Thousands of Bosnian protesters took to the streets in the centre of Sarajevo on Friday, setting fire to the presidency building and hurling rocks and stones at police as fury at the country's political and economic stagnation spread rapidly around the country.As many as 200 people were injured in protests that took place in about 20 towns and cities. Government buildings were set on fire in three of the largest centres – Sarajevo, Tuzla and Zenica.
At one point in the central Bosnian city of Tuzla, some of the 5,000-strong crowd stormed into a local government building and hurled furniture from the upper stories.
"The people entered the government building," said Mirna Kovacevic, a student who witnessed the protests. "They climbed to the fourth floor and started to throw files, computers, chairs from buildings. They burned parts of the building …
"Four storeys are blackened. People have burned the stuff that was thrown outside … Some people are trying to put the fire out. It's hectic."
The scenes in Sarajevo were similarly fraught on Friday night, as fire raged through the presidency building and hundreds of people hurled stones, sticks and whatever else they could lay their hands on to feed the blaze. Police used rubber bullets, tear gas and water cannon trying to disperse the crowd. Buildings and cars were also burning in downtown Sarajevo and riot police chased protesters.
"It is about time we did something," said a woman in her 20s who gave her name only as Selma. "This is the result of years and years of not paying attention to the dissatisfaction of the people."
The protests have bubbled up out of long-simmering discontent at a sluggish economy, mismanagement, corruption and unemployment, which is rising irresistibly towards 30%. Bosnia has been hamstrung by political infighting and deadlock between its three main ethnic groups – Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs – in the near 20 years since its three-year civil war ended in 1995. The economy has suffered as a result, and the population remains deeply sceptical of a political class widely believed to be ruling in the interests of the elite, not the people.
In Tuzla, the trigger this week was the sudden collapse of four formerly state-run companies that employ thousands in the city. The companies were privatised but the new owners sold the assets, sacked the staff and filed for bankruptcy.
"You have really hungry people who decided to do something," said Dunja Tadic, a Bosnian woman from Tuzla. "People here are not living lives, they are simply surviving. Maybe 15% of the population lives well, mostly those who are stealing and their relatives. They destroyed the so-called middle class
. All in all I don't see how it can be any better here."
In Sarajevo the mood was little better.
"Everyone is here because everyone has a problem with this government," said a twentysomething male protester who did not want to be identified. "Young people don't have jobs. Older people don't have pensions. Everyone is fed up."