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

"Mladic Legacy" Tour Sparks Controversy

Trip intended to offer insights into conflict, but concept of war tourism unsettles some local residents.
By Zana Kovacevic
  • Graves at Srebrenica. The site is part of a planned tour of Bosnia and Serbia. (Photo: Martijn Munneke/Flickr)
    Graves at Srebrenica. The site is part of a planned tour of Bosnia and Serbia. (Photo: Martijn Munneke/Flickr)

A ten-day tour of Bosnia and Serbia which promises to explore the “legacy” of former Bosnian Serb army chief and war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic has caused unease amongst people who fear their dark history is being exploited.

The London-based tourist agency Political Tours is organising the “Mladic’s Legacy” trip, scheduled for end of May.

It will coincide both with the first anniversary of Mladic’s arrest, and with the 20th anniversary of the start of the 1992-95 war in Bosnia, in which 100,000 people were killed and many more were injured or displaced.

“Mladic’s Legacy” will include visits to the Bosnian capital Sarajevo, which was under siege from 1992 until 1995, and to the Serbian capital Belgrade, where the general lived for years before his eventual capture.

The tour also includes excursions such as a rafting trip down the river Neretva and a picnic in the mountains en route to Srebrenica.

After that, the group will visit the memorial centre in Potocari near Srebrenica, where 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed in July 1995. They will also meet survivors and current residents.

Describing a “fascinating and highly rewarding” trip, the brochure for Political Tours – which specialises in travel related to current affairs – says participants will “see Bosnia’s stunning countryside, enjoy wonderful local cuisine, as well as visit key sites in Bosnian and Serbian history”.

In Bosnia, some are uneasy about the intentions behind the trip, and about the real impact it will have in raising awareness about the war.

“I see nothing wrong with tours that include visits to war crimes sites, assuming they are educational in nature or designed to present crimes to people who want to learn about them,” history professor Husnija Kamberovic from Sarajevo said. “However, it seems to me that this is not the purpose of this tour. It appears to be a rather hedonistic trip for adventurers.”

The trip ends in Belgrade according to the brochure, with a visit to the city’s war crimes court and a tour of the New Belgrade area, where both Mladic and former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic hid while on the run from the Hague tribunal.

There are also outings to the New Belgrade bar called Crazy House, a favourite haunt of Karadzic, and to a football match, because “sport plays a large role in modern Serbian identity” the brochure states.

“Modern tourism tends to exploit normal human curiosity and uses it to make a profit,” Bosnian political analyst Esad Bajtal said. “However, the Mladic's Legacy tour is somehow very problematic because it mixes visits to war crimes sites where terrible tragedies took place with fun elements like rafting, sightseeing and a football match. That makes me think the main aim of those who created the tour was to make it attractive to tourists, and to make money fast.”

Radmila Karlas, a Bosnian Serb journalist from Banja Luka, said she was particularly appalled by the activities planned in and around Srebrenica.

“I’ve never heard of a more morbid example of the misuse of the Bosnian tragedy,” she said. “It’s dreadful to use Srebrenica, Sarajevo and other killing fields to earn money. Even though this tour has been organised outside Bosnia, we need to react together – journalists and the general public – because this is our country. Any form of misuse like this is just awful.”

Mirko Sagolj, a journalist with the Sarajevo-based Oslobodjenje daily, lived and worked in the city throughout the war, is equally unhappy about what he sees as “an attempt to make money from the Bosnian tragedy”.

“Sarajevo’s past will be presented to the tourists by foreign experts, not one of whom spent the entire war in Bosnia. So how can they interpret fairly what happened in this country in the nineties? Only those who lived through the war and survived it can do that, so I think this is an unfair and immoral commercialisation of the wartime events in Bosnia, and especially Sarajevo,” he asked.

Although the tour is pricy at 2,400 pounds sterling per person, ten people have already signed up, according to the agency.

“I think it’s very important for people in Europe to understand what happened in Bosnia,” tour organiser Nicholas Wood said. “That was a crucial moment in European history. There are people who want to understand contemporary developments in the world. They want to find out what is going on in Bosnia today.”

Bajtal suggested that there could be some positive aspects to the tour if the right tone was set.

“From a moral point of view, one might find this tour quite offensive, because it exploits our recent and bloody history,” he said. “But on the other hand, one can argue that it draws attention to that history again, so that it isn’t forgotten. It all depends on who presents the facts about the war to those taking part in this tour, and how objective they are.”

The tour is to be led by Louis Sell, a retired United States Foreign Service officer, with contributions from journalist Kate Adie who covered the Bosnian war for the BBC.

There will also be a presentation on modern Bosnian society from American analyst Kurt Bassuener, a long-time Sarajevo resident who rejects any suggestion that the tour exploits the tragedy of conflict or its victims.

“I think that a lot of people have already earned money from the Bosnian tragedy, even during the war,” Bassuener said. “I don’t think there is anything unethical in an attempt to provide information to people who are interested in the situation in this country today, and who prefer to learn about it first-hand rather than from the books. Of course, I would have been happier if that interest had emerged 20 years ago, but that’s not the case, and people today still don’t know, or don’t understand, what happened here.”

A Sarajevo resident in his early thirties, who wished to remain anonymous, said commercial motives were not incompatible with the tour’s aims of raising levels of understanding.

“It all depends on how the tour is organised,” he said. “If it's organised well, then it could help foreigners understand what happened in this country not so long ago. I’m sure someone will make a profit from the tour, but then people from Bosnia could have come up with a similar idea as well. The main motive may be money, but people make money in many ways, often much worse than this. If the final outcome of the tour is positive, and if people get to know Bosnia better, than I am OK with it.”

Sagolj, however, remained unhappy about the whole idea.

“There are so many different ways to show people in Europe what happened in Bosnia, without earning profits for anyone,” he said. “Sightseeing tours with picnics are not the appropriate way to introduce Bosnia’s recent history to foreigners, and will not provide any decent answers to those who wonder what really happened here some 20 years ago.”

Zana Kovacevic is a reporter for IWPR and RFE in Sarajevo.