Bosnia & Herzegovina - The Journey 2012

Entrenched within its lush, green forestry and fauna, amidst its enchanting naturally decorated landscapes and picturesque scenery lays a virulent history for which Bosnia has earned its reputation within Europe.

For Eastern Europe and the Balkans, Bosnia and its neighbouring countries has long endured a complex and turbulent relationship in recent years. Sarajevo became known as the ‘Jerusalem of the West’ and it is also famously remembered for being the trigger point for the beginning of World War One with the assassination of Franz Ferdinand.  The intricate political story of the conflict that occurred in 1992 is far too multifaceted for one to expound upon within the confines of this small article, yet equally it is quite an arduous task for one to attempt to summarise.

The siege on Bosnia began in April 1992 where the main catalyst for the ensuing tragic events was due to the Bosnian government at the time voting to leave what was the Yugoslav Federation and become an independent nation. This raised alarm bells with Serbian nationalists (also Christian fundamentalists) led by the late Slobodan Milošević, who were seeking to create a Christian Greater Serbia after the death of Communist leader General Tito.  

The following years were bloody and brutal. Scores of civilians were killed, notably the market massacre in which a market full of shoppers was shelled indiscriminately leaving a morbid scene of scattered bodies, blood and carnage. A main road in Sarejevo became infamously entitled ‘Sniper Valley’ as Serbian sharp shooters concealed up in the surrounding hills took aim on civilians. In July 1995 in particular, the town of Srebrenica bore witness to what became known as the worst massacre since World War Two, where eight thousand men and boys were separated from their families and summarily executed in cold blood and callously piled in mass graves in a sinister attempt that they be hidden from the eyes of the World. These mass graves continue to be discovered until now, twenty years on.

Several impending negotiations and ceasefires were sought out but failed to hold strong and a series of tragic events occurred. The siege finally ended in 1995 when the Dayton Accord was signed and endorsed by President Clinton, coupled with a perpetually enforcing presence of Mujahedeen coming in from across the continents, forcing the Serbian military to retreat and lay down it’s arms. The war saw in the region of one hundred thousand people killed and many thousands displaced, whilst many fled in exodus to seek refuge in other countries. 

The Journey
Myself and a group of young Muslims from the UK embarked upon a journey to Bosnia organised by the charity organisation ‘MADE In Europe’ to explore the region affected and to visit the aftermath twenty years on. The main objectives of the expedition were to raise awareness of a forgotten tragedy, to generate funds for sustainable agricultural projects and to show support to families affected by post war conditions. As a collective we raised enough funds to support the implementation of strawberry farms, seedling farms and English lessons. Bosnians are a hard working people by nature and this allows them to be self- sufficient rather than to rely off continual aid. My abode for a week was in a quaint village staying with a local Bosnian family that lived on a farm high upon the hills. The environment was serene and natural and we were made very welcomed, as Bosnians have a resounding reputation for their warm hospitality. Many of the group who lived on farms got stuck in and helped with stacking hay, picking raspberries and feeding livestock which all added to the wholesomeness of the experience.
On our journey, we also participated in the annual ‘Mars Mira’ or ‘Peace March’ event, where thousands of people worldwide re-enact in reverse the treacherous route thousands of Bosnian refugees undertook over roughly ten days from Srebrenica to the UN safe area located in the village of Nezuk to flee the onslaught of the Serbs. This was formerly known as the ‘Death March’ as many perished along the way as they faced an incessant barrage of shelling, ambushes and minefields as well as starvation. Our simplified version consisted of an 110km march over three days through dense forests, rocky roads and hills in an average of thirty-degree heat. Although it was a tough and challenging march for any intrepid trekker, it was truly a humbling experience to realise that as we treaded in the footsteps of those that fled, it was not an iota as testing in comparison to the immeasurable struggles and trials those Bosnian refugees were faced with when desperately attempting to escape relentless and brutal persecution. 

The culmination of our journey was poignantly realised at the time of the Srebrenica memorial janazah. Mass graves continue to be found each year, and this year saw over five hundred new bodies identified and finally laid to rest, buried in a congregational ceremony as an evocative symbol to the World to show that this atrocity will never be forgotten. It was one of the most powerful and moving scenes I had ever witnessed… the emotive silence and tranquillity that imbued the atmosphere at the onset the prayer, immediately followed with throngs of people rushing to the burial grounds… the clanging sounds of shovels crashing emphatically against the earth to be used as coverings, whilst the gritty dust of which dissipated through the air… the resonances of soft lamentation that traversed the airwaves whilst families convened and wept by coffins... the melancholic recitation of Quranic verses and supplications that effortlessly imposed themselves upon my senses...the vision stretching to be submerged by a sea of solemn gravestones. Nonetheless, the sombre ambiance and mounful tears were defiantly juxtaposed with a powerful spirit of strength and unity.

Post war Bosnia
The Muslims of Bosnia suffered humiliation and terrible aggression and although the war is over and there is relative peace and safety in the region, tensions still run high between Serbs and Muslims twenty years on and each are not readily welcomed in either sides areas.  Ironically, before the war Muslims, Jews and Christians live peacefully side-by-side. Recently the main Serbian general Ratko Mladic, responsible for much of the war crimes committed had been arrested and is being investigated in a war tribunal at The Hague. 

The economic situation of Bosnia is still struggling to find its feet and it is proving toilsome for many people to rebuild their lives. Infrastructure is still in its infancy whilst job opportunities are scarce and income generation projects are still quite elementary in comparison to mainland Europe. There is currently a rotational government changing periodically between Serb, Muslim and Croat parties lacking tangible convergence or political stability.

Unfortunately many of the younger generation have little connection with what happened before them. For the elder generation the emotional and sometimes physical scars of war appear to be very much engrained upon their hearts. Those who understand its significance in a wider context realise the importance of keeping it firmly in the memories as a symbol of resistance. Albeit the tragic past people now just wish to rebuild their lives and live peacefully like everybody else. 

Conflict and poverty are unfortunately part of the world’s cycle of tragic events and I believe that it is always important to stand up and make our voices heard and to do whatever we can do to help and to avoid them however insignificant we feel in doing so. We should never trade our humanity for anything. We need to be proponents of change and although war still ravages around the world and appears to be impossible to stop, Bosnia should serve as an profound example to the World, and in particular the Islamic World of what happens when we fail to help each other. Although the Bosnians say with an emblazoned heartache that it will ‘Never to Be Forgotten’ and rightly so, I earnestly wish for it to be changed and enshrined as a profound message resonating throughout the World so that the epitaph states ‘Never to Happen Again’. 

MADE In Europe is a charity organisation

By Shareef Esoof