RESAD Trbonja will never be able to forget April 1992. Back then the tall, strong-featured Bosnian was a rebellious 19-year-old, spending his days strolling around his native Sarajevo in Converse trainers and his treasured Levi’s t-shirt, listening to Ramones and The Clash.

“I would have fitted into any European city,” Trbonja says, sitting outside a café in the Bosnian capital. “A week later my life was totally different.”

On March 3 1992, Bosnia declared independence from the fast-crumbling Yugoslavia. Early the following month, Serb forces began their offensive against Sarajevo. The siege was to last almost four years. More than 11,000 were killed.

Trbonja was on the frontline with the Bosnian army throughout. “I had to volunteer to defend my country,” he explains.

More than 100,000 people died in the Bosnian war, according to prosecutors at the Hague. But the occasional bullet hole in the crumbling Communist-era buildings aside, there is little physical evidence of the conflict in Sarajevo today.

Tourists throng the narrow streets of the Ottoman old town. Attractive young things drink beer in terrace bars as muezzins call the faithful to prayer. Crowds of Catholics pose for photos outside the nearby cathedral.

But the façade of inter-ethnic harmony masks a deeper truth. Almost two decades on from the brutal civil war, Bosnia and Herzegovina is effectively divided into three parts: Orthodox Serb, Catholic Croat and Bosniak Muslim. Every ethnic group has a veto. The result is political stasis, corruption, and, for many like Resad Trbonja who fought a war for Bosnian statehood, deep disillusionment.

“We are not going in the direction I was fighting for,” says Trbonja, who works as a coordinator for Remembering Srebrenica, a UK charity established in the memory of more than 8,000 Bosniaks massacred in Eastern Bosnia 20 years ago next month.

“I didn’t fight for a Muslim country. I fought for Bosnia and Herzegovina, for all its citizens regardless of their faith. I wasn’t prepared for this ethnic division.”

On a map, Bosnia looks like a single country. The long borders with Croatia and Serbia survived the war unscathed. But internally the picture is very different. The Bosnian state is probably the weakest in the world. The country is separated into two roughly equal autonomous “entities”, the predominantly Bosniak and Croat Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the overwhelmingly Serb Republika Srpska.

Below the entities are ten “cantons” each with their own ethnically mandated government, and almost 150 municipalities. There are five presidents – one for each entity and three, which rule collectively, for Bosnia and Herzegovina. A nation of fewer than four million has more than a dozen police forces, and even more constitutions.

This awkward structure is the product of the 1995 Dayton Accords. The agreement’s “consociational system” – similar to the one adopted in Northern Ireland after the Good Friday Agreement – is designed to protect group rights and ensure power-sharing in government, but has contributed to creating a “polarised society”, says Srecko Latal, a Sarajevo-based analyst with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

“The political, economic and social situation has got worse since the war,” says Latal. Bosnia’s official unemployment rate is more than 40 per cent, even higher among the young. Average monthly salaries are less than £350. Unless a deal on labour market reform can be reached in the coming weeks, the government faces bankruptcy. In the meantime, the patchwork of ethnicities drift further apart.

“This country is ethnically cleansed,” says Latal. “You don’t have any ethnic mixing anymore in big towns. In schools a majority are mono-ethnic. Kids learn about other ethnic groups from the media and history books and they are all tainted.”

I MEET Latal in a utilitarian hotel on the outskirts of Sarajevo that is popular with the increasing numbers of Gulf tourists. In the lobby are adverts in Bosnian and Arabic for property developments. European Union membership was once held out as the carrot that could unite the fissiparous Balkans. Now many Bosniaks, the country’s largest ethnic group, are looking to the East, in particular Turkey, for assistance.

The Bosnian Serb army never took Sarajevo, but Serbs were awarded just under half of the country’s territory at Dayton. Today Milorad Dodik, Republika Srpska’s belligerent president, regularly threatens to secede, potentially splintering Bosnia. Meanwhile Croat politicians agitate for the creation of a “third entity”, centred on Herzegovina with a capital in Mostar.

The international community has switched off as the political tensions have increased, says Latal. “The European

Union is still ignoring that part, if not all, of the Balkans is a boiling powder keg once again.”

Last February, Bosnia did erupt – but not along ethnic lines – tens of thousands took to the streets demanding jobs, higher wages and a better future.

The municipality headquarters in Sarajevo was set alight, as was a government building in the industrial town of Tuzla.

The protests petered out, however the frustrations that underlined them have, if anything, only risen. “There is not much hope here,” says journalist Nidzara

Ahmetasevic, who lived in Sarajevo throughout the siege.

“During the war it was easier than now. It was simpler. It was a war.

“They were shooting 24-7. You were scared. You lived like an animal but it was easier. Now you feel all the time under pressure. You feel like you are going to explode but nothing is exploding.”

Much has been made of some Bosniaks travelling to Syria to fight alongside Islamic State. President Dodik cited an attack on a Republika Srpska police station by a suspected Islamist as a pretext to introduce harsh laws limiting free speech. But concerns about terrorism have been overplayed, says Ahmetasevic. “It is the least of our worries.”

Elmina Kulasi was just a child when she was forced to leave the town of Kozarac in north-western Bosnia for Chicago. Serb auxiliaries would kill thousands of local Bosniaks. Kulasi returned to Bosnia three years ago, with the goal of starting an NGO to work with others who came back to their former homes, often in parts of the country that had been “ethnically cleansed”.

But foreign aid to Bosnia has slowed to a trickle. Although billions were spent on reconciliation work after the war, much of the money was wasted. There was no record kept of all the projects funded.

“We can’t even build on what is already done. We always have to start from the beginning. I’m a returnee and it took me two and a half years to see all this,” says Kulasi, a passionate 30-year-old with a shock of curly brown hair.

Recently she set up Bridges For The Future to work with survivors across Bosnia. It’s the only peace-building organisation in the country with the word “future” in the title. “Everyone is ignoring survivors. But you have to work with survivors. Their stories have to be told. If we are going to have reconciliation in Bosnia we can not just have ‘experts’ in Sarajevo.”

Despite her frustrations Kulasi remains hopeful. “In this whole mess you still have people thinking normally, trying to find a way of dealing with the past.” People are not the problem, politicians are, she says. “To have an impact in this society you have to join a political party.”

MARY Ann Hennessey, head of the Council of Europe in Bosnia and Herzegovina, agrees. “The reality is the politicians don’t have any real policies, or genuine reforms. What they sell is ‘I have control over this municipality’, ‘I have control over the budget’, and you’re my party so I can help you.”

The product of this dysfunctional politics, in which everyone is guaranteed a share of power, is hard to miss. Just a few doors down from Hennessey’s glass-fronted office, wooden planks bar the door to the grand Austro-Hungarian National Museum. The museum, one of the few institutions controlled by the central state, has been closed for over a year in a dispute over pay.

Unsurprisingly, dissatisfaction with politics in rife. Turnout in last year’s general election was less than 55 per cent. Political corruption is endemic.

When the Pope visited Sarajevo earlier this month, many Bosnians noted that the pontiff emerged from an ordinary Ford

Focus. Local politicians travelled in expensive foreign cars.

The Pope’s message was a unifying one. He spoke of “brotherhood and unity” – a phrase redolent of Yugoslavia’s Communist leader Tito – and called on Bosnians to work for peace and respectful coexistence through dialogue.

“This will allow different voices to unite in creating a melody of sublime nobility and beauty, instead of the fanatical cries of hatred,” he told more than 60,000 people in a Sarajevo sports stadium.

But while the war is over, remorseless political battles are still holding Bosnia back, says Muhamed Durakovic, a survivor of the Srebrenica genocide who works for the International Commission on Missing Persons, in Sarajevo. The time has come, Durakovic says, to look again at the complex arrangements introduced almost 20 years ago.

“Dayton stopped the war in Bosnia. Twenty years on it is time to reconsider this and come up with a solution that would be satisfactory for the everyone in Bosnia,” he says.

Consociational systems privilege elites rather than ordinary citizens in an attempt to ensure stability and inter-ethnic co-operation. This approach has helped many societies – including Bosnia and Herzegovina – to end armed conflicts. But it often cements ethnic divisions too, by favouring group rights over the rights of the individual.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, for example, the tripartite presidency of Bosnia and Herzegovina must be a held by a Serb, a Croat and a Bosniak. Nobody else can apply.

Such ethnically motivated discrimination needs to end, says Durakovic.

“All we are asking for is (that) the rights that every British citizen enjoys, every Bosnian citizen should enjoy too. We should not be treated as some sort of isolated island in the middle of Europe, being denied our human rights.”

At stake not an arid point of political philosophy. It is a much bigger question – how to end the primacy of ethnicity in Bosnian public life.

Unless a solution is found, the chances of Bosnia and Herzegovina lasting another 20 years in its current form look slim.