Alternate Geographies for Bosnia-Herzegovina


The old bridge in Mostar being rebuilt, 2003, photograph by Donar Reiskoffer

by Jason Dittmer

Bosnia Remade: Ethnic Cleansing and its Reversal,
by Gerard Toal and Carl T. Dahlman,
Oxford University Press, 488 pp.

Bosnia Remade is a book a long time in coming and yet absolutely timely, taking as its scope not only the 1990s war in Bosnia but also the decade-long effort to undo the war’s effects. There are many accounts of the former but far fewer have tried to come to grips with the latter as the world has moved on to the many conflicts occurring in the interim. However, the recent capture of Ratko Mladić and the re-burial of many victims of the Srebrenica massacre highlight that the remaking of Bosnia is still an ongoing process.

The authors, Gerard Toal and Carl Dahlman, view both the war and its aftermath as explicitly geographical processes – attempts to remake Bosnia along ethnic lines. The authors utilize the perspective of critical geopolitics, in which taken-for-granted assumptions about space and geography are interrogated in order to call into question dominant understandings of politics. Toal and Dahlman are very effective at weaving together an analysis that takes into account global power relations, local (opština) political dynamics, nationalist narratives and their everyday circulation, actual practices of ethnic cleansing and its reversal, and the specific experience of place. Methodologically, the book makes use of published and governmental documents, as well as interviews with both survivors, combatants, and political leaders in the towns of Zvornik, Doboj, and Jajce. These towns are not meant to be ‘average’ in some way but each contributes to a different ‘local’ experience of the wider war (getting critical geopolitical scholarship to engage more with ‘thick’ geographical understanding, rather than ‘thin’ theoretical framings, has long been one of Toal’s objectives).

Bosnia Remade is extremely effective in its presentation. The book juggles events occurring in Bosnian localities with events occurring in Belgrade, Dayton, Zagreb, Brussels, and elsewhere, each of which is important in shaping the outcome of events ‘on the ground’. While the presentation is chock-full of acronyms and detail worthy of an arid history, it is nevertheless written with a visceral repugnance for ethnic cleansing which emerges from the seams of the narrative. My criticism of the book itself is rather limited – it is clearly the product of a very time-consuming process and its extensive footnoting indicates the depth of this research. If I could have seen one more dimension to this already quite long book, it would have been some sustained personal narratives of individuals who lived through both the ethnic cleansing and the returns process. Personal accounts are used to flesh out particular ‘local’ events throughout, but this more fragmented approach left me wanting more insight into what it was like to live through the conflict (more on this in a moment), though other readers might find this off-putting, as the book is already quite a handful at just under half a thousand pages.

Ethnic structure by settlements, according to the 1991 census

In the absence of a more substantial critique, I would like to share some thoughts that Bosnia Remade sparked for me. They are uncomfortable thoughts, but worth sharing I hope nonetheless. The last five chapters of the book focus on the attempts by international and local actors to engineer a viable returns process that could return Bosnia-Herzegovina to its pre-war state (institutionally imagined as identical to the 1991 census in regards to local demographics). Toal and Dahlman quite forthrightly argue that the Dayton Accords (and Annex 7, the basis for the returns process) could not unmake the ethnic cleansing process because they enshrined ethnic identities over civic ones. Nevertheless they are not unaware of several glimmers of hope (such as new mosques in Republika Srpska) and they conclude the book with the understanding that “Bosnia-Herzegovina is still in the process of being made, its form an evolving one,” (p.318-319).

This understanding of Bosnia-Herzegovina as always in process is a welcome one, but one that I struggle to connect with the return efforts. In their opposition to ethnic cleansing, Toal and Dahlman understandably support the returns process, but there seems to be little consideration of alternative geographies that could have been produced at that moment in time beyond 1991 or the ethnically cleansed ‘present’.  My view on this is shaped by an understanding of time as unidirectional; while the demographics might be returned to that of 1991 (which they weren’t) the people composing those demographics would be different, having gone through the collective experience of war.

The division of Bosnia-Herzegovina into the Muslim-Croat Federation and Republika Srpska.

I cannot imagine what it felt like to be a Bosniak, Bosnian Serb, or Bosnian Croat being pushed into their old ethnically cleansed neighborhood (while it was policy to never repatriate someone who was unwilling, it is impossible for me to imagine the returns process as anything but an attempt at geographic engineering).  For those who lived through the war, or were born afterwards, I struggle to imagine why they would choose to risk life and limb, and those of their family, to try to reproduce the old 1991 order. Clearly many did, and so perhaps the poverty of my imagination is responsible here. Equally clearly, however, many millions more did not – and so I am left to wonder if the Bosnians were viewed differently by the international community than by the nationalist leaderships of Croatia and Serbia? Are the Bosnians ever anything other than pawns for elites’ preferred geopolitical visions? In the case of the nationalists, Bosnians were clearly pawns to be manipulated for the creation of a Greater Serbia or Croatia, but is it possible that in the case of the ‘international community’ they were  also pawns, here used to bolster the integrity of the nation-state ideal and to ameliorate the guilt of a Holocaust once again occurring on European soil?

In other words, we might ask what values were enshrined in the attempted return to 1991, and to whose benefit and at whose cost? Such a perspective might be understood as playing into the hands of those who committed the ethnic cleansing, but there seems little evidence that the returns process really overturned their new order. Perhaps a third strategy beyond ethnic cleansing and 1991 might have had a better outcome for the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina going forward. Freezing Bosnia-Herzegovina as it was in 1991 does not seem to be imagining the country as a process but instead putting it on a museum shelf.

About the Author:

Jason Dittmer is Lecturer in Human Geography at University College London. He is the author of Popular Culture, Geopolitics, and Identity.