In early April 1992, my dad grabbed a duffle bag and packed up his and my mother's university diplomas, along with their personal documents and family photo albums. Based on the stories of our family’s experience during the Second World War, my father knew that personal documents and family photos were the most important things to keep safe during times of uncertainty. Just in case.
On March 1 of that year, the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina had voted for independence from Yugoslavia. At the time, I was four years old. My parents and I were living in an apartment in the neighborhood of Dobrinja which was built during the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.
Back then, Dobrinja had been an idyllic neighborhood. A place where young couples from different ethnic backgrounds lived side-by-side and raised their children, Dobrinja was a perfect example of peaceful coexistence in the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslav.
The atmosphere in the neighborhood began to change, however, in the 1980s, when Slobodan Miloševic, the leader of the Yugoslav regime, and his Bosnian Serb mouthpiece, Radovan Karadzic, decided to carve up Bosnia and Herzegovina, at the expense of tens of thousands of Bosniak Muslim and Bosnian Croat lives.
Our neighborhood was located near the airport and was of strategic importance for the Yugoslav Army, which had turned into a mighty Serbian military force almost overnight. Led by Karadzic, who has since been convicted of genocide, armed militias of the Nationalist Serb Democratic Party set up barricades all over the city—one of which was located on the main road from Dobrinja to the city center.
People began to fear one another and to mostly keep indoors. Soon, my parents realized that the majority of our Serb neighbors had left. They had relocated their families to villages in the countryside or to Serbia, saying that they were going to visit a sick grandmother or for holiday. Only one of my mother’s colleagues warned her to stock up on food for her three small children. "Things could get messy," he said.
And they did.
- Rewriting History Like Goebbels: Why the Far Right Is Whitewashing Genocide
- Orban's Sinister anti-Muslim Hatemongering Now Threatens Lives in Bosnia
- Germany Cancels Award to Israeli Historian Accused of Bosnian Genocide Denial
- Jews Can’t Let the Genocide Deniers Win
Thirty years later, Milorad Dodik, the Bosnian Serb member of the country’s tripartite presidency, is calling for the secession of the country’s Bosnian Serb entity, Republika Srpska.
Over the last decade, Dodik has become widely known for his anti-Bosniak rhetoric, genocide denial, and political posturing. Backed by Serbia and with support from the Russian Federation, Dodik has been able to position himself as a key destabilizer in the region. In addition, he has cultivated increasingly close ties to far-right nativist leaders in Europe.
In recent months, Dodik’s threatening and hateful rhetoric have intensified, resulting in the worst political crisis in the country since of the end of the war.
He has recently announced that the Bosnian Serbs will withdraw from state institutions and rebuild the Bosnian Serb Army— the military force responsible for the siege of Sarajevo and the genocide in Srebrenica, as well as mass graves, detention centers, and rape camps that characterized the Bosnian War.
With these threats, Dodik has crossed a red line. Such actions could quickly ignite conflict in the entire region, endangering the peace and stability that has been painstakingly built over the last 30 years.
High Representative Christian Schmidt, the international community’s top diplomat in Bosnia and Herzegovina, has warned that the country is facing the worst "existential threat of the post-war period." He has called upon the international community to rein in the recent Bosnian Serb separatist threats.
His report, which was meant to be read out in front of the UN Security Council, was removed from the agenda under Russian pressure.
With the European Union more divided and incapacitated than ever, and United States preoccupied with China, Bosnia and Herzegovina is once again relegated to the periphery. Recently another far-right nativist leader, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban, started mingling in the crisis. Orban announced that Hungary will block any moves by the EU to sanction Dodik and stated that Hungary will provide €100 million in aid to the Bosnian Serb entity.
The reason for this? The answer lies in a speech by Orban in Budapest, tweeted out by his spokesman Zoltán Kovác. When asked about Bosnia, Orban replied: "The challenge with Bosnia is how to integrate a country with 2 million Muslims."
Unsurprisingly, Dodik has longstanding ties with other far right European politicians known for their hostility towards Muslims, from Austria’s Freedom Party to France’s Marine Le Pen.
Several of Le Pen's party representatives are attending an event Sunday in the Republika Srpska capital, Banja Luka, commemorating 30 years since the entity’s founding – in effect, celebrating the result of the Bosnian Serbs’ ethnic cleansing and genocide. Joining them will be the Russian ambassador and the Chinese deputy ambassador. In a tweet both ironic and revealing, one of the French far right officials stated they were attending to show their commitment to "peace" and "respect for the identities of peoples."
"I am now more aware of the fragility of human relations, and more aware of what being a Jew can mean. I learned this from the Muslims of Bosnia, who made two fatal mistakes. They thought that being a minority group no longer mattered in civilized Europe, and they though that the wild beast had been tamed. They failed to realize that although a person might attach little importance to his religion, other people might take notice one day; and just because your society seems stable does not mean it will always be so."
In the end, it all comes down to the most primitive form of biopolitics, or cultural essentialism. The Muslim identity of Bosniaks, which can be as "observant" as simply eating baklava for Eid – is a message that we are not welcome in Dodik’s and Orban’s idea of Europe.
A few days ago, my wife and I scanned our personal documents and family photographs and uploaded them to the cloud. Who knows what tomorrow will bring? Just in case.
Hikmet Karcic is a genocide scholar based in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina and author of the forthcoming "Torture, Humiliate, Kill: Inside the Bosnian Serb Camp System" (University of Michigan Press, 2022). He is a Senior Fellow with the Newlines Institute for Strategy and Policy in Washington DC. He was the 2017 Auschwitz Institute for Peace and Reconciliation-Keene State College Global Fellow. Twitter: @hikmet_karcic