Slow democratization in Bosnia and Herzegovina

Five Years After Dayton: Mixed Balance of the OSCE

Marcel Stoessel*

The Dayton Agreement assigned the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe an important role in pacifying Bosnia, including preparation for elections, promoting democratic reconstruction and human rights, and military stabilization. After five years, the balance is mixed.

More than five years after the signing of the “General Framework Agreement on Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina” in December 1995, which brought the three-and-a-half-year Bosnian war to an end, that country still lacks many of the attributes of a sovereign state. While de jure it was left intact within its internationally recognized borders, de facto its territory – as well as ruling power – is divided up among the three major ethnic groups: Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Serbs and Croats.

Elections as a Credibility Test
There are still three separate armed forces; each ethnic group has the right of veto in joint governmental institutions, and so far all elections have resulted in a strengthening of the monolithic nationalist parties. The old wartime objective of partitioning Bosnia has by no means been abandoned by Serb and Croat nationalists. But the international community is trying to counteract that centrifugal tendency.

Dayton is far more than a classic peace treaty. It assigns the job of nation building to various international organizations. The Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) is just one of them, but it was given crucial tasks which have allowed it to demonstrate its competence and ability to act. The most quickly assembled OSCE mission, and still the largest, had to first assess whether “credible elections” were possible under the given social circumstances in the two constituent segments, the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Bosnian Serbs’ Republika Srpska. The date of 14 September 1996, proposed in the Dayton Agreement, was not regarded as inviolable.

It was up to the acting chairman of the OSCE at the time, Swiss Foreign Minister Flavio Cotti, to make the final decision about the date. He warned that elections held without minimal prerequisites could degenerate into a “pseudo-democratic legitimation of extreme nationalist power structures and ethnic cleansing.” But Cotti saw no reasonable alternative, in part because of pressure from the USA and other members of the international Contact Group.

Nationalist Obstruction
The Provisional Election Commission, chaired by OSCE Mission Chief Robert Frowick, regulated every aspect of the election process. What turned out to be especially controversial were the rules regarding refugees and internally displaced persons. While the Dayton Agreement lays down a “ground rule” that those citizens should exercise their franchise in the municipalities in which they had their residence in 1991, the Election Commission gave them the option of registering to vote in other communities. Ultimately, widespread abuse of that ruling led to a postponement of the municipal elections scheduled for the same 1996 date. It proved impossible to guarantee a neutral political climate; the freedoms of opinion, assembly, movement and the press were seriously impaired. As a result, in its final report the large OSCE observer mission refrained from labeling the balloting as “free, fair and democratic.” Aside from technical difficulties, there was well-founded suspicion of election fraud. But something else was the decisive factor: a great majority of voters had cast their ballots for the three nationalist parties, the Serb SDS, the Croatian HDZ and the Bosniak SDA. The SDS and HDZ, in particular, made a continuous international presence essential by their systematic obstruction of the peace process.

The OSCE supervised five more rounds of voting: nationwide balloting in 1998 and 2000, municipal elections in 1997 and 2000, and special elections in the Republika Srpska in 1997. The only ones who showed a slight leaning toward politically moderate parties were the Bosniaks, for whom an unpartitioned state is the sole chance for survival. The OSCE made diverse use of its extensive authority: it struck unacceptable candidates from the lists, discharged elected politicians and entire municipal councils (implementing the results of the first municipal elections turned out to be extraordinarily difficult), imposed sanctions on rabble-rousing election slogans and even, in one instance, banned two smaller parties. But the hoped-for change of attitude never materialized; not even the democratic transition in Croatia and Yugoslavia led to greater cooperation within Bosnia.

Strengthening Multi-Ethnic Parties
Without elections there is no democracy, but democracy needs more than elections. Following the first elections, the OSCE intensified its efforts to nourish a democratic, civil society. Nongovernmental organizations, such as multi-ethnic associations for the return of the displaced, were systematically promoted as an alternative to nationalist groups. Political parties were also given financial and technical assistance, with preference going to those that were multi-ethnic and committed to the Dayton process. That made sense, because the three nationalist parties have their own large, informal networks – including their own intelligence units – which gave them strategic advantage over newer groups. The OSCE’s democratization strategy includes the training of municipal and justice officials, with emphasis on fighting the corruption which is still rampant today and on promoting the rule of law in government, which enjoys little credibility in Bosnia.

In the view of the OSCE, independent pluralistic media constitute a central element in a functioning civil society. For historic truth and current events are also ethnically divided in Bosnia. With Swiss aid, the first all-Bosnian radio station was established in 1996, but despite a high level of professionalism its listening audience remained disappointingly small in critical areas. An increasingly successful tool as a deterrent against hate-filled agitprop, however, were the daily evaluations of media reporting by an OSCE-affiliated commission of media experts established in 1998 to guarantee fairness and media access for all parties.

No fewer than 16 international human rights agreements – including the European Convention on Human Rights – were integrated into the Dayton Agreements and have the standing of national law in Bosnia. In reality, however, discrimination on the basis of ethnicity is commonplace, especially by the Serbs and Croats. While the return of formerly displaced locals accelerated somewhat last year, it continues to be seriously hampered. The OSCE has the largest human-rights presence in the field, with 30 human rights officers scattered across Bosnia. Their attention is focused particularly on property questions, which are of critical importance to the returnees, but their power is purely informal.

The same applies to the ombudswoman, who functions under the aegis of the OSCE but operates under national law. She hears individual complaints about human rights violations by government agencies, discusses them with the authorities and makes recommendations. The first ombudswoman, Gret Haller, a Swiss, was able in this way to help resolve a good number of individual cases without much fanfare. There are some indications that the recommendations of the ombudsperson now carry increasing weight.

In 1996, thanks to OSCE mediation, two military agreements were concluded among the former warring parties. One pact, concluded among Bosnia-Herzegovina, the Bosniak-Croat Federation and the Republika Srbska, deals with confidence- and security-building measures. In the course of its implementation, a large number of inspections have so far been carried out – though it should be noted that they were announced in advance, rather than being spot checks. In addition, the atmosphere among members of the three de facto ethnic armies has improved, with a marked relaxing of tensions over time. Among other things, that was reflected in a 1999 OSCE seminar on democratic control of the armed forces. The second military agreement involves subregional disarmament and covers Croatia and Yugoslavia as well. Its goal is a stable, balanced level of defense forces at the lowest levels that accord with each state’s security requirements. Initial cutbacks in heavy armaments have already been made.

Ethnic Cleansing Cemented?
With regard to elections, an area in which the OSCE has real power, there are some critical points worth noting. Non-fulfillment of the minimal conditions for the first elections helped give the ultranationalist parties additional legitimation. Far more serious, however, were the rules established by the Provisional Election Commission in 1996 and 1997, which made it too easy for displaced persons to vote in communities other than their hometowns. In those instances, the OSCE could hardly avoid the accusation of having insufficiently countered the cementing of the ethnic cleansing achieved during the war. And thirdly, there were loud complaints about partisanship, for the OSCE had clear preferences for social-democratic and liberal parties. But, for reasons cited earlier, that strategy would seem to have been justified.

Despite the media ruckus about the Bosnian elections, the OSCE has made a major contribution to democratization in the broadest sense. Of course, it remains to be seen whether a democratization which was imposed from the outside, and was to an extent itself “undemocratic,” will achieve success in the long run. But, working with the locals, the OSCE helped mightily in achieving progress toward a democratic civil society and respect for human rights. In these areas, drawing an interim balance appears premature even after five years. What is clear, however, is that since Dayton the OSCE has grown from a frequently derided paper tiger to an operational organization capable of action and decision-making.

* The author is a freelance journalist who wrote a study on the role of the OSCE in Bosnia-Herzegovina for the Graduate Institute of International Studies in Geneva.

2 March 2001 / Neue Zürcher Zeitung, 24/25 February 2001

Auch die Wahrheit ist ethnisch geteilt

Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker, Schweizer Sektion, vielfalt,
September 1999
Bosnien-Herzegowina ist ein Land mit
zwei sogenannten „Entitäten“ (der moslemisch-kroatischen Föderation und
der „Republika Srpska“), drei bis vier Armeen, drei Sprachen (Serbokroatisch
ist im Krieg gefallen) und vier Währungen, ein Land ohne einheitliche
Grenzpolizei und Telefonkarten. Fast alles ist vier Jahre nach Dayton noch immer
ethnisch geteilt, vor allem eines: die Wahrheit.
Von Marcel Stoessel*

Wie merkt man, dass man – von der kroatischen Adriaküste kommend – die
Grenze von Kroatien zu Bosnien-Herzegowina überquert hat? Es wehen kroatische
Fahnen. Die Sprache ist „kroatisch“. Es wird mit kroatischen Kuna bezahlt.
Und auch die kroatischen Telefonkarten braucht man nicht wegzuwerfen. Was also
ist das Erkennungszeichen von Bosnien-Herzegowina, außer SFOR-, UNO- und
OSZE-Fahrzeugen? Es sind die Dörfer, in denen die Häuser keine Dächer mehr
haben. Der Bus fährt an einigen vorbei, wo absolut nichts mehr steht. Und nach
den Ruinen folgen die Friedhöfe. Ein schockierender Anblick, schon nach 10
Minuten im Land: Durch Friedhöfe ersetzte Dörfer: Willkommen in


Königin des Friedens

Auf diesen Friedhöfen herrscht kein Friede, höchstens Ruhe.
Aber auch Bosnien hat seine Oase des Friedens, und dort steige ich aus. Es ist
der Pilgerort Medjugorje, wo seit 1981 einigen Auserwählten täglich die
Jungfrau Maria erscheinen soll. Die katholische Kirche hat die Erscheinungen
zwar (noch) nicht offiziell anerkannt. Dies hat jedoch bisher fast 20 Millionen
Gläubige nicht daran gehindert, dem Ruf der Heiligen Jungfrau in die Berge
Herzegowina zu folgen. „Königin des Friedens“, wird sie auch genannt, denn
sie betont in ihren Botschaften neben der katholischen Tradition vor allem den Frieden.
Zu Beginn der Erscheinungen sagten die Leute in dem Bergdorf, Friede sei
doch alles, was sie hätten. 10 Jahre später war es alles, was sie sich wünschten.


Geteilte Stadt Mostar

Vier Jahre nach Ende des Krieges und 18 Jahre nach der ersten
Marienerscheinung herrscht in Bosnien-Herzegowina noch kein Friede. Die
17’000 Betten Medjugorjes sind zwar meist mit Religionstouristen aus allen
Kontinenten belegt. Doch die marianische Botschaft von Friede und Toleranz
scheint nicht einmal ins 30 Kilometer entfernte Mostar vorgedrungen zu sein.
Mostar ist die letzte geteilte Stadt Europas. Eine unsichtbare Mauer entlang der
ehemaligen Frontlinie steht zwischen Kroaten im Westen und Moslems im Osten.
„Boulevard der Europäischen Union“, hat ein Sarkast auf eines der total
zerstörten Häuser gesprayt. Apartheid mitten in Europa. Einer der jungen
kroatischen Ultranationalisten fragt mich in einem Café in Westmostar
rhetorisch: „Könnt Ihr Euch Eure Nachbarn nicht aussuchen?“. Nein, das können
wir nicht.


Trinkwasser nur für Kroaten

Aber Taxifahrer können sich ihr Fahrziel aussuchen. Keiner traut sich, mich
auf die moslemische Seite zu bringen. Also gehe ich zu Fuß auf die andere
Strassenseite, wo sich Religion, Währung, Sprache, Flagge und Geschichtsbücher
ändern. Eben noch habe ich neben dem Bild des Papstes gefrühstückt, bald
wache ich vom Gebetsruf der Moscheen Ostmostars auf. Dies ist das
multikulturelle Bosnien, wie es fast nur noch von Auswärtigen erlebt werden
kann. Ethnische Säuberung hat hier Ordnung geschaffen; die „moslemisch-kroatische
Föderation“ ist in Mostar ebenso Fiktion wie der souveräne Staat „Bosnien-Herzegowina“.
Doch Mostar ist nicht Bosnien. Mostar ist vielmehr das schlimmste an Bosnien.
Schon einige Kilometer außerhalb, im Dorf Rastani, treffe ich auf Optimisten
aller Nationalitäten. „Wenn die Seele zufrieden ist, kommt das Materielle von
alleine“, sagt Todor Krzman, der die Rückkehr der geflohenen Serben nach
Rastani koordiniert. „Für unsere Verhältnisse waren wir reich“, schwärmt
er von der Zeit, als es noch Arbeit, Strom, Telefon und Wasser gab. Trinkwasser
gäbe es seit zwei Monaten nur noch für Kroaten, beschwert sich die Muslimin
Zehra Vejzovic, deren Mann vor genau sechs Jahren umgekommen ist. Für einmal
sind sich Serben und Moslems einig: hier behindern die Kroaten die Rückkehr.
Davon möchte der Kroate Slavko Pinjuh nichts wissen. Für ihn ist die Wahrheit
eine andere. Vor seinem unbeschädigten Haus sitzend erzählt er, das Wasser
werde in etwa zehn Tagen wieder aufgedreht, und er habe sogar einige Schafe an
Serben verschenkt. Hinter uns bewässert eine Sprinkleranlage seinen Garten. In
Bosnien ist alles ethnisch geteilt, auch die Wahrheit.


„Sarajevo Survival Guide“

Es ist noch ein langer Weg, den dieses Land zurücklegen muss, um von der
Ruhe der Friedhöfe zum Frieden zu kommen. Am weitesten auf diesem Weg
ist zweifelsohne Sarajevo gegangen, das man von Mostar wieder per Zug erreichen
kann. Im alten türkischen Quartier mischen sich unter die spazierenden Bosnier,
die Mitarbeiter internationaler Organisationen und die gelangweilten
SFOR-Soldaten schon wieder erste Touristen. Doch der Rest der Stadt spricht für
sich. „Rote Rosen von Sarajevo“ schmücken die Fussgängerzone; Einschlaglöcher
von Artilleriegranaten, die mit rotem Gummi aufgefüllt wurden. Zwischen 1992
und 1995 war Sarajevo im Mittelalter, belagert. Der ehemalige Frontsoldat Jihad
Baroud erzählt, wie er ab und zu mit den Serben während einer Waffenruhe
Whiskey trank und man eine Stunde später wieder aufeinander schoss. „Weißt
Du, dass Du im verrücktesten Land Europas lebst?“, frage ich. Er lacht und
tanzt auf der Strasse. Der Humor ist allen Ethnien Bosniens gemeinsam. So
beschreibt der „Sarajevo Survival Guide“, wie man aus nichts etwas kocht und
warum man an Kreuzungen Gas geben soll (um schneller als die Scharfschützen zu
sein). Weitere Kriegsgeschichten höre ich von einem anderen Soldaten. Erst nach
zwei Stunden merke ich, dass er Serbe ist und doch bei der Verteidigung
der Hauptstadt mitgeholfen hat. Sarajevo ist das, was vom multikulturellen
Bosnien übrig geblieben ist. Innerhalb von weniger als 100 Quadratmetern
befinden sich eine katholische Kathedrale, eine orthodoxe Kirche, eine Moschee
und eine jüdische Synagoge.


Moslems in Srebrenica

Doch die nächste Grenze ist nicht weit. „Welcome to Republika Srpska“,
heißt es auf der mittlerweile vielbefahrenen Strasse nach Pale, der früheren
Hochburg der serbischen Extremisten. In einem Souvenirshop kann man Bilder von
Karadziz, Mladic und das Emblem von Arkans Truppen kaufen. Völkermord macht
sich eben doch bezahlt. Wenn die Bosnier die Wahl zwischen Lachen und Weinen
haben, entscheiden sie sich Lachen. Doch in diesem Genozid-Laden gibt es nichts
zu lachen. Dasselbe gilt für mein nächstes Ziel: Srebrenica. An dem Ort, wo
Tausende von moslemischen Männern massakriert wurden, scheine ich als Ausländer
ganz und gar unwillkommen zu sein. Ein Ermittler von Den Haag? Eine alte Frau
sieht, dass ich fotografiere und greift mich tätlich an. „Propaganda,
Propaganda!“, schreit sie. Später in einem Café spielt sich ein 40-jähriger
Serbe groß auf: „Wenn jemals wieder ein Moslem nach Srebrenica kommt, reiße
ich ihm die Nieren aus dem Leib“. Mein moslemischer Fahrer zuckt zusammen, als
ob ihn der Blitz getroffen hätte. „Ich auch“, sagt er hastig, um jeden
Vorwurf von sich zu weisen.


Auch Serben sind Opfer

Doch auch hier gilt: Srebrenica ist nicht Bosnien. In Banja Luka, der
heutigen Hauptstadt der Republika Srpska, geben sich die Leute moderater. Der
Krieg ist nicht bis hierher gekommen, und doch wird schnell klar, dass auch
Serben Opfer der Auflösung Jugoslawiens sind. Dieser Teil der Republika Srpska
ist übervoll mit Flüchtlingen aus der kroatischen Kraijna, ohne Hoffnung auf Rückkehr.
Die Serbin Radmila Nenadic, 60, erzählt, sie hätte sich in Bihac vor den
Moslems nicht mehr sicher gefühlt: „Ich bin aus meiner Heimatstadt mit einer
einzigen Plastiktasche geflohen“. Nun ergeht es ihr wie Hunderttausenden in
diesem Land: Ihre Wohnung ist von Angehörigen einer anderen ethnischen Gruppe
besetzt. „Ich bin das Opfer der Politiker“, fügt sie an und gibt damit dem
Ausdruck, was mir auch die große Mehrheit der Kroaten und Moslems sagten.
Nationalisten hätten sie in die Irre geführt. “Dann können die
Nationalisten also das nächste Mal nicht mehr mit Ihrer Stimme rechnen?“,
frage ich provokativ. Erst nach einiger Zeit antwortet sie, darüber müsse sie
nachdenken. Eigentlich hat sie gemeint, die Nationalisten der anderen Seite hätten
sie in die Irre geführt. So ist der Weg zum Frieden in Bosnien-Herzegowina noch
lang, und die ethnische Säuberung der Wahrheit geht weiter.

*Unser Autor lebt als freier Journalist in Genf. Er hat dieses Jahr zwei Monate
Bosnien-Herzegowina besucht.



der Westen die Völker Bosnien-Herzegowinas zum Zusammenleben zwingen?

Fortschritt, der in den letzten vier Jahren in Bosnien-Herzegowina gemacht
wurde, wurde dem Land von der sogenannten „Internationalen Gemeinschaft“
aufgezwungen. Konkret heißt dies, dass der internationale Bosnienbeauftragte
im Stile eines kolonialen Gouverneurs dekretiert, wenn sich die Nationalisten
nicht einigen wollen. Beispiele sind das gemeinsame Nummernschild, die sich
mittlerweile durchsetzende gemeinsame Währung, die gemeinsame Flagge (genannt
„Westendorp-Flagge“), der neue Pass sowie der Absetzung des
ultranationalistischen Präsidenten der „Republika Srpska“, Nikola
Poplasen. Wolfgang Petrisch kann, wie sein Vorgänger Carlos Westendorp, jeden
Politiker und Beamten Bosnien-Herzegowinas absetzen, wie es ihm beliebt. Ist
dies legitim?

einem sind sich alle ethnischen Gruppen einig: Die Internationale Gemeinschaft
macht in Bosnien alles falsch. Kroaten und Serben empfinden die SFOR als
Besetzungsmacht; und bei den Moslems macht sich das „Abhängigkeits-Syndrom“
breit: Die Ausländer hätten schon während dem Krieg versagt, nun sollten
sie gefälligst ihren Einfluss nutzen, um alles schnell wieder in Ordnung zu

soll der Westen in Gestalt von SFOR und OHR (Office of the High Representative)
drei ethnische Gruppen zum Zusammenleben zwingen, wenn dies zwei mehrheitlich
nicht wollen und die internationale Hilfe in der Höhe von 5.1 Milliarden
US-Dollar wenig geschätzt wird, ganz zu schweigen von der grassierenden

Antwort ist ein klares Ja. Denn eine allfällige Teilung Bosniens ist erst
durch ethnische Säuberung möglich geworden, und dies darf nicht belohnt
werden. Die einzige Alternative zum (de facto) internationalen Protektorat ist
Apartheid, die mit Gewalt erzwungen wurde. Das dürfen wir in Europa nicht
zulassen. Wir müssen offen anerkennen, dass sich Selbstbestimmung und
Menschenrechte manchmal widersprechen können. Auch gegen den Willen eines
Teils der Bevölkerung müssen wir uns in diesen Fällen für die
Menschenrechte entscheiden.

Marcel Stoessel

History Lessons in Banja Luka

„Tudjman wanted to realize Greater Croatia, which has its Eastern borders close to Belgrade. Milosevic wanted to realize Greater Serbia, which has its Western borders close to Zagreb” – this is not a history lesson given by a University professor at 2 p.m. in Geneva. It is a history lesson given to me by a Bosnian Serb, who studied forestry (and – of course – fought in the war), at 4 a.m. on a public place in Banja Luka.

Yes, there is one!Today’s capital of the “Republika Srpska” is my last station on this very interesting trip, but I there are two things I got tired of in two months: war stories, and history lessons.
Everything in Bosnia is still divided according to ethnic lines, and that includes the historical truth.
Teenagers too young to have killed anyone in warSo at this particular night, after a nice evening in the bars and discos of Banja Luka, where I have danced with teenagers too young to have killed someone in the war, I don’t want to hear his story, but I have to. The beers do their part to loose my Swiss neutrality. “What about the Muslims?” I ask. “Oh, they want everything” the forestry-history expert in his 20ies says. “They will come to destroy our culture, you will see”. Where they will come from? “From Turkey, from everywhere!”
That snapshot was not received well by the people standing around me
Insisting that he only defended his country, he points out the Serb graveyards that no one sees and finally wants to know my own opinion. At 4.30 a.m., I want to go to sleep: “We [the West] have absolutely no reason to be a priori on the side of the Muslims. Our culture is much closer to the Catholic or the Orthodox Christians. But the fact of the matter is … ” We argue for a while, then I ask: “Can you go to an Orthodox Church in Sarajevo?” – “Yes, I can” – “Can a Muslim go to a Mosque in Banja Luka?”. He remains silent. All 16 Mosques, including the beautiful Ferhadija from 1580, were blown up by local Serbs during the war. “It was a mistake to destroy the Mosques”, he whispers as if he was telling me a secret. The Bosniaks didn’t blow up the Orthodox Church in Sarajevo just because they are masters of propaganda with the international media, he says. We go our own ways as friends.
Roma woman in Banja LukaThis part of the “Republika Srpska” is more moderate than the Eastern part. Serbs were also victims of the dissolution of Yugoslavia. Banja Luka and its surroundings are overcrowded with refugees from the Croatian Kraijna. I get to feel the precarious housing situation myself when I arrive at the bus station. The shitty hotels are as expensive as the international community is ready to pay expenses for their officials, private accommodation is scarce and impossible to find on a Sunday. When finally someone recommends me to go to the UNHCR (I am not a refugee!), I go for the cheapest hotel: 70 DM for a Stalinist-style room in a Stalinist-style building, with the noise of a major construction site just next to it, and the worst breakfast you’ve ever had. What makes you feel even nicer is that the price for a Serb is half of that. But later, a good friend (yes, a Bosnian Serb) gets me very good private accommodation.
Banja Luka is largely intact. My translator Rebecca points out some destroyed buildings: “That was a Muslim’s house”. The few remaining Croats have a hard life here. One of them is an old woman, a good friend of Rebecca’s, refused to leave when the ethnic cleansing went on elsewhere in Bosnia: “I just wanted to stay. This has always been my home”. The woman was forced out at gunpoint and had to go to a smaller flat, constantly feeling threatened.
This woman has to live with less than 100 DM pension a month
At the same time, another woman, about the same age, but Serb, felt threatened in Bihac (predominantly Muslim) on the border with Croatia. “I left my hometown only with a plastic bag full of my belongings” she says. That was the reasoning of ethnic cleansing: Everyone moves to “his” part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which was very mixed before the war. Ethnic cleansing was the whole point of the war. Creating Greater Serbia and Greater Croatia.
I interviewed maybe 25 people in all parts of Bosnia, and talked with many more. Everyone, I asked one question in the end: “If you could go back to the time before the war – which included living together with other ethnic groups – would you want to go back?”
Everyone, even the most extreme of nationalists, said they would go back, also the Serb woman from Bihac. I want to know who is guilty then. “The nationalists”, she says, also expressing a view that I have heard all over this crazy country. “So the nationalists can’t count on your vote in the next election?” I ask. “I will have to consider it very thoroughly”. In fact, she meant the nationalists from the other ethnic groups.

One Day in Srebrenica

American SFOR vehicle on the way to SrebrenicaJournalists have a tendency to go to “bad places” where “bad news” is made. When two journalists in Bosnia team up, guess what’s happening. They hire a car, a driver, and a translator, and go to Srebrenica, the former U.N. safe haven that was – in 1995 – the most unsafe place on the face of the earth. Around 8’000 Muslim men were killed in the biggest single war crime since World War II.
Joop is a Dutch journalist writing for the biggest Amsterdam daily. He started as a sport reporter for that very same newspaper, and he has covered the 1984 Sarajevo Winter games, at a time when I didn’t even know what “Bosnia” or “Yugoslavia” means.

We are not stopped at the “border” between the Bosnian-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska. Edin (the translator) and Jasmin (the driver) are Muslims. But they can change accents because they used to live in the mixed town of Foça, a town I am told to absolutely avoid.
Welcome to Srebrenica!When, after a three hours drive, we pass the Cyril sign “Srebrenica”, Edin says: “We should stay no more than one hour in Srebrenica. It’s for your own security”. In reality, he was talking not about our security, but about his understandable fear in the village that is now populated by 100.0% Serbs.
The “black market” is the center of things in Srebrenica, and probably the nicest building is an Orthodox church… In a restaurant, a bored drunken policeman asks us to drink with him. He doesn’t care what we do here when he learns that we are neither journalists nor working for “Haag”, as the international war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is called. When I take – under a pretext – a photo of two men (further down on this page), I ask if I can take two. “Make three”, the man in front jokes, “one for you, one for me, and one for ‘Haag'”.
We are clearly being observed.
Outside, next to Srebrenica’s disco, I start playing with small children. Finally, I take some photos of them.
When the policeman wants us to continue to drink with him (and we don’t), we say maybe later, go to the car and discuss the situation. Our two Bosniak friends clearly feel bad. A red Golf passes our car very closely and very slowly, with people looking out of the windows. “I think it’s time to go to Sarajevo”, Edin says. Jasmin agrees. Joop – the Dutch journalist – wants to follow our plan and interview some people. I am also afraid, because I had bad experiences with drunken policemen in the past (not in Bosnia). I suggest we ask some American SFOR troops and rely on their judgment.
Around 25 Marines sleep on the grass a little bit outside of town, waiting for a helicopter. The young lieutenant has no reservations about us going back. “Wanna go to Sreb? No problem!”. Today it’s talk, not shoot, he gives us to understand. Americans are known to be oversensitive about security, so we are heading back into “Sreb”.
 The children of Srebrenica
Right next to the “black market”, an old woman attacks me physically. All I understand from her war of words is: “Propaganda! Propaganda!”. She saw me taking pictures of the children, Edin translates, and she thinks we are doing propaganda against the Serb people. Joop and me make the sign of the Cross the Orthodox way (first right, then left) and explain that we are friends of the Serbs. She finally calms down.
In a cafe, Joop interviews a resident of Srebrenica who is still looking for his family since the war (in front of the picture). Every now and then, another man, sitting behind his beer (left on the picture), interrupts the translation. “Once, a Muslim woman came here”, the man in his forties says, “She must be happy that I was not there. If ever I see a Muslim in Srebrenica, I will take his kidneys out of his body with my own hands!”. Jasmin has a nervous twitching when he hears that remark, and also Edin is extremely uncomfortable. “Are you Muslims?” the Serb asks. “No, I would do exactly the same if I would see a Muslim here”, Edin responds. Somehow, we all feel it’s time to go back to Sarajevo.
After we pass the sign “Srebrenica” again, Jasmin asks me if I can imagine how he felt. No, I can’t. When we drive through another village, Edin – who will leave Bosnia forever in two weeks – says sarcastically: “This village used to be 100% Muslim. It’s now 100% Serb. That is Dayton”.
The international community has brought its absurdities to Srebrenica even after it has watched the massacre. First, the Muslims are forced out of Srebrenica or are killed while U.N. peacekeepers stand by. With Dayton, everyone has the right to return to his/her home and can vote for his/her town/village, no matter where he/she has sought refuge. 600’000 people still live in another house than their own in Bosnia. So a Muslim local council is elected for Srebrenica, because most residents live there illegally. The elected representatives of the local council can, for the sake for their security, not live in Srebrenica. So they have to be brought in by busses to hold their meetings. Probably SFOR makes sure they arrive safely. They debate, they decide, in the full knowledge that none of their decisions will be implemented. When they have to stay overnight, Serb policemen protect them. After the session, they go back to the Federation – either to the houses they occupy, or to refugee centers.
As Joop often said during our day in Srebrenica: “Bosnia is Kafka”.

Gorazde – symbol of resistance

Bosnia can’t be only bad news. Gorazde is a symbol of resistance – the only one of the Muslim enclaves in Eastern Bosnia that didn’t fall. That’s where Joop and me are heading the next day.

Just outside Sarajevo, we pass through Pale. The former capital of the “Republika Srpska” has not been destroyed at all. The ski-lifts and mine-free mountains would be ready for the Olympic games in 2’010. How great it would be if the IOC could give the Games again to Sarajevo!
Pale - that's all there is to it nowadays
A woman asks Jasmin if he’s a Muslim. She probably realized it from his behavior. No problems. The two start to talk. We let them talk. Later we ask what the discussion was about. About Sarajevo, how nice it was before the war. We had everything before the war, and what do we have now? Nothing. Both agree.
On the way to Gorazde, we pass again through Bosnian Serb territory and reach “Serbian Gorazde” first. Everything is divided in Bosnia. Edin and Jasmin refuse to eat in this part of town. A 60-year old factory worker tells us he doesn’t like the politicians (nobody does in Bosnia), but he admires general Mladic. In this part of Gorazde, very few people talk to us at all.
When we arrive in the Muslim part, our two friends are smiling again. Here they know everybody, including – of course – the girls. A man who is not smiling arrives with his car with a German number plate. He tells me about his houses in “Serbian Gorazde”, four houses that he had built with his own hands for his extended family. Now, one is destroyed, and Serbs live in the three others. His hope to be ever able to return there is dim. His car is full of consumer goods that he brought from Germany in a 16-hour drive. He pays the rent for two of his daughters who still live here. Paying a rent if you have three houses just 2 km away.
“I have lost everything, absolutely everything”, he tells me and cries. I almost cry myself. I look into the eyes of a strong man crying like a child because some nationalists wanted to turn back the clock to the 19th century. “Now, I have also lost my nerves”.
Two former war enemies - a Serb and a Muslim, Gorazde, 1999Next stop: a transitory refugee station. We unite a Serb and a Muslim – who have both fought in the war – around the same table. They both want to return to their respective part of Gorazde. As for now, they live in the same refugee centre and – what is rare – they believe in Bosnia and Herzegovina. We ask the same questions, and very often, the answers are similar. “This war was such a big mistake”, the 70-year old Serb says. “I will probably not experience the time when things are back to normal. But for the rest of my life, I will fight for it.” They even tell us who gets their votes in the next election: the multi-ethnic social-democratic party.
A woman interrupts us. She also has a story to tell – and no one wants to listen. OK, we want to listen.
Truth and fiction in BosniaHere goes the story: The man was in a Serb concentration camp, where he was beaten almost every day. He is now dependent of tranquilizers. Asylum was refused to them when they fled to Germany, and now they are in this refugee centre with their four children. We can see that the man is also an alcoholic and we feel that he probably beats the woman. She tells us the children sometimes have to look for food in the containers.
Here goes the truth, after some research with MSF: This is one of the numerous mixed marriages. The man is a Serb. He refused to go to the Bosnian Serb army during the war and was imprisoned for this. In Germany, however, he maintained that he was a Muslim. The family voluntarily left Germany after the war. They have been offered a newly built house in Gorazde – they refused because “it was too far away from the centrer”. The woman and the children were offered to go to a centre for women who are abused by their men. She refused.
So instead of a typical Bosnia war story, this is a typical family story like it happens all around the world. Joop and me have already made plans how we can help them. “Everybody wants to help them”, the French woman from MSF tells us, “but they simply refuse every help”.
Around these days, the New York Times claimed that up to 1 of the 5 billion US $ of international aid went into corrupt hands.

Next: Banja Luka
Books about the subject

Sarajevo – it still exists

“As long as Sarajevo exists, this newspaper will publish every day”, the editor-in-chief of Oslobodjenje is remembered to have said to his employees when the siege of Sarajevo began. The multi-ethnic paper did come out every day, and still exists – even no the two towers of newspaper are completely destroyed – and will remain like that, as a memorial of the war.

I remember watching the Swiss ski team on TV in 1984 at the Olympic games in Sarajevo. I also remember pronouncing “Sarajevo” dozens, hundreds of times on the radio, telling people that a new cease-fire had been agreed upon… Now I have arrived here myself, by train, and every minute of the day, the word “Sarajevo” is in my mind.
The front was where the trees startThe Olympic town has been thrown into the Middle Ages from one day to the other – during the 3-year siege, university professors became wood-collectors, and going out of your house was a deadly risk. Despite all the books, I never really emotionally understood the difference between attacking and defending in a war until I talked to the people in Sarajevo. The former front line is all around the city. You can still recognize it clearly: It’s where the trees start on the hills. Everything wooden has been cut to survive the winters. When you walk around town, there is almost no place where this tree-front-line can’t be seen.
Zihad was one of the defenders. The man in his 30ies tells me how he bought weapons in a town where even foreign head of states had troubles getting in. There were two ways, he explains: from the Croats – but they would take 50% for themselves (and possibly use them against Bosniaks elsewhere), or from the Serbs on the hills:
“We are both behind our respective frontlines. Then I would shout: ‘I want to buy a Kalashnikov. Can we make a truce?’ Then the Serb would respond: ‘OK, let’s make a truce from 4 p.m.’ At that time, both come out of their positions and negotiate. 500 DM for the gun, 1 DM per bullet. I give him 1000 DM, he gives me the gun. At 5 p.m. we go back behind our lines and start shooting at each other again”.
I ask him: “Do you know that you live in the craziest country in Europe?” – “Yes”, he shouts, laughs, and dances on the streets of Sarajevo.
The ruins of the former parliament building in the backgroundThe humor is universal with all ethnicities in Bosnia and Herzegovina (so is the driving style). A very popular souvenir – except for all kinds of used ammunition with pictures hammered in – is the Sarajevo Survival Map and the Sarajevo Survival Guide. The latter, which came out during the siege, can only be warmly recommended. The authors tell you how “to cook something out of nothing” and why driving fast over crossroads is the rule in Sarajevo (to escape snipers). In the introduction of the Michelin-style travel guide, you can read: “War so far hasn’t changed the climate”.
The place of the market square massacre - with a big Sarajevo roseBut it has changed a lot of other things, even if the Turkish old town (Bascarsija) is basically rebuilt (except for the National Library). So-called “Sarajevo red roses” – artillery craters filled with red gum – are a reminder of the places where three or more people have died. The outskirts of town still look horrible. It won’t be long before war tourism sets in. A Sarajevo Survival Shop has already opened, but I haven’t spotted any “I have survived Sarajevo” T-Shirt yet.  Foreigners govern Bosnia and Herzegovina. The “White House” is one of the nicknames people give to the seat of the “Office of the High Representative”. That’s where the real decisions are made. The High Representative has to agree with himself about everything the democratically elected nationalists can’t agree amongst themselves: common flag, common licence plate, common currency, common border police, new passport, return of refugees, … He can impose measures and depose politicians – and has done so.
All ethnic groups agree that this European protectorate is not what they want. If you are against it, you must be ready to accept the alternative: apartheid, brought about by “ethnic cleansing” and genocide.
The foreigners get a lot of money (“It’s the only reason we are in this shitty place”, says one). A lot of them have an alcohol problem. And like in comparable places, intelligent locals have made sure foreigners are catered for. In the “Internet Café” (a restaurant and a disco, it changes names frequently), foreigners and locals mix and try to dance and drink it all away. When the place closes, three young women ask if I want to go to another disco they know with them. OK. On the way there, I realize that one of them is a Serb, one a Croat, and one a Bosniak. Sarajevo was always like that. “I love you all”, I said to them. After the second disco closes around 5 a.m.), they asked where my car is or if I have money for a taxi. When I say that I am walking and that I am also not willing to pay their taxi, they were all – ethnically equal – pissed. No car, no money, no marriage.
Bosniaks, Serbs, Croats, Jews, SFOR-soldiers, employees of international organizations, and the few tourists, all have one in common in the afternoon: they are just terribly hot in the summer sun of Sarajevo.
Bascarsija - the old Turkish Bazar
Sarajevo will soon be a town ready again to accommodate tourists, and in the nearby Pale, you can already now do world-class  I interview many representatives of the so-called “international
community” in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These are probably
not of big interest to visitors to this page. I would like to point out,
however, one remarkable woman from an NGO called “Society for
Fadila Memisevic

This man has experienced three wars in his life - nothing can make him stop laughing.
rview many representatives of the so-called “international
community” in the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These are probably
not of big interest to visitors to this page. I would like to point out,
however, one remarkable woman from an NGO called “Society for

Threatened Peoples” (Gesellschaft für bedrohte Völker).
Fadila Memisevic is now the head of the Bosnian section of this human
rights organization. Even during the war, she went from
Germany through all of war-torn Bosnia to Zenica, risking her life for the people there. Today, she still believes in a multi-cultural Bosnia and Herzegovina. She repeats again and again: “One cannot destroy our multi-cultural Bosnia with weapons”. One might say that it already has been destroyed by weapons, but Bosnia needs people like her. Bosnia doesn’t need the young pessimists who leave the country as soon as they can for a better future abroad. Fadila is especially engaged for the women of Srebrenica: “They want truth” – a bitter truth it will probably be. She also often points out the destiny of the Roma, which many people only know as beggar children on the street. Fadila is not neutral and not impartial. But being impartial in this conflict meant being impartial between aggressors and victims. You can’t expect someone to just leave this psychological baggage behind.

In front of an SFOR base in SarajevoContrary to what I expected, everyone wants to talk about war. One elderly man insists on telling me every detail on how his son defended Sarajevo while his son’s friends watched the war on TV in Germany. After more than two hours, I find out that the man is a Serb, and that his son was in the Bosnian army. “It was not written on the heads of the people who is a Serb and who is a Muslim”, he says, which lets me think about “target discrimination” on the part of the attackers on the hills….
But despite all of this, Sarajevo still exists, and it’s worth a trip
Marcel in front of a Mosque, Sarajevo, 1999

Mostar: The City of Apartheid

The catholic Croats are proud of “their” Medjugorje, and they often go there. But as some humorists say: Now to something completely different.
Tourism sign at the front line, seen through an artillerie whole
To do it the other way around, going from Medjugorje to East Mostar (meaning east of the former front line, the Muslim part) is not all that easy. No consistent rumors about buses, I don’t want to hitchhike (like I did before) with all the baggage, so I splash out 30 DM for a taxi. “What is the name of the street again? But that is in East Mostar”, the Croat driver says. He absolutely refuses to cross what is commonly called “the invisible wall”, the completely destroyed former frontline.
50 m from that frontline- street, he stops.
82-year old Muslim in his 500-year old Turkish house There I go, in the hot sun (40 degrees centigrade in the shadow), walking over a former frontline, where hundreds of thousands of bullets have hit every single building, going into Mostar’s old city, trying to find the pension I have phoned. 2 liters of sweat later, the price of that pension has incredibly increased since yesterday. No way. Good-bye.
An 82-year-old Muslim man stops me. “I have a 500-year old Turkish house. Do you want to see it?” Yes, but first a bed and a shower. No, he wants to show me his old Turkish house. One liter of sweat later, we arrive there. Somewhere in the middle, he stops: “My heart!” Then I have to make the tour of that – indeed – wonderful house. It belonged to a wealthy Osman family, has survived World War I and World War II, but not the 90’s. I get to see the kitchen, the living room, and some books as old as 500 years. I recover somewhat over tea, where he tells me that he also has a house in Western Mostar, now occupied by the army of the Republic of “Herceg-Bosna”, a republic that is theoretically dead and buried. But Dayton is one thing, the facts on the ground are quite another. As much as I feel sorrow for the victims of this war, I almost become one from dehydration: I reluctantly bring up the subject of getting a place to stay. Oh yes, he knows someone, “very close”. Almost on the other end of Eastern Mostar, two liters of sweat later, I get to know another proud descendent of the Osmans, around 60 years old, married “three or four times, I don’t remember”. The guy has a lot of humor and knows four languages. Finally, I have arrived, six hours after I’ve left Medjugorje, 30 km away.
In front of the Karadzozbeg Mosque (1557)
After having slept under a Cross and after having had breakfast next to the picture of the Pope, I now wake up to the sound of Mosques. This is the multicultural Bosnia and Herzegovina – you can still see it, if you are a foreigner.
The very symbol of multiculturalism was the “old bridge” (Stari Most) – that the Croats destroyed in 1993. Now you can see how the Hungarians fish the pieces of one of Europe’s most remarkable bridges out of the Neretva River. Whenever possible, they will use the same stones. The running joke is that Stari Most will be older than before with the Hungarians re-building it. Of course, SFOR takes care of security, and the new bridge will need 24 hours of surveillance, that’s for sure.
Stari Most - can you recognize where it used to be?
Former front line between East and West MostarEvery day, I do what few locals do, at least three times: crossing the former front line, that 1.5 km stretch of a street that makes Mostar continental Europe’s city of apartheid. On the Eastern side of that street – which a sarcast named “Boulevard of European Union” – you are in Bosnia and Herzegovina. On the Western side, everyone feels and behaves like in Croatia. There is even a provocative sign: “Welcome to Croatia”. In a café in Western Mostar, the mood is easy until the waiter, who was an HVO soldier during the war, wants to start talking about the war. “This is f****** occupation”, he says, adding that later he earned only 1’500 DM as an interpreter and field officer for the ICRC (an incredible amount in Bosnia). Thanks to the ICRC job, his knowledge about Switzerland is very deep and differentiated. We hand out syringes and drugs for free to drug addicts (half-true, to avoid HIV, crime and prostitution), while he would kill his son if he was addicted. I also learn that the Swiss, living in a multicultural state, are “foreigners in your own country”. One day, the Croats will kick the international community out of their country, just like in Somalia. And as to the Muslims: “Can’t you choose your neighbors?”. No, we can’t.
Rebuilding a Serb house in Rastani, near MostarI am aware that Western Mostar is not Bosnia; it’s the worst of Bosnia. Only a few kilometers outside Mostar, in the village of Rastani, the other Bosnia can be seen. Here, Serbs and Muslims help each other re-build completely destroyed houses. The Serb coordinator for the return of the Serb refugees is overly optimistic: “This will be an eldorado”, while a pensioner, who has to live with less than 100 DM a month, says they will continue to rely on international aid – even for food. Only the Croats of Rastani try to do some last-minute obstruction to the return of the refugees, by cutting off the water to the Serb and Muslim part of town, for example. One Muslim historian present complains: “We are a protectorate. Why doesn’t Mr. Petritsch turn on the water?”.
In East Mostar, also everyone wants to tell war stories, emphasizing their roles as victims. “Once a grenade just went 2 meters past me when I was running to get water in the Mosque”, a woman tells me. Most Muslims seem to be quite secular: If you look at the dresses of the young women, you are convinced that the Sharia is not what they think about the whole day…
Mixed graveyard in Western MostarThe most pervert thing about Mostar are – again – the cemeteries. Like everywhere in the towns that were in the war zones, almost all green areas have been transformed into cemeteries. But in Western Mostar, you can learn history from these cemeteries. In some of them, Catholic and Muslim graves are next to each other – that was in the first phase of the war, when Croats and Bosniaks fought alongside against the Serb attack. In others, it’s Croat-only – ethnically divided, like everything in this country.
But things are moving towards the better, even in this horrible town. The youngsters sometimes go to the discos of the “other side”, fall in love with each other, but don’t say anything to their parents… The mafia cooperates. And at the front line, the first café is open again, and some renovation is being done.
250’000 deaths and 2 mio. refugees can’t be forgotten in a few years.
Old or new demons? Former front line.

Medjugorje: An Oasis of Peace

Sitting in the train that takes me to Croatia, I was thinking about the reactions of my friends and relatives. One might think I go to a war, not a country. Why Bosnia? [when I write „Bosnia“, I also mean „Herzegovina“]? What drove me there is the interest in world politics, some journalistic work, and – most importantly – my interest in human nature.
I am now waiting for the bus that takes me from the wonderful Croatian town of Dubrovnik up to Medjugorje, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, thinking that I have probably left the last tourists behind. I am wrong.
Driving up to Bosnia, it’s difficult even to tell where Croatia ends and Bosnia and Herzegovina begins. On the other side of the little-controlled border, there is still a Croatian flag. In the bus up to Medjugorje, look out of the bus windows The currency is the Croatian „Kuna“. Don’t throw away your Croatian phone card. The mobile phone shows „HR“ on its display. And, very important to the local Croats, the language is „Croatian“. (Outsiders, like linguists, consider Serbo-Croatian one language, with the dialects „Croatian“ and „Serbian“. But outsiders don’t know that war can destroy languages as well.)
The first indications that we have entered a new sovereign state are four wheel driven „OSCE“, „UN“ and „SFOR“ vehicles. And then, after about 10 minutes in the country, a shocking sight I will never forget in my life. Our bus drives past completely destroyed villages where not one roof is left on any house. I am looking out of the window, and I see nothing but ruins. And after the ruins: a cemetery. Villages replaced by cemeteries. Welcome to Bosnia and Herzegovina!
In these cemeteries, there is no peace.
St. James Church
But I do find peace – in Medjugorje, in the mountains of the Herzegovina. An oasis of peace so close to where the heaviest fighting on European soil since World War II took place. It’s difficult to find a bed (Medjugorje has 17’000 of them) because of a youth festival. All of the sudden, I find myself in the middle of probably the biggest spiritual center in the world. I have become a pilgrim.
Thousands celebrate the mass in 8 languages
Ivan, one of the visionaries, in front of his houseSix teenagers claim they had apparitions of the Virgin Mary in 1981. They can see her three-dimensionally, talk to her, and she talks to them, they say. “I have no idea why the Gospa [as the Croats call her] has chosen me”, Ivan – one of the visionaries – tells me in a rare interview. Up until today, the Virgin is supposed to appear to three out of the six visionaries every day at 18.40 h.

The message of “Our Lady” was and is a very Catholic one: pray, fast, confess, celebrate the Holy Mass, read the bible.
But there is one resounding message that comes again like a guiding thread: peace. On the 25th of June, 1981, Mary said to the six young Bosnian Croats that they should pray for peace. “Peace is all we have”, the poor villagers said at the time. On the 26th of June, 1991, almost exactly ten years later, the forceful disintegration of Yugoslavia began. Then, peace was all they longed for. But this supposed coincidence of dates doesn’t state who drove the Muslims out of West Mostar.
Confessing in every languageSince 1981, probably close to 20 million pilgrims from France, Spain, Ireland, Poland, Romania, the United States, Germany, Lebanon, South Korea, and many other countries, have come by the bus loads and by the charter planes to the once unknown village that developed into a center for religious tourism. They can be found up a hill now known as “Apparition Hill”. A simple wooden cross reminds people of where the first supposed apparitions took place. They also walk up the nearby stations of the cross. Some do the latter barefoot, some do it on their knees. At any time of the day and the night, pilgrims can be found at both places. Everyone is praying. There is no superficiality here. Medjugorje is the best tranquilizer you can get.
In Medjugorje, every house is a pension, and also in all other respects, religious tourists are catered for. Souvenir shops along the main road compete with each other for the most holy name: “Glory Souvenirs”, “Hallelujah”, … And if you don’t have your Visa card ready to pay for your rosary, don’t worry, you can also pay in Australian dollars.
Our Lady sells well - in any currencyThe pope has not officially recognized the apparitions of Medjugorje as supra-natural, but has also not done the contrary. What should I believe?
“In the name of God”, I ask professional visionary (and family father) Ivan and look into his eyes, “are you lying?”. At first, he doesn’t understand the English question, even when re-formulated. Then he answers: “The apostles didn’t believe Jesus. I am ready to die for the apparitions”.
And the spiritual adviser of the visionaries, Franciscan Fr. Slavko, tells me he is ready to pay transport and accommodation for everyone who wants to prove that the visionaries don’t say the truth. That’s as difficult as to prove that they are right. Either it is a show completely orchestrated right from the beginning, or it is true.
Ivan allows me to be present at one of the “extraordinary” (meaning not at 18.40 h) apparitions, today at 22 o’clock. A crowd of maybe 200 people is waiting at the place, where Mary announced to Ivan that she would appear. They sing and pray. Sometimes they compete as to which pilgrim group has the right to sing: “Pssst!”. Peace.
Ivan arrives. He is standing, looking up into the sky, and then, all of the sudden, he falls on his knees and starts praying. “This is the moment of the apparition”, says a French pilgrim behind me. Everyone prays, except for the children, the mentally handicapped, and the few who came to take photos. After five minutes, everything is over. “Our Lady had no special message today”, Ivan announces, “she appeared happily and said that she would pray especially for the sick today”. The message is immediately translated into six languages and told to the pilgrims present.
Personally, I didn’t feel anything special, but maybe that’s because I am a protestant. Protestants are very welcome in Medjugorje, especially when they become Catholics. I spoke with maybe 100 people in my two weeks as a pilgrim. Around 30 of them asked me if I’m Catholic. My standard answer: “I am the son of my parents”.
Ivan says it’s difficult to return to the real world after having spent 10 minutes with the Virgin Mary every day. As for me, I will return to the real world of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is not (yet) one of peace.

I certainly found a lot of inner peace in Medjugorje, in that oasis of peace in the middle of a former war zone. But I am not enough naïve not to see the other reality: the next ethnically cleansed (by Catholics…) Muslim village is only a few kilometers away, and the worst place in Bosnia, Mostar, is 30 km down the hill. That’s where I’m heading now.