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Lessons from Bosnia – Part 1
Many people think of war when they hear 'lessons from Bosnia'. They think about genocide, mass murder, bombs, hunger, mass graves, identifying bodies, memorials, and so on. They think about the brutality of crimes against humanity. Well, not this time. This time we'd like to talk about the post-war, even though there are many (myself included) who'd argue that the war in Bosnia has not ended, it has only changed. And while this suggests an interesting and important question about modern-day warfare, we're not going to talk about that either.
Some years ago, my Bosnian friends and I joked about 'Balkanisation' of Britain. We could see various leaders becoming self-absorbed, arrogant in their positions, while people started to loose trust, and faith in their power. We knew what this meant, but we didn't think too much about it. We didn't take it seriously enough. After all, we all have jobs and families, and life is just hectic. Right?
Now, this 'joke' has become a bit of a fear. For me, seeing an official who resigned because of misconduct being re-employed was alarming. While the idea of 'second chances', and 'people can change' is all well and good, there are certain things we do not risk to give someone another chance. And, when it comes to the government sector, good character goes a long way. Things like 'caring for ordinary people' should be a must. If you don't care for people, please do not go into a 'leadership' position.
So, instead of seeing Bosnian society improve, we are seeing British society 'failing'. Just to be clear, British society is still a long way away from the chaos that Bosnians are in, which means that Bosnia can show where Britain is heading if things do not change. While we have no power to change anything, we feel it is our duty to do what we can. And what we can do is show you Bosnia that you're not likely to see anywhere else.
I've been involved with the 'fight for Bosnia' from an early age. From talking about what's going on, to protests, to packing humanitarian convoys of food and supplies. I thought I knew Bosnia really well. But, just like any relationship, you can spend time with someone and think you know them, however, it's only when you start living with them that you learn things you never thought of.
In 2013, in Bosnia, I was attacked by a stray dog. While I had no physical injuries, I was shaken to the point that I couldn't sleep for days. I walked past the dog. It was just resting in the sun. A few moments later I stepped onto some grass and the dog charged at me. The dog left me in no doubt that I was a threat. I managed to run into the building and shut the door behind me. Shaking like a leaf, I went to my aunt's apartment. A few days later I found an organisation of people who suffered a dog attack called 'Ugriz'. Before I knew it I was one of the people speaking at 'one of the parliaments' (we have 14 of these) on how people need protecting.
Shocked by the stories of others in the organisation, it was easy to be very passionate. The founder was a woman motivated by her mother's guilt. She was walking through a park with her 18 moth-old-daughter in her arms, and her 5 year-old-son beside her when a dog attacked them. She managed to protect the baby, but not the boy. To make matters worse, this boy has had a dog since he was born, and even though he was saved from the attack by another dog (a woman walking her dog nearby let her dog loose), he never wanted to be with his pet ever again.
Needless to say, many members of this organisation needed psychiatric help, and they attended regular sessions with a professional. It seemed like the most simple and straightforward battle - people vs dogs. And we were not against dogs, just against them being on the street free to make packs and mark their own territories.
We managed to get enough support for the changes in the Law to be pushed through. However, when these changes got to something called 'House of the People', it had problems. This 'House' is there to make sure that Laws are fair to all the different 'ethnicities' or 'nationalities' in Bosnia. This might make sense if we could make sense of these ethnicities, but no one really understands them and there is no definition of these 'different' groups of people. Locally, we just call them 'tribes'. Anyhow… When it came to our argument that people should be safe on the streets, I was sure it would just sail through. Not so. This was the first time I heard about 'trade' in Acts of Law. Apparently, it is almost common practice in the parliaments in Bosnia to trade Acts - I'll vote for your suggestions if you vote for mine.
Obviously, I was disturbed. An Act about protecting people should not have been in the House of the People at all since it is about 'people'. It's like healthcare. We can simply assume that EVERYONE wants better healthcare, we do not need to ask about ethnicity. Likewise, when it came to the dogs being a threat, it seemed to me as straightforward as it gets. Dogs don't care about ethnicity. In fact, the founder of 'Ugriz' and I do not belong to the same 'ethnic' group. The fact that even this kind of Act could be stopped for a 'trade' speaks volumes.
In Feb 2014, when the violent protests took place, I happened to be in Bosnia again. For those of you who don't know, Plenum is a form of organisation that has no leader and everyone has equal rights. Some genius thought that organising the angry protestors into plenum was a good idea. I had to see it for myself. I have an MSc in Voluntary Action Management. I am passionate about the Civil Society. However, I also know something about the restrictions of civil movements.
I had no intention of getting involved. I was swamped with applying for jobs, writing a book, promoting a book I had self-published, and I was in Bosnia for only a couple of weeks. I had my own problems. I was there to satisfy my professional curiosity, and strictly as an observer.
The outdoor plenum was insane. We couldn't hear what was being said on the stage from all the shouting among those who had gathered, and even when we could hear the people on the stage, I was shocked. There was no social issue that wasn't represented: abled, disabled, employed, unemployed, retired, healthy, sick, young, old, middle-aged, men, women… EVERY problem in the book!
One of the first demands of the people was to get rid of 'cantons' - we have 10 of these and if they were just a waste of money it wouldn't be such a problem, not for Bosnians who tolerate way more than they should, but these cantons are also a threat to Bosnia. A professor from a local university came on stage and said "We cannot make this demand, if we did, we'd be locked up". Suddenly, everyone went silent, except me. I tried to push my way to the stage to tell people that that was not true, but it was too late. I only managed to speak to the professor who seemed completely uninterested. Later on I had a few more runnings with him. It went from bad to worse. But I learned a lot.
The first indoor plenum of citizens in Zenica took place in a sports hall of a school just across the river. So, all I had to do was cross the bridge, and I was there; the bridge that was in April of 1992 barricaded because the army base was right behind that school. Back then it was the Yugoslavian Army, and since the Yugoslavian Army proved themselves a threat to citizens in numerous cities throughout Bosnia, our mayor at the time blocked the bridge so that they couldn't come into the city. In 2014, I crossed that bridge excited to learn something new and unique about citizen movements.
Oh boy! I wish I knew then what I know now. I would have done many things differently. Then again, if I knew then what I know now, I doubt I would have been brave enough to raise my hand. Yes, I raised my own hand. I volunteered. In my defence, I thought it was only for a week, two max. And then, things just happened.
I was the PR, the person speaking to the media about what's going on and what the people in Plenum have been saying. So, of course, everyone knew me as the face of the movement. I don't know how to explain this, I don't know how it happened. All I can say is that when they were looking for someone to do that, no one else raised their hand (I guess others were much smarter than me), so I raised mine just to get things moving.
A couple of days later we had another gathering at the school and people were already approaching me to tell me their stories. After hearing from an old man who had arthritis, he felt the need to tell me how he worked his whole life and took part in youth actions of Tito's time, and how that is proof that he would be active in the movement if he wasn't in so much pain, but he cannot afford medication and bills, so some months he pays the bills and lives without medication, while other months he buys the medication, which is no longer as effective as it used to be, I heard from a woman in a wheelchair who said "I didn't fight for this country for glory, so I don't need any, I just want my kid to get the operation", I then met a woman, thin, pale, her blonde hair dishevelled by the cold wind, holding a baby in her arms. She told me how her husband is sick, his parents help, but they all live on about £100 a month. I remember looking at her in the dim lights of the school courtyard trying to calculate how four adults and a baby live on a £100 a month. It's mathematically impossible.
So, there I was, emotions running wild, crowds of people moving towards the school entrance and I held this blond woman's hands and said "We'll fight until there is a change". The moment I said these words I swear I saw myself hovering over me asking "How the F are you going to do that? What's wrong with you?"
I believe in the old saying 'we are masters of the words we keep silent and slaves to the words we speak'. So now, I am still doing all I can to help those people. But before I've had a chance to help them, there's a threat that more people will end up like them. Which, to be honest with you, freaks me out.
It is then no surprise that I am eager to share the lessons I've learned in the last nine, almost ten years. Through no fault of their own, Bosnians have become their own enemy. And this scares me the most because I don't know another group of people as peace-loving as Bosnians. But when people are pushed to this extreme, it is impossible to predict what will happen.
From my personal experience, I have seen Bosnians trust liars, and make up lies against those who are honest. I can give you dozens of examples, but I think one will be enough.
By 2015 plenum of citizens in Zenica had an office. We got some funds from an Austrian foundation just for basic expenses. I was the one who argued for it, however, when the time came to collect the funds, the team decided that I should not be one of the signatories. I had no problem with that.
One of the two signatories fibbed on the very first expense, about £40. I came up with the solution that he cannot get any more funds until he brings the receipts first. Everyone on the team accepted this, except him. He left.
A few months later I got a call from the other signatory. She didn't want the responsibility anymore and told me that I must take over from her. I did. I knew it was a risk (long story) but I figured if everything was transparent there would be no problems. So, I left copies of all the bank statements, receipts, as well as signed forms in the office, available in hard copy and electronic format. The team could go in at any time and check everything without me being there.
Throughout my time in Plenum I was accused of all kinds of things, including being a secret agent for the British. At the beginning of 2016, I was accused of working for plenum for my benefit. I explained that I have no benefit, and that I am hoping for an employment opportunity if one presents itself.
By the end of 2016, I realised that they believe I should have no benefit for myself, even in terms of hope, and that they were still certain that I have benefited from working so hard for Plenum.
Beginning of 2017, at one of our regular meetings, by this time I was doing everything (keeping accounts, writing financial reports, attending meetings with other organisations and groups, organising our meetings, cleaning the office, making coffees, etc.) I asked them what do they think I have since all the financial records were there for them to see. They said, "You have a secret donor".
To this day I have not figured out how to prove that there was no secret donor. Nothing short of asking everyone in the world to tell these people that no one gave me any money can do it. So, I had to make changes. And I did.
The Plenum as a citizen movement didn't have much of a chance in the best of circumstances, and it had no chance in a society where people do not trust each other, they do not trust their power or the power of persistence, and officials (including the international community) are only interested when there's a threat. So, while people were burning buildings and charging like stray dogs, their voices were heard. When they chose to fight peacefully, their voices were silenced.
Silencing people and motivating them to be violent so that they would be heard is a VERY bad idea. People should never fall for this. And any official who wants this should be made to resign.
I've decided to arrange these 'lessons' or 'talks' under headings. I aim to keep the language as breeze as possible. Heck, I wrote an entire book with people talking about social issues in a café. I've heard such conversations in real life so many times, I'm pretty sure I can simplify any topic related to any social issue. A long time ago conversations about social issues had to be organised events. Now, they happen spontaneously more often than we care to notice.
The topics I intend to cover in the following weeks are:
1. Peace Agreements; Dayton Peace Agreement in specific. The signatures on this document are enough of a reason to include it in a conversation about the state of international politics and leadership. Besides, looking at this document will help to understand the system in Bosnia, as well as what the leaders of the world are happy to accept as a reasonable agreement. To put it bluntly, this agreement shows the sort of irrational, perhaps even inhuman, decisions that the leaders of the world are prepared to write, push into power, and protect. Because, even if they were uncertain of what the document meant in practice at the time they signed it, 28 years later we've proved that it is an insane document, yet no one is willing to change it. So, I will start these talks with Dayton Peace Agreement for two reasons: 1. To show the system in Bosnia, 2. To show how irrational leaders of the world can be. After all, if we can't put together a decent and just peace agreement, how are we ever to hope for peace in the world? And without peace, what do we have?
2. Democracy. We're all interested in this topic, right? Why wouldn't we be? After all, many people are no longer supporting democracy, at least not until they examine the alternatives, and then they go silent. But, why wouldn't people support democracy? Bosnia is a fantastic example here. I will talk about divisions. The Bosnian government is based on a divided society. Hence, for the government in Bosnia to stay in power, the people of Bosnia must remain divided. If the people of Bosnia unite, the government can't stay in power. Is equality even possible in a divided society? Plus, we will look at various minority groups in Bosnia, from those who are fighting for basic rights, to those who are not satisfied with rights and are fighting to have power. What happens when a minority group gets power?
3. Citizens Activism vs Lobby groups. Do you ever feel like protests and petitions no longer have any meaning, yet decision-makers are making decisions on some info that no one has ever heard? In Bosnia, being a small country, getting information about 'secret' groups and meetings isn't all that hard. What I know from Bosnia might explain how some decisions are being made in the UK. I know people in the UK have told me that there are changes that they do NOT agree with, and some are even angry about those changes. So, how did those changes come to pass? Who brought them up in the first place? Did they have the right?
4. Citizens Awareness. It is the age of information. It has never been so easy to learn about anything under the sun. In theory, this should help citizen make better decisions. So why isn't it? Once again, Bosnia is a fine example because it is a much smaller country, just out of a war, and it previously had a very restricted system. As a result, it is the 'hush-hush' information you get that often proves most valuable. Furthermore, because of the size of the government relative to the size of the population, politicians in Bosnia are a fine example of confusing people with all kinds of information. So even when citizens have the power to make decisions (in Bosnia that's not even during the elections anymore), the information overload means that people need to learn how to examine what they've been told. How do we do that? How do we sift through information to know what is important and what is not, what is true and what is not?
5. Religion. Well, more about the role of religion in secular society. I will draw on a speech I made in Berlin in 2016. In Bosnia, while we've always had religious freedom and equality, i.e. mosques, churches, synagogues and such are all equally free to call to prayer, everyone has the right to take time off work for their religious holidays, people argue about which fast is hardest (different religions have different rules of fasting) while each practices their own way, at the same time, religion has inspired murder and divisions. In one of the smallest European countries, we have the greatest example of religious tolerance and harmony, and religious intolerance and threat. Hence, it is easy to tell how religion can improve relationships among people depending on the role it takes, and when religious beliefs can cause brutality.
6. International relations - warning, this is a big one, but we live in a 'global village', and for our future, this is one of the most important topics. I do not want to tell anyone what to think, but I do want to show what happens in Bosnia when foreigners come to make decisions. Just now, the Office of High Representative (this is like an addition to the Bosnian government, except that it is completely foreign and they have even more power than all of the 14 governments in Bosnia) is led by a German who is often called 'dictator' by the people of Bosnia. In fact, some claim that the current High Representative is German invasion of Bosnia. And while he might be one of the worst High Representatives, I will talk about some others that have been in Bosnia in the past, as well as the international organisations that support the High Representative, among them various embassies as well as European institutions and organisations. I might even mention our 'finances'. We have not been able to get any support for any of our projects. Then again, we are against them, so of course they're not going to support us. Oh well, it's important to be on the right side of history, right?
7. Accountability. In Bosnia, leaders have achieved a state of zero accountability, yet full power. In short, mafia. I am absolutely certain that there are leaders all over the world who envy our politicians. I mean, to have power and respect with zero accountability, what evil soul of the world wouldn't want that? I will talk about how this did not happen overnight. In fact, it is a process of getting decent people out so that only the evil ones remain.
8. Rule of Law. This topic is very popular. Nothing is as important as the 'rule of law'. And I agree. So, let's talk about it. In Bosnia, we cannot talk about the rule of law without talking about politization of the courts of law - from minor crimes like a poor person being caught selling things without a permit and ending up in jail, to crimes against humanity where the innocent went to prison, while the guilty are walking about. We cannot mention the rule of law without looking at who is writing the Laws, how, and why? Furthermore, just writing the Acts and Laws isn't enough. The human factor is always present. Hence, numerous things from the past talks will pop up here.
9. Personal relationships. What is a community? It's us. We are our society. We are the environment that we live in. In this talk, I shall summarise how each important element of the previous talks affects relationships among the people. And what is it that has kept Bosnian peace all these years? Because, to tell you the truth, I am convinced that the leaders of the world want a war in Bosnia. At least, that's how they behave. So how did they NOT achieve this war?
The plan for now is to publish these talks as articles, and then organise events in London. We'd like to make these talks as interactive as possible. I know we might get all kinds of responses, but that's OK. I prefer to know. I think it is important for us citizens to have open and honest dialogue. Besides, if I can handle angry crowds in Bosnia (a very temperamental lot), I'm sure I can handle anyone.
As far as these in-person talks are concerned, I will keep you posted about when and where. All I can say for now is that I will not be reading these articles. I am not a good public reader. Any speech I've ever made was from the heart, so my talks will be based on the articles, but probably considerably different.
I hope to hear from you.