Protests Reveal a Country’s Struggle: A BVSer Reports from Bosnia

Photo by Stephanie Barras
The Stari Most (Old Bridge) that crosses the Neretva River in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina. BVSer Stephanie Barras provided this photo, among a series of pictures displaying both the beauty of an old city set before snowy mountain peaks, and the climate of protest resulting from the accumulated frustrations of a region still dominated by “war politics.”

Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) worker Stephanie Barras provided this report from Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, where she has been living since Sept. 2013. She is working at OKC Abrasevic, a youth cultural center:

I will do my best to explain what has been happening here after the Feb. 7 protests. A day or so before, there was a protest by workers in the city of Tuzla. This protest was specifically related to their workplace, but it turned into something much bigger. It seemed to trigger all the feelings of despair and anger that have been bubbling just under the surface for the past 20 years, following the war in the 1990s.

Bosnia-Herzegovina did have a period of time where things seemed to be improving and there was hope that life would be better. But ever since around 2006 or 2007, things started to go downhill in terms of the economy and politics.

There is a high level of unemployment, especially among the youth. People go several months without salary pay and the education system continues to dwindle. At the universities–an education students can barely afford–graduates almost never land a job related to what they studied.

The leaders in the country at all levels have been taking more than giving. In other words, they are not using money in the way that it should be used. Not only are the abandoned and destroyed buildings proof of this, but also the stories of the people. Even when the citizens realized that their country’s economy was going nowhere, almost no one took a stand against the government. Fear is implemented by many politicians/leaders in order to keep people divided. If they keep the citizens from uniting against them, it is easier for them to continue their corruptive behavior.

Photo by Stephanie Barras
Protests broke out on Feb. 7 in major cities in Bosnia-Herzegovina

While fear is still there for some, it has begun to fade and at the beginning of this year, numerous people took to the streets to protest. On Feb. 7, in major cities including the capital Sarajevo and Mostar, crowds went from building to building and, while a smaller number of people were destroying the building inside and out and then setting it on fire, a hundred others watched. People had finally had enough and these protests were just the beginning.

Soon after, peaceful protests began taking place in several cities and along with them assemblies–also called plenums–which simply means citizens gathering together in a public space in order to listen to each other as well as voice their own concerns and complaints about a particular problem. The protests are usually held at 5 p.m., with the plenum following right after. The very first plenum in Sarajevo had to be rescheduled because there was not enough room to seat all of those who showed up. Even though the number has fluctuated at the protests and plenums, there is a good steady number of people taking part in several cities in the country. There are moderators at the plenums and protests, encouraging people to voice their concerns.

Photo by Stephanie Barras
Peaceful protests continue, accompanied by plenums–public gatherings for citizens to voice concerns and listen to each other.

There have been numerous demands, concerns, and stories of struggle from various citizens on all sides, from almost all backgrounds. A person who has seen the plenums said the following: “The two-minute statements by citizens covered a wide range of topics, but with a frequent focus on economic injustice, privileges of the political elites, and the lack of accountability for their misdeeds. Previous waves of privatization have been a perennial topic, as have the salary levels of officials” (Bassuener, K., web log message of Feb. 23, 2014, retrieved from ).

When ordinary citizens began to organize themselves into protests and plenums, many threats and political games followed. I am not sure if it still happening, but there were numerous people who received phone calls warning them to stay away from the protests.

Also, there have been several people attacked on the streets. Here in Mostar, a citizen was attacked at night and shot in the foot. There was only one article I could find about it when it happened and later I confirmed with a staff member from Abrasevic that it was true. Also, several arrests were made in various cities. There have been a few articles and stories that say the youth who have been arrested were beaten by police for no reason.

Photo by Stephanie Barras
A view of the city of Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina, taken from the Partisans Memorial.

Many politicians have used scare tactics in order to gain more political points in order to win the next election, yet again. There has been a lot of finger pointing. Croat politicians have said that all the Bosniaks are behind the revolution. It seems like they keep looking for a way to keep everyone divided and against each other. The president of Republika Srpska, an entity of Bosnia, Milorad Dodik, said that it would be better if Bosnia just broke up into three countries. And a Bosnia Croat leader has urged the country to become three entities instead of two.

From “Mostar Rising”: “These people [the ones who set the buildings on fire on Feb. 7] are not hooligans or riotous young men, they are desperate people with much to lose. They are hungry, and they see how bloated and corrupt the government has become. Among the buildings burned, there were two that belonged to popular political parties. None of the nearby housing units or businesses were burned, none of them were even damaged. Nobody wanted to touch them. They are tired of nationalism, politics, corruption, and the structure of hopelessness created by the fascist nationalist system. They did not seek to destroy, they only wanted to convey the message that it’s been nearly 20 years since the war, but war politics still dominate the region….” (“Mostar Rising: The Most Divided City in Bosnia Is Standing up to Nationalism and Government Corruption,” Feb. 21, 2014, published online by ).

— Stephanie Barras is a Brethren Volunteer Service (BVS) volunteer working at the youth cultural center OKC Abrasevic in Mostar, Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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