When I returned to Sarajevo in the end of January, after two years away, very little seemed to have changed, and I was struck by a dominant feeling of disenchantment, which became more clear when I asked people about the Bebolucija. Nobody wasted much time on their replies, merely expressing their disappointment. Thus, when, last Wednesday, 5 February, a friend in Tuzla posted on Facebook a few pictures she took of a protest, it looked just like another protest, as so many that have been staged over the years, of workers who lost their jobs or haven’t received their salaries, or farmers, pensioners, veterans… But this turned out not to be yet another protest, but that one moment when too much becomes too much. The police charged at the protesters, who were throwing eggs and stones against the building of the government of Tuzla Canton. My friend’s status on Facebook was “ja i moj narod vicemo…. Kijev u TZ” (“I and my people are shouting… Kiev in Tuzla”), translated very well the mood there, and people joined the protests the following days in growing numbers, defiant despite the use of force by the police; arrests; tear gas. The protests had turned violent, culminating on Friday 7 February in a local government building being set on fire, and prompting the resignation of the Prime-minister of Tuzla Canton.
The situation is Tuzla immediately gave rise to protests in other Bosnian towns. I will now present my own eyewitness account of the protests in Sarajevo, which have been the focus of much anxiety, speculation, and manipulation.
On Thursday 6 February, I found myself in a small protest in Skenderija, in front of the building of the government of Sarajevo Canton. I had been visiting the Ars Aevi collection depot, which had re-opened to the public that same day, and when I left and crossed the bridge towards the right bank of the Miljacka river, there they were, the protesters. The street (Obala Kulina Bana) was blocked, and riot police were standing in front of the government building, as well as the Dom Sindikata. Someone had used a banner saying ‘Niko ne sme da vas bije’ (‘No one is allowed to beat you’ -the phrase proffered by Slobodan Milosevic in 1987 in a meeting in Kosovo that marked the beginning of his ascent to power). The protesters were mostly youngsters as well as pensioners, and there were very few women, one of whom was standing on the road in front of the police cordon. It was objectively speaking a very small protest, maybe 200 people or slightly more, held in solidarity with Tuzla, as a protester informed me, but another protest was scheduled for the following day.
When I left my home on Friday, 7 February to see the protest, I expected it to be more of the same as the day before – a few hundred people, kids and pensioners. And despite the example set by a much bigger mobilisation in Tuzla, when I got to Skenderija around 12 noon, I counted no more than a hundred people. There were a lot of police in riot gear, though, and there were obviously a number of them in civilian clothes as well. I went for a walk, and noticed that in the surrounding streets there were vans with more riot policemen, and quite a number outside the MUP (Ministry of the Interior) of Sarajevo Canton, including also vans typically used to arrest people.
When I returned a few minutes past 1pm there were a lot more people, and within half an hour many more arrived, but still it was very far from a massive demonstration. The protest spread through the square in front on the building of Sarajevo Canton and the riverbank ahead, between the two bridges, with some people also watching on the two nearby bridges and from a safe distance on the other side of the river in Skenderija, and something like 50-100 people more spread through no more than 100 metres on the Obala Kulina Bana towards the centre. I cannot say how many people were there in total, but it was not a dense crowd, and there were lots of empty spaces, the crowd compact only in front of the building.
The building was not protected by metal barriers as is usually seen elsewhere in Europe when protests occur, but merely by yellow tape with ‘Stop Police ‘ written on it. The police barrier was not compact either, merely a row of men, although there were more on the side streets. Traffic was diverted from that area, with the police blocking traffic in Marijin dvor towards the riverbank and in front of the Alipasina mosque.
As for the protesters, there was an almost complete absence of flags and banners – only one older man with a big Bosnian flag and a few women with small banners, who soon left the protest. There were no chants either. Only ever now and then a few would should Tuzla Tuzla or lopovi (thieves). A man had a megaphone but the quality of the sound was so poor that 10 metres away as I was I could not hear any distinct words. Suddenly around 1.30-1.40pm a core of young protesters wearing hoods started throwing objects against the building, over the police, including stones and bricks. Cameramen and photographers ran for a safer position, but it took some minutes for the police to react, by advancing the barrier towards Kulina Bana (the riverside street). A middle-aged man started chanting the Internationale, but nobody followed him.
At that moment I moved from the centre of the protest to the river bank (Obala Kulina Bana). That was when I could take a closer look at the hooded youths, who had also withdrawn from the garden to this area after the first wave of stone-throwing and the initial police reaction of advancing the cord some 10 metres. I could see how some of them communicated with small gestures, mere looks. One had a Molotov cocktail in his hand but after exchanging looks with another he hid it away. At that moment I made an assessment of the situation bearing in mind that I had previously seen a lot of police stationed in vans in surrounding streets. I was at that time next to the riverbank’s wall, between the stanica and the kiosk. Oddly, both kiosks were open for business. I realised that I would be trapped if the police charged (which I honestly assumed they would), so I decided to cross the river, expecting an escalation. Meanwhile the police threw some tear gas, but not in such a quantity to force the dispersal of the crowd. Already on the other side of the river, two kids aged about 16-18 were affected by the tear gas, and someone got bottles of water at the nearby kiosk to wash them.
I didn’t stay long on the other side, and after crossing back I went to the balcony of the Dom sindikata, a building on this square, where people were watching. I was still on the Dom sindikata when, around 2pm, the police tried to disperse the crowd in two fronts, one on the riverbank next to the Dom, the second one by pushing the crowd towards the big bridge. An ambulance came as at least one policeman was injured. The watchers on the Dom sindikata showed some enthusiasm, but among journalists standing there there were more signs of concern. After initially being pushed back towards Kulina Bana and the bridge, the crowd charged back, and to everybody’s surprise, broke the police barrier, a barrier consisting of a single line with no rear back up. Then, instead of reassembling, the police withdrew towards the streets around the Presidential building, and left the Canton building totally unprotected.
For a while I expected the police to come back, but they didn’t. Meanwhile the rioters seemed confused with such an easy victory. A few had to openly invite the crowd to attack the building. Eventually a small stand was set on fire, the window glasses were broken, and finally the building’s entrance was set on fire. All of this while the more passive protesters watched. There were also people standing on the street that goes from the bridge to the Alipasina mosque, but these were mostly just ordinary passers-by looking incredulous over what was going on.
By 3pm I was still expecting a come-back from the police and did not believe at that moment that the destruction would spread to other buildings so easily as it did. I walked towards the building for a few shots, and that was when it became obvious that the rioters were becoming more aggressive. Two of them approached me and told me not to take photos of faces. They did so politely, and I did not feel in immediate danger, but other people with cameras were less fortunate and were punched or somewhat assaulted. It was 3.10pm when I took my last photo and decided to get back home. By then I had a headache which, I was told later, may have been the result of exposure to tear gas and fumes – I did feel very sick later that day.
This was the protest, as I saw it. There were no banners, no demands, just a hundred young men or even less than that, who were given a chance to engage in destruction, maybe a hundred pensioners, and a few hundred people watching. I’ve been in many protests in different settings, and there was nothing of the typical protest vibe present in this one. There wasn’t even much anger, there was instead a rather odd, pervasive feeling that is hard to describe, as if it was some kind of parallel reality, and it was as if we were all feeling paralysed, merely waiting for something to happen – except the ones who were busy breaking glasses, spraying catchphrases and penises on the building’s walls and setting fire to the building. They didn’t show much emotion either, and certainly not rage. At that moment, they seemed guided only by a nihilistic sense of possibility.
As I walked towards Marijin dvor, the absurdity of the whole situation dawned on me. Cafés, shops – including electronic goods shops – supermarkets and shopping centres were all open for business, as if nothing was going on, just a few dozen metres away. Except for the disruption in traffic, it was just another day in Sarajevo.
Around 5pm things had significantly escalated and by then people had woken up to the seriousness of the situation. Rioters also attacked the Presidency building, setting it on fire, which damaged one of the deposits of the Arhiv BiH – the Bosnian state archive – located on the basement. The following is based on the eyewitness accountt of a friend, who lives in the centre, and was at the time of the events working in a building in front of the Alipasina mosque. When I called her around 6pm to know if she was safe, she told me, before the media reported it, that she could now see the building of the Opstina Centar – i.e. the municipal office – on fire. When we met on Saturday and went through the events again, she showed much more concern for the archives of the municipality than for anything else, as people’s practical issues are very affected: birth certificates, residency certificates, etc. She could understand attacking the Canton Sarajevo building and the Presidency, but not the municipality. She also told me that at 10pm, when he streets became secure again, and she walked home, there were many people in the streets, including people who took the tram to the centre with the specific purpose of taking a look at the destruction. People were walking up and down and there was a general feeling of sadness. I could see, and a number of people confirmed this to me, that this event brought back the memories of the first days of the war in Sarajevo, and the same emotions were felt all over again, like a tragic version of the episode of Proust’s madeleines.
On Saturday I went to the centre in the afternoon. I strolled around, and it was very different than the normal Saturday afternoon. There was much less people out, I’d say a quarter of the usual number. There was no buzz, although all business were working as usual. I stayed until 8pm, and as there were no trams in the centre, I walked to Marijin dvor with my friend. In front of the presidency building was still standing a small group of people, maybe 20 – the remaining participants of a peaceful protest that has since taken place every day. On Sunday anther peaceful protest took place, in which I didn’t participate. The main demand was the release of the persons who had been arrested on Friday, and friends who joined described how they spontaneously joined, and how loosely organised it was, but it was clearly effective, as all the protesters were released between that evening and the following morning.
I joined the protests again on Monday, 10 February, along with a friend. The atmosphere had radically changed. The Prime-Minister of Sarajevo Canton had meanwhile resigned his post, and there was a sense of possibility in the air, that positive change might be possible, although people I spoke to sounded very prudent, perhaps too modest in their ambitions, or perhaps realistically aware of the obstacles towards success.
Trying now to analyse what I’ve witnessed, the big question for me (and for many others) was the police’s behaviour. It seemed clear from very early on that a decision had previously been made not to use violence, possibly in light of events in Tuzla. The police official reporting today (Wednesday 12 February) to the assembly of Sarajevo Canton confirmed that, saying that the lives of the citizens were more important than the integrity of the buildings. But this was not merely the case of police restraint. The police completely withdrew, leaving public and private property, including crucially the Presidency building, at the rioters’ mercy for a number of hours. My initial feeling was that power was crumbling like a house of cards, under the pressure of a few hundred protesters, but that was an illusory impression. The stakes are high for those in power, and they are not as detached as to let go so easily. There has since been much speculation about this, many rumours and conspiracy theories, some openly vented by politicians, such as was the case of Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak member of the collective Presidency of Bosnia, who suggested the rioters came from Eastern Sarajevo, and SDA’s Ahmet Sadikovic, former Security Minister, who declared having information that the hooligans belonged to Slavija football club from Eastern Sarajevo, both trying to tap the ethnic key. Most importantly, there has been great anxiety over the possible role of the current state Security Minister, Fahrudin Radoncic, a populist politician who immediately tried to score points on the situation, and whom many are aware may, once elections are held, ultimately benefit the most from a situation of political unrest. But we can also question how willing would the policemen, even the special forces, be to use violence. This is a crucial question.
Regarding speculation about who were the protesters and how well-organised they were: on Friday there was a certain level of coordination among the younger elements, and a core of people who were clearly organised. Some of them had an appearance consistent with the hooligan subculture, and I wouldn’t be surprised that they were fans of the local clubs, and homophobic graffiti sprayed on the Sarajevo Canton building makes one wonder whether some of them were the same people who attacked the cinema Kriterion where an LGBT festival was taking place. But these individuals were not the majority, and there were also many boys who seemed to have joined spontaneously, in small groups of friends. There weren’t many girls, but there were some, and there were a few people of all ages, but mostly people around 15-23, and older people, and very few people in their 30s. Disturbed as I may have been by their actions, in hindsight they seem to me rather mild. Private property was largely untouched and, bearing in mind they were let loose for a few hours, it could have been much worse. For instance, the GRAS kiosk adjacent to the tram stop in front of the Sarajevo Canton building was set on fire, and I suppose also pillaged. But the other kiosk, standing 3 metres away, was left untouched. In fact it remained working all the time I was there.
As for whether these demonstrators were hooligans or not, that is a matter of qualification, and great efforts were made to seize upon the initial shock of the population to portray them in the darkest way possible. They were called ‘huligani’ (hooligans) and portrayed as drug addicts, and false news was published that the police seized 12 kilograms of speed in tablets. The media spin tapped into the socially dominant codes of behaviour, which divide people into ‘kulturni’ (cultured), ‘primitivci’ (primitives), ‘seljaci’ (peasants), etc., and this may have alienated a great number of people from the protesters. But the reaction to this spin was itself a form of manipulation, which denied the obvious. Of course there were hooligans in the protests, and they brought stones and Molotov cocktails. But over the years so many protests have taken place in Sarajevo, larger in number, with absolutely no results, and a few dozen ‘huligani’ with a few Molotov cocktails have set something in motion. At that moment, they seemed guided only by a nihilistic sense of possibility, but the fact remains that they did not merely break glass and burn government buildings and GRAS kiosks , but also broke the inertia that had previously seemed so overwhelming.
Some people want to believe a revolution is taking place, but then again, only after everything changes can we say there was a revolution, and despite the resignation of four Canton governments (Tuzla, Sarajevo, Zenica and Bihac), power structures are still standing, largely untouched in fact, and a conservative reaction will very likely be supported by the international players, EU countries, neighbours Serbia and Croatia, and Turkey, which have their own unsolved domestic problems very similar to Bosnia’s, and which sanctify ‘stability’ more than anything else. They have anyway assigned Bosnia a low priority.