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.