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Bosnia's babies in limbo

Political deadlock here has had deadly consequences: newborns in need of medical care abroad cannot leave the country.

Last Modified: 20 Jun 2013 12:46
Lana Pasic

Lana Pasic is an independent writer and analyst from Bosnia and Herzegovina.
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Bosnian protesters are angry that legislators have not fixed the country's stalled ID number system [AP]

Belmina Ibrisevic, a three-month-old baby from northeastern Bosnia, requires an urgent transfer to a hospital in Germany because of her rapidly deteriorating health condition. She needs a bone marrow transplant which cannot be done in Bosnia.

Usually, this kind of surgery would be preceded by a public fundraising campaign, but money is not the only obstacle in Ibrisevic's case. Bosnian government bureaucracy is also standing in the way of the child's life, proving once again that political stalemate and inefficiency have consequences for everyone in this country - including newborn babies.

All citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are given a 13-digit personal identity number at their birth known as JMBG, which is required for all dealings with the state, health checks, vaccinations, and passports. This number contains information about the person's date and place of birth.

But on February 12, 2013, the Constitutional Court of Bosnia ruled that the current allocation of one of the numbers, which signifies the place of birth, is inconsistent in a few municipalities that are divided by Bosnia and Herzegovina's "entity lines". The country is split between Muslim Bosniaks, mostly Catholic Croats and mostly Orthodox Christian Serbs, and Bosnia and Herzegovina is geographically divided into two political entities reflecting this: the Republika Srpska, whose population is overwhelmingly Serb, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is overwhelmingly Bosniak and Croat.

Representatives from Republika Srpska claim that aligning these numbers at the federal level will strengthen the authority of the central government and weaken the authority of the entities, whereas Croat and Bosniak politicians prefer the federal-level solution. In Bosnia, any discussion of federalism - even when it concerns a seemingly apolitical issue - is inevitably political, and carries nationalist undertones.

The Bosnian parliament was asked to find a solution to the issue. But this caused political deadlock regarding the ID numbers and the borders between the Republika Srpska and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Since the February ruling, all newborns in Bosnia do not, legally speaking, "exist".

According to the mayor of Sarajevo, Bosnia's capital, the number of these "invisible" children has increased to more than 1,500 in the city alone. Without this ID number, the three-month-old Belmina was unable to get a passport and, as a result, medical treatment abroad.

In the meantime, another three-month-old baby, Berina Hamidovic, also died. Her parents at last managed to get her out of the country to a hospital in Serbia, but she died due to the delay in treatment. 

Blockading the parliament

Although issuing ID numbers has been on the Bosnian political agenda for several months now, at the local level temporary numbers have been given to parents to allow children access to urgent medical services and vaccinations. However, getting maternity pay or passports has been impossible.

As Belmina's story emerged, citizens of Sarajevo started gathering on June 5 in front of the Council of Ministers and Parliament building, demanding a new law and outraged by the politicians' indifference. On the second day, the protesters blocked all the entrances and exits and created a human barricade, refusing to allow MPs to leave the building until the law is passed. 

The most embarrassing political moment came when Prime Minister of Bosnia and Herzegovina Vjekoslav Bevanda reportedly fled from the parliament through a window

The blockade ended at 4am on June 7, with the involvement of High Representative Valentin Inzko. He had to interfere, as about 250 foreign bankers at a meeting of the European Fund for Southeast Europe were unable to leave the building, causing a diplomatic crisis. However, the law has still not been passed and the protests continue.

Under pressure, the Council of Ministers passed a temporary act allowing the issuance of ID numbers, but the permanent law still needs to be passed by the parliament, which has so far been unable to reach an agreement. Since the beginning of the protests, MPs have been refusing to debate the law.

The representatives of Republika Srpska claim that the protests are aimed at them, threatening the safety of Serbian staff in the parliament. A number of other political groups have attempted to "hijack" the citizens' movement in support of their political agenda. These attempts at politicisation, though, have been rejected by the protesters.

Bosnia mourns baby who died because of government bickering

Instead of realising the gravity of situation and working on passing the law, which has taken the life of one child and is threatening the lives of others, the MPs have engaged in what they do best - nationalist rhetoric. Though they have the highest salaries in the region, Bosnian legislators refuse to debate the issues that directly the lives of all Bosnians, including the youngest.

The right to life in Bosnia

The Helsinki Committee for Human Rights has stated that by refusing to pass the law, politicians have proven to be ignorant of the social context in the country and have abused the most basic human rights of children.

The rights of all citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina are protected by the European Charter of Human Rights, law that is above even our (disputable) constitution. Yet the most valued right - the right to life - has been taken away from one child and its family, and threatened the lives of others.

Protests motivated by the story of little Belmina have expanded into demonstrations about several other issues in the country, with students in Banja Luka taking to the streets demanding better housing and speaking out against the country's "construction mafia". The fact that people in Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska, are also on the street shatters the myth that the discontent has split along ethnic lines.

The political response to the protests has been shameful and disrespectful. No politician in Bosnia who has contributed to the current deadlock has apologised for the death of the child. On the contrary, a number of attempts have been made over the last two weeks to "ethnicise" the protests in order to gain support and politicise what cannot be political - a child's life.

As a citizen of Bosnia and Herzegovina, I am ashamed to be represented by this government, this prime minister and the Bosniak, Serb and Croat politicians who have gone out of their way over the last 18 years to do anything to make things worse - legally, economically, socially and politically.

In spite of the politicians' apathy, I am proud of the democratic activism which is finally awakening - not only in Sarajevo, but throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Although the MPs have shown little concern for civic demands, people in Sarajevo continue to gather every day at noon for what has become known as "Coffee at the Parliament", or "Coffee for the ID" - reminding lawmakers that the citizens are here and waiting. It is the beginning of a new civic activism in Bosnia, one that has not been seen for years, and one that we hope will continue.

Lana Pasic is an independent writer and analyst from Bosnia and Herzegovina. She is currently studying for a Masters degree at Oxford University.

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The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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