenica’s and Sarajevo’s premiers resigned.

In Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, several hundreds of citizens supported the protests but this non-violent demonstration never escalated in anything of the size of the predominantly Bosniak and Croatian towns in the Federation.

From “2014 Tuzla protests”, the Wikipedia entry changed into “2014 Bosnia and Herzegovina” social riots within two hours. As one of the protestor put it, “people haven taken charge of their future. They cannot trust the politicians. They have to do it on their own.”

In reaction to the ensuing wrangle over who’s to blame for the Tuzla clashes, the Prime Minister of Federation Živko Budimir told AlJazeera that, “[t]here is not a politician in Bosnia now, who could say he is not responsible for this.” Economic woes, high unemployment and irritation over the political situation are difficult to hide. But some statesmen challenged the facts that the economic situation in the country is catastrophic: “[t]here is no reason for this unrest,” the Prime Minister of the Sarajevo cantonal government told the media, enraging the angry citizens even more. Several politicians tried to portray the protests in the media as actions of hooligans and junkies. Though the destruction of cities needs to be condemned, it shows the extent of desperation.

Was this so unexpected?

Nearly 40% unemployment rate, poor state service delivery, large-scale embezzlement and corruption, divided state institutions, and no prospect for a change with clear alternatives would by all standards manage to spark a revolution. Especially if those most affected are young people.

Moreover, this is not the first Bosnian social protest. The generally shared disgust with politics in Bosnia has been striking a chord for a long time. Disgruntled and angry, Bosnians have been repeatedly expressing their grievances. In the majority cases, their demands fell on deaf ears.

The first post-war social movement directed against governmental incapacity was formed in the end of 2005 as a result of a meeting of several online activits. From 2006 to 2008, the “Dosta” (Enough) Movement actively mobilized people and demanded responsibility from the state authorities and fight against corruption. Under the strong public pressure, which they created, the mayor of the capital Sarajevo and the prime minister of the Federation resigned.

In spring 2013, the state failure to find an agreement across the two Bosnian entities to issue new identity card (JMBG) for newborn children galvanized the public into the largest post-war popular peaceful demonstrations. Thousands of people revolted against the malfunctioning government, which had been unable to deliver fundamental services. After the death of a newborn girl, who was unable to receive medical treatment abroad due to her lack of identity travel document, ignited Sarajevo. The protestors initially blocked the parliamentary building where 350 foreigners attended the annual meeting of the European Fund for Southeast Europe. The protests lasted several months until an agreement was reached and new cards issued.

But this so-called Babylution was accompanied and preceded by a number of small social protests across the country, which have not been given much attention or thought. Yet if you list them together – one by one – you realize that the current situation is the outcome of a variety of long-suppressed frustrations.

In 2012, war veterans have been protesting and sleeping in Sarajevo for over a year, demanding the payment of their pensions. In December 2012 Zenica citizens took streets urging the ArcelorMittal Steel factory to install filters and cut emissions from the plant, which was polluting the city. In February 2013, relatives of Bosnian Serbs killed during the war demonstrated in Sarajevo, claiming that prosecutions and searches for missing people had been carried out unjustly. In May 2013, 5,000 workers gathered in Sarajevo in protest against the government of the Federation entity, demanding compensation for their unpaid salaries and urging for better health care. In September 2013, hundreds of deaf people called for social integration of the disabled. In October 2013, 500 Hydro Energy company workers protested over missing salaries. From November 2013 to January 2014 parents of children in Konjevic Polje organized sleep-ins demanding that their children be taught in their own national subjects and language variant.

And the list is much longer. But until now violence and destruction of public institutions was never an option.

Desperate times call for desperate means.

It is to early to predict whether these protests would turn into a general societal and political transformation. Even the greatest optimists have lost hope. The following months will show whether the 2014 protests enter into history side by side with the “Dosta” movement and “Babylution”, or finally provide the tipping point that Bosnia and its citizens have been waiting for so long.

With only limited internal political alternatives, lack of strong and unified opposition, there is space for scepticism. But the current social stir shows to the world that Bosnians are no longer merely pieces on a chessboard.