The Balkans: the Land of Blood and Honey

Story by Mary Chen | chen.mary@husky.neu.edu

During one of my first nights on my dialogue in Sarajevo, my group and I took a walking tour around the city to get better acquainted with its history and some of the beautiful sights it had to offer. Our guide, Enes, explained the etymology of “Balkan” as a Turkish combination of “bal” meaning blood and “kan” meaning honey1. The story goes that when the Ottomans first arrived, they saw the lush vegetation and the rich soil and recognized this area as a land of honey. It was only after they realized how hard they would have to fight to subdue and eventually lose their territory here that they acknowledged the first syllable in the region’s name.

I knew absolutely nothing about the Balkans, Bosnia-Herzegovina or Serbia before going on my dialogue. To me, these places were just lines drawn on the world map to indicate another territory, another region, another country. Based on my own knowledge of the education system and others’ anecdotes, I know the history of the Balkans is not often taught in any American school. It’s a part of the world that no one really talks about: entire cultures, societies, peoples, and histories that I never even knew existed. Now, after completing this dialogue, I witnessed the political dysfunction that plagues Bosnia-Herzegovina today, explored Serbia’s role in that country’s instability and its own political complications, all while learning about the diverse cultures there that fit into the world beautifully.

Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, started out as a small settlement of the Neolithic Butmir culture. After the Middle Ages, the Ottoman Turks conquered the region, transforming settlements like Sarajevo into a city and state capitol by building religious centers, public baths, a closed marketplace and the governor’s castle. As the city became known for its mosques and marketplace, the Bosnian identity emerged.

Once the Austro-Hungarians invaded in 1878, Sarajevo was introduced to western industrialization and influences, including factories and tramways. Evidence of occupation by two great European empires can be seen in the middle of the main pedestrian street, where there is a multicultural divide to separate the Ottoman side from the Austro-Hungarian side. This was the city where Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated by Gavalo Princip, a member of Young Bosnia – the infamous event that triggered World War I, commemorated by a plaque on the very street on which it occurred.

Many cultural differences stemming from the city’s checkered history of occupation can be seen in the architecture: the Ottoman side reveals arabesque influences in the shape of massive domes, vaults and columns, while the Austro-Hungarian side made a statement with western European urban styles drawn from Egyptian and Syrian sources. Sarajevo is also known as the multicultural capital of the Balkans thanks to its tradition of cultural and religious diversity. From various lectures and my own observations, I learned that the majority of the population identifies as Bosniak, or a Bosnian Muslim, and that there is a plethora of mosques, synagogues, and Orthodox churches within the downtown area of the city.

Our teaching assistant, a native of Serbia, explained the origins of each ethnic identity through Slavic history, originating in the medieval Bosnian and Serbian states. Ethnic identities were then impacted by the invasions of the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian empires, and shaped further through World Wars and the creation and dissolution of Yugoslavia.2 The common denominator between these historical events was the divisions between Bosnians, Serbs and Croats, as well as the lack of representation for the Jews and Romani. These ethnic and religious divisions were important, and became apparent to me in every interaction I had with the country’s inhabitants.

After the Bosnian War ended in 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina was restructured by the Dayton Peace Accords (DPA), authored by key international players. Through various visits with different political and religious representatives, I was able to piece together a rough sketch of the mayhem that is Bosnia’s political landscape. Currently, the nation has a tripartite presidency: one Bosnian, one Serb and one Croat to represent the three major ethnic groups, and the Office of the High Representative (OHR)  to oversee implementation of democratic reforms and collaboration between ethnic groups.

Corruption, lack of political will and ethnic discord left over from the war, however,  cripple the system today. Political nabobs take advantage of ethnic and religious differences in order to stay in power, presenting themselves as champions of nationalism when, in reality, they are keeping the people of this country stratified. Due to the lack of ethnic unity imposed by the DPA’s division of presidential power, there exists a resulting lack of political will. As an OHR representative said, Bosnia-Herzegovina is stuck somewhere between Dayton and Europe and that needs to change before it can move forward as an efficient, independent nation.3

Even now, 20 years later, disunion remains in all levels of government and sectors of society, exacerbated by flagrant corruption, unemployment and economic stagnation. The international community has taken steps to support Bosnia-Herzegovina, but most seem to agree that direct intervention would only cripple the nation more. International scholars and actors prefer to cultivate an endogenous movement within the nation itself for change. As representatives of the OHR and European Union Delegation for Bosnia-Herzegovina both remarked, Bosnia-Herzegovina and its people need to help themselves by taking the initiative.

My personal opinion on American involvement in the country began to evolve as I saw the damage that had been done by international meddling. At first, I thought Bosnia-Herzegovina was incapable of surviving without comprehensive western support, but I quickly came to realize that the real source of latent power lay within the country itself. I came to the conclusion that in order for Bosnia to prosper, the citizens themselves must be the ones to make the change through an endogenous movement that would unite the ethnic factions into working towards perpetual peace.

The origins of the political, social and economic turmoil in Bosnia-Herzegovina and many of its surrounding countries can be traced back to the ensuing Bosnian War. The are BBC documentary “Death of Yugoslavia” identified nationalism and the pushing of nationalistic goals by Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic as major factors in the breakup; so much blood was spilt because the different republics within Yugoslavia wanted more, and crushed ethnic minorities in a preemptive defense against nationalist uprisings.4  It constantly amazes me how much violence and crime was allowed to occur before the international community stepped in and, even then, they made mistakes too; the Srebrenica genocide of more than 8,000 Muslim Bosniaks, mainly men and boys, is an examples of one of those mistakes.

My greatest “aha” moment during this dialogue came while visiting the Srebrenica memorial and Potocari cemetery. The memorial was located inside the factory where the UN Dutch battalion set up base, received refugees and then turned people away. The pictures and exhibitions were painful to look at, and I couldn’t fathom the full depth of pain and loss and suffering the victims and survivors felt. It just didn’t make sense. I kept asking myself: how this could happen? Why did the Dutch force people to leave – right into the arms of the Serbian army, no less? Why didn’t the international community act when the Serbs first entered the demilitarized zone?

Eventually, by speaking with my classmates, I realized that the genocide was a culmination of individual decisions and actions, and to really analyze it from a black and white perspective was nearly impossible. Walking around the Potocari cemetery, I was plagued with questions about death and life. The phrase “never again” emphasizes the need to educate the following generations in genocide prevention – to teach compassion and cooperation, tolerance and understanding and to foster peace-building and creative solutions. I believe histories like this will enable us, the younger generation, to make different decisions that will lead the world away from war and toward peace.

These thoughts were heavy on my mind as we left Bosnia-Herzegovina and entered Serbia. The differences between the two places were astounding, both in nature and in architecture. Belgrade was more industrialized than Sarajevo; there were more people, buildings, urban-style architecture and government buildings. During the Middle Ages, the city served as a battleground between the Byzantine Empire, the Kingdom of Hungary and the Bulgarian Empire. Just like its Bosnian counterpart, the Ottomans occupied, and then the Austro-Hungarians invaded.

From the 16th to the 18th centuries, Belgrade incorporated Orient-influenced architecture and caused two Great Serbian Migrations when the empires collapsed. After two uprisings, Serbia reached semi-independence in the mid-19th century after Prince Mihailo Obrenovic of Serbia was assassinated while riding a carriage through public streets, similarly to Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination. Obrenovic is commemorated by a large statue in Trg Republika. Once Serbia gained full independence in 1878 and became the kingdom of Serbia in 1882, Belgrade once again became a key city in the Balkans and developed rapidly.5

In Belgrade, we were exposed to a very different point of view on the “The Death of Yugoslavia” and the plight of Kosovo. Everything we’d learned up to that point painted the Serbians in an aggressor’s light; in Serbia, we learned that it was not that simple. The blame didn’t belong to any one group, it actually belonged to everyone. This was something expressed by Stojan Sokolovic, the main Serbian character in Elizabeth Dauphinee’s book Politics of Exile. The book puts in perspective the actions of the Bosnian Serbs, who did not know they were in the wrong until the war was over and the body count indicated Bosniaks suffered the largest loss at the hands of their Serbian counterparts.6 I was introduced to different perspectives on the war, conflicting definitions of a war criminal and the unique sufferings of each of the peoples in the Balkans region. The history of the Balkans demonstrates the dangers of extreme nationalism and its dual capacity to unite or destroy a whole nation.

As an international affairs student, I automatically asked myself where the international community fit into all of this. We analyzed the actions of a variety of international actors within the Balkans to further understand the conflicts and issues we were studying. In particular, the 1999 NATO bombing of Serbia and the issue of Kosovo’s independence were subjects of heated debate. This bombing was NATO’s military efforts to halt human rights abuses in Kosovo, allegedly perpetrated by Serbs and their army in Yugoslavia; it was also the first time NATO used military force without the go-ahead from the UN Security Council.

I originally saw the bombing as just another strategy of conflict resolution, albeit a violent one. In the United States’ defense, the tactic worked in its initial goal of pressuring the Serbs to retreat from Kosovo, thus liberating the territory to continue its path to self-proclaimed independence. On the other hand, the bombing was illegitimate according to the UN and NATO’s legal charter and resulted in many civilian casualties, while destroying even more infrastructure in a region already unstable and ill-equipped to handle the stresses of war.

The general consensus of international scholars is that the bombing did more harm than good. A representative of the Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development theorized that the bombing set the stage for Vladimir Putin’s rise to power. After all, the U.S.’s actions caused Russian citizens to lose faith in Boris Yeltsin and turn to the opposing party, then led by Putin. Now, Putin is proving to be a major obstacle in US foreign affairs.7

My understanding of conflict resolution evolved to consider the long-term impacts of significant international decisions. I used to think the DPA was an example of successful international cooperation because it brought relative peace to the Balkans after years of violent conflict and tragic losses, but after being in the region and experiencing the disorder there, I think the international community acted rashly and short-sightedly.

In the United States, we are taught the triumphs, beauty and prosperity of our own country; seldom do we really take a look at our failures, greed or wrongdoings. My exposure to the Balkans allowed me to look at my home country differently. While the U.S. has positively influenced many areas of the world and created a reputation as a successful negotiator, champion of democracy and a country of diversity and opportunity, it has also continuously taken advantage of its power and influence to pursue its own selfish interests at the detriment of others. While every nation deserves the right to prosper, it is crucial to realize that all nations are part of an intricate, complex global system and depend on one another. In order to survive, international cooperation must be the key concept of conflict resolution.

During my dialogue, I found a new love for Balkan studies. I’ve always been the type to rise to a challenge and the mess that is Balkan politics and affairs intrigues me in a way no other place has before. My own confidence in my knowledge and understanding of international relations has expanded to the point where all I wanted to do when I arrived home was explain to everyone the history and culture I’d experienced, which was tough and frustrating because the story itself is so complicated. My ability to empathize, communicate and think critically improved alongside my fellow classmates’ – together, we grew through our interactions with these two magnificent countries, their complex political systems and unique ways of life.

In the beginning of my trip, I wondered how there could be any possible solution for the mess the U.S. had left behind in 1995. Now, I know it’s people like us, those that are willing to dive in, learn and experience, and commit to a future of peace and cooperation. If enough people can develop a forward-thinking, cooperative mindset, the potential to change social norms about violence, war and extreme nationalism becomes greater. In light of this experience, I believe these countries have had enough years of blood; here’s to hoping for the era of honey.

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  1. Popara, Enes. “The City of Sarajevo: Walking Tour.” Lecture, Balkans Dialogue 2015 from Northeastern University, Sarajevo, July 8, 2015.
  2. Mrdalj, Mladen. “Nationalism in Yugoslavia I.” Lecture, Balkans Dialogue 2015 from Northeastern University, Sarajevo, July 8, 2015.
  3. Unknown. “The Office of The High Representative.” Lecture, Balkans Dialogue 2015 from Northeastern University, Sarajevo, July 15, 2015.
  4. The Death of Yugoslavia. U.K.: BBC, 1995. DVD.
  5. Unknown. “City of Belgrade – The Capital of Serbia and Yugoslavia.” City of Belgrade – The Capital of Serbia and Yugoslavia. November 25, 2007. Accessed March 13, 2016.
  6. Dauphinee, Elizabeth. Politics of Exile. New York, New York: Routledge, Taylor & Francis, 2013. 58.
  7. Unknown. “Center for International Relations and Sustainable Development.” Lecture, Balkans Dialogue 2015 from Northeastern University, Belgrade, Serbia, August 2, 2015.