SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — Bosnia's embattled LGBTQ community will defy threats of violence to hold the Balkan country's first ever pride parade this weekend and appeal for tolerance and unity in a society torn by war-era divisions and gripped by poverty.
The event, dubbed 'Ima Izac!,' which roughly translates 'Coming out,' will be held in Sarajevo on Sunday under tight security to stave off possible attacks by extremist groups, which in the past have disrupted similar gatherings.
Sarajevo is the last of the Balkan capitals to schedule a pride march after neighboring countries moved to improve lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer rights as part of an effort to modernize and become members of the European Union.
Even so, the backlash against the parade has been considerable in this deeply conservative nation, which has entrenched ethnic divisions and nationalist sentiments that fueled the 1992-95 conflict and are still holding Bosnia back.
"We live in a society that has no space for dialogue," said Branko Culibrk, one of the activists behind the march. "We want to open a debate that will shake up society and create room for discussion."
The organizers — more than a dozen activists from all sides of Bosnia's ethnic divide — have received support from many prominent figures in Bosnia, fellow activists in the region and from U.S. and EU officials in the country who have promised to take part.
But fears of violence are high after LGBTQ festivals in Sarajevo were attacked by radical Islamists and hooligans in 2008 and 2014, injuring several people. Opponents are planning two gatherings this weekend, and Sarajevo police have brought in reinforcements.
Though any form of discrimination is banned by law, gay people in Bosnia face widespread harassment and hate attacks that are rarely prosecuted. Culibrk, the activist, claimed the discrimination includes preventing gays from donating blood in hospitals.
"We urge all people who are facing discrimination ... to help us create a society that will be more just," he said.
Another activist, Nera Mesinovic, said she was forced to leave Bosnia in order to marry her lesbian partner. Even more devastating, she said, was that upon their return the couple could not show affection in public in Sarajevo.
"We were attacked in the center of the city. This happens all the time, every day," said Mesinovic. "I came back and all of a sudden I cannot hold my partner's hand, we cannot kiss in the street."
While such incidents and anti-gay sentiment are reported in all the Balkans' predominantly patriarchal societies, there also have been changes: Serbia has a lesbian prime minister, and Montenegro is considering allowing same-sex partnerships.
Scarred by the war that killed more than 100,000 people, Bosnia remains in the grip of mistrust and nationalism that sustain divisions between the former war foes — the Bosniaks, who are mainly Muslims, Bosnian Croats and Bosnian Serbs. That has slowed the adoption of more liberal approaches in a country where widespread poverty is driving educated young people to emigrate by the tens of thousands.
In Sarajevo — largely a moderate Muslim city — ruling party officials have been among the pride parade's critics. Samra Cosovic-Hajdarevic from the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action sparked outrage months ago when she called for gays to be "isolated from our children and our society."
Others in the ruling coalition recently demanded that the event be cancelled. A group called "Young Muslims" branded homosexuality an "evil" that should be banned.
Ahmet Kulanic, from the Islamic-oriented Svjetlo (Light) organization that is behind a counter rally planned for Saturday, said "family tradition" is key in Bosnia. It is "problematic," he said, when someone seeks to "impose values that are not in line with the (general) mood."
Pride organizers, however, insist that Bosnia needs tolerance, unity and solidarity more than anything else. The fact that people from all over the country joined forces to organize the parade proves that that ambition is within reach, Mesinovic said.
"We insist on a narrative of togetherness and solidarity," she insisted. "We actually can communicate with each other without any problems and regardless of the divisions that we live among."