Bosnians: United in Disaster, Strained in Peace

A makeshift cross that was erected on Trebevic mountain in the Republika Srpska ahead of national elections in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina overlooking the city of Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina on October 7, 2014.  Bosniak Muslims in Sarajevo consider the construction of the cross to be a provocation and some locals have sought to tear it down while it remains guarded twenty four hours a day.

Supported by a National Geographic Young Explorers Grant, I’ve been exploring Sarajevo, the Bosnian capital that was besieged during the 1992-1995 Bosnian War. It took nearly four years to end the violence, a feat that was achieved through a power sharing agreement between Bosnia’s ethnic groups know as the Dayton Peace Accord. As we approach the 20th anniversary of Dayton, I’m learning how ethnic divides have affected the reconstruction of the city, as residents try to shape a new multicultural Bosnia. (Read all posts in this series.)

In the lead up to Bosnia’s national election, a makeshift cross was erected under the cover of night in the Republika Srpska, on a hill overlooking Sarajevo. Others removed it in December. (Photo by Amanda Rivkin)

“Look at the rainfall. That hit both entities,” Nasiha Pozder, an urban planner at the University of Sarajevo, said to me. In May of 2014, Bosnia was hit by devastating floods, affecting citizens in both the Federation and the Republika Srpska, who might not otherwise have reason to commiserate collectively. Numerous accounts emerged of average Bosnians overcoming their differences, helping those in need regardless of ethnicity. But politicians were criticized for their uncoordinated response, using the disaster to point figures and only offering help to their own ethnic communities. In Sarajevo, “It was my students who ultimately provided the relief,” Mr. Pozder explained. “They asked to cancel finals to go out and help people. Of course the University said yes.”

But the floods could not fully wash away old divisions, and those who hoped for change were then dismayed when all three ethnic groups elected nationalist politicians in the countrywide elections the following October. Milorad Dodik, who has served as the president of the Republika Srpska since 2010, was re-elected, and is seen as a particular threat —> Read More