Twenty years after the Dayton Agreement, the mood at the Frontline Club on Wednesday November 4th wasn’t openly optimistic. To commemorate, reflect and look ahead, Frontline arranged a panel of speakers chaired by Alan Little, who served as a correspondent in Bosnia for the BBC. The panel represented different experiences in the war and relationships to Bosnia and Herzegovina: Anthony Loyd is a senior correspondent for Times and started his career in 1993 in Bosnia, thereafter writing the cult memoir of the conflict My War Gone By, I Miss it So; Zrinka Bralo, who described herself as a ‘refugee for 22 years’, was a radio journalist in Sarajevo before coming to London in 1993; Paddy Ashdown was the High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina and the European special representative from 2002 to 2006; and Kemal Pervanic was perhaps the most connected to the violence of the war – born in Prijedor, he’s a survivor of the Omarska concentration camp, and now works on reconciliation and peace-building projects with the organization Most Mira (Bridge of Peace.) In examining the Dayton Agreements from the different viewpoints of a journalist, member of the diaspora, politician and survivor, it was clear there’s much to be concerned about and many ways in which Bosnia connects to other current affairs.
Drawn up in Dayton, Ohio and then officially signed in Paris on December 14, 1995 by representatives from the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, Croatia, and Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Framework for Peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina (also known as the Dayton Agreement) effectively brought an end to the Bosnian War of 1992-1995. It was presided over by members of the international community and was, for the most part seen as a success. Paddy Ashdown spent much of Wednesday night praising the efforts made in the first ten years after Dayton, calling Bosnia the ‘poster-child’ for a post-conflict zone. Dayton effectively divided Bosnia into the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, a majority Bosniak region, and Republika Srpska, a majority Serb region. While in the first ten years progress was made towards reconciliation, democratic reforms and military unity between the two sides, today – Ashdown claimed – ‘the sky is darkening’.
What happened in the twenty years since Dayton, or ten years, according to Ashdown’s account? What created, as Anthony Loyd described it, two countries that are ‘zombified’? The consensus amongst the panel was that the international community turned its back on Bosnia. In Ashdown’s opinion, Dayton wasn’t meant to create a state but to build peace. ‘In order to build a state, we had to go beyond Dayton’ – something never done. Left to their own devices, the region reverted towards mono-ethnic states, a situation Zrinka Bralo defined as a kleptocracy. ‘Ethnicity defines power,’ she argued, ‘the framework was set with Dayton.’ The tragedy, in Ashdown’s opinion, is one of ‘lost opportunities’.
Kemal Pervanic wasn’t so kind to the international community which, in his opinion, did nothing for him and was, and remains, ‘complicit in the persecution of Bosnians’. In order to change Bosnia, the work has to come from the people, especially the young. His goal is to return agency to the people by convincing youth that it’s as much their country as it is the politicians’. Loyd, having just traveled to Bosnia for the first time in twenty years, observed an anger among the young that the war generation, and the leadership in that period, let them down. Ashdown too agreed that for progress to be made, a new generation must become active in political leadership. But, as Bralo stressed, these progressive groups function in a hostile environment and for initiatives from the Bosnian population to work, support must come from the international community.
There isn’t much hope, however, this support will come. With the Syrian civil war and resulting refugee crisis in Europe, Bralo stated poignantly that ‘Bosnia wanted to become more like Europe but now Europe is becoming more like Bosnia’, adding that what’s currently happening in Europe is shameful. Speaking as a refugee herself, Bralo asked: ‘Why do we say “never again” if we don’t mean it?’ Without a vested economic interest in Bosnia and with xenophobia on the rise throughout Europe, it’s unlikely the international community will turn a serious eye towards Bosnia and on Republika Srpska President Milorad Dodik – who’s challenged the power of the Dayton Agreements in his Republic – anytime soon. Dodik, Ashdown argued, wants the state to fall apart so that the international community divides Bosnia and Herzegovina into three separate entities.
When the night ended and I thanked the panel members for their participation, Bralo apologized for the tone of the evening, ‘I hope it wasn’t as gloomy as it seemed up there’. In fact, despite the sense of darkening skies and a divided country, the tone wasn’t so gloomy; each member expressed hope for the country.
Pernavic works towards reconciliation, believing that the number of young people who want change is growing. ‘I work with people who tried to kill me,’ he said calmly, demonstrating that progress, and perhaps even forgiveness, is possible. Bralo’s encouraged by Germany’s example in coming to terms with the Holocaust as well as its current response to Syrian refugees. Ashdown meanwhile vehemently agreed, calling above all for patience: ‘It is not one country, but it can be.’ For him, Bosnia isn’t exceptional: all post-conflict zones require time above all else to heal and develop. ‘They were on their way to becoming a state,’ he concluded, and, if they can make it work, Bosnia can be not only a poster child of post-conflict, but a ‘symbol for the world’ of a bridge between Christendom and Islam. This, in the age of the Islamic State and rising Islamic extremism, is perhaps why the international community must invest in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s future.
First Wednesday: The Dayton Agreement 20 Years On was part of the ongoing programme of panels, talks and screenings at the Frontline Club, London. CEEL’s season Remembering the Bosnian War begins on December 1st 2015.