03/03/2014 10:42 am ET Updated May 03, 2014

Bosnians Providing an Alternative to Fear

Bosnian citizens are no longer scared. From Mostar to Sarajevo they have taken to the streets and public squares. They are stridently raising their voices as one, calling for another Bosnia. This initiative, led by civil society organizations, has been ongoing for some time and is now gathering strength. It is high time that the Bosnian authorities paid it due heed.

Following the end of the war in December 1995, Bosnia-Herzegovina gradually tumbled into deep-rooted institutional paralysis. A foul-smelling political climate spread and a lingering nationalist stench was seeping out of every corner, whether it be from the Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks. The peace agreements sadly entrenched ethnic divisions between Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats, leading to the creation of the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by guaranteeing the existence of "constituent peoples" in two ways: by splitting the country into a Serb entity and a Croat-Bosniak Federation and by obliging each citizen to declare their belonging to one of the groups -- Bosniak, Serb or Croat -- in order to appear on the civil registry in Bosnia. As a result, a Bosnian citizen must choose one of these groups in order to obtain a university grant, a pension, access to social security, etc.

But what about children from mixed marriages who are forced to choose between their mother's and father's identity? What about the Roma, Jews or other minorities? What about those who do not wish to fall into one of these exclusive categories? These were the questions asked by those taking part in a campaign organized before the October 2013 population census (the first since 1991). During this campaign, led by a coalition of Bosnian associations seeking the right to declare oneself as something other than Bosniak, Croat or Serb, the social networks were flooded with hundreds of photos of Bosnian citizens brandishing banners saying, "I am Bosnian and that's that", "I am Jedi", or "I am Eskimo", so as to hammer home their rejection of these restrictive labels with a touch of humor.

Why does this absurd situation persist despite the ruling passed by the European Court of Human Rights in 2009, exerting pressure on the Bosnian authorities for the constitution to be modified? Large nationalist political parties, the very same ones which led the country into conflict on identity issues, have no interest in seeing the emergence of a Bosnian people who go beyond issues of 'ethnic' belonging. Since 1995, they have been playing on the fear of war and raising their voices on the danger of their group being whittled down to a minority. The rise of a Bosnian identity would hail their end. This focus on the debate on ethnic issues also allows the political class to sidestep the real problem: poverty. Recurring to barter and mutual help, which has become very much widespread, has become a way to remedy the lack of financial resources of the population and the almost total absence of help from the state.

Who is getting together nowadays to combat these grotesque situations in Bosnia? Bosnian associations are. They are the only ones fighting in a concrete way and not just criticizing what they see around them. As is the case in many other cities, in Sarajevo they are coming together to try and help people to live side by side without being sidetracked by the single issue of ethnicity. Here, they have set up a youth center which puts on activities for children from all origins. They have also created an association for Bosniak and Croat women who, together, put the produce of their region on sale. What's more, they invite young people from both sides of the country to meet up and to visit their respective memorial sites. By standing face to face with the history of the other side, these citizens refuse to be caged in by fear. They have patiently rebuilt social ties and have striven to live side by side regardless of what can be seen in the large cities.

For years, Bosnian citizens preferred to vent their anger and frustration over the social networks. Now they have taken to the streets and are providing an alternative to fear.

Last year, people peacefully came together en masse. Today's protests began in fury. However, if we are to view them as nothing more than outbursts from isolated groups who want to tear apart the 'system', we would be wrong. In actual fact, all sectors within society are taking part. It is indeed true that these demonstrations swiftly turned into citizen assemblies organized in many different cities in Bosnia. Every day a plenum is held in which all citizens hold a democratic debate in order to put together shared demands.

Instead of turning a blind eye, the Bosnian authorities should urgently seize this chance for political dialogue, a mature approach offered by Bosnian citizens.