England may be perennial hopefuls at World Cup Finals, but for Bosnia & Herzegovina it will be the first time they have made it to the competition since the country declared independence in 1992. I’ll be supporting them when they kick off in their first match on Sunday.
Bosnia is a country born out of war and genocide as the former Yugoslavia swirled into terrifying chaos after the end of the Cold War. Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks divided and fought on ethnic and religious lines.
I visited Bosnia in the year 2000 working with the wonderful Novi Most Christian charity. For a month I helped run summer camps for children and young people drawn explicitly from across the ethnic divides beginning the long and fraught journey towards reconciliation.
Novi Most means ‘New Bridge’ and the charity draws its imagery from the beautiful, 400 year old bridge that spanned the river that separates the mainly Bosniak and Croat banks of the city of Mostar. The bridge was bombed in the war before being reconstructed in 2004.
Novi Most continues its work with young people across Bosnia bringing skills, hope and opportunities. I particularly admire their faith in the people they work with to be agents of transformation in their country. They are well on their way to handing over leadership of Novi Most to Bosnian nationals – a long term aim they have pursued with a fierce determination, with remarkable results.
A team under seige
Ethnic tension is still runs dangerously high in the country and differences are still entrenched in the educational and political life of the country. Youth unemployment runs at a desperate 50%.
That is why football and this World Cup are so important.
Members of the current Bosnian football team started their lives living under siege or as refugees fleeing for their lives (See this fascinating recent Guardian article). Like those children I was privileged to meet at Summer camps 14 years ago, their whole lives have been shaped by conflict. Yet players like Manchester City’s Džeko are now superstars and give hope that these children can transcend their past and achieve something as they begin to forge a positive identity for the nation.
Hope and heart – a multiethnic future?
Not all people living in Bosnia support the national team preferring Serbia or Croatia, but almost uniquely for Bosnia the team is multi-ethnic. Like the Novi Most it is a tangible symbol of a more hopeful Bosnian future.
Bosnia has been thrown into a tricky group with Argentina, Nigeria and Iran, but are hopeful of making it to the last 16 of the competition. I’ll be cheering them on from my armchair whilst thanking God for Novi Most and the Bosnians bringing hope and a new heart to the nation.