By Bedrana Kaletovic
An estimated fifth of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s (BiH) population own 750,000 unregistered weapons, according to officials who cite widespread availability and easy access on the black market as a major source of concern.
“After traffic accidents, illegal arms are the most common cause of death in BiH. About 90% of illegal acts are done with the use of illegal weapons,” Denis Hadzovic of the Centre for Security Studies in BiH told SETimes.
Most illegal weapons are guns and shotguns, but police say they have also confiscated explosive devises, sniper rifles and cannons.
Many people tap the weapons purchased secretly by the former Yugoslav republics in their struggle for independence. Croatia purchased weapons from Hungary and other countries, and many are now privately owned, according to Blagoja Markovski, the Balkan Security Forum director in Skopje.
“[An] estimated 700,000 weapons entered the former Yugoslav republics primarily from Albania’s weapons storage facilities, which were robbed in 1997. Smuggling from the former Eastern bloc and beyond, primarily from Bulgaria, is another supplying channel,” Markovski told SETimes.
Kosovo Security Studies Professor Abdullah Hasani told SETimes that uncertainty about the exact numbers makes it difficult for authorities to act effectively.
“If you do not know the number, it is impossible to know clearly the threat which comes from those arms, and apparently this is a big threat,” Hasani said, adding that by comparison, there are an estimated 330,000 illegal arms in Kosovo.
While some belong to organised crime groups, Hasani added, guns remaining in civilian hands is a local tradition for many Balkan peoples.
BiH police say the number of illegal weapons charges is increasing, with a criminal charge issued nearly every day. In the first six months of 2011, police say Republika Srpska logged 206 illegal weapons cases.
“The state of general social-economic insecurity [causes] the rise in illegal activities and [is] the most common motive for citizens to acquire and possess arms,” Tuzla Canton Police Commissioner Fadil Sljivic told SETimes.
Since the BiH war ended in 1995, illegal weapons have been a factor in more than 10,000 deaths – more than six times the number of casualties from landmines, which receive much more public attention.
“Balkan temperament — combined with weapons — rarely ends up in protection and much more often in bloody tragedy. Crimes of passion, not thinking about consequences of one ‘s actions or simply rage is most-often heard from those using the weapons, while the victims cannot say much in their defence, as they often do not survive,” Tuzla Health Centre clinical psychologist Vesna Mehanovic told SETimes.
The Centre for Security Studies in BiH has echoed the importance of surrendering the weapons to the police or civil defence. Centre experts say they consider little can be achieved if repressive measures are used to retake the missing weapons.
Prevention is the key, they argue.
Experts also point to the importance of creating a legal framework in accordance with EU regulations and transitioning the illegal into legal weapons.
“There was an idea to issue a monetary reward for surrendered illegal weapons, but in this case there is a danger of illegal weapons inflow from surrounding countries,” Hadzovic said.
FBiH internal affairs ministry officials say that despite continuous activities undertaken to collect weapons and ammunition, citizens still possess large quantities left over from war.
The existing law stipulates those who hand in weapons to the police will not suffer legal or material consequences.
Markovski, however, said that maximum results require a joint, comprehensive regional action to collect illegal arms across all of Southeast Europe. “It can be easily organised and implemented with participation by Western partners and through the UNDP programmes.”