Archived Sections, Commentary

Peace in the Balkans will be a long-term commitment

One of my professors once told me, “If an academic goes to Bosnia for a
week, he or she writes a book about it. If an academic goes to Bosnia for two
weeks, he or she writes an article. If an academic goes to Bosnia for three
weeks, he or she writes an editorial. And, if that academic is in Bosnia for any
longer, he or she is so confused that words can no longer be used to describe
the existing realities.” While this statement is not entirely true, or conflict
analysts would always necessarily fail, there is a degree of truth in those
Last fall, as an intern with the Washington Semester Program in Washington,
D.C., I studied international peace and conflict resolution with a focus on the
Balkan wars of the 1990s. My class traveled a 4,000-mile loop through
Serbia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia, visiting important sites and meeting
with a number of leaders — including representatives of non-governmental
organizations (NGOs), victims from all ethnic backgrounds, students, and
national leaders. While I learned more there than I ever would have learned in
a classroom, I also became more confused about the situation in the Balkans
and what is left to be done to bring about a sustainable peace in the region.
Bosnia is in a state of political stalemate as the two entities — Republika
Srpska and the Federation — remain polarized at a time of necessary political
reconciliation. Despite the work of NGOs and other international
organizations, ethnic tensions remain and thereby contribute to the
continued segregation of the two entities in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Efforts to change the opinions of the ethnic groups are targeted at the
younger and future generations through education and special programs;
however, the persistence of media propaganda, ethnic tensions taught by
friends and family, and disputes over an unsettled history plague the
education system and sustain intolerance.
As Bosnia prepares itself to enter the European Union and NATO, a new
constitution and serious reforms must occur. However, with ethnic and entity
divisions both present in the state itself, such reforms may be a long time
The situation is complex. Some officials request that the relatively small
group of Americans who travel deep into the country return home and spread
news of the need for Republika Srpska to become its own country. Ironically,
other leaders of NGOs and officials on the Federation side of Bosnia describe
how the appeals of Republika Srpska for independence contribute to
intolerance among the nation’s youth by claiming that the major ethnic
groups would not be able to reconcile.
Numerous people claimed that prior to the war, all three major “ethnic”
groups — Muslims, Croats, and Serbs — got along, intermarried, and even
celebrated major religious holidays of different-ethnicity neighbors. So why is
it so difficult to return to this way of life?
Bosnia suffers from a lack of adequate historical education for its youth.
Children must be offered a common truth, something that is seriously lacking
in Bosnia at the moment, as only five history textbooks have been approved
and only three of those five seem to be less biased. In a country where a
common history cannot be agreed upon, how can children be taught to
reconcile and move past the ethnic problems of the ‘90s? If such a shared
view of the past is not taught at all, there is a risk of ethnic cleansing and
genocide occurring again. The freedom of war criminals — even minor ones
who may have simply carried out the orders of their superiors — hinders
reconciliation and prevents people from returning home out of fear of being a
minority ethnic group and living in close proximity to someone who may have
directly taken the life of a friend or relative.
So, what can be done? People must be allowed to return to where they once
lived; settling in segregated communities where their ethnicity is the majority
often breeds hatred. As so many people in the Balkans have said, “We lived
together before, why can’t we live together again?”
Also, it is essential to acknowledge that the war did indeed happen, but will
not affect future relations across all ethnicities. That must be the goal.
Reading about a conflictual situation can seem to allow easy solutions, but
often the issues are more complex and difficult to resolve as one becomes
more familiar with the situation.
Jennifer Oie is a student at Texas Lutheran University, and is a member of
Holy Trinity Lutheran Church in Minneapolis.