Interview 06 Apr 12

Bosnia Still Living With Consequences of War

Twenty years after the start of the war, civilians and former soldiers are still suffering from the horrors they lived through, says Ismet Dizdarevic, a renowned social psychologist.

 

Denis Dzidic
BIRN
Sarajevo
Sarajevo streets during the siege | Photo: BIRN archive

Bosnia's war, which witnessed the worst atrocities Europe has seen since the Second World War, began 20 years ago on Friday.

The internecine conflict between the Serb, Croat and Muslim communities is remembered worldwide for the horrific scenes of ethnic cleansing, concentration camps and mass graves.

By the end of the war in 1995, more than 100,000 people had been killed and almost a million more injured and displaced.

The war has been over for more than 16 years, in which time the country has been more peaceful that even the optimists dared hope.  Yet the aftermath of war continues to haunt the country.

For Professor Ismet Dizdarevic, one of the worst aspects of the war is the psychological trauma that many Bosnians continue to endure.

According to him the impact of posttraumatic stress disorder, PTSD, is most clearly seen amongst former soldiers.

“They are going through the Vietnam syndrome. When veterans return and the media are not on their side then psychological breakdowns happen. These people feel lost, which is why we have so many suicides, ” claims Dizdarevic.

The former soldiers are having a difficult time adapting to peacetime, the social psychologist explains, because while they enjoyed the support of their communities during the war, now they are forgotten amidst a “vast amount of daily problems”.

Since March 20, the former soldiers who took up arms to fight each other in 1992, and who joined the united armed forces after the war, have been protesting. They are asking the government to make sure that the pensions they are owed are included in the state budget for 2012.

“It is clear this would not have happened if the government stood behind these people. Everyone supported the soldiers during the war.  People took from their own mouths to feed them, but now they see they have no support system. They cannot believe that after they gave everything during the war, they are now facing hunger,” said Dizdarevic.

According to Dizdarevic, PTSD explains the violence of such demonstrations as the one in April 2010, when thousands of former soldiers and people disabled during the war forced their way into the government building in Sarajevo.

The Bosnian war veterans are also suffering from depression, he adds, claiming that a large number have committed suicide.

“What we are seeing now, suicides, dreadful ones, where people burn themselves, is all a reaction to the current society,” says Dizdarevic. 

According to information from the war veterans’ associations in Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, around four thousand soldiers have taken their own lives in the past 16 years, since the end of the war in 1995.

However, it is not just the former fighters that are living with the psychological consequences of the war, but a large part of the civilian population as well, among whom are displaced persons, sexually abused men and women, and former camp detainees.

“When we speak about psychological pressures on returnees, we have to know that in some towns, victims have to face those who abused them or killed members of their family every day. Imagine the daily trauma. It is a constant cause of fear, stress and humiliation,” explains the social psychologist.

Sarajevo children during the siege | Photo: BIRN archive       

Children who grew up during the war had lost their childhood.  “They were forced to grow up prematurely, because they had to think about survival,” says Dizdarevic.

“On the one hand we can see that some of them have become a lot more serious and responsible because of this, but on the other hand, some always feel as if something is lacking because they did not grow up in a normal pace.”

Bosnia is facing a serious problem with underage delinquency.  When in 2008, three Bosniak youths stabbed to death a 17-year old Bosnian Croat in a tram in Sarajevo many saw the tragedy as a legacy of war.

Football hooliganism has reached such levels in Bosnia that, following the riots that took place in 2009 in Siroki Brijeg where a football fan was killed, there is now a ban on attendance of away fans.  Dizdarevic says this could be expected after such a bloody war.

Bosnia has yet to make a centralized database of all the victims of war or those suffering from PTSD.

However, according to a study by the Ministry of Health, published in March this year, more than 60 percent of the Sarajevo population suffers from PTSD symptoms, while 73 percent have stress related problems.

Dizdarevic explains that the residents of Sarajevo, who were besieged by the forces of Republika Srpska and the Yugoslav People's Army from April 5, 1992 until February 1996, were collectively placed under  “extreme traumatic stressors”. 

“These traumatic stressors are connected to survival and security. People were living day to day. They never felt safe. They did not have access to biological necessities such as food or water, and they were forced to live devoid of information, so they lost contact with the world,” he adds.

Dizdarevic says those suffering from trauma today have endured a loss of identity, which may manifest itself in overwhelming feelings of helplessness, prolonged depression and emotional numbness, even robotic behavior, and lack of initiative. 

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