New Internationalist

Springs Of Hope

Issue 277

Same difference - Zelijko (a Croat) and Samir (a Muslim) work side-by-side.
Springs of hope
Tony Samphier explodes many of the cosy Western assumptions about the
conflict in Bosnia and finds some lessons for the future in multi-ethnic Tuzla.

There are no fat people in Tuzla. The physical wounds of war – disabled combatants, blown-out windows, shrapnel-damaged buildings – are open for all to see. But against all odds, the streets bustle with everyday economic, social and civic activity. Most things work and, if they don’t, human ingenuity takes over to make ends meet.

In the early part of the war, when Tuzla was blockaded and petrol in short supply, horse-driven carts were dusted off and put to work. Nowadays, because cash is hard to come by, most people dig a plot of land in their spare time and grow vegetables.

Civil society has, surprisingly, flourished under war conditions and is a key link in Tuzla’s non-nationalist armoury. Non-nationalists are in charge of local government. They were elected with a sizeable vote in the 1991 free elections. Vehid Sehic, head of the 10,000-strong Forum of Tuzla Citizens, views public action as the best way for Bosnia to chart a course away from nationalism. In August 1995, for example, civil society groups in Tuzla sprang into action to collect thousands of signatures demanding that the popular and liberal-minded Prime Minister, Haris Silajdzic, withdraw his resignation in protest at being locked out of national decision-making. ‘Stick in there; we love you,’ was the people’s verdict and, by public demand, he returned to office. By refusing to surrender to the Serb nationalist shells and the ideas of ethnic division and intolerance which propelled them, Tuzla has kept the flame of peaceful co-existence sparkling in Bosnia. This refusal to hate has given the physical hardship endured by the civilian population a higher moral purpose.

Even so, it will be hard for Tuzla to forgive or forget. The painful memory of 25 May 1995, when 71 young students from all ethnic groups were blown to pieces by a single shell whilst they celebrated a basketball victory at a town-centre café, has scarred the emotional spirit of the town forever.

Vehid Sehic demands reconciliation – with justice. At the meeting of the Helsinki Citizens’ Assembly staged in Tuzla in October 1995, he said: ‘Besides the horrible experiences, atrocities and temptations in this war, we cannot survive without making amends and living together… We do not propose total amnesty nor collective absolution, because that would mean the philosophy of forgiving crimes, which is exactly the same as participating in them. But also, no nation could be proclaimed responsible for the crimes committed by individuals from that nation.’

Past struggles – mainly fighting off invaders rather than amongst themselves – run through Tuzla’s political identity like blood through veins. The people of Tuzla are visibly proud of their traditions – family bookshelves are weighed down by reports of the heroic excursions to Spain of the Tuzla International Brigade during the 1936-39 Civil War. History gives life, meaning and direction to contemporary resistance.

In the early nineteenth century, the independence struggle against Turkish rule was born in Tuzla. Later that century, Tuzla drove back the Austrian-Hungarian Empire forces.

The Goat, Tuzla’s modern-day mascot which is said to represent Good, is a rebel symbol. According to a popular folktale, it stems from the time under Austrian-Hungarian rule when a group of Tuzla citizens defied an order not to keep goats.

The Snake is the opposing symbol for Evil. This is a throwback to the 1831 revolt against Turkish occupation, when the Turkish army surrounded Tuzla in snake-like fashion.

Even today, the Mayor of Tuzla, Selim Bešlagic, characterizes the conflict in his country in these terms. ‘This is definitely a fight between good and evil,’ he insists. ‘It is wrong to present this as an inter-ethnic conflict. Here we have aggression by one side and the fight for survival on the other.’ He fears that history is repeating itself, a theme echoed by a recent booklet produced by his administration which declares: ‘The snakes, they keep on coming.’

‘The picture is the same but the timing and actors are different,’ Bešlagic argues. ‘Mussolini started fascist ideas, and his role is acted out by Slobodan Milosevic. Hitler is embodied in Radovan Karadzic. When General Ratko Mladic was handing out chocolate to imprisoned children in Srebrenica, it reminded me of the pictures of Himmler in the concentration camps.

‘Unfortunately, the Great Powers often act in the way Chamberlain did.’

Tuzla’s anti-fascist heritage is strong. At the start of the Second World War, for example, the Muslim community in Tuzla protected the Serb and Jewish population from the extremist Croatian ustashas, who were in league with the Nazis and bent on having their inhuman slice of the holocaust. The Tuzla region was the centre of resistance to Nazi occupation and, after liberation by the Partisan Army in 1943, became the largest free town in Europe.

Dr Amila Azapagic - a Bosnian, a woman and a democratic Muslim. In that year, the Tuzla-based newspaper Front Slobode (Freedom Front) was launched on the wave of liberation. Over 50 years later, it keeps afloat on the town’s spirit of resistance and little else. The front page reads: ‘The title will appear again when the money is collected.’ To give up now would be to concede defeat in the battle of ideas, which they see as the most important battle of all.

Bosnia never wanted the old Yugoslav federation to end in the way it did. Only after Croatia gained international recognition in 1992, against the pleas of Bosnian leaders, and the subsequent thumping two-thirds referendum majority for independence, did Bosnia reluctantly go it alone.

‘The Bosnian people decided to leave former Yugoslavia because of the rise of nationalism in other regions,’ says Tuzla University academic Osman Sinanovic. ‘It was better to leave than to live with the extreme nationalist government in Belgrade.’

But as Sinanovic is quick to point out, this move was not anti-Serb, but anti-nationalist. Mayor Bešlagic is adamant that Bosnia’s ‘unity of difference’ must be respected and guarded in order that ethnic cleansing can be nipped in the bud before it marches across multicultural Europe.

‘If my country is divided along ethnic lines, there will be no more Bosnia-Herzegovina,’ he says. ‘And it has existed for over 1,000 years.’

In Tuzla, about a quarter of marriages are between partners from different ethnic backgrounds. Murveta Stevic is a primary school teacher who has soldiered on at the chalk-face with no pay, few resources and shell-fire blasting her school playground. She has done so because a multi-ethnic Bosnia is the only realistic option for her family. She is a Muslim and her husband a Serb. ‘What does that make our son?’ she asks. ‘Bosnian, of course. His religion is up to him.’

‘We are against all ethnic separation and we teach all children from all backgrounds, equally and without prejudice,’ she explains. ‘The power of knowledge will conquer human cruelty.’

In sharp contrast to Western stereotypes, ethnic labels seem to matter little in Tuzla and life chances are based as much on merit as in the most democratic of European democracies.

Samir Ibrulj and Zeljko Kesina are roughly the same age. They both attended Tuzla’s Electrical Engineering School and chose careers in the telecommunications service after a stint of military service with the former Yugoslav Army.

Ibrulj is a Muslim and Kesina a Croat, and they have worked side by side to keep the telephone system up and running throughout the war. ‘There are those who want to live and work together and those who want to divide Bosnia,’ Kesina explains. Ibrulj adds: ‘Europe wants us to live in tribes, but Bosnia is a melting pot where Muslims, Croats and Serbs are all Bosnians first.’

Osman Sinanovic neatly sums up Bosnia’s national identity with the simple words: ‘Multi-ethnicity is Bosnia. It is our quality and it is the normal way of life for us.’

Though Tuzla is clearly the multi-ethnic jewel in Bosnia’s crown, many observers now argue that this is threatened by the changed demography of the region.

The last census, carried out before war erupted in 1992, showed up 44 per cent of Tuzla citizens describing themselves as Muslim, 16 per cent as Croat, 16 per cent as Serb and 24 per cent as ‘others’. But since then, around 250,000 refugees have settled in the area who are, by and large, Muslim.

Radical elements in the main Muslim political party, the Democratic Action Party (SDA) which heads up the national government in Sarajevo, have sought to exploit this situation and undermine support for Mayor Beslagic’s multi-ethnic Union of Bosnian Social Democrats. But the SDA is a broad church embracing a Muslim separatist wing, towards which Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic leans, and a liberal secular wing represented by Prime Minister Haris Silajdzic.

It is difficult to see such a political force holding together once the cut and thrust of peacetime democratic politics gets into full swing. So perhaps the fears for the future of the non-nationalist project in Tuzla are exaggerated. Only time – and elections – will tell.

Dr Amila Azapagic worked at the front-line for the Bosnian Army, treating the victims of ‘ethnic cleansing’. She talks with passion about the fight against rape in war. She has a picture of Haris Silajdzic pinned to her living-room wall. She believes that the anti-nationalist cause has nothing to fear from Islam. ‘Liberty, progress and democracy are what my faith has taught me,’ she argues.

Though her political perspective is through the lens of Islam – the Qur’an has pride of place on her bookshelf alongside pictures of her uncle who was a famous officer in the Partisan Army – Azapagic scoffs at the idea of Islamic fundamentalism in her country.

‘I am a Bosnian, a woman and a European democratic Muslim,’ she says. ‘My fight is to defend democratic and multi-ethnic Bosnia.’

‘With the help of Allah,’ she adds with a broad smile.

Tony Samphier is a freelance journalist specializing in international affairs.
All photo's by Tony Samphier

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