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Blog: Bosnia: Genocide 25 years on

Prof Francis Davis writes on his experience revisiting Bosnia 25 years after the genocide on Bosnian Muslims

Twenty-five years ago this month, I was leading a small NGO, providing support for refugees and rape-victims during the Yugoslav wars of independence. The other day, I again stood in that same region where once I had accompanied teams that had come under fire as we moved. Our delegation listened closely to the forensic specialists who were working for the International Commission on Missing Persons: they briefed us on their painstaking work of identifying the thousands of bodies buried in mass graves just as the war was nearing its predictable end.

Today, Bosnia does not have a Constitution of its own. Its institutional arrangements originate in the international Dayton Agreement, which was facilitated by the Great Powers at the time. A ceremonial President supervises a “federal” system of government, where Croatian, Serb and Muslim/Bosniak citizens live “parallel” lives – in many senses. There is no educational curriculum shared by the three groups despite their forming one ‘nation’; unemployment figures are high – with youth unemployment at over 50%; the power of government to mobilise public value is greatly constrained by the limited tax-base and civic capabilities that are the result of low income, fragmentation, an under-developed private sector and weak institutions. Severe social disruption can now frequently occur in the resulting vacuum, with ferocious Serbian nationalism coming to the fore in Serbian areas. Ten years ago, I served on a committee that awarded part of a $500,000 prize to a Serbian human rights lawyer: since the war had ended, he had continually defended those at risk in these conditions. He had allied with women’s organizations who were trying to identify those men who, quite openly, had used rape as a military strategy and who he hoped would subsequently be brought to justice.

When we reached Srebrenica, we were greeted by survivors of the genocide that took place there. This meeting took place at the Museum and Memorial that – with American help – had been authorized by Britain’s Paddy Ashdown when he was serving as UN High Commissioner in the region. The local men had been taken to barns, factories and fields, and had been executed by Serbian soldiers and Militias (who sometimes filmed their antics, as if to keep a trophy or to please their superior officers). Their colleagues came back later, to remove and hide the bodies. Recently, another mass grave was found: suspicions had been aroused when it was noticed that local cows were refusing to drink from a particular pond.

The tragedy here, in Srebrenica, was that, at the peak period of the fighting, 600 Dutch soldiers had been stationed in the area under the auspices of the UN, and their main role was to protect the area as a “Safe Zone”. 40 of them were held hostage and inability to act decisively by Holland, Britain, the UN and the other main powers meant that thousands of people were unprotected and over 8,000 were murdered by the Serbs in what has officially been categorised as genocide even though some still deny it.

On my recent visit I was asked to read the Lesson at Sarajevo Cathedral, which had been the hub of a network of global humanitarian effort both during and after the war. We attended Midday Prayers in a city centre Mosque, recently refurbished by Middle Eastern donors. The Catholic Archbishop, the Jewish Rabbi and the Grand Mufti live within yards of one another, and within sight of one of the greatest Orthodox Cathedrals. We met those seeking to build a new nation in very distinctive circumstances, but at times I could not help thinking that good governance, innovative leadership and some openly secular contribution might be more useful than yet more appeals to God.

There is ample reason to study this region and subsequently to contribute to every aspect of leadership, policy and diplomacy. St Mary’s has recently recruited faculty with enduring interests in the region to help develop its new public management, policy and politics courses. It is not surprising that there are problems in the economy; that there are problems with mental health and post-traumatic care; that there are hopes that the Civil Service will develop a less biased approach. Agriculture and tourism are lifebloods that may cease to flow. Diplomacy is both internally demanding and externally challenging: the problem here is the vexed debate on the possibility of mutual benefit if Bosnia-Herzegovina were to join the European Union. (Some local elites like to extract what political economists call “private rents” from public resources, and it is likely that the EU would want them to behave more transparently.) Russia looms nearby. Chinese investment, which has advanced in great swathes in Africa, seems not yet to have turned its eyes in this direction.

As I sat at a café in the Sarajevo market square and sipped black, sweet Turkish coffee, I recalled how I had first tasted that kind of coffee – but a different type, whose chewy grittiness. I remembered and how it had been scooped in cracked mugs from big, steel pots that bubbled over fires out in the centre of refugee camps within Bosnia during the war. I remembered how I had been offered what would have been a scarce cigarette. Sarajevo had endured daily shelling throughout a siege that had lasted four years.

Such refugee-camps are now so globally present and in turn seem to teach a lesson relevant to this area. Action needs to be taken immediately: ground-breaking improvements in policy-making, management and leadership in a region of intense insecurity are essential.

Free from the simplistic thinking of neo-liberal, religious, ethnic and statist fundamentalisms, future generations may stand a chance of more creative options. Committed to the reinvention of old social institutions and a strengthened “public sphere”, agents of change can unlock fresh civic value.

Two decades ago, there was huge suffering in the former Yugoslavia. Those who gathered round the Srebrenica Memorial the other day longed for nothing but optimism for the future.

Professor Francis Davis is Director of the new St Mary’s Global Centre on Public Service and Social Innovation which launches October 4th 2017 at Lambeth Palace with Professor Jorrit De Jonge from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and Rt Hon Penny Mordaunt MP, Minister for Work. He was visiting Bosnia at the invitation of the FCO/DCLG supported charity Remembering Srebrenica. For details email

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