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Members of the LGBT community in Bosnia gathered in Sarajevo for the 4th Merlinka festival, amid fear for their personal security and concern about continuing discrimination.
Vanja Lasic, manager of Kriterion, a small venue on the river Miljacka in Sarajevo, isn’t too happy about having several security officials posted at the entrance of her club. “They kind of spoil the good atmosphere of the event,” she says. “Still, I understand that unfortunately their presence is necessary.”
For the fourth year in a row, Kriterion is hosting Merlinka, an international film festival screening movies addressing LGBT issues. It’s a decision that Lasic advocates with pride: “It’s important to have at least one place where people from the LGBT community can feel safe and welcome in Sarajevo,” she says, pointing out that “the festival is attracting a growing number of visitors, year after year”.
Despite the growing popularity of the Merlinka festival, organising a LGBT-friendly event in Sarajevo is far from being easy and security concerns remain high. Two years ago, participants at the festival were attacked by a group of ten people who invaded the club and injured some of them, sparking criticism about the inability of the police to secure the event.
At the following events, Bosnian authorities showed more commitment towards protecting the festival. This year, too, dozens of policemen are stationed beside the club, in case of disorder.
Personal security is still a major concern for most in the LGBT Bosnian community. Many festival participants are fearful of telling their real names, like “Walter”, a 17-year-old Sarajevan, who proudly defines himself as “queer from the beginning.
“It’s normal that people are afraid when it comes to organising an event like this, we’re constantly under threat of violence by hooligans, football fans, homophobes and religious extremists,” he tells BIRN.
These menaces, however, are not enough to stop Walter from coming to the festival. “It’s the only time in the year when I can really be myself and I don’t have to hide in my hometown, Sarajevo,” he says.
Merlinka has a major importance for LGBT persons from all over the country, not only from Sarajevo, who use the festival to meet in a friendly environment.
Vuk, a 21-year-old who also refuses to give his real name, has traveled from Banja Luka, the main town in Republika Srpska, the Serb-dominated entity of Bosnia, to take part.
“Even simple things, like going out at night, are extremely difficult for us,” Vuk says.
“In Sarajevo, there are just a couple of clubs that might be seen as gay friendly. In Banja Luka, all we can say is that there are some cafes where our presence is tolerated and that’s all,” he adds.
Over the four years of its existence, Merlinka has acquired social significance, since Bosnia and Herzegovina is one of the few countries in the region that do not allow gay parades. The LGBT community face stigmatisation and marginalisation in daily life.
A survey conducted by the National Democratic Institute in 2015 showed 75 per cent of LGBT persons in Bosnia said they had suffered psychological violence as a result of their sexuality, and 20 per cent had suffered physical abuse.
When asked what they would do if their son/daughter declared themselves as homosexual, 44 per cent of respondents said that “they would try to cure him/her.”
“Year after year, a growing number of persons report having suffered attacks based on their sexual orientation,” Emina Bosnjak, from the Open Center in Sarajevo, one of the associations responsible for organising Merlinka, told BIRN.
“There is still a lot to do in order to protect the rights of LGBT persons against discrimination and to fight stigma. This is why this festival is so important for the whole of Bosnian society”, she added.