Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnia Faces Child Crime Crisis

A dramatic rise in juvenile delinquency across Bosnia has presented the authorities in the war-torn country with yet another deeply worrying problem they are ill equipped to address.
By Nermina Durmic-Kahrovic

Tuzla residents know the 14-year-old well. They see him begging on the street everyday. The boy, though, is no impoverished street urchin. Police believe he's the leader of an organised group of adolescents responsible for a number of serious crimes.

Juvenile delinquency has been on the increase across Bosnia in recent months. The crimes concerned are not trivial. Children and adolescents have been involved in murder, rape, armed robbery and assault.

A police report published last week estimated juvenile crime in the Tuzla district of northeast Bosnia had risen by a staggering 160 per cent in the first five months of this year - believed to be the largest increase in Bosnia.

Why Tuzla should be worse than the rest of the country can be partly explained by the district's size. It's the biggest and most densely populated region in Bosnia, home to the largest number of refugees and displaced people.

The post-war period in Bosnia has seen an increase in all forms of individual and organised crime. Experts are particularly concerned, however, with the upsurge in juvenile delinquency.

Juveniles were responsible for two murders in the Tuzla area during the last few months. Head of social psychiatry at the Tuzla University clinic, Dr Kasim Brigic, blames the acute financial problems faced by families in the shattered post-war economy.

"Half of the families in Bosnia are living in the midst social and economic uncertainty," Brigic said. "Parents are aiming to simply survive. There is less and less room for them to perform any sort of educational function."

As a result, Brigic believes, children between of the ages of 10 and 15 are increasingly becoming involved in criminal activity.

Psychologists claim young offenders are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. Many lost parents and family during the conflict, mostly fathers. Left to their own devices, the psychologists argue, they have taken as role models people who have visibly gained from the war through profiteering or criminal activity.

Over the last decade, Bosnia has failed to or been unable to invest in the basic institutions needed to combat social problems like juvenile delinquency. Tuzla prosecutor, Sesenem Cosic, says convicted juvenile offenders, even where they receive a prison sentence, are often released. The law requires juveniles to be detained in special facilities.

"There is no such institution, except for one similar facility in central Bosnia, which is inadequate and overcrowded," Cosic says. "The only thing left to us is to ask those persons not to commit any more offences."

Brigic believes young offenders exploit the fact that society has no means of adequately punishing their behaviour.

In the longer term, economic and social improvements are crucial to reversing this disturbing trend. Although the international community provides considerable aid to Bosnia, the country has not used the five post-war years to create a decent life for its population.

Around 50 per cent of the potential workforce is unemployed, 800,000 refugees are still displaced and corruption plagues every level of public life. Meanwhile the majority of the population subsist just on or below the breadline.

Nermina Durmic-Kahrovic is a teaching assistant at the Tuzla University journalism faculty

More IWPR's Global Voices