Tatjana Milovanović explores national, ethnic, and personal identity in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina in this piece originally published on Balkan Diskurs, which is led by the Sarajevo-based Post-Conflict Research Center, a 2014 Rising Voices grantee. It is republished here as part of a content-sharing agreement.
If you asked my grandparents back in the 1990s what nation they belonged to, they would have told you they were Yugoslavs and Bosnians.
My grandfather would probably start talking nostalgically about the past, remembering how, as a policeman in 1984, he went to Sarajevo to work during the Olympics, or how it was to be in Kosovo during the 1970s. My grandmother would most probably talk about how “Borac”, a clothing producer in the village of Banovići, Bosnia, was the best collective she ever worked for and how they went on the best collective field trips together. And yes, they were Yugoslavs, and they were Bosnians.
When you ask them the same question today, they don't know how to respond and they mostly avoid talking about that time. Grandmother says there is no point in talking anymore, as the good days of her life are long behind her, and what she has today, in this country, is pure survival.
The constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina says that all citizens of the Federation of BiH and Republika Srpska are automatically citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The fact is that all of us, as citizens of BiH (Bosnia and Herzegovina), carry a passport, and other identification documents with a crest of a single country and the marking of one citizenship.
When talking with a high school girl from Kladanj, a small town in Northeast Bosnia, I discovered that even today they can't explain to her grandfather that they are Bosniaks, a South Slavic ethnic group within Bosnia and Herzegovina; he just stubbornly claims he is Bosnian and he does not know of any other national identity.
The generations prior to the war in 1990s had been raised under the motto of “brotherhood and unity” of the former Socialist Republic of Yugoslavia and taught mostly to repress religious and ethnic identity, for the sake of society.
And really, when I think about the country in which I live, taking both its history into consideration, and also the times in which it is currently developing, I cannot help but wonder: “What does it mean to be Bosnian and Herzegovinian in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and does such an identity even exist?”
As someone who grew up after the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina, I always faced a dilemma when considering my ethnic and national identity. Growing up in a family that fostered Orthodox tradition, I was immediately seen as a Serb and so there was no dilemma about that; no dilemma for anyone but me, because I always felt that something was missing.
Ethnic symbols in Bosnia and Herzegovina have become so important that sometimes I feel like we are living in a time of ancient history and tribal divisions, where tribal colors and insignia are the only guarantee of survival. In a time when politicians, through mainstream media, openly talk about not recognizing the capital city of this country, about strengthening the entities and the creation of independent regions, I wonder if there is a possibility of life and survival outside of ethnicity.
What bothers young people in BiH the most is the impossibility of finding a job and the resultant lack of money. It is because of these problems that a large number of young people, daily, decide to pursue their happiness outside of BiH’s borders. The difficulties of life today outside the boundaries of “your group” is made evident by the many cases of employment to fulfill ethnic quotas, and a tradition of employment on “party lines”. If we take into consideration that 80% of political parties include ethnic symbols in their names, we can see the extent of problem the country is facing.
Sometimes it seems futile to talk about the existence of the country Bosnia and Herzegovina, because the majority of its citizens declare themselves as members of some other group, rather than the citizens of this country. I wonder if there really is a country if even those who carry its passport negate its existence. How come only an old man from Kladanj remembers it? Why can’t we all be stubborn, and prevent being robbed of what our grandparents were? Why do we continuously try to forget where we are from, and inside whose borders we live? We cannot forget our religion and ethnicity because they carry in them the individuality and history of our families and ancestors. But we must also turn to what is maybe an even higher priority, and that is all ethnicities and all religions, living side-by-side inside these state borders. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could talk about belonging to a larger group, and finally talk about each other as proud Bosnians and Herzegovinians?
I believe such ideas of “brotherhood and unity” may seem too idealistic and even impossible today, but if you think they are even a little necessary, and if you consider them logical, not all is lost. Even if it seems crazy sometimes, and even a little naive, I believe all BiH citizens are a little like that old man from Kladanj.
Being Bosnian and Herzegovinian today means being angry and bitter at the political system in the country. It means living in economically unstable communities, fighting for existence every day and struggling for a “better tomorrow”. But also, it means being proud when our athletes win a medal or when Sarajevo wins the competition of the 100 best tourist destinations. Being Bosnian and Herzegovinian means feeling love and belonging, and carrying it always and everywhere.
As a Lebanese who was born the year our civil war ‘ended’, it’s very easy for me to relate to this piece. “Lebanese-ness” has never been really established and I genuinely do not know what ‘being Lebanese’ means except “not [other countries]. Our identity seems to be mostly established on being not something else, rather than on being something.