By Amélie Métel
When I first wanted to learn about the fall of Yugoslavia, particularly the Bosnian war, I would find a lot of writings describing it as a civil war rooted in ethnic and religious differences. It took me time to understand that the war didn’t come from civilians but was clearly and intentionally planned by politicians. The first multi-party general elections were held in November 1990, which resulted in heavy turn out for the nationalist parties (Serb, Bosniak, and Croat). They were victorious because of the propaganda they delivered through their speeches and the media.
Thus began the politic of fear: Serb politicians stoked fear and hatred towards Bosnian Muslims using false news stories that demonized the “other” and were eventually used to justify war crimes. One famous example of Milosevic’s propaganda machine (below) suggests that Bosniaks killed the entire family of a Serb boy with no proof but the accompanying picture with the article was actually a painting not associated with the war. This type of misinformation is one example of propaganda, but similar things can be found on each side.
The purpose of this strategy was to intimately divide people. By making neighbors and relatives hate each other and committing enormous atrocities, reconciliation would be impossible. The aim was to deeply divide the society that was united across ethnic backgrounds. As an example of this unity was the 1992 anti-war protest that took place in Sarajevo where around 100,000 people gathered against the coming conflict. Politicians knew that if civil society was united, they wouldn’t succeed in achieving their goals of power and bigger territory. While it is tempting to think that these politicians and political parties were always working against each other, they were actually helped and strengthened by mutual threats. In this way, we are left questioning: who actually started the war and who is the victor?
Today, 22 years after the Dayton Peace Agreement, active peace is absent in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The “international community” has not created a post-war environment favorable for peace to grow. The Peace Agreement itself, as well as the current constitution, are not positive conditions for the healing process of reconciliation. Both Dayton and the constitution are based on ethnic and religious divisions, blocking any kind of unity among Bosnian people. Current politicians continue their propaganda of division and nationalism. They don’t intend to govern the country but rather focus on their own interests, which are propelling by keeping the people divided. Corruption is everywhere and the gap between political leaders and Bosnian citizens is enormous. As a consequence, a lot of Bosnians leave the country to join the diaspora in Europe, the US, or Australia.
Peace in Bosnia is only on the surface. The ghost of war is still present because the war was never totally finished. We are still missing truth, justice, and official recognition of the crimes that were committed here. Only this can help move the country forward and really face the past instead of living in the past.
Bosnians know that change won’t come from politicians but there are many initiatives in civil society that provide a counter narrative to the propaganda and prevent violence again. All across the country, groups and individuals work together for a better today and tomorrow. Despite the burden of history and corrupt politicians, these people fight for a better world for the next generations. They believe that it is possible to create change by bringing people together through dialogue, mutual understanding, and respect. And they succeed. Little by little, changes are visible. Peace is spreading.