Balkan Scars And A Secret Plan To Redraw The Borders Of Bosnia
The colored tattoo of a fortified bridge towering high over troubled waters takes up almost all of my friend Ivan's shoulder. In his early 30s, Ivan has a footballer's build and flawless cockney accent. He's been a British citizen almost all his life, but was born in Mostar, in present-day Bosnia, in the late 1980s — a bad time to be born in Bosnia..
He says he remembers the din of the bombs falling on his town when he was a kid and the Yugoslav Wars broke out, in 1992. Ethno-nationalist groups seceded from Yugoslavia and turned on each other. They fought prolonged, bloody conflicts that killed at least 140,000, and committed genocide on at least one occasion. In Srebrenica, Bosnia in 1995, pro-Serbian forces executed at least 8,000 Muslim Bosnian civilians. Ivan's family, ethnic Croatians, fled Mostar as refugees, resettling first in Germany, then in London.
His closest Croatian relatives live elsewhere in the Balkans, but Ivan chose to put Mostar's towering Old Bridge on his shoulder. Not much is known about the bridge's construction by the Ottoman empire in 1566. What is clear is that it came to symbolize the city's multiculturalism: It united Mostar's blend of Croats, Serbs and Muslims living on both banks of the river.
Heavy shelling by Croat paramilitary forces destroyed the bridge in 1993, and the river gobbled the crumbled blocks of limestone. It was rebuilt in the early 2000s, when engineers coordinated the lifting of the old blocks from the river and used some of them in the reconstruction, a powerful image of the scars bore by the very fabric of Bosnia.
Now, it seems, some are setting their eyes on those scars again. In the last couple of weeks, an explosive memo has emerged in which Slovenian authorities suggest the redrawing of Bosnia's borders along ethnic lines. Serbia would gobble up the Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia's two regions with a large ethnic Serb population. The Croatian-majority cantons would join Croatia, while Albania would annex Kosovo and swathes of present-day Northern Macedonia.
The plan would push the region back into the nightmares it went through 25 years ago.
The design resembles closely that of the massacres of the 1990s, when military forces attempted to create ethnically homogenous countries. The document even suggests it merely seeks to continue where the Yugoslav wars stopped.
There is much that we don't know about the document. It's an unofficial memo or "non-paper," as it's called in European diplomacy — a way for officials to share ideas confidentially. It's unsigned, so it's difficult to understand who wrote it, although journalists spotted the fingerprints of Slovenian government officials on the original document. But so far, one of the only people to confirm its existence is Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama, according to Euronews.
Slovenia's PM Janez Jansa, widely believed to have drafted and leaked the document to destabilize both the Balkans and the EU, has declined to confirm nor deny any rumors, as have EU officials.
As the Italian newsweekly L'Espresso says, the plan would push the region back into the nightmares it went through 25 years ago. "There would be only one consequence: war," the publication writes. And although this kind of behind-closed-doors partition of Bosnia may seem impossible, the article does on say, "impossible things often become true in the former Yugoslavia, where ghosts, once they are evoked, take shape quickly."
Many Europeans might be too young to remember the bloodshed of those wars or too far removed from them, but the continent — like the Mostar bridge and my friend Ivan — still bears the scars on their skin.