Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
When I was asked by my editor at the beginning of February to report on a protest by Bosnia’s former soldiers, I was slightly disappointed.
As a young journalist, I yearned for more exciting and challenging stories which would inspire me and the listeners of the radio station I work for. The story about yet another protest of former soldiers demanding their rights did not seem to fall into that category.
However, I was in for a big surprise. Not only was this particular protest interesting, but it also gave me great hope. It helped me realise that it was possible for former bitter enemies, who turned their guns on each other during the war, to overcome previous animosity and unite over shared difficulties.
Their problem started in September last year, when amendments to the law on service in the Bosnian armed forces were adopted. According to these amendments, a person older than 35 cannot serve professionally in the army. As a result, 1,400 people were laid off and most of them lost their only source of income. What’s more, they are not receiving any financial compensation, although the law foresees that those who served in the armed forces for at least two years are entitled to a pension.
When laid-off soldiers realised there was no money in the state budget for their pensions, they decided to raise their voices and organised protests in Sarajevo in February, demanding their rights.
Most of these soldiers were members of three Bosnian armies which fought each other in the early Nineties - the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, Bosnian government forces and the Bosnian Croat Defence Council, HVO. When the war ended in 1995, these three separate forces were dissolved and replaced by a joint army, consisting mainly of former soldiers who were on the opposing sides during the war.
While I was recording inteviews with the ex-soldiers for a radio piece and IWPR story I was working on, I was stunned to see how hundreds of these erstwhile enemies stood side by side, acting friendly and supporting each other’s demands. I couldn’t believe my eyes. I remember asking myself how this was possible - that people who were shooting at each other not long ago, now stood united over the same cause. I was wondering how they were able to overcome their animosities and mistrust and behave as the war never divided them.
For a moment, I was speechless.
But then a soldier approached me, wearing a wartime uniform of the Bosnian government forces. I remember seeing that uniform on many soldiers when I was a child, while I was peeping through the window of a basement in which my family and I spent three and a half years during the siege of Sarajevo, hiding from the shells fired from the Bosnian Serb positions around the city.
The name of the man in that uniform which brought wartime memories to me was Sead Trako. A Bosniak by nationality, Trako had been a soldier in the Bosnian government forces during the war, and later served as a professional soldier in the new Bosnian army.
Before I had a chance to ask him anything, he looked at me as if he could read my mind and said, “This problem with pensions and lay-offs united men and women from all three armies in the last war. They demand their rights together. This is the first time something like this has happened in Bosnia, which means nothing can unite people more than poverty and misery.”
Sead was accompanied by Darko Topic from Prijedor, a town in Republika Srpska. Topic was a former VRS soldier, who later joined the unified armed forces.
I watched as they stood together, talking and laughing. They seemed relaxed in each other’s company and blamed politicians for everything bad that has happened in this country. There was no hatred in their words. Their faces only reflected concern for the future of their children.
I joined their conversation. Topic didn’t seem to see anything strange about the fact that former enemies were now being so friendly with each other. He told me that they had all been manipulated during the war, and were being manipulated now, and that only if they stood united would they have a chance of reaching their goal.
Watching them engaged in a friendly chat, I suddenly felt a big wave of optimism flooding me. If these men could support each other and overcome their differences, despite their recent past, maybe there is still hope for the rest of us in Bosnia.
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