Reconciliation in Bosnia

July, 2005

"Reconciliation is not about being cozy; it is not about pretending that things were other than they were. Reconciliation based on falsehood, on not facing up to reality, is not reconciliation at all."

- Archbishop Desmond Tutu

In 2004, the people of Mostar, Bosnia completed a painstaking reconstruction of their bridge, which was destroyed during the war. The original bridge had been built in 1556 by the Ottoman Turks and was famous for its grace and beauty. Its destruction was considered one of the tragedies of the war. When the reconstruction was completed, the international press flocked to Mostar, designating the bridge a symbol of hope and healing. But at the celebration, many pointed out that the bridge didn't look quite the same. It was a little too white, a little too new. Their comments on the bridge reflect the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina itself. Despite nine years of reconstruction, the country is still not the same as it was before the war.

The Importance of Reconciliation

The war between Muslims, Croats and Serbs began in 1991 and lasted four years. During that time, 200,000 Bosnians were killed and over two million displaced. For the past decade, the country has been trying to pick up the pieces. Because no one has a magic formula for rebuilding a country, the Bosnians have had to improvise as best they can.

The war in Bosnia Herzegovina was similar to other violent conflicts in places like Rwanda, Cambodia and the Sudan. In all of these places, stories of violence and brutality shocked the world. Unfortunately, these conflicts have proved to be highly intractable. In countries such as these, just because the violence has stopped does not mean the country has reached a stable peace. Almost everyone living in the country has deep emotional scars from the war. Despite their suffering, perpetrators and victims have to learn to work together to rebuild their country. The whole situation is made even more difficult because Bosnia's physical, political and economic infrastructure was decimated by the war. The mix of anger, fear, hatred, poverty, corruption and uncertainty that currently exists is a volatile brew. If the situation is not handled right, Bosnia and Herzegovina could dissolve into another war.

That said, a lot of progress has been made since the end of the war. The Bosnian people have worked hard to reconcile with each other and the international community has sent aid and troops to help them rebuild. However, it is difficult to know how successful these efforts will be. International efforts to stop violent conflict and promote peace are usually hit or miss. In fact, about 50 percent of international initiatives and negotiations on peace fail. [1] What many conflict experts believe is the missing ingredient to these efforts is reconciliation.

Reconciliation is a relatively new concept. It comes from the realization that conflict, especially violent conflict, causes extreme levels of fear and anger. During the war, many Bosnians suffered horrific trauma. Thousands of people were killed. Women were serially raped and men were held in concentration camps where they were starved and tortured. People lost everything in the war, their houses, jobs, money and possessions. Now, victims of unspeakable crimes are expected to work together with the perpetrators of those crimes. It is not surprising that so-called rational "solutions" to intractable conflicts are often ineffective. Reconciliation is a complicated but powerful concept designed to address the emotional aspects of conflict and promote healing and forgiveness. Chip Hauss, a director of Search for Common Ground and professor of conflict resolution, writes:

Even though reconciliation mostly involves people talking to each other, it is not easy to achieve. Rather it is among the most difficult things people are ever called on to do emotionally. Victims have to forgive oppressors. The perpetrators of crimes against humanity have to admit their guilt and, with it, their arrogance. [2]

Mari Fitzduff describes reconciliation as a "jigsaw puzzle."[3] She argues that there is not one approach that will single-handedly end a violent conflict. Fitzduff describes pieces of peace, everything from reforming the police to encouraging dialogue between the disputing communities. Bill Ury also advocates for a multi-pronged approach to peacebuilding and reconciliation. Ury writes that it takes two sides to fight, but a third side to stop. He lists various roles that can stop or prevent fighting. They include, educators, healers, witnesses, etc.[4] Essentially, they both argue that it takes an entire community to transform a conflict.

The Dayton Accords

The outline for Bosnia and Herzegovina's reconstruction comes from the Dayton Accords, so named because they were written in Dayton, Ohio in 1995. The accords left Bosnia divided into a Serbian republic and a Muslim-Croat Federation. While successful in stopping the violence, they also have flaws. Robert Baruch Bush argues that the Bosnians themselves were not given enough say in the agreement. Instead, international mediators drafted the accords and the parties were pressured to accept them. Bush believes that this is why Bosnia was divided into three separate ethnic communities, which may not have been the best possible outcome. [5]

The sign of a successful peace agreement, is that it not only ends the current violence but also addresses the underlying causes of a conflict in order to prevent future violence. Of course, this is easier said than done. In order to create a stable peace, the goal is not to eliminate conflict, but to continue the conflict using peaceful means. This requires the establishment of myriad new dispute resolution systems that can help absorb conflict and transform it into something constructive. The Dayton Accords laid the foundation for many of these new systems, but some have been more successful than others.

The Dayton Accords can be separated into Track One and Track Two initiatives. Track one includes everything official, such as military, government, and economic initiatives. Track two refers to grassroots, citizen diplomacy, things like building civil society, educating youth and reforming the media.

Track One Initiatives: The Military

The first step to creating peace in Bosnia and Herzegovina was to end the outright violence. One of the most successful areas of the Dayton Accords has been the part dealing with the military. The Dayton Accords established a NATO-led peacekeeping force that has effectively prevented new outbreaks of violence in the country for the last 10 years. After the peace agreement, the NATO-led Implementation Force (IFOR) replaced the largely ineffective United Nations force. The UN forces were lightly armed and had no mandate to use force. They were criticized for tragedies such as the one in Srebrinca when thousands of men were slaughtered while UN forces watched helplessly. In contrast, IFOR's 60,000 soldiers were allowed to use force to achieve their objectives and were much more effective at keeping the peace. In December of 2004, command of the peacekeeping force was handed from NATO to the European Union.

Secondary to the foreign military presence are the police. During the war, millions of people were forced to flee for their lives. It will take a lot to convince them that the country is safe enough for them to return. As of 1999, the lack of an effective police presence prevented Bosnian refugees from returning to their homes and led to widespread organized crime. Corruption is still rife at all levels of government. This has improved somewhat in the last five years, but there is still a "security gap." This gap will need to be closed for Bosnians to feel safe enough to begin the work of healing and reconciliation.

The Hague

After stopping the violence, the next goal was to establish an effective justice system. In countries torn by civil war and ethnic conflict, like Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also South Africa, Guatemala and Rwanda, there is the difficult question of how to punish perpetrators of war crimes. When nearly the entire society was involved in the conflict, as it was in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it becomes impossible to hold everyone accountable. One, there are not enough resources to capture and try everyone who committed war crimes. Two, even if the resources were there, massive arrests would destroy any chance of peace. If extremists' only option after the war is over is go to jail, then it is unlikely they will agree to any sort of peace deal. However, it is still necessary that the worst offenders receive some sort of punishment in order to prevent future atrocities and to give the victims a sense of justice.

The organization that has played this role in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the International War Crimes Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), which was established in May 1993 and is located in The Hague, Netherlands. Since the beginning, the ICTY has struggled for legitimacy. However, with the help of NATO forces, The ICTY has successfully brought in a number of high-ranking suspects including Slobodan Milosevic whose four-year trial is hoped to come to an end by 2006. The Serbian government has been accused of shielding criminals, many of whom remain at large.

Furthermore, many Bosnians see the ICTY as ineffective. In January 2005, Hajra Catic, of the Mothers of Srebrenica organization, "lost faith" in the ICTY's ability to dispense justice after they sentenced Dragan Jokic, a man she believed was responsible for 3,000 deaths, to only nine years in prison. [6] While ICTY has played a role in restoring a sense of justice and order to the country, some say more needs to be done.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission

Some argue that a truth and reconciliation commission would fill in the gaps left by the ICTY. Jacob Finci, a Bosnian Jew, has been working to set up a commission loosely based on the one in South Africa. The commission would allow both victims and perpetrators to tell their stories and have them officially recorded. Finci hopes that the process would serve as "psychotherapy for the victims." He said although the hearings would be painful, it is better to take a bitter pill now "than to live for 30 to 40 years in hate, and then have a new war." [7] In addition to promoting healing, experts say the commission could serve another important purpose. Currently, the three communities: Muslim, Serbian and Croatian are teaching their children three different folk histories of the war. As the children age, these different stories could easily spark new violence. The commission's proponents hope that a truth commission could establish an official history for the country. Currently, the law to create the commission is before Bosnian parliament. It will be difficult to get it past Bosnia and Herzegovina's nationalist politicians.

The Economy

While, at first, the economy seems not to relate directly to peace in Bosnia, in fact, it could be the factor that makes or breaks the entire process. Poverty has long been linked to violent conflict, although its exact relationship is unclear. If the Bosnian economy becomes viable, it will be much easier for the various ethnic groups to reconcile and get along. However, if the economy continues at its sluggish rate, the added stress could increase hatred and violence. The Bosnian economy has grown since 1995. However, much of the growth is reliant on international aid. Bosnia received the largest per capita reconstruction plan in history, $5.1 billion between 1996 and 2000. If the economy continues to expand, then there will be enough wealth for everyone, creating a win-win solution. However if the economy is sluggish, fighting over money and resources could cause more conflict.

One factor that may help is if Bosnia and Herzegovina is accepted into the European Union. This could boost their economy and additionally the requirements for joining the EU could promote a more transparent and democratic society. A similar effect could result if the country is able to join NATO.

Track Two Initiatives

The track one initiatives establish a frame for peace in Bosnia. However, those initiatives will fail if they are not supplemented by track two initiatives. These are projects undertaken by everyday citizens to promote reconciliation. While track two diplomacy is more difficult to define and measure, it is vital to the creation of a stable peace.

Social Reconciliation

In September of 2004 survivors of the Omarska concentration camp, one of the most infamous in Bosnia, returned to the abandoned mine where they had been held to pay their respects to the dead and remember what happened to them.

Sefer Haskic was one of those survivors. "I was trying to remember the people they killed," he said. "All my friends. They would call out the names, and men would get up, leave us, and never come back. You could hear the screaming, the killing, you could smell burning tyres and dead bodies. Next morning, there would usually be about 30 of them: the yellow truck would arrive so that other prisoners could load them up and go to dig graves. The truck would always come back, but the men who loaded it usually not. I was forever waiting my turn, but it never came - I still can't believe I'm alive." [8]

Haskic's story is a common one in Bosnia. Enduring such intense suffering has left him and thousands of others traumatized. Trauma is common in war situations and can be caused by intense fear, pain or the loss of friends and loved ones. It cannot necessarily be healed by time as trauma survivors can sometimes become frozen, unable to heal and move on. Trauma causes memory loss, depression, substance abuse, anxiety, physical pain and many other symptoms. In a worst-case scenario, victims of trauma seek revenge on the perpetrators, thus becoming perpetrators themselves and prolonging the cycle of violence. Even more difficult is when an entire society becomes traumatized. That society can "freeze" their "us" versus "them" mentality, thus making it very difficult to reconcile. In fact, much of the reason for the war in Bosnia was unresolved trauma from previous conflicts. Before the war started, President Slobodan Milosevic unearthed the body of Prince Lazar, who was killed by Muslims in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, and ceremonially reburied the body in one Serbian village after another, thus mobilizing the population against Muslims. [9] As difficult as it may be, reconciliation with the enemy is meant to heal trauma and freeze the cycle of violence.

In 2000, there were around 173 international and 365 local NGOs working in Bosnia. [10] Most of their recent work has been repairing the social and emotional damage caused by the war. This work includes things like identity building, trauma healing, memorials and cross-cultural dialogue. Identity building can help combatants to break out of an "us" vs. "them" mentality. Trauma healing helps victims sort through the intense emotions caused by war. Ceremonies and memorials can help people move on after losing friends and loved ones. And finally, dialogue can stop warring groups from dehumanizing each other and help them work together more productively.

The Refugees

Much of the reconciliation work is focused on the problem of the millions of Bosnian refugees who were left homeless after the war. A lot of progress has been made in returning refugees to Bosnia and Herzegovina. By September of 2004, one million people had returned to their homes. About 500,000 people were still waiting to return home including about 313,000 within Bosnia and 100,000 in other countries. That leaves more than half a million refugees who will probably never return to Bosnia. [11] Land tenure disputes, where people are disputing over who is the true owner of a house are still a problem.

As Eileen Babbitt, who studied UN efforts to reintegrate the refugees, says: addition to all of the other problems of getting people to come back and reintegrated into the society they were coming back to communities where they were really, really unwanted. Most of them were coming back to places where?they were a majority population and now post-war they are the minority, so another group has literally taken over moved into their homes, and many of those people are also displaced, traumatized, etc. and they're not about to simply give up everything and welcome the returning refugees with open arms. They're threatened, they're frightened, they're antagonistic. So there's been a lot of difficulty and in the places where people are returning in Bosnia to communities where their group is the majority, still, it's not been a problem, but if they're going back to places where they're the minority, it is. [12]

Many programs have been set up to smooth the transition. Some of the ones Babbitt observed included joint projects between members of different ethnic groups such as sports teams or businesses. She says these projects were fairly hit-or-miss: of the assumptions is that if you give people money to create income-generating businesses and you force them to bring everyone from party A and party B into these businesses and work together, they will form these fast friendships because everyone wants to be employed, so it gives them a common goal, a common whatever, and in the context of this everything will be OK. Not so. I mean we just saw that in the projects that we looked that it was not the case. People tolerated each other. Did they form friendships? Certainly not in six months. The businesses were not viable, they weren't given training on how to run a business. So there were a lot of assumptions made about how you go about this co-existence work that in practice turned out not to be so effective. [13]

However not all of the work has been ineffective. Babbitt also gives an example of a successful joint project. She says, "one group put together a rock band with both Croats and Serbs and it was just so heart warming. They're late teens and this is a town that's terribly depressed both economically and psychologically and they said we just want to make people smile, we want to give them a lift and so they put this wonderful band together and they play everywhere. People come, and they listen, and they dance." [14]

Of course, there is much more reconciliation work going on in Bosnia and Herzegovina than what Babbitt observed. But, her observations clarify how difficult and complex this type of work is. In a situation like Bosnia and Herzegovina where victims and perpetrators are living next door to each other, it can be very difficult to heal old wounds and move on.


Despite the fact that the violence has ended in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it does not mean that the war is over. Beneath the surface bubble the underlying issues that started the war in the first place. Whether those issues are resolved or not is a question of how good the reconciliation process in Bosnia is.

John Paul Lederach writes that reconciliation requires four things: truth, justice, mercy and peace. The rub is that these four elements often contradict each other. For example, justice often involves punishment and violence, which is the opposite of mercy. Or, speaking the truth creates more conflict, which is the opposite of peace. However, without all four elements, reconciliation cannot exist. [15] The people of Bosnia and Herzegovina are attempting to pull off the difficult balancing act between these four elements. Whether they will pull it off still remains to be seen.

As Fitzduff writes, "resolving a conflict is a complex and interlocking process. In many ways, the task is like working on a jigsaw, where the successful putting together of just a few pieces may well leave the picture as a whole still in fracture, and uncertain."[16]

[1] Olga Botcharova, "Implementation of Track Two Diplomacy," from Forgiveness and Reconciliation, eds. Raymond G. Helmick and Rodney L. Peterson (Philadelphia: Templeton Foundation Press) 2001, p. 269.

[2] To read the complete essay on reconciliation, click here

[3] Mari Fitzduff, Beyond Violence: Conflict Resolution Process in Northern Ireland, (Tokyo: United Nations University Press) 2002.

[4] William Ury, The Third Side, (New York: Penguin Books) 1999.

[5] Robert Baruch Bush, "Expectations for International Mediation." Interaction: Conference Report, Summer 1996, V.8, No.2, pp.5-18. Available at: ng%20the%20worl d%20we%20want.doc

[6] "Bosnian Serbs Jailed for Srebrenica Massacre," International Relations and Security Network, January 18, 2005. Available at: etails.cfm?ID=10588

[7] Nicholas Wood, "Bosnian Jew Promotes Inquiry Into Causes of the 1990's War," The New York Times, April 4, 2004, p.13.

[8] Ed Vulliamy, "We Can't Forget," The Guardian, September 1, 2004, p.2.

[9] To read the rest of the essay on trauma healing click here.

[10] ed. Paul van Tongeren, Searching for Peace in Europe and Eurasia, (Boulder: Lynne Rienner Publishers) 2002, p.239.

[11] Frances Williams, "Over 1m Refugees Return to Bosnia," The Financial Times, September 22, 2004, p.10.

[12] To read the rest of Eileen Babbitt's interview, click here.

[13] ibid. Eileen Babbitt

[14] ibid. Eileen Babbitt

[15] John Paul Lederach, The Journey Toward Reconciliation, (Scottdale: Herald Press) 1999.

[16] ibid. Mari Fitzduff

Related Links

Download the full text of the Dayton agreement: nia/dayton-gfa.html

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