From what was a very unpromising situation after the war, Doboj is becoming one of the inter-ethnic success stories in Republika Srpska. At the same time, however, the municipality reflects all of the many economic and social problems the country faces today.
The municipality of Doboj – the frontline cutting right through it during the war – was literally torn apart by the conflict. Nearly all the non-Serbs were expelled from the Serb-held areas; numerous war crimes were committed, and Bosniaks were systematically tortured in detention camps. Now, as current Doboj mayor Obren Petrovic explains, the town is trying to make a break with its past.
"The economy does not do well with political tensions. The sooner these tensions stop, the sooner the political obstacles are overcome, the quicker the economic situation will improve."
Following the 1995 Dayton Peace Agreement, Doboj remained a tense frontline town, where the mono-ethnic Republika Srpska faced off against the Bosniak and Croat Federation across the new 'inter-entity boundary line’ – which followed the old military frontline. Doboj was notorious as a centre of hard-line Serb nationalism.
The old Muslim quarter had been "ethnically cleansed" of its occupants, with its houses illegally occupied. The few remaining non-Serbs in Doboj were under intense pressure to leave. The Bosniak and Croat villages in the vicinity had been ruthlessly destroyed. The SDS (Serb Democratic Party), founded by indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic, held a firm grip on Doboj. There was little reason to hope that the multi-ethnic life of this region could ever be restored.
Doboj's population had been mixed before the war. According to the 1991 census, Doboj municipality had 102,630 inhabitants: 40% were Bosniaks and 39% were Serbs. Croats made up 13%, and those who chose to define themselves as Yugoslavs and other nationalities totalled 8%.
The majority of the population lived in villages, which (as throughout Bosnia) were predominantly mono-ethnic. There were 10 Croat, 17 Bosniak and 40 Serb villages. Only 5 villages were mixed.
The dismantling of the town's war-time police structures in 1998, however, opened the way to the return of Doboj's Bosniaks. Over the past decade, over half of the pre-war Bosniak population, an estimated 16,000-18,000 people, have returned. 16 mosques have been re-built.
Mayor Obren Petrovic, elected in 2004 as a new face of the SDS, envisages a new future for Doboj:
"When I became mayor four years ago, I wanted to open up Doboj. As soon as I opened up the secondary schools, Bosniak kids started attending them. We have to continue on this path. The C5 highway will be built, and we have the railways. I regret that we don't have a decent hotel. We should connect northern Croatia with the Croatian coast, and people could stay here overnight.”
The President of the Municipal Assembly, Enes Suljkanovic, is a Bosniak. He confirms the improved political situation:
"I must stress that since the returns started in the year 2000 until today, there has not been a single incident (problem) among the ethnic groups."
Doboj's Gradina (Fortress)
A visitor who climbs through the old Muslim quarter towards Doboj's Gradina fortress will find an area that is once again returning to life. In this historic centre (carsija), whose roots go back to the 15th century, half of the original Bosniak population has now returned.
Entering the Gradina fortress, a visitor is greeted by a guard in mediaeval costume. There is an "ethno-café", a small stage, and a newly built playground. Since it re-opened in 2006, the fortress has hosted a range of cultural events, including a February 2007 Bosnian cuisine festival, attended by women dressed in traditional Serb, Bosniak and Croat costumes. After years of neglect, life has returned to Gradina.
In the higher education sector, the pace of ethnic re-integration has been striking. Today there are two state university faculties in the centre of Doboj: one for technology and one for transport studies. There are also a number of new private universities. In total, nearly 2,500 students attend these institutions. Remarkably, more than a third of them are non-Serbs, and a large proportion comes from the Federation.
Disarmament, return and reconstruction are success stories whose magnitude few outsiders fully appreciate. Peace reigns today along the former front line. This in turn has brought the seeds of new economic activity to the municipality.
However, Doboj is only now – 13 years after the war – starting on the path to sustained economic development. Only 34.5 percent of the municipality’s working age population has a formal income at the moment. The employment problem is even worse in rural areas. The old agricultural cooperatives have collapsed. No more than 250 farmers in Doboj municipality own more than 5 hectares of land.
Only three companies have managed to increase employment numbers after privatisation: RKTK Doboj, a limestone mine and lime factory in Sevarlije; TKS Dalekovod, a producer of transmission lines, pylons and related metal constructions north of Doboj town; and the lignite mine in Stanari to the west. All three cases involved foreign direct investment.
In the cafés in the centre of Doboj, young and old openly discuss all types of employment opportunities, most involving migration. Experiences are shared: some have worked as waiters on American cruise ships; others have discovered how to illegally enter Malta. Some work for Serb firms that build oil processing plants in Romania. Others are considering a new temporary work programme in the Czech Republic. During the summer Montenegro offers jobs for workers in its booming tourism and construction industries. To provide people the jobs that would allow them to stay home, Mayor Obren Petrovic says, "We have to create the conditions to become a trade centre and a traffic junction again, a regional centre.”