Bosnia is Struggling to Heal Itself

I recently returned from a three-week trip around Southeastern Europe, during which I had chance to visit a couple of places I’ve wanted to see for a number of years: Mostar & Sarajevo. My timing couldn’t have been more apt as this week marks the beginning of the defense by former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic.

Karadzic is standing trial in the Hague facing 10 charges of genocide and crimes against humanity during the Balkan war in the 1990s. He stands, seemingly defiantly, alongside his former General Ratko Mladic who is also on trial for war crimes and genocide.

Mostar during the siege in 1993 and today

So, what does all this have to do with atheism and church-state separation?

As I’ve now seen and heard with my own eyes and ears, the old dividing lines continue to this day. Bosnia is now a much smaller state than the former Yugoslavia, a microcosm of the nation that spawned it. It’s a melting pot of different ethnic groups and political and religious ideologies. It is those religious dividing lines that have contributed so hugely to the war and continue to thwart its path to lasting peace. Many of the key battle grounds of the war remain in Bosnian territory — towns such as Mostar, Sarajevo, and the infamous Srebrenica, site of the murders of thousands of Muslim people in the worst single atrocity in Europe since the end of World War II.

The war was Catholic Croats vs Orthodox Serbs vs Muslim Bosnians, distinctions which remain institutionalized and re-enforced in full twenty years later. It didn’t matter if you were an atheist. If you were a Bosnian, you were Muslim. If you were a Croat, you were Catholic. My guide during my stay in Mostar was of Muslim cultural heritage but was not religious. He’d lost several family members but managed to escape the siege of Mostar. He was granted asylum in Sweden, finally returning just a few years ago. He briefly explained his thoughts to me on how and why he chose to flee when most of his family and friends remained, but it was thoughts of his future that you could tell frustrated him the most.

Bosnia has a public school system free of official religious entanglement, but unofficially it is rife. Children of the same age, at the same stages of their education, are taught in separate classrooms so that they do not have to mix with children outside their ethnic group. There are entire neighbourhoods for Catholics, different ones for Muslims, and so on. It all seemed so familiar to me having grown up watching Northern Ireland struggle to come to terms with its future and try (some might add successfully) to rise above such a partisan culture.

Breaking the cycle of mistrust and barely-concealed hatred is not easy, but surely it must start with the children. The simple act of living, working, and learning alongside someone very different from you breaks down these barriers faster than anything else previously tried.

Sure their parents might remain bitter and intolerant — but at least their children might have a glimmer of hope. This is why religious public education and the division of children on such grounds is a moral outrage. It is bad enough in countries that have peaceful recent histories, but to do so in places such as Bosnia is nothing short of a disgrace.

About Mark Turner

Mark Turner was born and raised as a Catholic in the North East of England, UK. He attended two Catholic schools between the ages of five and sixteen. A product of a moderate Catholic upbringing and an early passion for science first resulted in religious apathy and by mid-teens outright disbelief.


  • Rev. Ouabache

    I think you mean Bosnian War in stead of Balkan War.

    And I really hope the area can recover since my friend just moved there for a job in the US State Dept.

  • Andrew Hall

    Your story reminds of the tale I heard about being an atheist in Northern Ireland. A man with a gun asked the godless person if he was a Catholic-atheist or a Protestant-atheist.

  • Octoberfurst

    Some like to say that religion makes people kind and peace loving. But when you look at the way religion makes people want to kill their neighbors simply because they don’t believe the same things they do you see religion for the great divider that it is. Catholics and Protestants hate and kill each other in Northern Ireland. Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Christians are at each others throats in Bosnia while Shiite and Sunni Muslims attack each other in Iraq.   They kill each other over whose sky fairy is right. It’s all madness.  Secularism is the only antidote to this insanity.

  • Tom

    State Department officials in Bosnia and the former Yugoslavia are very safe and, at least in Bosnia, quite well-regarded.  I wouldn’t worry about your friend’s safety.

  • Tom

    I haven’t been to Mostar in almost 12 years and it’s good to see that they’ve rebuilt their storied bridge.

    Healing from something like this is painful, of course, and segregating the children isn’t going to do anyone any favors, obviously.  It’s a city, though, that was so starkly divided in the war that even having the children in the same school (something that, as far as I remember, doesn’t actually happen in Northern Ireland) is headway.  

    During the conflict streets in that city that divided various sectarian enclaves just erupted with machine gun fire, creating no-mans-lands in the blink of an eye.  The devastation was catastrophic.  Seeing that they have, now, a city that is beginning to resemble its former glory makes me, for one, feel that things are at least moving in a positive direction.  Every single building, and every surface was covered in scars from the battle.  Now it looks like a picturesque tourist destination.

  • BBB

    What you seem to be missing Mark is that children were not segregated at school or class throughout the Yugoslav era and yet those same children grew up and killed each other. Brotherhood and Unity was promoted. We were well on our way to getting along. The reason we were destroyed had nothing to do with religion, we were the only successful socialist state, a very legitimate alternative to capitalism. The country needed to be carved up, the simplest way to do this was to carve it up along religions lines.