A city where a multi-ethnic Bosnia seems possible

Brcko’s experiment in post-conflict governance has an uncertain future

Bosniak memorial outside the town hall of Brcko. Photograph: Peter Geoghegan

Bosniak memorial outside the town hall of Brcko. Photograph: Peter Geoghegan


“Put Your Hands Together Against Racism”, reads a colourful poster in the reception hall of the Omladinski centre, on the outskirts of Brcko, a small city in north-east Bosnia.

In Communist times, the centre was part of a sprawling Yugoslav National Army camp. Now it is a hub for Brcko’s young people. Photos of girls and boys in witches’ hats and Spiderman masks at a Halloween party smile down from the walls.

In ethnically divided Bosnia and Herzegovina, Brcko is a rarity — an avowedly mixed city. Among the half dozen participants at the afterschool German class at the Omladinski centre are Croats, Serbs and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). “We are hanging out and that is good,” says 17-year-old Dunja Bjelos, taking a break from conjugating strong verbs. Her parents came to Brcko from Sarajevo; now she dreams of becoming a doctor.

The regular German lessons are run by Svitac, a multi-ethnic youth arts organization based in Brcko. Svitac is among a number of non-governmental organisations working to encourage reconciliation and inter-ethnic co-operation in a city that witnessed some of the fiercest fighting during Bosnia’s brutal war.

“We are trying to unite the three nationalities and to get young people to forget who they are, just be equal, and happy doing things together,” says Edina Vosanovic, a local co-ordinator at Svitac. “When we call them together in one place you forget who is a Serb, a Croat or a Muslim, it really doesn’t matter.”

Svitac was founded in 1999. That year the self-governing “District” of Brcko was established. Since then, everything from Brcko’s courts and its police to welfare and health services has been under direct local control in a novel experiment in post-conflict governance in the Balkans.

The effects of this unusual regime have been most striking when it comes to education. Having a standalone system has allowed Brcko to go further in promoting integration than anywhere else in Bosnia. While many children in the Bosniak and Croat-dominated Federation and Republika Srpska are educated separately, in Brcko, pupils are mixed — and so are their teachers.

All students study a common curriculum and are taught only religion and “mother tongue” separately. “I have friends who are Bosnian and Serbs and I can only be good to them,” says Stefan Savcic, a long-haired 21-year-old with a passion for the “Yugorock” guitar music popular under Communism.

Savcic’s Serb parents moved to Brcko during the war that raged between 1992 and 1995. The scars of that conflict remain. Earlier this year a museum opened dedicated to Bosniaks and Croats imprisoned in a Serb camp at the city’s port. After the District was established in 1999, thousands of mainly Bosniaks and Croats returned to the city as international aid poured in.

Savcic still remembers his parents talking to him the night before his Serbian primary school became mixed. “My parents just said, ‘son, the people will come with different names but they are just like us. Don’t listen to what other people say about them’,” Savèiæ says he walks through an open-air market sandwiched between a Serbian Orthodox Church and a large, new mosque in the centre of Brcko.

A stall sells fake football jerseys: Rooney, Ibrahimovic, Bosnia’s own Dzeko. Behind it, a few hundred metres away, is the River Sava, delineating the border between Bosnia and Croatia, and now between the European Union and its prospective members.

Unsurprisingly, the goal of creating a functioning multi-ethnic society has not been straightforward. Serbs, Bosniaks and Croats share power in City Hall, but compromise can often prove elusive. Unable to agree on a single war memorial for all those killed in the three-year war, separate Bosniak, Croat and Serb monuments stand just metres apart from each other on public land near the centre of town.

Self-segregation is common, too, particularly in the more rural fringes of the District. Young people are not immune from these processes, says Katarina Vuckovic, executive director of the Proni centre for youth development. “You have groups of young people who wouldn’t go to certain café bars because the owner of the bar is a certain ethnicity. This is something that young people are facing on a daily basis,” she says.

Founded in August 1998, Proni initially stood for “Project Of Northern Ireland” and its emphasis has long been on peace-building work. Over the last three years, it has worked with about 3,000 young people in Brcko.

Although schools are mixed, the history of the war is not on the curriculum. “Many young people never had a chance to talk about the conflict or how they perceive Bosnia and Herzegovina today, that’s what makes them have an issue with ethnicity,” Vuckovic says. Nevertheless, in a country riven by ethnic politics Brcko has been a model of tolerance.

Brcko is the “only real multi-ethnic community that is working in a multi-ethnic way” in the whole of Bosnia and Herzegovina, says Srecko Latal, a senior Balkan analyst based in Sarajevo. Brcko’s success, he says, is dependent on retaining its generous financial package, which is higher than anywhere in the country.

The city still suffers similar problems as the rest of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Corruption is endemic and unemployment is vertiginously high, especially for young people. The future for Brcko, and its multi-ethnic experiment, is uncertain, says Dr Dejan Stjepanovic, an expert in post-Yugoslav politics at Edinburgh University.

Although the international community has increasingly lost interest in Bosnia and in Brcko, the city “still offers a vision that can be built on”, he says. Much will depend on developments in the rest of Bosnia. If, as some want, the Dayton agreement that brought an end to the Bosnian war is revisited, Brcko’s unique designation could come under threat.

“If there is the prospect that the status of Brcko might change, then the future will be much more contested,” says Stjepanovic. “Then you don’t know what will happen.” In the meantime, Brcko is likely to remain the poster child for an oft-forgotten dream: a multi-ethnic Bosnia.

Peter Geoghegan’s trip to Bosnia was supported by the Simon Cumbers Media Fund.

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