Jason Reed / Reuters A photograph of a young Rwandan child is displayed in a gallery of genocide victims at the Kigali Memorial Centre in Kigali, Rwanda, February 19, 2008.

Life After Genocide

Comparing Bosnia and Rwanda

It was 20 years ago this month that Europe saw the worst crime on its soil since World War II. From July 11–13, 1995, the Bosnian Serb Army methodically executed approximately 8,000 Bosnian Muslims after conquering the UN-designated “safe area” of Srebrenica. The genocide in Bosnia was particularly shocking because it occurred less than one year after the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, during which members of the Hutu majority killed approximately 800,000 people in a gruesome ethnic cleansing campaign against the Tutsi minority. Their civil wars and genocidal violence left both countries severely damaged and traumatized. The United States and its allies dispatched their best diplomats, military commanders, and development experts to Bosnia to devise and implement the Dayton Accords, whereas Rwanda was largely left alone to determine its political future. Twenty years later, Rwanda is frequently cited as a success story and Bosnia is widely viewed as teetering on the brink of renewed violence.

A Bosnian flag and a sign flutter in front of a burned government building in Tuzla, February 8, 2014. Protesters across Bosnia set fire to government buildings and fought with riot police on Friday as long-simmering anger over lack of jobs and political

A Bosnian flag and a sign flutter in front of a burned government building in Tuzla, February 8, 2014. Protesters across Bosnia set fire to government buildings and fought with riot police on Friday as long-simmering anger over lack of jobs and political inertia fueled a third day of civil unrest.

A comparison of the socio-economic recoveries in Bosnia and Rwanda reveals important lessons for the aftermath of civil conflicts from Syria to Iraq and Sudan, which have been rife with atrocities against ethnic and religious groups. Ultimately, these countries will have to find a path toward recovery and reconciliation, and the international community must decide how it can help in that process.

At first glance this might seem like a comparison of apples to oranges: Bosnia is a European country; today, it directly borders the European Union, whose 28 members’ combined GDP represents the largest economy in the world. Rwanda, in contrast, is located in sub-Saharan Africa, the most economically underdeveloped region of the world. Western policymakers and scholars have long rejected any comparisons between the two countries, a reflex so prevalent that it was mocked in Danis Tanović’s Oscar-winning film on the Bosnian War, “No Man’s Land.” In the movie, a Bosnian soldier reads the newspaper in the middle of a bloody, utterly senseless skirmish with the Bosnian Serb army and exclaims, “What a mess in Rwanda!”

Compared to other Even so, World Bank data shows three similarities between Bosnia and Rwanda that are relevant when evaluating recovery after a genocide: size, economy, and aid. Both countries are small and essentially landlocked. Their population sizes of approximately 3.5 million (Bosnia) and 5.5 million (Rwanda) were similar in the mid-1990s. They had roughly comparable GDPs when their genocides occurred: In 1995, Bosnia had a GDP of $1.9 billion, and Rwanda’s was $1.3 billion, both had GDPs per capita that placed them among the poorest 25 percent of all countries. The total amount of foreign aid received by the two countries from 1995–2014 was remarkably similar (Bosnia: $12.3 billion; Rwanda: $10.9 billion), suggesting that their recovery speeds do not merely reflect inequity in international aid.

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