Due to a cross cultural fluke, instead of hotel rooms with two twin beds, we all ended up sharing king beds. I didnt mind, it just meant getting to know my roommate extra quickly. Besides the heavy and hanging smell of smoke the hotel we were staying in was extremely nice and right in old town square. I am not sure if it was the travel or the general state of things lately, but my joints were being particularly bothersome. I took out my TENS machine, which is a sort of electro shock treatment for joints. It of course took a little explaining with my bedmate. I didn’t want to go into a full explanation of my condition, but I just said I had a chronic joint condition. There was a stretch of silence. “its nice that you have that machine” she said. More silence. “I know a lot of people with chronic joint issues get addicted to pain meds.” I quickly changed the subject and tried not to laugh, that was a new reaction I had not encountered yet.
I woke up monday morning to a rusted and creaking body and we headed out for our first full day in Bosnia. The first stop was American University (unrelated to AU in the US), where we met with the president of the university. He started off his talk by showing us promotional tourism videos. We watched a bunch of them and collectively tried not to laugh, since the dozens of thirty second ads all took the same format. It showed summery clips of people doing three to four different activities and it would say “Enjoy insert activity name”then it would finish by saying “Enjoy Bosnia!” I seriously recommend giving them a watch.
After that cultural introduction the President went into an in-depth and impressively unbiased history of the conflict. I was under the impression I knew a lot about the conflict but I was wrong. he started by giving an overview of their university, which was founded in 2005 in cooperation with SUNY and has received american accreditation. Classes are taught in english with a mix of american, bosnian, and EU professors. They have a number of different undergraduate offerings, and in the summer they offer a peace and conflict program, which I would love to do.
He then dived into the country and the conflict. Ill give you a brie ooverview of his overview so you can understand my ramblings about the next couples of days. Bosnia is 51 km2, which is about the size of west virginia and has a population of 3.8 million.There is a cultural meeting of east and west, which causes it in some ways to suffer from too much history. There are three primary ethnic groups in the country Bosniaks (Muslims) who are 54%, Serbs (Orthodox) who are 32.5%, and Croats (Catholics) who are 11.5%, and then there is the ambiguous category of other which is 2%. Theare three official languages of the country, Bosnian, Croatian, and Srbian. The languages, we were told however are interchangeable dialects such as American, British, and Canadian English. Bosnia has been inhabited since neolithic times and has a diverse cultural history, but relevant to our topic of discussion, Bosnis was part of the kingdom of Yugoslavia until they voted for independence in 1992.
In the wake of independence, conflict broke out between the three major ethnic groups, the nuances of which will be discussed later. The most recent estimates say that 100,000 people were killed, 20,000 to 50,000 women were raped, and 2.2 million people displaced. The conflict was brought to an end in 1995 with the Dayton (as in Dayton Ohio) peace agreement.
Perhaps the most complex aspect to understanding Bosnia is the current administrative and political structure. There is one state and within the state there are two entities. The Republic of Serbska (RS), which is 49% of the territory and the Federation of Bosnia Herzegovina (FBiH) which is 51% of the territory. Then there are 14 levels of executive authority. Within FBiH there are 10 cantons, which are like counties. Inside the 10 cantons there are 80 different municipalities. Then in RS there are 63 municipalities. The government is broken down into legislative, judicial, and executive branches. But the Office of High Representatives, which is the international monitoring body from after the war, still has final say on a lot of things. The government is highly decentralized and the entities have a high level of autonomy. Then there are three presidents. Yeah three. One for each of the main ethnic groups. All three presidents are acting at once and must make decisions collectively. Also if you are part of the “other” you cannot be elected into office. So you can vote, but not sit in office, so in some ways all the rights are allocated to the constitutional groups of Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs. Got it? Super straightforward system, right? Well, thats just the beginning.
After meeting with the President of AU, we had a lunch break and then headed to the american embassy. In classic American fashion, when we tried to enter the security area a large man with a large gun came outside and asked all thirty of us to line up in three rows. We then had to keep rank and take out our passports. We were ushered in the office two at a time, and then had to hand over our passports and all of the possessions we had with us. We went through an X-ray machine and were handed a visitor badge.
Like herding cats in the rain, its take an hour to get all of us through security and to the conference room. We met with someone who works in the economic office, who never offered his name or his title. The only way to describe his is very D.C. He had the capitol hill parted hair, dress pants, a slightly too large button down, and a tie that was a bit too wide. He talked to us a little but about going into the foreign service, and then dove in the Bosnian political economy. Since the embassy took my purse and my laptop, I was unable to take notes and due to information overload, the details from this one are a bit fuzzy. We discussed Bosnias desire to join the EU and NATO and the things that are standing in their way. We also learned that 60% of the GDP come from government jobs, which hails to the earlier description of their administration. Finally he discussed US interest in the country and told us that this is one of the largest American embassies in the world. I asked if the ethnic discrimination, continued through to the private sectors as well, and he said that it was mostly relegated to the government, since n the private sector the desire for financial success supersedes ethnicity.
I left his office feeling even further confused. Here I was, in a country I thought I understood, learning how in there three president, ethnically motivated political climate, economics are the one area free from discrimination. I had so many more questions I needed to ask so I could start understanding what was going on. We walked out of the embassy, and I retrieved my belongings from the security guy, I asked him if I could keep my visitor badge as a souvenir. He was not amused.