Civil Society, Europe, Headlines, Human Rights

BOSNIA: A Tentative Rebellion Unrolls

Zack Baddorf

SARAJEVO, May 6 2008 (IPS) - It started with a murder.

Three teenage gang members beat up and stabbed to death 17-year-old high school student Denis Mrnjavac, unknown to them, on a packed Sarajevo tram Feb. 5. Four days later, more than 10,000 citizens took to the streets in protest against increasing teen crime, demanding immediate action by the government. They held signs that read “We are all Denis Mrnjavac”.

The events prompted the formation of the Citizens of Sarajevo group, which is holding satirical political actions this week in the lead-up to a planned large-scale protest May 9, Victory Day for most of Eastern Europe, in the country’s capital. Soviet forces announced the surrender of Nazi Germany on May 9, 1945.

“We are trying to change the state of consciousness of Sarajevo people,” Plamenko Muratovic, a member of the newly founded organization told IPS. “Right now, what we’re doing (is what) French people did 200 years ago, the Americans did 230 years ago. People here don’t believe in this idea that they can change anything.”

Founded and based on the Internet, the self-proclaimed “informal” group has gathered about 3,000 people at “spontaneous” protests in the last three months. They have demanded the resignation of Sarajevo Canton’s prime minister and the city’s mayor. They also want a transparent and functional government, and increased safety on the streets.

The death of Mrnjavac at the hands of teens was preceded by the murder of a 72-year-old woman by three boys aged 15 or 16. They doused her head with gasoline and lit her on fire.

Muratovic, who described himself as a “very ordinary citizen”, said there is no system in Bosnia and Herzegovina to deal with juvenile delinquents.

“The problem is they don’t know how to deal with them. They cannot put them in jail because they don’t have jail facilities for juveniles. They cannot put them with mature criminals, and right now they are planning to release them from prison and put them under ‘strong observation’,” said the 46-year-old administrative worker.

After Mrnjavac’s murder, the Sarajevo Canton government imposed curfew from 11 pm for teenagers. Muratovic dismissed it as a “joke of a law.”

The citizens-run group has called the cantonal and city government incompetent and irresponsible, and also started public campaigns to inform people about alleged public funds mismanagement.

In an open letter to local officials, they submitted a Law on Free Access to Information request about the 20,000 KM (about 16,000 dollars) monthly allowance for 14 top officials, including the cantonal president and prime minister. The total amounts to about 2.7 million dollars annually.

“In their fight to preserve the lucrative public offices, politicians elected by the people have obviously lost all sense of shame and reality,” the organisation wrote in the letter.

No politicians have resigned as a result of their demands, and they have not responded to the information request.

“We can now see the true faces of the people that were elected by the citizens and yet feel no responsibility towards those very same citizens whatsoever,” concluded the letter by the Citizens of Sarajevo.

Elvina Ganic has been a citizen of Sarajevo all her life. She serves up fresh burek pastry every day inside a burekdzinica. She said she’s not satisfied with life in her country but has never been to a demonstration before and doesn’t plan to protest in the future.

“I’m not interested (in protesting),” she told IPS, “because they don’t matter and the politicians don’t listen. I care but I think I can’t make a difference, and not just me but all young people (believe this).”

Design student Irma Vatric is an exception.

When she saw a Citizens of Sarajevo protest downtown in March, the Sarajevo native joined in and asked how she could help.

“I’m 23, at the end of my education and, yeah, there’s no future for young people here because of (the politicians’) little games,” Vatric, who attends the Academy of Fine Arts in Sarajevo, told IPS.

She admits not enough people are “waking up” and realising they can work together to bring about change. But this young political enthusiast said she’s “optimistic about people” in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

“I’m really, really hoping that people would understand that they can…be in control of their lives.”

The inaction by people like Ganic makes Demir Mahmutcehajic scared.

“The majority of people are saying, ‘No, I don’t want to get involved,’ but they are not happy,” the Sarajevo-based organiser of the DOSTA! (Enough) movement told IPS. “That apathy in one moment can turn into uncontrolled rage.”

In a separate demonstration against juvenile crime Apr. 13, seven people, including four police officers, were injured after the protest turned violent. The crowd threw eggs, stones and bottles at a Sarajevo government building, breaking several windows.

Mahmutcehajic, who advises the Citizens of Sarajevo group, said the politicians do “hear” the protesters but doubts they’ll do anything. He expects a “mass rebellion” in as soon as half a year.

“The pressure in this little country is building up slowly, especially because the politicians are ignoring these voices of ordinary people. It’s building up and it’s mounting and…it will explode,” said the 31-year-old activist. “I think it will happen in a violent way.”

Unless, of course, the nation’s leaders make a “drastic U-turn,” Mahmutcehaji asserted.

“Having a violent revolution will not change anything in this country. The real changes will come when we as citizens come out on the streets in hundreds of thousands, and protest in a peaceful way.”

Muratovic dismissed the idea of a mass movement.

“We don’t need some big gathering,” he said. “We are changing directions. We are trying to be more creative and use more media, less street gatherings, because it’s not productive.”

One of their satirical actions scheduled for this week is for the group to visit, in their bathing suits, the site of the city’s first Olympic-size public swimming public, which is still under construction despite the mayor promising it would open last spring.

“We’ll visit the place and call on the mayor to open up the pool and teach us how to swim,” said Muratovic, noting that 70 percent of Sarajevo residents can’t swim.

“It starts with small battles,” said Citizens of Sarajevo member Semsudin Maljevic, 29. Democracy, he told IPS, is “constant war between the politicians and the people. The more victories of the people you have, the more democracy you have.”

But some political activists in the nation of 4.5 million are skeptical about the Citizens of Sarajevo.

Alisa Karovic, a Sarajevo activist who is helping the group with logistics and planning, said the organisation lacks structure and members argue a lot.

“They are really suspicious towards each other and there is a lot of miscommunication,” Karovic told IPS. “Right now they don’t have (a goal) for what they want to achieve.”

Muratovic admits as much, saying they don’t have a “straightforward direction”.

“But the positive thing is that they’re on the street and that they’re doing their best and talking with common people,” said Karovic. “It’s one kind of awakening of the common citizen. And in the end, we all want the same (thing): not to be afraid to go out on the streets, to go on the tram, and to have the freedom to walk through the city.”

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