The Desire to be One: Unity, Nationalism, and Fragmentation in ex-Yugoslavia

Jasenovac, Prijedor, Sarajevo, and Mostar are cities which summon particularly traumatic memories from the Balkan wars of the 1990s (and from earlier wars as well). Despite this history, there is still a strong desire to overcome hatred and fragmentation, as Alexei Gavriel discovered.

By Alexei Gavriel | 2009-10-01 12:00:00

Jasenovac, Croatia

During the Second World War, the Nazi-allied Croatian Fascist government took on a campaign to "cleanse" Croatia of its unwanted elements. A death camp in the town of Jasenovac was constructed and run by Croatian Ustashe forces and became the final resting place of hundreds of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Roma, and political dissidents. The killings were particularly brutal and carried out with "cold weapons" including knives and hammers (as opposed to the "humane" methods of killing, by gas and burning, used by the Nazis).

A memorial was constructed at Jasenovac under the direction of Marshal Tito in remembrance of the atrocity and to reinforce that people are better when they are united. A museum was developed around the memorial where groups of Yugoslav school children were brought to understand their history. The site served as a reminder to never let anything like this happen again.

Ironically, Jasenovac was the site of fighting and ethnic conflict in 1991 after the Croatian army occupied the town. They laid mines around the monument and vandalized the museum in an attempt almost to purge it of its memory. Jasenovac was later taken by the Croatian Serb army, which occupied it between 1991 and 1995. With a pre-war population of 3300 people and essentially 50/50 Serb and Croat, the town currently has a population of only 1500 people: 80% Croat, 20% Serb.[1] Most of the Serbs who were not killed in the ethnic cleansing campaigns fled across the Bosnian border into nearby Republika Srpska.

When we arrived at the Jasenovac memorial, we were greeted by a government tour guide who showed us around the memorial grounds. He told us he was Serb and had lived in this area even during the war. When asked if he was persecuted as a Serb living in Croatia he replied that this was not the case. His family had stayed during the conflict. It was harder for people who were returning rather than those who stayed.

Our guide was perhaps the first person we had been able to ask the grand question of how could something like this have happened. The reply he gave was one I heard repeated throughout the rest of the research in the Balkans: "Maybe we are stupid people - we just follow what people say. When Tito was in power we believed we were united. Later when it was Tudjman and Milosevic, everyone listened again."

He does not currently live in Jasenovac proper; instead, he lives in a larger city a half-hour drive away. We asked how the local population felt living beside the monument. I expected a general feeling of remorse, guilt, or maybe even anger of having to be consistently reminded of something horrible for which they should feel responsible. I was surprised by the answer that most locals view the memorial positively as a potential means of income for the community. More surprisingly, when the camp was first demolished after the Second World War, locals had taken bricks from the original torture houses and re-used them to build their homes.

Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

I met "N.T.," a hotel worker, while inquiring at the reception about areas of interest in Sarajevo regarding the civil conflict. N.T., a Bosnian Muslim, is a 29-year-old MSc student in forensics awaiting a one-year apprenticeship to complete his program and move on to become a crime investigator.

Later in the day, when he had finished his shift at the hotel, I met with him and we proceeded with the tour.

The first point of interest was the Olympic stadium. During the civil war in Bosnia, the Sarajevo Olympic grounds served as a point of shock to the world, who could not believe that images they had seen on the news were coming from the same place that had hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics. Post-conflict and post-intervention, efforts have been made to restore some of the Olympic facilities, including buildings destroyed by hostile fire and fields turned into temporary graveyards. The International Olympic Committee has been a major funder for this effort, which of course carries symbolic weight for both the city and the Olympic movement.

As N.T. had grown up in the midst of a major operation in international armed intervention, I asked him how he felt about having foreign peacekeepers in his city. We discussed several events which had occurred, as well as several failures of the mission -- including the Srebrenica massacre, where Dutch soldiers had allowed General Ratko Mladic's Army of Republika Srpska to push past their position and ethnically cleanse the population within their United Nations Protectorate Area (UNPA). He told me "It must be understood that for the first two years they were here they didn't do anything but defend themselves. They would see someone kill someone and then they would close up their vehicles." Even in the issue of Srebrenica, he agreed that it was less the fault of the Dutch than of the United Nations. "The lightly armed soldiers could not do anything. In 1995 it was good when NATO bombed and strong-armed [the Serbs]. Then we started to notice change."

We got out of the car at one of four or five "Sniper Alleys" located in the city. He stared down the street silently for an extended moment before he turned to me and said, "You could cross but you weren't guaranteed to pass.

"It was difficult to cross. We would put up blankets and people would try and walk through without the snipers seeing them. Many people we knew were killed in these alleys.

"One minute I would be talking to you here like we are now. Then you would go, turn the corner, and be killed. Right in front of me."

His childhood is filled with memories of death. "Death was very common. It was like eating snacks -- it happened every day, all the time. Soon we were used to it. It always happened."

Prijedor, Bosnia-Herzegovina (Republika Srpska)

Before 1991, Prijedor was an ethnically mixed area with a population of 112,000, of which 44% identified as Muslim, 42% Serb, 5.7% Yugoslav, and 5.6% Croat.

During the war, all of the Muslims in the region were either killed or expelled. Their homes were deliberately targeted and destroyed in order to prevent their return. Some of the most brutal atrocities of the conflict took place at a number of concentration camps in Prijedor municipality - notably in Prijedor proper, Omarska, and Sanski Most.

In the Muslim village of Kozarac, it has been reported that 5,000 out of a total population of 15,000 were killed in summary executions in an attack launched by Serb forces and paramilitary groups. In one notorious incident, over 200 residents of Partisan Street were executed in a single night, and over 100 homes destroyed.

Although Prijedor is now in Republika Srpska -- the majority-Serb entity within Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Muslim former residents have been returning in recent years. New houses and housing developments are being built on formerly destroyed Muslim neighbourhoods under United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) supervision. Although all the mosques were destroyed during the conflict, several new mosques have been built or are nearing completion.

According to locals, most of the Muslims have returned to the area. However, there is still conflict between the Muslims and the Serbs. Children do not get along or play together and when the different groups are in the same bar, a fight usually ensues.

Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina (Bosnian Federation)

Prior to the Civil War, Mostar was an attractive, historic European city with a vibrant multi-ethnic community. Its pre-war population was 35% Muslim, 34% Croat, 19% Serb, and 10% Yugoslav. The famous Mostar Bridge, uniting the Muslim east bank and Croatian west bank, was destroyed in 1993 but was rebuilt in 2004 and now serves as a symbol of Balkan reconstruction.

I arrived late in Mostar at a hotel right beside the infamous bridge. For Friday night it was peculiarly silent. Although most European cities seem to flourish with a vibrant nightlife, Mostar was still and silent. Only the sounds of a few distant groups at the private cafes, a garbage truck, and the flowing water could be heard. I was the only person in the streets.

In the morning, the town centre flourished with life, hardly resembling the desolate city of the night previous. All of the shops were open and accommodating tourists with all sorts of Bosnia and Mostar souvenirs. Tourists were on the Mostar Bridge taking photographs. There were even two young men in swimsuits charging to get their photo taken diving off the historic bridge.

Few people visiting the bridge seemed to pay any attention to the "Don't Forget '93" slogan carved in a piece of original stone at the Mostar Bridge's entrance; notably, the inscription was in English rather than Serbian-Croatian-Bosnian.

Alexei Gavriel is coordinator of the Cultural Intelligence Project ( based in Vancouver.


1 Unless otherwise stated, all demographic and casualty figures are taken from "Prison Camps in the Former Yugoslavia Report". United Nations Commission of Experts Final Report. (27 May 1994)

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2009

Peace Magazine Oct-Dec 2009, page 24. Some rights reserved.

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