LGBTI equality and human rights in Europe and Central Asia

Tears of joy as first-ever Sarajevo Pride takes place

Bosnia Herzegovina
community organising

Last Sunday, Bosnia and Herzegovina saw its first Pride march in history. On behalf of ILGA-Europe, our Programmes Director Bjorn van Roozendaal joined this historic day in Sarajevo.

Last Saturday, the day before the first-ever Pride march, a counter demonstration took place in Sarajevo with a label as a pro-family day and some parents brought their children. Boys get blue balloons, girls pink balloons. Some of the messages tell that a family constitutes of a mother, father, and kids.  Put in historical context, it doesn’t take much imagination to realise how wrong this message is received, not only by Pride organisers, but also from many other citizens.

The Bosnian War ended less than twenty five years ago. 8000 people were killed (and another astounding 25000 civilians); many families grew up without their fathers and sons. This is why, the notion of traditional family has a different connotation to many Bosnians.

In the end, the counter protest only gathered a couple of hundred people.

That Saturday evening, the Dutch Ambassador Reinout Vos has invited the Dutch delegation and some of the local organisers at his residency, as well as the Swedish Ambassador and several other guests. Over dinner we discussed the historic significance of this Pride. It is the last country in the Balkan region to organise a Pride.

During that dinner, I realise that the Pride is the culmination of years of hard work by determined activists. Some of them no longer live in Bosnia and Herzegovina and I think about some of my friends that now live elsewhere and hope that they realise that the Pride is a testimony of their work too.

Having visited Bosnia and Herzegovina several times in the last 14 years, I can see how much has changed for the LGBTI community.

The relationships that the LGBTI organisation Sarajevo Open Centre has built with authorities over the years now pays-off: the government is standing behind the organisers and will help make sure that the Pride can happen in relative safety. Police, the military and private security companies have been mobilised to secure us. Even stories about snipers on roofs go around. This is no small operation, but a significant undertaking. The Pride organisers have to cover a significant portion of the security costs from their own budgets. The hope is that such costs in the future will be covered by the state, which of course has a responsibility to protect its citizens from violence and to make sure that the right of freedom to assembly can be upheld.

Yet, as we start with our main course, Emina and Vladana, who are some of the Pride organisers, tell us that they now feel relatively relaxed about the Pride that is going to happen the next day.

Sunday morning, I wake up early, excited about what the day is going to bring.

A couple of hours later as we enter the secured Pride area I see many familiar faces. Numerous activists from the Balkan region have come to join their Bosnian friends. Regional solidarity is an important driver for the LGBTI movement. But people have also travelled from other countries in Europe and even from the USA. Politicians from Bosnia and other countries are present too. Perhaps most touching: several people from the large Bosnia diaspora now living abroad came to Sarajevo to be part of this historic moment.

Banners with slogans like ‘We are coming out’ and ‘Here come the gays’ have been prepared. Participants have been warned not to wear rainbow materials on their way to the pride, but now that people have entered the secured zone, rainbow flags suddenly are everywhere. Activists from Women in Black are warming up the crowd by playing the drums. The crows is excited and getting ready to march.

It slowly starts becoming visible that the number of attendees is going to exceed any expectations. We all have to move a little bit forward to make space for more people coming in to join the pride. This is not a pride of hundreds, a pride of thousands. It’s the largest first Pride that I have ever seen. Later we hear that we were 3000 participants!

When the crowd starts to move slowly, I look at the faces of community members that have come to their own first Pride. I see tears of happiness – Pride is what their faces say without speaking words. Goosebumps all over my body as we march on – this Pride is happening and it’s becoming clear that it is an incredible success. It becomes impossible to stop my own tears.

Slowly we march to our final point, the National Parliament. The media is everywhere. A small group of counter protestors is kept on safe distance. Here and there people jump out of the crowd to give a hug to some of the military or police officers they know – probably family or relatives. The moving scene that I have seen in several other prides over recent years also repeats itself here. People from different generations are standing on their balconies and behind their windows to wave to the Pride participants. In their own way they send their messages of approval.

One thing is becoming clear: freedom is something that is dear to people in this country. If the previous invisibility of the LGBTI community has kept other citizens in fear of the unknown about LGBTI people, today’s happy Pride march shows that there is nothing to be afraid of. The message that is spread is one of joy and love.

At the end of the Pride march, organiser Llejla Huremagic tells the crowd that the Pride is also to support anyone else who is left out of society. Roma people, migrants, disabled people, religious minorities – equality should be there for everybody.  Then, famous singer Damir Imamovic ends the Pride by singing the anti-fascist song Bella Ciao.

Suddenly it is clear why the Pride organisers have succeeded in getting so many allies to join: the message that the Pride organisers have carefully crafted and communicated consistently has worked, today is not just about the LGBTI community. No-one is free unless we’re all free.