Peace without Prosperity: The Legacy of Peacebuilding in Drvar

The problems here are no longer military but socioeconomic

By Timothy Donais | 2004-07-01 12:00:00

After seven years of keeping the peace in the divided and often volatile Bosnian town of Drvar, Canadian peacekeepers have declared victory and returned home. As part of a broader restructuring of NATO's Stabilization Force in Bosnia, the 150 personnel at Canada's Camp Drvar were replaced in February by a two-person monitoring team, with overall responsibility for the area's military security transferred to SFOR's Dutch contingent.

The downsizing of NATO's presence in places like Drvar speaks volumes about how much progress has been achieved towards stabilizing the security situation across Bosnia. Whereas a decade ago UN peacekeepers, including hundreds of Canadians, were caught up in a vicious conflict where there was precious little peace to keep, today SFOR is largely overpowered and undertasked, and for Canadian soldiers in Drvar the biggest enemy of late has been boredom. Over the course of the past five years, ethnic cleansing has largely been reversed in Drvar, and thanks in part to the Canadian presence, the town's Serb and Croat inhabitants now co-exist in relative peace. "The problems here are no longer military, but socio-economic," said Captain Jay Lachine, the Canadian camp's second-in-command. "There's no longer much need for an SFOR presence."

It wasn't always this way. In April 1998, Drvar, which nestles in a narrow valley near the Croatian border in northwestern Bosnia, was the scene of one of the ugliest bursts of ethnic violence since the Dayton Peace Accords ended the Bosnian war in late 1995. Protesting against the return of the town's pre-war Serb inhabitants, the Bosnian Croats who took control of Drvar at war's end staged a rioted aimed both at returnees and at the international community. In the process, they destroyed international offices and vehicles, terrorized both foreigners and local Serbs, and beat Drvar's Serb mayor to within an inch of his life.

From peacekeeping To Peace Enforcement

For the Canadian forces patrolling Drvar, the riots demonstrated the very fine line between peacekeeping and peace enforcement. Lacking even the most basic riot control gear, Canadian peacekeepers struggled to control the situation, rescuing international personnel and cordoning off the area where the bulk of the town's Serb returnees had taken shelter. In the end, miraculously, no one was killed. "I don't know who was looking over us that day," recalls Howard Coombs, who was in charge of the Canadian response to the riots. "We were waiting for the moment when this thing would turn into a bloodbath."

By the following morning, the situation had calmed considerably, and the smoldering ruins of vehicles and buildings were the only evidence of the previous day's rampage. Senior international officials rushed to the scene to try to mitigate the political consequences of the riots, but by day's end many of the Serb returnees -- most of whom were frail and elderly -- had had enough and decided to return to the safety of Serb-controlled Banja Luka. At the time, it seemed that Drvar's Croats had scored a major victory in their struggle to retain control over the town.

The events of April 1998 underlined the complexity of the peacebuilding process in post-Dayton Bosnia, and in particular the delicate nature of the task of putting the Humpty Dumpty of Bosnian multiethnicity back together again. Pre-war Drvar was, in fact, a rarity among Bosnian communities in that its population was largely mono-ethnic -- 99 percent of the town's 17,000 pre-war inhabitants were Serb. As the Bosnian conflict began to wind down in mid-1995, this population fled into Serb-held areas ahead of advancing Croat forces. By war's end, Drvar was a Croat stronghold. And while the Dayton Peace Accords awarded Drvar to Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation -- one of two post-war Bosnian entities -- the peace deal also guaranteed the rights of refugees and displaced persons to return to their pre-war homes.

Drvar's Serbs Return After Election Win

Drvar's displaced Serb population was among the first to actively pursue this right to return. Aided by voting rules that allowed citizens to vote in their pre-war municipalities in absentia, Drvar's Serbs managed to gain control of Drvar's local assembly in 1997 municipal elections, and installed one of their own as mayor - even though almost no Serbs lived in Drvar at the time.

By early 1998, Serbs were beginning to return to rural areas around Drvar, and were often met with violent resistance. House burnings became the standard Croat response to Serb returns, and the stage was set for the April riots when an elderly Serb couple was executed in an outlying village in March of that year.

If nothing else, the riots captured the full attention of the international community, and Drvar became a key focal point of the international peacebuilding effort in Bosnia -- a test case for the international community's resolve and ability to re-impose multiethnicity against the wishes of the majority population. As it became clear that the riots were not a spontaneous demonstration of popular will but rather were choreographed at the highest levels of the Bosnian Croat leadership, Drvar's Croat deputy mayor was sacked and an international 'special envoy' was assigned to the town. At the same time, SFOR's riot control capacity was beefed up to deal with the potential of copycat riots.

In time, the robust international presence in Drvar and the ongoing Serb pressure to return turned the tables in favor of the return process, and today Serbs constitute some 70-80 per cent of the town's estimated population of 8,500. While refugees and displaced persons across Bosnia have been returning to their pre-war homes in significant numbers in recent years, nowhere has ethnic cleansing been reversed to a greater degree than in Drvar.

Most People Want to Forget

For the most part, and despite the recent history of Serb-Croat acrimony, political re-integration has been a success, with the municipal government, local police forces, and even local schools achieving a considerable degree of functional, and functioning, multiethnicity. "Most people want to forget," notes MCpl Aaron Coxworth, one of the Canadians who has been testing SFOR's new low-intensity monitoring scheme, "and just get on with their lives."

Yet the process of forgetting, forgiving, and moving on has been complicated by Drvar's grim economic situation. Like many medium-sized towns across the former Yugoslavia, Drvar used to live off a single industry -- in this case wood processing -- and has yet to recover from the economic consequences of the war, including destroyed factories, collapsed markets, and a lack of investment capital. And while Drvar's economic pie has shrunk considerably in recent years, what remains lies in the hands of the town's remaining Bosnian Croats. Viable industries, most notably the wood-processing company Finvest, were privatized to Croat entrepreneurs in murky post-war deals, while public enterprises such as the post office and electric company continue to be controlled, and staffed, by ethnic Croats. As a result, it's estimated that out of approximately 7,000 Serb returnees to the area, only 300 are currently employed.

"We Want Our Jobs Back"

Many local Serbs have grown increasingly embittered over what at least some see as a continuation of ethnic cleansing by economic means. "We have nothing against the Croats," says Milorad Srdic, head of the local returnee association, "but we want our jobs back." Adds local Serb businesswoman Zivana Sabljic: "It doesn't mean much to a person if you put him back in his house but don't given him any opportunity to feed himself." The situation in Drvar is echoed across post-Dayton Bosnia, where political stabilization without economic recovery has left inhabitants squabbling across ethnic lines for the meager spoils of Bosnia's largely unreformed economy.

For their part, the Canadians in Drvar, despite being one of the area's biggest employers, knew that as the region's problems have migrated from the security to the economic realm, military strength has become redundant. And while it is conceivable that economic grievances could once again ignite violent confrontations, the two-person MOST teams -- named after the local word for bridge -- will be able to call in SFOR firepower if the situation threatens to spin out of control.

The recognition of this new Bosnian reality, and the most appropriate military response to it, is slowly producing a significant shift within NATO peacekeeping policy in Bosnia. While the MOST vision has advanced farthest in places like Drvar, it is likely to unfold elsewhere over the course of the coming year, and will mean a significant draw-down of foreign troops in Bosnia. Canada's overall military commitment, for example, is expected to be reduced to some 200 soldiers, down from the current figure of 1,100. This will, no doubt, take some pressure off the Canadian military as it is asked to take on new missions in some of the world's other hotspots.

At the same time, negotiations are currently underway regarding the transfer of the military stabilization component of the Bosnian peacebuilding process from NATO into the hands of the European Union, which would represent a further milestone in Bosnia's post-war normalization.

While all of this is undoubtedly good news for the progress of peace in Bosnia, the current situation in Drvar does raise serious questions about what kind of peace is being built. Unless reversed, Bosnia's current economic dysfunction will eventually generate its own instability. Similarly, there is a real risk that the international community's hard-fought battle to restore a modicum of multiethnicity across Bosnia will dissipate as returnee groups, shut out of the local economy in their pre-war communities, either die out or migrate back to majority areas in search of better opportunities. If Bosnia's return-focused peace process has delivered little beyond the ability to go home in frustration, bitterness, and poverty, one might legitimately ask whether it was worth the effort. In Drvar, the real irony is that while Serbs and Croats are learning to live together again, the town itself is dying.

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004

Peace Magazine Jul-Sep 2004, page 16. Some rights reserved.

Search for other articles by Timothy Donais here

Peace Magazine homepage