Ethnic Identity and Reconciliation: Two Main Tasks for the Young in Bosnia-Herzegovina

Article excerpt


According to identity formation theory, identity is highly relevant during adolescence. Ethnic identity represents an aspect of global identity, and as such is particularly salient during this period of life (Phinney, 1993). However, the saliency of ethnicity and ethnic identity is decidedly influenced by historical and contextual circumstances. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, due to the current ethno-political situation which in many ways has been shaped by the war in the early 1900s, ethnicity and ethnic identity may be considered a crucial aspect of being young. The Bosnian society is in uncountable ways affected by the conflict that, regardless of the deeper roots, was a conflict between ethnic groups. Moreover, the war led to heightened segregation between these groups.

In this context, the notions of ethnicity, ethnic identity, and ethnic relations, is closely linked to the issue of reconciliation. One of the main tasks in a post-conflict society is the building of bridges between former enemies. In Bosnia-Herzegovina these are in most cases different ethnic groups. Hence, the issue of reconciliation, like ethnic matters, might be expected to be of importance to the young Bosnians. This study aims at describing the adolescents of the Mostar area, southern Bosnia-Herzegovina, regarding ethnic identity and reconciliation. A total of 89 young Mostarians are included in the study. A third of the participants are members of a local peace- and reconciliation-building organization, Koraci Nade. The influence of this organization on ethnic identity and cross-ethnic friendship is also investigated.


During most of the 20th century, Bosnia-Herzegovina belonged to the communist state of Yugoslavia. Following disintegration of the state and ethnic polarization during the 1980s, Slovenia, Croatia, and finally Bosnia-Herzegovina were proclaimed independent in the early 1990s. This led to war, which, by 1992, had spread to Bosnia. The Dayton agreement, concluded in 1996, determined that Bosnia-Herzegovina remain a state, but split into two quasi-ethnic and geographically divided political entities: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina dominated by Croats and Bosnjaks, and Republika Srpska, dominated by Serbs.

As opposed to the rest of the Balkan states, Bosnia has no titular people, and no ethnic group is or has been in the majority of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The population is estimated to consist of roughly two-fifths Bosnjaks, one third Serbs and one fifth Croats. A small minority identify themselves as "Bosanac," a term that implies no religious or ethnic affiliation but focuses on national origin. To a stranger's eye, these ethnic and national terms may be confusing. In this study, the term "Bosnjak" refers to the ethnic group that is sometimes referred to as "Muslims"; "Bosanac" is used as noted above; and "Bosnian" refers to national rather than ethnic affiliation.

The war brought about large demographical changes: towns and areas that were formerly mixed in terms of ethnicity have been "ethnically cleansed." Although refugees are officially guaranteed the right to return, for various reasons many of them do not do so. Bosnia-Herzegovina today is marked by poverty and unemployment. Large portions of the younger population wish to move abroad, but there are few possibillities for them to do so (Human Development Report, 2002).

The Bosnian war was in many ways a typical post-Cold War conflict, defined by Lederach (1997) as featuring a rivalry between defined identity groups. The geographical setting of the conflict was the immediate community or neighboring villages. Also, it combined deep-rooted fear engendered by direct experiences. In such a context, according to Lederach, a reduction of identity takes place. This narrowing of identity has its roots in enduring mistrust and fear which are reinforced by ongoing experiences of bloodshed and division. …