Bosnia was once emptied by war and now faces peacetime emigration

Bosnia was once emptied by war and now faces peacetime emigration

When the Bosnian sheep farmer fled his home in disintegrating Yugoslavia in 1992, walking with his family for 40 days to escape the start of a war that would pit neighbors against each other, the village he left behind it were more than 400 inhabitants, two stores and a school.

More than half the villagers were Muslims, the rest Serbs, but no one, he said, paid much attention until extremist politicians started crying for blood.

After more than a decade away from his home in eastern Bosnia, farmer Fikret Puhalo, 61, returned to his village, Socice. At that time there were about a hundred people, Serbs who had stayed until the end and a few Muslims who had decided to return home safely.

Today, there are only 15 left. The stores have disappeared, as has the school.

“Everyone has died or moved away,” Mr. Puhalo said, pointing to the empty houses scattered in the rocky hills around the family land where he grazes his sheep. “Not a single child has been born here since I returned,” he said.

The decline of society reflects a global phenomenon of loss of inhabitants from poor agricultural areas to urban centers. It is also part of a serious demographic crisis affecting large swaths of central and eastern Europe, including relatively prosperous countries like Poland and Hungary, as low birth rates and emigration reduce the number of people – and fuels ethnonationalist politicians who speak out against dilution. even the extinction of indigenous populations.

In countries like Hungary, nationalists, warning that their own people risk disappearing and being replaced by foreigners, have railed against immigrants, despite severe labor shortages. They also encouraged state-funded programs, mostly futile, aimed at incentivizing local women to have more children.

Nowhere, however, have the demographics and politics surrounding them been more fraught than in Bosnia, a small, ethnically fractured nation. Like many poorer countries, it has a high rate of emigration, which exploded during the 1992-1995 war. But it also has an extremely low birth rate, a phenomenon generally associated with wealthier countries.

In Socice, the population has declined more sharply over the past 20 years, which have been entirely peaceful, than during the Bosnian War.

In the cemetery of the village mosque, rebuilt from the ruins left by the war, a mound of earth contains the body of Faris Suljanic, who emigrated to work in Austria, where he died at the age of 27 in an accident of the road in 2021.

At the end of a dirt road leading to Mr. Puhalo’s land is the abandoned house of Veljko Samardzija, who died unmarried several years ago, leaving the house littered with his few possessions – a dog-eared Yugoslav passport, family photos discolored rooms, a small refrigerator and a bulky television. Mr. Samardzija’s two cousins ​​died in a neighboring house, also single and childless.

Bosnia’s fertility rate – the number of live births per woman – is one of the lowest in Europe, in part because many women of childbearing age have left. This is just ahead of Malta, which has an average monthly salary twice as high.

“The situation is desperate,” said Nebojsa Vukanovic, an elected member of the local parliament of Republika Srpksa, the largely autonomous, Serb-dominated region of Bosnia in which Mr. Puhalo has his family home and sheep.

The number of people living in the Serbian region is not known: the last census, carried out in 2013, put it at just over a million. Mr. Vukanovic — an outspoken critic of the region’s authoritarian leader, Milorad Dodik, who says his region has a population of 1.4 million — estimates that figure has now fallen to 800,000 or fewer.

Mr. Dodik “manipulates the numbers to pretend he is doing a good job,” Mr. Vukanovic said.

A bellicose nationalist who was sanctioned by the United States For corruption, Mr. Dodik has repeatedly threatened to declare his territory an independent state and dismantle Bosnia, stoking ethnic nationalism to consolidate his grip on power and avoid prosecution.

To help spread his message that the Serbian region is disappearing, Mr. Vukanovic recently posted a dark video of a visit he made to the municipality of Ulog. It had more than 7,000 residents when it was part of Yugoslavia, a peaceful multi-ethnic nation that imploded into war in 1991. Today, he said in an interview, it has just seven residents. year-round, its streets are lined with ruined buildings destroyed without armed intervention. conflict but through negligence.

Michael Murphy, the United States ambassador to Bosnia and a frequent critic of Mr. Dodik, cites demographic problems as evidence of his mismanagement of Republika Srpska, known as RS.

“If reducing the RS is Mr. Dodik’s goal, he has achieved it,” Mr. Murphy said in an October statement, citing figures showing that the Serbian entity’s workforce had declined by 10 percent in a single year.

Bosnia’s second component, a Croat-Muslim federation, also lost large numbers of people. Majority-Croat areas of the federation – where most residents hold passports from neighboring Croatia, a member of the European Union, and can freely travel and work across the bloc – have been particularly hard hit by the exodus.

“It is obvious that people are leaving all parts of the country,” said Emir Kremic, director general of Bosnia’s national statistics agency.

But the number of people missing, he added, is not known precisely, largely because it is unclear how many people remain. “We just don’t know how many people live here,” he said. For this, he added, “we need a new census.”

However, this is not what ethnonationalist politicians want, fearing the results. Bosnia’s three main ethnic groups – Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Catholic Croats – each fear losing out in the numbers game. It took three years of wrangling after the 2013 census for the results to be released, as each group wanted to see bigger numbers, and therefore more political clout, for their own community.

Mr Kremic said a study carried out last year by his Statistics Institute to assess Bosnia’s agricultural land use gives a rough indication of the extent of the population decline. It was found that 30 percent of agricultural households registered in the 2013 census had disappeared.

“There was no one left,” he said.

The latest census estimates Bosnia’s total population at 3.5 million, compared to 4.4 million in the previous census, a year before the start of the war. According to some estimates, their number is now less than two million inhabitants per year. The Vienna Institute of Demography calculated that between 1990 and 2017, Bosnia experienced a population decline of 22%, largely due to emigration, the steepest decline in the region.

The national birth rate has steadily declined since 1999, and after a brief postwar surge of returns, emigration has resumed, contributing to what a Bosnian Academy of Sciences report called of “demographic winter” motivated by economic concerns and a “collective depression”. on the country’s prospects.

At the University of Sarajevo in the country’s capital, students are divided over whether they should stay or leave. Some, especially those from well-connected families, see no reason to take the risk of emigrating. Others are discouraged about their chances if they stay.

Enis Katina, a criminology student, said he would like to work in the Bosnian police but sees “no real prospects for young people in this country”. Leaving, he added, “is the only future we have.”

Muris Cicic, director of the Academy of Sciences and co-author of his report, said Bosnia was not as hopeless as many residents, especially young people, think, but remained plagued by a certain gloom about the future due to the constant quarrels between political forces. an elite widely seen as corrupt and selfish.

“Political instability is the main factor that pushes people to leave or consider leaving,” Mr. Cicic said. A return to war, he added, is highly unlikely, but fear of such a return, stoked by Bosnia’s highly partisan news media and inflammatory statements by politicians like Mr. Dodik, has plunged many people in a state of despair.

“The system here is unusable and everything seems hopeless,” he said.

Among those discouraged by their country’s prospects is Eldin Hadzic, a 40-year-old mechanic who fled to Germany in the early 1990s to escape the war, returned in 1998 and is now determined to go again. He recently traveled from his home in Sipovo to Sarajevo to visit a private visa agency that was selling him advice on how to get out.

“Anyone with a modicum of intelligence should go,” Mr. Hadzic said, calling all politicians, regardless of their ethnic origin, crooks. “They are all the same, just after their own personal interests,” he said. “To make your dreams come true in Bosnia, you have to be a thief.”

Una Regoje in Sarajevo contributed to this report.

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Eric D. Eilerman

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