Posts Tagged ‘ Croatia ’

Balkan Connections

A railway company named Cargo 10 is ready this October 1st to open its newest project – a new train connection in the Balkans, from Ljubljana to Istanbul.  This project will provide the Western Balkans with trains that are faster, more modern, and in compliance with EU standards.  Cargo 10 was founded by Serbia, Slovenia, and Croatia, and Bosnia (FBiH and Republika Srpska separately) and Macedonia also decided to join.  The first step of the project, costing 100 million EUR, will be used for the restoration of the railway lines and the purchase of new electronic engines.  The second loan, valued at 200 million EUR, will be spent on the development of additional routes.  According to Radio Srbija, some of these projects will include,  “the modernization of railway line Belgrade-Subotica-Hungarian border, which is in the north line of Corridor 10. By the end of the year, works on the electrification of the Niš-Dimitrovgrad-Bulgarian border railway are to begin. Next year, two railway bridges, namely those in the towns of Paraćin and Novi Sad respectively, will be built. Negotiations with Russia on a loan of 600 million USD for the Belgrade railway junction and for the building of the Valjevo-Loznica railway are expected.”

Last December, Belgrade and Sarajevo reopened its direct railway connection after 17 years, which was a huge step for the region.  Trains in the former-Yugoslavia are old and slow, and in desperate need of modernization as these countries strive for EU membership.  Serbia’s visa restrictions were lifted at the end of last year, and BiH hopes to join the Schengen White List soon.  The countries in the area need more coordination and joint business ventures like Cargo 10 and travel around the region should be encouraged, for tourists from the rest of Europe as well as for citizens from these successor states.    Ticket prices will be much cheaper and travel times will decrease by about one third, which will result in further economic development of the countries involved.  I believe that Southeast Europe needs a physical connection like this railway line in order to overcome differences of the past and to forge ahead to a prosperous and stable future.


BBC article about the Belgrade-Serbia line (opened in 2009)

EUobserver and Radio Srbija on the Cargo 10 project


Language Lessons

Many of my friends and family from home ask me the same question:  What are the differences among the Serbian, Bosnian, and Croatian languages?  I understand their confusion, because last year I studied Serbian language at the Centre for Serbian as a Foreign Language at the University of Novi Sad in Serbia.  Lately I speak of my commitment to improving my Bosnian language skills now that I live in Sarajevo.  Most people in the United States still think of the language as Serbo-Croatian, and always I carry a pocket Croatian dictionary in my purse.   This probably sounds confusing to many people, so here is a brief explanation for clarification.

For centuries, the dialects of the South Slavs have developed independently with slight regional variations.  By the mid-19th century, writers and linguists worked to standardize the language, and they began to call the unified language Serbian-Croatian (or Croatian-Serbian).  In 1918, the first Kingdom of Yugoslavia named the language Serbo-Croato-Slovene, making the previous efforts to create a supranational language official.  In 1929, the names of the country and language were changed to Yugoslavia, in order to eliminate ethnic divisions among the people.

Communist Yugoslavia did not solve the language issues, but it suppressed ethnic tensions to some extent.  In 1954, groups of Serbian and Croatian intellectuals signed the Novi Sad Agreement, which stated that Serbs, Croats, and Montenegrins speak the same language with some differences in pronunciation.  Many Croats were uneasy with this declaration, and viewed it as Serbia’s attempt to assert political dominance over the region.  Following the political pressures in the 1980s and 1990s, the forced merging of the languages ended, and speakers called the language whatever they wanted.  The wars surrounding the breakup of Yugoslavia emphasized differences among the people, and language politics became very important.

It is impossible to provide a short explanation of language politics in the former-Yugoslavia.  However it is most important to state that Serbs, Croats, Bosnians, and Montenegrins can easily understand each other, despite the different names for the language.  In a recent B92 article, a Croatian linguist states that everyone in Bosnia, Serbia, Croatia, and Montenegro are speaking the same language.  She speaks of how emphasis on small regional language differences is a mask to spread political intolerance.

Constantly, I am reminded of my Serbian professor who told me that in the former-Yugoslavia, the small differences matter most to people.  Although everyone can easily understand one another, language is an important factor of national pride.  In Bosnia, everyone has the right to education in their “own language”  and differences are emphasized.  In Serbian schools, children are taught in Serbian in  the Cyrillic alphabet.  Similarly, schools with Bosniak Muslim or Croatian majorities emphasize their own regional dialects and spellings. For example, Serbs say uvek and Bosnians say uvijek (always), gde and gdje (where), lepo and lijepo (beautiful).  The differences are hardly noticeable in conversation, but greatly matter to teachers and parents when it comes to educational and classroom settings.

In conclusion, most people would agree that the people of these four countries speak the same language.  Internationally, this language is usually called Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian to be as politically correct as possible.  International organizations are working to ease the tension over language in the Bosnian education system.  For my own purposes, it does not matter that I studied Serbian language last year and now I live in Bosnia.  For the purposes of my CV however, I can say I speak three languages when I really speak only one.  🙂

My collection of books- Serbian dictionary in Cyrillic, Bosnian dictionary, pocket Croatian dictionary, Serbian workbooks, Bosnian workbooks.....

For more information, please read the recent B92 article on linguistics here. (In Serbian)

Also, wikipedia provides explanation on the differences between Serbian, Croatian, and Bosnian here.

Sarajevo Film Festival Review

Without wishing to sound redundant of the film descriptions on the website, I would like to point out a few regional films that I saw last week at the 2010 Sarajevo Film Festival. As previously mentioned, the festival holds a large international appeal, with visitors and films from all around the world.  The festival was well organized, and tickets ranged from 2.5-7 euros.  Based on my interests, I mainly watched films from Southeast Europe.

Na Putu

In my opinion, the idea for the plot of Na Putu (On the Path; Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Germany and Croatia, 2010) was extremely interesting.  The film portrayed a young couple Luna and Amar, very much in love,  living in Sarajevo and trying to have a baby.  Although from Muslim background, they do not attend mosque or practice their religion.  After getting fired from his job, Amar accepts a well-paid job at a Wahhabi commune.  The viewers watch as this fundamentalist Muslim community influences Amar’s personal beliefs, and inevitably, his relationship with his wife Luna.  I found the character development to be very weak in this film, and it is hard to believe Amar’s drastic transition.  However, the film is valuable in that it teaches something about the Wahhabi community in Bosnia, and how they clash with the moderate Muslims in the country.  Although I am not very familiar with this group, the film prompted me to do a little investigation.

The fundamentalist Wahhabi movement is a radical group which preaches a ‘pure Islam.’ It originated in Saudi Arabia in the early 18th century and preaches religious intolerance towards other religious groups, including moderate Muslims.  Wahhabi Muslims first came to Bosnia during the war to fight on the side of the Muslims, and many have remained in the country since.  They preach about a traditional Islam, have some schools around Bosnia, and even have operated a terrorist training camp in Southern Serbia.  According to one article, there is a growing number of Al Qaida sympathizers in Bosnia.  According to another article, Islamic studies experts consider this group a threat, and that most of their support comes from Saudi Arabia.  The article also states that according to intelligence sources, Five of the ‘9/11’ attackers had served as Wahhabi sponsored fighters in Bosnia.   Although I cannot comment on the accuracy of the portrayal of this community in Na Putu, I felt that the film provided a fascinating insight into the lives of Wahhabi Muslims in Bosnia.

Zajedno (Together), a documentary from Croatia (2009), featured other underrepresented communities in the region.  The film seemed rather low-budget, and it mainly consisted of interviews about the relationships of different people and couples.  For example, a lesbian couple is followed, and one can see how they act differently in Zagreb than in a smaller town in Croatia.  Many people are not accepting of their relationship.  The film also centers around members of the handicapped community in Croatia, and their limitations in society.  This film was not my favorite, but was valuable and even funny at times as various couples commented about love and relationships.

A Scene from Sevdah za Karima

I found Sevdah za Karima (Sevdah for Karim, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Hungary, Croatia 2010) to be a gem of the festival.  The cinematography was artistic and interesting, and the character development believable and subtle.  Viewers witness the feeling of despair that young adults had in Bosnia immediately after the war.  The film centers around Karim, a Muslim man from Sarajevo.  He seems to be in his twenties right after the war finishes.  He is a failed philosophy student, trying to provide for his sister.  Despite the fact that his parents were killed by a mine during the war, and that Karim himself lost a leg from a mine, he took a job clearing mines in the mountains of Bosnia.  Obviously, this was not an easy film to watch.  The whole audience held their breath as Karim and his colleagues cleared mine fields.  They were not always successful at this highly dangerous job.  Karim had many friends who got mixed up in drugs and violence after the war.  Also, many of his friends from work decided to take jobs with the US military deployment in Iraq.  As a young person currently in my twenties, I thought about what I would do if I were in the position of the characters in this film.  Sevdah za Karima shows how the war continued long after the peace agreements were signed.

A novel by Slavenka Drakulic

Lastly, the best film that I saw from the region last week was Kao da me nema (As If I am not There, Ireland 2010).  The film was based on a book by my favorite author, Slavenka Drakulic.  She is a journalist and author from Croatia and has written many books and articles about the region.  I respect her ability to include just enough personal information into her writing about life in the former-Yugoslavia.  Her books are extremely insightful and well-researched, but they are enjoyable and read like novels.  This film was based on the book As If I am not There, which is called “S” on the English translation.  S. is the initial of the main character of the book… a young teacher in her 20s from Sarajevo, who accepts a job in a mountain village school in Bosnia.  One morning she wakes up and is told to board a bus and leave her home.  Women listen as the men in the village are killed, and they are forced to board buses and live for many months in a camp run by Serbian soldiers.  The film follows this school teacher, as she was selected for the “Women’s Room” in the camp, subjected to constant rape and violence.  The story shows how she survives this horrible part of her life, and how she deals with the emotional aftermath.  The novel and film both begin with this aftermath – S. is in a hospital in a foreign country, trying to deal with her newborn, unwanted child, that only instigates horrible memories.

I felt privileged to watch this film at the festival.  Many of the actors were present, and my idol Slavenka Drakulic herself.  It was actually the first time she herself saw this film based on her book.  Sitting in the theatre, I have never in my life felt so affected by a film.  I felt completely paralyzed in my chair, unable to turn away from the horrible actions taking place on the big screen in front of me.  In fact, a noticeable amount of people actually left the theatre, unable to watch.  Despite the difficulty of this film, it was perhaps the most powerful film I have ever seen and I would recommend both the book and the film to anyone interested in the wars surrounding breakup of Yugoslavia.  Usually I like books better than the films based on books, but I felt that in this case, both the film and the novel had something different to offer.  In the book, readers witness more character development as they read the most intimate thoughts of the main character.  A film cannot provide such detailed thoughts.  However, the visual aspect of the film forced the viewers to watch the events taking place.  Although the book described the same horrible events, I was able to keep some distance while reading that I was unable to maintain while watching the film.

All in all, I immensely enjoyed the film festival, and I hope to attend next year.  Films from this region are not so accessible in the United States, and this was a great opportunity for me to watch some of the best films from Southeast Europe with English subtitles.

Discrimination Against a Hero

Jakob Finci, a hero during the recent wars in Bosnia

In 1991, Jakob Finci was one of the founding members of the organization La Benevolencija Sarajevo.  He served as the organization’s first vice-president and later as the president in 1993.   Finci was born immediately after his parents were liberated from an Italian concentration camp in 1943 to an old Jewish Sephardic family. Of the community of Sephardi Jews who had first settled in Sarajevo in the mid-16th century after they were expelled from Spain, most did not survive World War II. Through the organization La Benevolencija Sarajevo, the remaining Jewish people of the city played a unique humanitarian role during the Bosnian War (1992-1995). Founded by the Jewish population, which remained neutral throughout the conflicts, La Benevolencija’s members acted as mediators between the three warring parties: Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. The Jewish community learned to use their unique status to help civilians in the city under siege. As war broke out in Slovenia and Croatia, the organization managed to supply medicine to the elderly Jewish people trapped in Dubrovnik. In Sarajevo, they began to stock food and medicine anticipating the war to spread.

Once the war broke out in Bosnia in 1992, La Benevolencija organized the first evacuation of the elderly and children. Most of the Jewish population had evacuated the city already, and so the group began to offer their services and supplies to all. They opened a free pharmacy in Sarajevo during the siege, which supplied 40% of the city’s medicine. Finci proudly states “People used to say, ‘If you can’t find it in the Jewish pharmacy, it isn’t in Sarajevo.'” The organization also opened a soup kitchen, which served 300 hot meals a day, 7 days a week to anyone in need. Also, La Benevolencija opened a school for children, which eventually became ethnically mixed. As I work on my master’s thesis dealing with education reform policies in Bosnia, I am surprised to learn about this early form of inclusive education- the school, comprised of students from the different ethnicities of Bosnia, learned about living together in peace. Finci, as Jewish and therefore a neutral person, was also able to negotiate with the various warring sides and eventually they smuggled approximately 3,000 refugees of all backgrounds out of the city as “Jews.” Eventually, the organization became an ethnic mix and was regarded as a symbol for empathy.

The 1995 Dayton Peace Agreements that acted as a ceasefire agreement, created a constitution for an independent Bosnia, and partitioned the state (into the Federation of Bosnia and Hercegovina, Republika Srpska as well as the Brcko district) were mostly a United States sponsored solution. Richard Holbrooke, the chief negotiator on the project, tried to appease the three sides of the conflicts. When the leaders of the three main communities couldn’t agree who would control a particular institution, Holbrooke’s solution was to give them one each. Today, Bosnia’s political system is a mess as a result of this method of “pleasing” the three sides- Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs are represented at each level of government and an internationally appointed High Representative oversees the whole system. Thus, the political system in Bosnia contains a huge amount of waste and is completely dependent on the international community.

But what about the other people in Bosnia, namely the Jewish and Roma people? These groups are extremely marginalized, lost in the aftermath of the war. The Bosnian constitution distinguishes between two categories of citizen: “constituent peoples” — Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs — and “others”: Jews, Roma and other minorities. Therefore, Jewish and Roma people are unable to run for high office, as the parliament is divided into equal seats for Serbs, Bosniaks, and Croats. In December, the European Court of Human Rights slammed Bosnia for barring Jews and Roma from running for high elected office, ruling that Bosnia had violated provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights prohibiting discrimination and upholding the right to free elections. Bosnia is supposed to amend their constitution before the general elections that will take place in October this year.

Jakob Finci is a hero in Bosnia and fought for the rights of all people in the country. He risked his life to supply medicine, food, education, and the means for evacuation to civilians at risk from all sides. During those difficult years, he envisioned a peaceful and inclusive country- not one that would ban him from political office 15 years later. He has decades of legal and humanitarian experience, but he is not allowed to run for high political office in Bosnia solely on account of his religion. With the support of Minority Rights Group International and along with Dervo Sejdic, another prominent political figure who is of Roma origin, he brought the case to Strasbourg for a breach of human rights. The lawsuit resulted in the demands last December that Bosnia revise its constitution.

Constantly I am thinking about the international intervention in Bosnia and Hercegovina in the last couple of decades. How could the international community let people die in Sarajevo for years before they intervened? The situation was so desperate that Muslim representatives went to Washington, DC and begged the United States to bomb their own country and people so that the situation would end. Finally, the Dayton Peace Agreements were signed, leaving people like Slobodan Milosevic very pleased and Bosniak Muslims destroyed. The international community, namely the United States, did not create a long-term solution for the future of the country; rather, they solidified ethnic divisions and perpetuated ethnic hatred and discrimination, as seen in the constitution of Bosnia today. The state of Bosnia and Hercegovina cannot continue to function as it does currently. Just yesterday, Bosnia was admitted to the Membership Action Program for NATO, which puts it on a fast-track to membership, and the country aims for a future in the European Union. The international community claims to support Bosnia’s full integration into the European community, but would never accept any responsibility for the disorganized state of the country. The European Court of Human Rights will speak out in outrage against the constitution of Bosnia, but where should the country begin its reforms? In Dayton in 1995, the document signed ensured that the war would never be over. My hope for the future of Bosnia is that soon, people like Jakob Finci can participate in high levels of government.

Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War By Peter Maass

This past month was a whirlwind of a few trips and a visit from my family, hence the lull in writing. During my downtime on trains and buses, I delved into Peter Maass’ Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War. I am truly impressed with this firsthand account of the war in Bosnia and Hercegovina, seen through the eyes of an American journalist. Peter Maass reported on the war for the Washington Post from 1992-1993. He lived in the infamous Holiday Inn, the hotel situated right on Sniper’s Alley that housed many journalists during the war. The building was under constant shelling from Serb forces perched in the mountains surrounding the city, and cars drove at break-neck speed down the boulevard past civilians risking their lives running for water. This book is much more than a typical report on the war; Maass provides a passionate account of participants and bystanders from all sides and he critically interprets the events that caused the bloody destruction of a nation.

The most valuable aspect of this book is that Peter Maass did not know what he was getting into when he started his assignment covering the war in Bosnia. He fell into the position, and admittedly knew very little about the region when he first arrived. Interviewing refugees in camps in Croatia before stepping foot in Bosnia, he could hardly believe the horrific accounts of torture and death from people who lost their homes and family members. Once he finally made it to Bosnia, readers witness a naïve reporter evolve into an informed critic of people and events involved in the conflict. He interviewed everyone from those who appropriated homes in ethnically cleansed villages, constantly nervous about the real owners returning, to the drunk soldiers on the front lines. He managed tours through concentration camps, nursing homes, and churches. Maass met with snipers that were shooting at the Holiday Inn, perplexed UN Officials, and nervous politicians. He sat in front of Radovan Karadzic in Pale until late in the night as he told bold faced lies to reporters. Maass sat with Slobodan Milosevic for a private interview in his office, and the leader in Belgrade asked him why he wrote lies about Serbia. He attends family funerals of the deceased and even a wartime fashion show. Finding himself in the middle of an attack one day, he speaks about “Bosnian Mind Fuck” as he witnesses an old man on an orange bicycle casually riding through the direct fire. He is witty, sarcastic, and insightful but the reader can also sense the moments when he was afraid and sick over the tragedies taking place.

The book is much more than a collection of interviews and experiences of a war correspondent. The memoirs also provide an interesting insight into the way the journalists interacted during the war, and the personal conflicts some felt while writing about terrible events brushed aside by the outside world. Many times, Maass almost lost his ability to remain neutral during interviews. It was not easy for him to speak to war criminals justifying their actions, or to listen to ordinary people repeating political propaganda to explain why they hate their neighbors. The more Peter Maass witnessed in Bosnia, the more he became critical of the (lack of) international response. He criticizes the roles of UN officials, the US State Department, President Bill Clinton, and the world in general. Peter Maass’ Love Thy Neighbor provides a truly exceptional, passionate account of the war in Bosnia and is a must-read for anyone interested in Yugoslavia.

Here is the book on Amazon.  Here is the author’s website.

Majority Rules: The Education System in Bosnia

Recently, I expressed my interest in the education system in Bosnia.  Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote:

In the Republika Srpska, problems arise when Muslim Bosniaks return to their small towns that were ethnically cleansed during the war. In these communities, education policies primarily reflect the domination of the Serbian majority group over minorities. Minority children are allowed access only to education organized to serve the needs of the majority students and the atmosphere is hostile in some schools.  The Serbian curriculum has a Serbian world perspective and is taught in the Serbian language and the Cyrillic alphabet. Students learn of the symbols, struggles and sacrifices of the Serbian people neglecting to explain the other perspectives in Bosnia. For example, in music class students learn patriotic Serbian songs, and in religion class only Orthodox Christianity is considered.  Vague references to “our country” implicitly refer to Serbia and not to Bosnia and Herzegovina.   Although the education system in Republika Srpska is centralized and the administration functions more smoothly than the system in FBiH, schools fail to incorporate minorities.

In FBiH, education is less centralized with many decisions delegated to the local level.  Much tension exists between the Bosniaks and Croats, as evident in their schools, and many parents will drive their children to a school farther away in order to receive instruction with their own ethnicity.  In the five cantons with a Muslim majority, education is taught from a Bosniak perspective in the Bosnian language.  Literature focuses on Bosniak authors, and does not include authors from other ethnicities in the region.  History textbooks heavily emphasize aggression and genocide attempts against Muslims specifically . In the two cantons with a Croatian majority in FBiH, the study of language means instruction only in Croatian without any references to the other languages of the region.  The wars in the 1990s are referred to with the theme of defending “the homeland.”  The history books focus on a Croatian perspective and neglect the “non-Croatian population.”  Bosnia and Herzegovina is referred to like a foreign country such as Serbia or Macedonia and textbooks are published in Zagreb .

Religion, as one of the main distinguishing features of ethnicity in Bosnia, is specifically a sensitive issue in education.  The constitutions of FBiH and Republika Srpska explicitly guarantee religious freedom while implicitly referring to a separation of church and state.  However, with the importance of religion in the last few decades, an American-style separation of church and state is impossible in Bosnia .  Religious education was introduced in all public schools in the 1990s yet only the religion of the majority is taught.  Authorities explain that it is not possible to provide teachers to represent each religious group, reflecting the political divisions in the country .  Technically religion education classes are optional, but in reality, students who opt-out of these courses face discrimination in some school districts.  In some schools if students do not attend the religion classes, they are forced to sit in the hallway .  This method of dealing with multiculturalism in schools only emphasizes and strengthens differences between ethnicities.

Still interested? Download the pdf to read the essay.  bosniaeducation

Arenas for Nationalism: From Sports to Politics

Although I recently wrote about my hopes for better relations between Serbia and Croatia, tensions are currently rising.  On the first day of the Australian Open, a group of young Croatian-Australians gave the Nazi salute and chanted Fascist slogans.  They also brought flares into the stadium, and were soon ejected for unruly behavior.  This display of nationalism is not unique; racial tension between nations of the former-Yugoslavia often erupts during sports matches.

In the political arena, Croatia just elected a new president, Ivo Josipovic, and it was recently confirmed that Serbian President Boris Tadic will not attend his inaugaration because Kosovo president Fatmir Sejdiu would be there.  Tadic does not want his attendance along with Sejdiu to be interpreted as an acceptance of Kosovo’s declaration of independence.  The inauguration of Josipovic is scheduled for February 18 2010. He will succeed Stjepan Mesic, who has been prominent in backing Kosovo’s independence, much to the annoyance of Belgrade.

Stjepan Mesic seems to be using his last days in office to make controversial statements to his neighbors, and especially to Milorad Dodik, the prime minister of the Republika Srpka (serbian entity) in Bosnia.   Mesic stated: “If Milorad Dodik scheduled a referendum for secession … I would send the army,”  adding that he would “break the Bosnian Serb region in half”.  Dodik responds by calling Mesic “ustasa.”

Stjepan Mesic

I agree that Dodik is doing everything in his power to keep Bosnia as divided as possible and he constantly makes threats of secession, but is another war the answer? Few experts seem to think that Bosnia will have another war like it did in the 1990s, yet the ethnic tensions between Bosnia, Croatia, and Serbia seem to be more aggressive than ever and Mesic’s threats are alarming.  Lady Ashton, the EU’s new foreign policy chief, has singled Bosnia out as the most unstable corner of Europe, according to the UK Guardian.

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