Can Bosnia’s Army Save the World?

Photo Credit: UN PHOTO/Julio Brathwaite: Bosnian UN Police Advisors Arrive in South Sudan

Soldiers, officers and police that fought against each other two decades earlier are now working together in UN and NATO operations to keep or deliver peace. It is not just the mere manpower, or women power, that is being contributed by Bosnia & Herzegovina, “BiH.” As or more important is the example and hope of former adversaries coming together to work, live together, and committed to a greater cause than war — peace. From Afghanistan to the Democratic Republic of Congo, BiH military are now serving under circumstances where the war cry echoes over the last few decades; but the example of these BiH peacekeepers offers an example and hope of breaking vicious cycles. Besides military, there are now even more police from BiH serving in various missions. A large minority of the police are women.

How an Army Can Win Without Firing a Bullet?

These four BiH officers are not a new generation but were in the 1990’s part of armies that fought against each other: Brigadier Siniša Ostojić, Brigadier Zdravko Rezo, Brigadier Jasmin Čajić and Major Goran Stokić. They were hosted by Ambassador Mirsada Colakovic as they made the rounds at UN HQ in NYC anticipating an enlargement of BiH’s commitment to UN Peacekeeping operations. With brutal conflict and instability in bad need of a dousing, demands upon UN Peacekeeping may soon be on the rise from Ukraine to Syria to the Central African Republic. Ambassador Colakovic has been representing BiH at the UN over much of the last decade, (both as Deputy and now Head of Mission as well as one of longest serving women Permanent Representatives.)  She has made the greater peacekeeping engagement one of the top priorities. When I served as BiH’s first Ambassador to the UN, we had one of the largest contingents of UN troops and monitors within the country. The efficacy was not always uniform or up to BiH’s needs, but also lessons have been learned from the mistakes and betrayals from that mandate. Ambassador Colakovic observed that: “from consumer of UN Peacekeeping resources, BiH has now become a contributor.” It is a vision and hope I shared two decades earlier, but frankly even I have been surprised by the transformation especially as much in BiH remains frozen in time since the signing of the Dayton Peace Accords. The previously warring armies have now become one BiH military, and animosity and suspicion have been overcome by confidence in professionalism and teamwork.

Brigadier Jasmin Cajic was a very skinny junior officer defending a besieged safe area enclave during the 1990’s war in BiH. When I first helicoptered in the surrounded Bihac enclave as war still raged, we nudged tree tops as we flew very low to avoid anti-aircraft. (My predecessor as Foreign Minister of BiH, Irfan Ljubijankic, had been shot down and killed, along with three others plus Ukrainian crew just a few months earlier flying the same route.) The civilians and defenders of the Bihac enclave had by then suffered over 3 years of siege, hunger, lack of medical supplies, as well as assaults from rebels in BiH and Croatia. Jasmin is an example of one who is proud of his defense of BiH and its citizens against ethnic cleansing. Brigadier Sinisa Ostojic was on another side during the conflict. He has though already served BiH as a military attache in the state’s embassy in Washington. What struck me is the satisfaction and pride that they all had in now working together, serving BiH and the broader goal of peace. Animosity in the past has become an experience upon which to build new responsibilities, within BiH but also a broader globe now once again succumbing to despots and war gangs employing fear and tales of age-old hatreds. (All those serving now have been vetted to satisfy that those shooting at each other did not engage in war crimes – grave violations of international humanitarian law.)

When the international community and particularly its presumably most responsible powers are not engaged or united enough to address a conflict, they frequently resort to excuses of “insurmountable age-old conflicts,” from Syria/Iraq to Ukraine, to the Horn of Africa. That was the same excuse offered for an inadequate response in BiH back then. Unwittingly or not, this narrative acquiesces with that of the war makers, those who would promote presumably irreconcilable differences, fear and history to further war, brutality and war crimes. The BiH experience teaches that a history of diversity can be an asset for a state/society as well as risk. In peace all can be victors while artificial divides consume energy and marginalize us to role of combatants, or worse.

An Alternative Narrative to ISIS Coming from Bosnian Muslims?

BiH’s Muslims have come out of the conflict victimized by ethnic cleansing and an attempt at genocide. In fact, all have lost. Undoubtedly Muslims felt betrayed by the Western democracies, and this has provided rationale to some violent jihadists, including many of those now sympathetic to ISIS (the so-called Islamic State.) However, BiH Muslims’ (Bosniaks) answer to exploitation of religious bigotry is to be ever more committed to coexistence. While diversity poses its challenges, the history of BiH teaches that it is an asset. BiH Muslim soldiers who defended their country and people against overwhelming odds are now working with allies and former enemies to make it work better. This can be a powerful narrative as well as symbol in helping bring back Syria and Iraq from the brink, especially under a UN flag as UN peacekeepers are likely to be called upon to be part of any future settlement regardless of what leaders remain from the combatants. BiH’s Islamic leadership has taken lead in calling for decisive action to confront ISIS.  (See: “Confronting ISIS: Is Rule of Law & Democracy Part of Coalition?”)

Restoring Ukraine?

A UN-mandated mission will in the end be part of any settlement or at least cease fire in Ukraine. Bosnian Orthodox (Serb) peacekeepers leading a BiH contingent could take lead where Orthodox Christians are on both sides of that conflict with significant Catholic and Muslim minorities. Ethnic identity, Ukraine versus Russian, may be a key factor misused to wage war against the other. The BiH experience again can serve as a contrary narrative as to what is possible in peace and a lesson as to how war can be exploited by despots and marauders. (The rebel leader Igor Strevkov who originally claimed shooting down MH17 had joined Serb para-military marauders in the 1990’s war in BiH, and now radicalized Serbs from BiH and Serbia have gone to Ukraine to join and frequently accentuate the nationalist war cry and brutality, just like some radicalized Muslims had joined ISIS – See: “Construction According to Putin’s Model, from Bosnia to Europe?

Empowering Women via UN Police:


BiH has an even larger contingent of police working under UN mandate, with around 25% of them female. Approximately 50 BiH police are now deployed including in Liberia, Somalia, South Sudan, Cyprus and Afghanistan, with that number expected to double. Women in conflict zones around the globe have been directly targeted more recently as they had been during the 1990’s war and genocide in BiH by even those wearing police uniforms as well as paramilitary. The example of BiH female and male police of mixed ethnicity working to stem sexual violence, enhance the rule of law, and provide training to local counterparts now exerts a powerful example and lessons.

Bosnia as Catalyst to Promote Co-Existence?

Serving as the first Ambassador of a fledgling BiH and witnessing the suffering and pain inflicted, but also the swell of popular support for a beleaguered in the 1990’s from college campus to AME Church, from synagogue to concert hall, from civil society to mosque, I had thought, hoped that BiH could serve as catalyst to overcome other conflicts that had assumed their own perpetuating narrative of “age-old hatreds.” From the Middle East, to Africa, to Europe, to the new world demagogues, haters and despots have been empowered by the ready to serve historical narratives to emphasize the flash points of conflict over the extended periods of coexistence. BiH has long been an example of history being exploited for hate calories while in fact diversity has nourished its society and culture as a whole.

Unfortunately the greatest betrayal of the Dayton Accords may be that it opted for the empty-calorie hate narrative over the legacy of diversity. Soon the opportunity that a Bosnian peace might be the dawn of a new age of global reconciliation was overcome by those who promoted their own self-serving narratives of the BiH war. Some sought to further stereotypes of the region’s peoples by falling back upon tales of historical conflicts, (somehow simultaneously deaf and blind to the even more dramatic reality of hatreds that engulfed Western Europe highlighted by WW II and the Holocaust only a generation earlier.) Beyond compromises between states and combatants, concessions were made to identity politics based on religion, ethnicity, even language. The rationale for a “bad peace” still dominates the debate in BiH, but this contagion has taken hold well beyond the region, from ISIS ideology to Putin’s new imperial project.

Perhaps as a young American-Bosnian diplomat in the 1990’s I was a bit too hopeful and naive in my vision of the future for BiH and the globe. However, maybe recent history also bears out our trust in coexistence. The one institution that appears to function most effectively and professionally in BiH is also one of the most integrated. Despite the fact that some of its most senior officers were at war with each other, now they exhibit respect, professionalism and even amity. Globally and regionally nationalism, religion, race, and ethnicity can be exploited as weapons with risks of rapid contagion via old and new media and propaganda tools.  Peace needs its own greater methodologies and narrative?

We may Not Always Look the Same, but….

In the late 1990’s, Burundi continued to simmer with the apparent Hutu-Tutsi tension that had ravaged Rwanda with genocide. The former President of Tanzania, Julius Nyerere, and then mediator for the Burundi negotiations had asked me to assist him in the talks by relating BiH’s experience to the conflicting parties. In the conference center in Arusha, (also the UN HQ for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda,) the participants crammed around a dais. Recalling the question that international mediators frequently asked upon entering BiH, I relayed this memory to them and asked with a smile, “How do I distinguish between you who is Hutu or Tutsi or …  Croat, Jewish or Bosniak?” They all let out a big laugh, and then several without dissent explained that actually over the extended history of coexistence and intermingling the physical differences and even cultural were less defined. Rather, ethnicity had come to be exploited as a political banner to further the agendas of the half-dozen or so political parties. Ironically, in that society Muslims made up a minority in a Catholic majority country and had come to be seen as Burundians free of the ethnic/racial identity and as potential honest brokers in mediating competing agendas.

The New War Against Intolerance Won by Soldiers, Ideology and Narratives:

The symbolism could be even more nourishing. NATO, EU and particularly US assistance in providing “train and equip” had been instrumental in catalyzing the transformation of BiH’s military into both a more effective and reintegrated institution, (despite the shortcomings of the Dayton Accords.) Now, the BiH soldiers and police as peace begins to take hold could be the greatest asset for NATO/US forces in Syria or European monitors in Ukraine or UN peacekeepers in Mali. BiH has become an asset and the more recognized as such, the more it can contribute as member of the Euro-Atlantic family and globally?

Coming Together over Bosnia! Watch YouTube Video

@Muhamed Sacirbey

UN PHOTO/Logan Abassi: MINUSTAH Police Academy Celebrates International Women’s Day – Haiti


About the Author

Muhamed Sacirbey
Muhamed Sacirbey
Ambassador Muhamed Sacirbey currently lectures on Digital-Diplomacy. "Mo" has benefited from a diverse career in investment banking & diplomacy, but his passion has been the new avenues of communication. He was Bosnia & Herzegovina's first Ambassador to the United Nations, Agent to the International Court of Justice, Foreign Minister & Signatory of the Rome Statute establishing the International Criminal Court. He also played American football opting for a scholarship to Tulane University in New Orleans after being admitted to Harvard, oh well!!
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