It was a typical Saturday evening in downtown Sarajevo: in the Underground nightclub, a local heavy-metal band was about to hit the stage and I had hooked up with some young Sarajevans for a boozy night out. I was back in the city to document 20 years of peace and I had expected this day to go a bit differently. Exactly 20 years ago on this very day, the Dayton Peace Agreement had been signed, signalling the end of nearly four years of brutal war and the end of the siege – the longest siege in modern history.
I presumed that the city would be marking such an important anniversary with public events and poignant ceremonies. But aside from a pompous ceremonial event held at the heavily guarded and fortified American embassy earlier in the day (which wasn’t exactly very public), there was nothing else going on. There was certainly no anniversary event planned at the nightclub. The young people drank, smoked and partied on regardless, perhaps unaware of the poignance of the date, or just too busy with their Saturday night to care.
These young people in their late teens and early twenties were born during or just after the conflict and had no real memory of the war. I wanted to find out what, if anything, the Dayton Agreement and peace in Bosnia had meant to them. Kemir, a 20- year-old Bosniak student from Sarajevo, placed equal blame on the media and the politicians for keeping the war in the headlines.
“The government, through the media, makes sure that the people get reminded of the war on a daily basis, in this way achieving that the people continue to consider peace as something unusual and special to Bosnia.”
Kerim Rožajac, 20, Sarajevo, 2015
The following morning, with a somewhat fuzzy head, I made the short 20km journey to Pale in the Republika Srpska (the Bosnian Serb entity of Bosnia) to meet with and photograph some Bosnian Serb students. Pale had been the Bosnian Serb wartime capital and the strategic base from which the siege of Sarajevo was planned and operated. When Dayton was signed and the siege ended, it become home to thousands of Sarajevan Serbs who fled once their neighbourhoods became part of the Federation entity.
Dorothea Klacar, a 22-year-old student from Pale, and her friends took me on a tour around their town. Twenty years on and Pale seemed to have lost its air of importance, compared with the scale and buzz of Sarajevo just down the road. Pale felt like just another sleepy Bosnian town.
“At least war hasn’t returned – that is something celebrate. But every day here you can still feel the tension and mood of war, like the fires are still burning.” Dorothea argued strongly that if peace is to work there has to be reconciliation, meaning an end to blaming and generalisation. “Serbs are all labelled as terrorists and warriors, even today. Of course, there were bad Serbians. But there were bad Muslims and bad Croats too in this war. We can never move forward if we are still being labelled.”
Fellow Bosnian Serb student Sara Pandirević, aged 20, also saw hatred still permeating, but was optimistic about the future and being part of a new generation.
“I don’t like this hatred that is still spreading around but there is a new generation who don’t hate and I am part of it. We are all people and we are all from one country. We speak the same language and I look forward to making friendships with more of my people.”
Sara Pandurević, 20, Pale, 2015
The reality is that young people in Bosnia have separate education systems that work to replicate the divisions, with each side enforcing its own historical perspective and political ideology. It leaves little scope for real integration. But, tired of the nationalism and warlike rhetoric, these young people are part of a growing number who argue that it was never their war and that they should not have to carry its weight, nor have it drag them and their country down.
It is not just those born after the war who are dispossessed and fighting back. In Vareš in Central Bosnia, neighbours who were once fighting on the frontline against each other are now joining forces to work together.
Vareš is a mining town and municipality in an area known and loved for its beautiful mountains, nature, and rich history. Despite this, many residents of the town and surrounding villages are leaving the area, tired of unemployment and the lack of investment. In Planinica, one of the small mountain villages – which sits an impressive 1200 metres above sea level – Bosnian Muslims Mirnes Ajanović and his wife Dženana have set up an ecological goat farm. Their farm is on a hiking trail to the fortified city of Bobovac, now a protected cultural site, and they see its tourist potential. Along with their neighbours, they want to create a small eco-tourist resort.
Mirnes, aged 45, was a young soldier when the Dayton Agreement ended the war. He was a not a huge advocate of the agreement but stressed it was, at the time, important to stop the war – in itself a major achievement. “I have spent over 20 years waiting to move forward. Politicians have taken advantage of the many holes in Dayton and want to live in the past, but with the common man there is no tension. We want to work together and co-operate.”
With the assistance of the NGO Help Bosna, Mirnes and his wife plan to work with their Bosnian Serb neighbour and former ‘enemy’ Bozo Jevrić, 62, to turn his house into accommodation as part of the small eco-village resort. During the war, Bozo served as a Bosnian Serb soldier.
“Today I no longer watch TV. The politicians want us to be at war but it’s the man on the ground that always suffers. War is in the past and our future is working together. It’s the only way our village will survive.”
All those I spoke with saw more commonality than difference. I am sure it was always there, this understanding of inherent shared humanity, but it was suppressed by an ardent nationalist fervour that ultimately, devastatingly, ended up in bloody war. Speaking with Sara, Bozo, Mirnes, Dženana and Dorothea, it was becoming clear that all these years after the war, Tito’s legacy of Yugoslav Brotherhood and Unity had made a small but significant return.
Božo Jevrić, 62, Vareš, 2015