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Bosnia and the universal theme of police brutality

In the Bosnian protests of the last months, the global scenario of police brutality has been re-enacted, with local specifics.  And the violence of the police is itself a symptom of the failure of the current Bosnian political order. 

Sumeja Tulic
3 March 2014

We all instinctively grasp an idea of globalisation – the individual global we, who wear the same clothes, likes the same websites, and love and hate the same public figures. Yet, every now and then, we are surprised by our lack of individuality – at least I am disappointed by my own. One thinks she is living a particular life, with a particular scenery and a unique form of Weltschmerz – then, surprise, surprise! From Caracas to Kiev and further, comes the fist of global conventions, the waves of universal themes, dictating the everyday, causing problems and shaping solutions.

Still, in small places, of which Sarajevo is an examplary case, people believe that in the heaven of the small they are secured from the most cruel aspects of the global – the absense of personal connections that are fading with each new block of buildings that are built, with each advancment of the smart technology that facilitates constant human interaction. For God's sake, Sarajevo is hardly expanding! And even if it does expand, the social distance between two people is one item of gossip away from social security numbers and family secrets revolving around the ancestor who was born with a pig's tail.  

This is why I’m never ready – even years into reading reports and professional concerns – to interview a minor who has been beaten and humiliated by a policeman in Sarajevo. It happens everywhere – in New York you might get frisked and shot at if you are wearing a hoodie and the wrong skin tone, but that is New York and we in Sarajevo are one big family, apparently.

After the burning of the public building in Sarajevo, around 38 boys and men were detained. Their account of the events following the hours of February 7 are set in detention units and are about fists, slaps, heavy boots and police bats shoved at defenseless bodies, handcuffed hands and heads leaning down.

Bosnia police CRD.jpg

Image courtesy of Civil Rights Defenders

A demonstrator, a wrestler, enters the room to tell his story.  He walks with difficulty and even a week after the events he looks angry. He starts his story like any of Ivo Andric’s characters – by softly hinting at the metaphysical in the very physical. “It all started when they threw us in the river,” he said. On February 7th, the police had employed a local lyrical metaphor of one women’s’ suicidal attempts, by throwing people we are supposed to guard into the river.

The river in question is a dull and smelly one, which you notice only when needing to find the nearest bridge to cross it. Demonstrators, some pensioners and women, were standing next to a wall dividing the pedestrian part of the street from a steep hill that ended in that smelly dull river. After the wrestler regained consciousness at the riverbank, he took a bat wrapped in the senseless hands of an unconscious man lying next to him. He took the bat and climbed up to find the policeman that pushed him down.

The South Slavs that left agriculture and went to live in cities and work in factories have an illustrative metaphor used to describe the instance when one is being taken advantage of. They say You are being fooled like an old and simple aunt from the countryside whose urban relatives take money from a bundle she uses as a wallet. Every citizen of Bosnia is a prototype of this aunt from the countryside, but some of us are more so. The ‘more so’ among us – desperate, neglected, hungry and even homeless – were most of the 38 who were detained.

Beating them, warning them to lie to the doctor and say that they fell down  the stairs, ordering their parents to sit on their knees and keep their hands above their heads while waiting in the police stations all of this is part of the global scenario of police brutality that the many ‘police trainings’ and ‘reformatory processes’ facilitated by the international community in its many incarnations have not prevented.  It plays out with the same repeated acts in spite of local differences.

The silver lining of all this is that the marks left by our own – our men, our people – are finally visible. So far, in modern Bosnian history, it has been the other – the aggressor, the enemy, the supposed one and the real one – that has scared us. Finally, we see the master political scam that runs through the veins of the ethno-nationalist set up. Boundless, unaccountable, criminal power is just that. The genealogy of who’s holding the bat and smashing your teeth doesn’t matter. 

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