The New Bosnian Mosaic: Identities, Memories and Moral Claims in a Post-War Society

TitleThe New Bosnian Mosaic: Identities, Memories and Moral Claims in a Post-War Society
Publication TypePublication review
AuthorsKarčić, Harun
Author(s) of reviewed materialand Xavier Bougarel, Elissa Helms, Ger Duijzings(eds.)


PublisherAshgate, Aldershot, UK
ISSNISBN-13: 978-0-7546-4563-4
Full Text

After a lull in noteworthy scholarly literature on Bosnia and Herzegovina, the new book The New Bosnian Mosaic focuses on somewhat understudied issues: unlike many other books which have sought to answer the intriguing and complex questions why Yugoslavia dissolved and why its dissolution led to a series of bloody wars, this book deals with the equally important and more timely matter concerning the state of post-war Bosnian society. The contributors draw on information collected on innovative field-researches and present them in a series of chapters which deal with the most pressing issues in the post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina. Divided into three parts which recurrently challenge frequently used notions such as ‘ethnicity’, ‘ancient hatreds’, and ‘protectorate,’ this volume goes to show, quite convincingly, that war memories cannot be reduced to Serb, Bosniac, and Croat versions, and that they are not nearly as uniform and uncontested as many may think.

The first section on ‘ethnicity’ deals with the social and cultural realities of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The chapters included explain that after the experience of war and ethnic cleansing, ethno-national categories have become more rigid and have permeated many aspects of life, while they have also drifted closer towards religious institutions. While doing so, this section also points out that ethno-national identification is still very much an alternating and contested issue in contemporary Bosnia and Herzegovina. Particularly interesting in this section of the book is the ability of the authors to reveal how a number of war-related categories are used by nationalist parties and how in the dire economic situation, houses, jobs as well as numerous other benefits are distributed in relation to wartime roles.

The second section titled "Ancient Hatreds" deals with war memories. It focuses on the means of remembering the past and commemorating the victims. Public monuments, official and unofficial commemorative events, private rituals and personal stories are analyzed here. Due attention is given to the ‘clash’ of memories and various ‘counter commemorations’ that stem from the fact that different ethno-national groups have often diametrically opposing versions of the same event. One such example is the elaborated study on the commemoration of the Srebrenica genocide in which the Army of the Serb Republic killed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim (Bosniac) men and which the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia unambiguously labeled genocide (p.146). The author of that text Ger Duijzings describes how and why the Serb Republic refuses to acknowledge this because “Serb recognition of the massacre potentially undermines the legitimacy of the RS” (p.164) and how, in an attempt to challenge and undermine the Srebrenica commemoration, Serb groups have developed their own counter-commemoration in nearby Kravica only a single day after the 11th July Srebrenica commemorations.

The third section deals with the ‘protectorate’ and the overall role of the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Again, the authors of this section display superb knowledge of the local situation particularly when mentioning the formation of the ‘transnational elite’ composed of international workers as well as local staff employed in various international organizations. These members of the transnational elite have created what is in many ways a parallel world, possessing their own banking system, security, healthcare, transportation and other privileges, which allows them to remain out of touch with Bosnian realities (p.267). This part of the book includes several insightful assessments of the presence and role of ‘the international community.’ Kimberly Coles, for example, states that “internationals are not heavily engaged or involved with the Bosnian state, despite their professional work in creating and reforming state institutions through such practices as running ‘democratic’ elections, privatizing the economy or training police officers. That is, internationals generally did not partake or participate in Bosnian state services or Bosnian society, nor, in many cases, were they subject to its regulatory mechanisms” (p.266).

Many concepts which may sound mundane to the average reader carry completely different connotations in the local context. The authors in this book discuss at length concepts such as ‘normality’ (p.39), ‘neo-Muslims’ and ‘April-Muslims’ (p.46), ‘imitation of life’ (p.55), ‘sarajlije’ referring to native Sarajevans and (p.60), ‘došlje’ referring to new-comers during and after the war (p.66). What is stunning is the ability of them to provide insights into the antagonism between members of the same ethnic group (such as sarajlije and došlje). These are facts widely known and easily understood by most Sarajevans themselves but it can take scrupulous effort for foreign researchers to grasp the meanings attached to such terms and to understand where the underlying antagonisms stem from.

The few shortcomings of the book are mainly related to some inconsistencies and certain neglect. Regarding an inconsistency: in order to be consistent, the term Bosniac, being the official term to refer to Bosnian Muslims, should have been used throughout the book. However, in Chapter 5 written by Torsten Kolind (p.123), Bosniacs are referred to as Muslims. Being a Muslim is a religious affiliation and not a national one. While it is true that during the Socialist period Yugoslav Muslims were categorized as one of the nationality groups, since the reintroduction of the term Bosniac in 1993 this is no longer the case. The second shortcoming of the book concerns a case of neglect: although the book deals with Bosniac returnees in the Federation (such as Stolac on p.123) and Bosnian Serb returnees to Sarajevo (p.79), there is no treatment of the situation of Bosnian Croat and Bosniac returnees to the Serb Republic from which they were ethnically cleansed during the war.

Apart from these minor omissions, the book is an excellent read and one of the more noteworthy books that has been written about a former Yugoslav postwar society and the problems it has to cope with. It is highly recommended for anyone who wishes to have an insight into the postwar situation on the ground level and to get a glimpse of the everyday obstacles and difficulties that all the three constituent peoples of Bosnia and Herzegovina have to face.