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Sprawled along the Croatian border in northeastern Bosnia, the town of Brcko was a big prize in the bloody Balkan war. The site of three years of bitter fighting between Croats, Muslims, and Serbs, Brcko was so contentious that the framers of the 1995 Dayton peace accord left its fate unresolved. Instead, an independent arbitrator decreed in 1998 that the city would belong neither to Republika Srpska (the Serb-controlled half of the country) nor to the Muslim-Croat Federation. The town was declared a "district," with its own schools, police, and local government. Western officials hoped Brcko would serve as a model for multiethnic coexistence.

Last month, I went with a colleague to see how this utopian vision was shaping up. We made the two-hour drive from Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, zigzagging through the countryside on a "highway" stitched together from two-lane rural back roads so Serbs traveling from their capital can avoid Croat-controlled territory. It was Orthodox Christmas, and Brcko's downtown streets, now controlled by the Serbs, were deserted. We drove past bullet-pocked buildings and a "multiethnic" high school that was recently rocked by violent protests: Hundreds of Serb students, outraged at having to share their building with Muslims, had overturned cars and trashed Muslim property.

We turned onto

Sakic's neighbor Vahid Tahto, 42, wandered over. A skinny, gray-faced man with a harelip, Tahto asked me if the rumors that George W. Bush was planning to pull American peacekeepers out of Bosnia were true. (American soldiers in Humvees patrol his street a couple of times a day.) And he scoffed at the idea that British and French troops alone could keep the peace. Flinching at the crackle of celebratory Christmas gunshots from the Serb side of town, Tahto pointed toward a newly built Orthodox church steeple looming over Brcko. "The Serbs will use that as a sniper position when the war begins again," he said.

So much for multiethnic coexistence. Five years after the Dayton peace accord, Bosnia remains a country in name only. Beneath the facade of stability and peace--a peace largely imposed by 20,000 international peacekeepers--Serbs, Croats, and Muslims remain bitterly divided. Schools are segregated. More than one million Bosnians are either refugees or internally displaced, and war criminals remain in key positions in both the police and local government. Civil institutions barely function. The old wartime oligarchy continues to dominate the economy, corruption is pervasive, and private investment is almost nonexistent. "After five years and five billion dollars, the international community has yet to achieve a single change that is self-sustaining," says James Lyon, director of the Bosnia project of the International Crisis Group, an organization of independent analysts. "We pull out tomorrow and everything will collapse."

During his presidential campaign, Bush suggested withdrawing American forces from Bosnia and Kosovo and leaving peacekeeping there to the European allies. NATO leaders see a U.S. pullout as a dangerous abdication of America's international responsibilities. But on the ground the fear is more concrete: U.S. soldiers and Muslim refugees alike predict that without the American troops, war might well begin anew. "The Europeans did nothing for us during the war," Tahto told me. "We don't trust them."

Some international experts say that the ultranationalists who fueled the fratricidal wars of the 1990s are growing weaker now that Croatia's Franjo Tudjman is dead and Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic has been deposed. If only they were right. In last November's elections, nationalists enjoyed gains across the country, despite the efforts of Bosnia's chief international administrator, Austrian diplomat Wolfgang Petrisch, to promote liberal parties. In Republika Srpska, moderate President Milorad Dodik was crushed by a hard-core nationalist from the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), the wartime Serb alliance co-founded by fugitive war criminal Radovan Karadzic. In the Muslim-Croat Federation, Croats voted overwhelmingly for the ultranationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ). Muslims also stood behind their wartime Party for Democratic Action, despite overwhelming evidence of mismanagement and corruption.

With nationalists still holding sway, there's been little effort to forge pan-ethnic Bosnian unity. True, there's a common currency, license plate, and passport, as well as a handful of shared institutions, including the customs service and the national parliament. But aside from these tokens--all created by the Dayton accord--the lack of cooperation is pervasive. Police departments, utilities, school systems, even cellular-phone networks are divided along ethnic lines. Serbs, Croats, and Bosnians have their own armies (each closely monitored by NATO forces that don't allow more than three soldiers to leave the barracks at one time without supervision). And Bosnia now has 13 constitutions, one each for Bosnia, Republika Srpska, the Muslim- Croat Federation, and the Federation's ten cantons, which are mostly divided into Croat or Muslim enclaves.

And it's not just cantons. Cities and even neighborhoods are rigidly divided. The southern town of Mostar, once the object of ferocious fighting between Muslims and Croats, is today a study in Bosnian apartheid: Muslims live on the east side, separated from the Croat west by "the Boulevard," a war-scarred green line of gutted apartment blocks and office buildings. Croat nationalists have blocked all but 300 Muslim families, out of 8,000 who've applied, from reclaiming their homes in the west. The flag of "Herceg-Bosna," the Croatian enclave that the Bosnian Croat army tried to carve out of Bosnia, flutters from hundreds of lampposts in Croat territory. Jakob Finci, the leader of the Jewish community of Sarajevo, recounted a conversation with a ten-year-old Croat boy in Mostar. "I asked him, 'Do you have any Muslim friends?' And he answered, 'I've never even seen any Muslims.'"

The situation across the border in Republika Srpska is even worse. There, obstructionist SDS leaders have blocked the return of refugees and winked as Serb civilians threaten those who've dared come back. (U.S. peacekeepers say the only people who return are the old and infirm, "people who are coming home to die.") In Srebrenica, the former U.N. safe haven where thousands of Muslims were massacred in 1995, fewer than a dozen Muslims have returned. Even the dead can't go home: The remains of at least 4,000 victims of the Srebrenica massacre lie in cold storage in Tuzla because Serb politicians won't let their families build a memorial park near the area where they were murdered.

Even more ominous, separatist ideology is being passed on to the next generation. Croat textbooks in Bosnia instruct Croat students that their " president" is Tudjman, the fiercely nationalistic leader of Croatia who died last year. Bosnian Serb children learn that they're part of "the Serb nation" and that their capital is Belgrade, not Sarajevo. Attempts by Petrisch, the country's international administrator, to build a multiethnic educational system have failed. His team has created three schools where Muslim and Croat students share one building, but students still learn in separate classes with separate textbooks and separate teachers. On the bright side, observes the country's education chief, Claude Kieffer, "The teachers all share one faculty lounge. And the kids sometimes play together during recess." That's about as hopeful as it gets. 

Joshua Hammer is Jerusalem bureau chief for Newsweek and author of Chosen by God: A Brother's Journey.

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By Joshua Hammer