Accessibility links

Breaking News

20 Years After Dayton Peace Deal, Bosnians Are An Upset, Divided Nation

Marko Pranjic from the village of Makljenovac stands outside his home, which straddles the both the dividing line between two of Bosnia-Herzegovina's ethnically based entities.
Marko Pranjic from the village of Makljenovac stands outside his home, which straddles the both the dividing line between two of Bosnia-Herzegovina's ethnically based entities.

MAKLJENOVAC, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- Marko and Kata Pranjic returned to their village in Bosnia-Herzegovina two decades ago, hoping to put the horrors of war behind them after a Western-brokered peace deal ended the conflict that tore their country apart.

But 20 years after the Dayton Accords were hammered out on an air base in the U.S. state of Ohio, the war's shadow hangs stubbornly over Makljenovac.

The line that divides Bosnia into separate, ethnically based entities runs right through the elderly couple's village -- and through their home.

"When we returned to Makljenovac, there was a note on our front door informing us that the entrance to our house was now located in the [Bosniak-Croat] federation, while the rest of the house was in Republika Srpska," Marko Pranjic recalled with a forced laugh.

The bizarre situation he and his wife are still enduring is a glaring example of the divisions that affect daily life in Bosnia in many ways, large and small, and underscore the ethnic rifts that plunged the Balkan nation into war after Yugoslavia's breakup.

Reached on November 21, 1995 after more than three years of brutal war and weeks of tough negotiations, the Dayton accords ended a conflict that killed about 100,000 people, and they are widely hailed in the West as a major diplomatic victory.

But many Bosnians -- Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Christian Serbs, and Catholic Croats -- blame the deal for what they say is a dysfunctional, deeply flawed system of governance that exacerbates ethnic tensions.

To demonstrate the absurdity of his family's situation, Pranjic walks into his living room, crossing the dividing line, and picks up the phone. He explains that he now must make an intercity call to speak to friends across the street.

Kata Pranjic seethes as she recalls the day workers came to hook their house up to the power grid.

"I was standing at the gate and they told my husband inside: “You are in Republika Srpska right now and your wife is in the federation,'" she says, her anger still fresh. "I'm in Bosnia!" she snapped back at the workers.

But Bosnia is not like other countries. Each of the two entities has its own president, government, police force, and parliament. A third region, Brcko, is a neutral, self-governing administrative unit placed under joint Serb, Croat, and Bosniak authority.

Scarred By Conflict

A central government oversees these entities but has limited power.

Critics of Dayton say the complex government structure it created not only causes Bosnians daily headaches, but also reinforces separatism and nationalism in a country scarred by the brutal ethnic conflict of 1992-1995.

Others, however, argue that the agreement's chief purpose was to end the war and that it was up to Bosnians themselves to build on the foundations established by the peace agreement.

"There are very few firm rocks under this very fragile state; one of them is Dayton," Paddy Ashdown, a British politician who served as the international community's high representative for Bosnia between 2002 and 2006, recently told RFE/RL. "But if you stay with Dayton, you can never build a functional state. It's what we build on Dayton that matters."

Negotiations to amend the Bosnian constitution that was drafted in Dayton have failed so far to make much progress.

INFOGRAPHIC: Bosnia-Herzegovina Before And After The War

Click Here For Slider Map

The lingering ethnic divide finds a particularly clear and potentially self-perpetuating illustration in what Bosnians refer to as "two schools under one roof" -- schools that run two separate programs for children of different ethnicities.

There are more than 50 such schools in the Bosniak-Croat federation, which is officially called the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

One of them is located in Brestovsko, about 20 kilometers west of the capital, Sarajevo.

All pupils use the same entrance, and hear the same school bell. All the rest is separate -- classrooms, teachers, curricula, and even games played during recess.

Asked whether they have any Bosniak friends, many ethnically Croat pupils shook their heads.

"They have a different faith," one boy explained.

"Muslims [have] Muslim duties and Croats have Croat duties," another boy chimed in.

These sentiments are largely echoed on the "Bosniak" side of the playground.

According to history teacher Dalibor Ruzicka, both school programs tend to highlight ethnic divisions at the expense of integration.

"In the Croatian curriculum we pay more attention to relations with Croatia, and in the Bosniak curriculum they focus on what separates us from Croatia," he said.

But the school's principal, Antun Milos, was adamant that school segregation has its place in today's Bosnia. He suggested schools that separate students are responding to divisions, not creating them.

"I think we are doing the right thing," he said. "We respect the wishes of parents and students, and we act in line with the law."

No-Go Zones

There are signs that the ethnic divide is widening.

The Sarajevo canton passed a law earlier this year barring taxi drivers from crossing into Serb territory. Fines for disobeying are hefty.

Authorities in East Sarajevo, located in Republika Srpska, swiftly retaliated by passing similar legislation prohibiting taxi drivers from taking passengers to Bosniak downtown Sarajevo.

"This is ridiculous, this is our country," said Sarajevo taxi driver Salih Catic. "We speak the same language, we live in the same city. It just doesn't make any sense."

Milad Vaskovic, a resident of East Sarajevo who has been driving taxis for two decades, says many drivers choose to flaunt the new rule despite the risk of fines.

"Cab drivers from East Sarajevo go to Sarajevo two or three times a day, and each time we have to stop at the boundary and take off the 'taxi' sign," he says. "If you stand at the border you will see how many cab drivers are removing their signs."

No-go zones are an inconvenience for most taxi passengers, but Bosnia's divisions can be a matter of life or death for the ill or the injured – a situation that has doctors seriously concerned.

Under the current arrangement, patients can only receive treatment in their own entity, even if a hospital run by the other entity lies much closer.

This means people sometimes must travel dozens or even hundreds of kilometers, often on bumpy roads, before they can get help.

Patients suffering from severe injuries, heart attacks, or strokes all too often die on their way to hospital, said Sarajevo surgeon Emir Solakovic.

"This is sad, disappointing, and very inconvenient for sick people," he said. "People pay for health insurance but they cannot seek medical treatment where they want."

Solakovic, a Muslim Bosniak, made history in 2011 by agreeing to perform emergency surgery on a man from Republika Srpska who had just suffered a heart attack.

The patient, Branislav Blagojevic, survived, and Solakovic's hospital was able to obtain payment for the operation from Republika Srpska after a long administrative process.

Blagojevic, a Serb, has since been paying regular visits to the man who saved his life.

But 20 years after the war, such happy endings are still painfully rare in divided Bosnia.

"We face life-threatening situations due to the existing system -- countless lives are lost," laments Solakovic. "Patients are the casualties of this system."

Written by Claire Bigg based on reporting by Arnes Grbesic, Dzenana Karabegovic, and Ivana Bilic of RFE/RL's Balkan Service