Follow this link to read MStrat student Al Cole’s new piece in The North Africa Post on Bosnia.
My last experience of the Balkans was as a young infantry officer deployed as part of the United Nations Protection Force in 1995. Although we were told the Former Republic of Yugoslavia was part of the European land mass and was a conflict on our doorstep, it didn’t much feel like it; it felt a long way away and very different from my own experience of Europe.
What struck me returning for the first time was just how European it now feels. For all the talk of basket case countries and corrupt bloated political systems the people of Sarajevo and it’s surrounding cantons did not reflect this assessment. The conflict of 1992-1995 was horribly divisive and unimaginably brutal, yet somehow the human desire for revenge and justice has been parked in order to move on.
Admittedly the underlying nationalist and ethnic tensions that caused the last conflict remain and there is a sense of unfinished business but the hope is that the more that Bosnia Herzegovina can be drawn into the European expansion experiment the less chance there is that the unfinished business will be violent.
What struck me most travelling between Sarajevo and Gorazde was the distance, geography and physical reach between places that look very close on the map. The Dutch commander at Srebrenica in 1995 was only a short helicopter ride from Sarajevo but it must have felt like he was isolated on a different planet as the genocide took place. Britain has been lulled into believing over the last 20 years that globalisation has reduced the likelihood of conflict and the physical distance between places is less important. However, I suspect that geography is very much alive and well as a critical factor in global politics and economics as Russia is demonstrating now. Soft power and influence is great but it needs hard power that can be projected to make it meaningful.
We ought to remember this when crafting our next salami-slicing National Security Strategy that suggests we can do more with less (again).
One of the first things you notice about Sarajevo is the surrounding landscape. The lush steep hills that tower above the city and the picturesque houses scattered among them paint an idyllic picture that would stand out in any travel brochure or guidebook on the Balkans. At the same time though, they also make you feel rather vulnerable. After all, it was these very same ‘fairy tale’ like hills that enabled Serb Forces to besiege the city and mercilessly attack its residents for nearly 4 years. Although impossible to fully comprehend what that must have been like, standing in the city centre looking up at those hills, you at least get ‘a sense’ of the vulnerability Sarajevo’s residents must have felt during those dark and violent days. Indeed, the war is never far from mind in Bosnia. From the shrapnel scarred and bullet-riddled buildings to the painful memories etched in the very faces of the Bosnians we met, reminders of the conflict are everywhere. The trip offered a number of experiences and insights like these that cannot be conveyed in a textbook or learned in a lecture.
Of course, that’s not to say there wasn’t a place for academic pursuits during our visit. The conference room of our hotel in central Sarajevo was the perfect location for a series of lectures on the conflict, how it shaped Bosnia and what the international community is doing (both right and wrong) to help the country move forward. We were privileged to hear from some of the key people driving that effort forward. Representatives from the UK, EU, UN and OSCE all took time to honestly and openly share their views and opinions with us. It was an invaluable insight into how strategies are applied in the ‘real world’ and the challenges that are encountered in the process.
For me though, the highlight was hearing from ‘ordinary’ Bosnians who were willing to share their deeply personal experiences about the conflict, what life is like in Bosnia today and their hopes and fears for the country. Although harrowing, the trip to Srebrenica and meeting survivors of the massacre was a valuable experience. So too was our visit to the Sarajevo tunnel and the personal briefing we received from representatives of the International Commission on Missing Persons about their work identifying the hundreds buried in Bosnia’s mass graves. A visit to Goradze underlined the sacrifices made by Britain’s armed forces during the conflict and a discussion with students from Sarajevo University highlighted the challenges facing the country today.
The MStrat trip to Bosnia was an invaluable experience and one that brought to life a cruel conflict that – sadly – is yet to be fully resolved.