Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Bosnia: A House Divided

One of the Hague tribunal’s aims is to promote reconciliation, but ethnic divisions in Bosnia show little sign of easing.
By Katherine Boyle
Overnight people became beasts.

Seida Karabasic can think of no other explanation for the beginning of the Balkan wars, which in 1992 turned neighbour against neighbour in her municipality of Prijedor.

“Because it happened so quickly, a lot of people don’t trust those of other ethnicities anymore,” said Karabasic, who is ethnically Muslim, or Bosniak. “They feel [the fighting] could happen again at anytime.”

Across Bosnia, this distrust is evident not only in people’s attitudes but also in the ethnic makeup of communities. Many areas that were ethnically diverse before the war are now home to homogeneous communities.

The shift has been facilitated in part by the large number of Bosnians who were killed during the war or fled the country. But another significant contributing factor has been the relocation of many Muslims, Serbs and Croats to different areas of Bosnia.

Since the wars of the Nineties, Bosnia has been divided in two territories, the primarily Bosniak and Croat Federation and the mainly Serb Republika Srpska, RS, in which Prijedor is located.

Strong Muslim communities are located in Travnik, Bocinja/Zavidovici, Tesanj, Maglaj, Bugojno and Zenica, while prominent Serb areas include Banja Luka, Trebinje and Bijeljina.

Ethnic and religious differences between the territories are quickly apparent.

As travelers drive into the RS, they are greeted by a sign proclaiming “Welcome to Republika Srpska” in Cyrillic letters – the alphabet generally used by Serbs. Bosniaks tend to use the Latin alphabet.

Underneath the words is the RS coat of arms – two warlike eagles wearing an elaborate crown topped by a cross, likely symbolic of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

In Prijedor, the population after the war was almost entirely Serb. Now, it is the most ethnically mixed municipality in the RS, with the highest number of Bosniak returnees. Yet despite this progress, only half of the pre-war Bosniak population of 49,500 has returned, according to the US State Department’s 2006 International Religious Freedom Report.

However, even in areas that are only partially mixed, ethnic conflict occurs. In Prijedor during 2005, a Muslim graveyard was desecrated and mosques were vandalised three times during the month of Ramadan.

And most Bosniaks in the municipality maintain that Prijedor will never be the same as it was before the war. They claim the area was once a model of tolerance where many ethnic groups peacefully co-existed, but say it is now fiercely divided along ethnic lines.

It is difficult for some Bosniaks to forgive and forget Serb persecution that occurred in the municipality, particularly when they think of those who will never be able to return to Prijedor.

Karabasic is the president of the Izvor Association of Prijedor Women, an organisation dedicated to finding out what happened to Prijedor’s 3,228 missing and killed persons. Her own father was murdered by a sniper during the war, and her brother, a member of the Bosnian Army, was paralysed.

As she leafs through a thick, heavy book, hundreds of black-and-white snapshots stare out from its pages, including 123 children and 228 women. Above some names there are question marks. They were unable to find photos of these individuals, said Karabasic, explaining that any pictures were likely burned along with the person’s home during the war.

Many of these people are thought to have died in the concentration camps that surrounded Prijedor in 1992: Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm. The camps were closed in August 1992 when journalists released photos of Omarska’s gaunt inhabitants, but an unknown number of detainees had already been executed.

The International Commission for Missing Persons, ICMP, has been active in advocating the exhumation and identification of their bodies from mass graves around the area. With their help, a number of victims have been identified through DNA testing.

But a decade later, the atrocities committed still haunt the friends and relatives of the missing and confirmed dead as well as the survivors of the camps. And many Bosniak residents of Prijedor claim that the Serbs refuse to acknowledge what happened.

“The crimes need to be discussed openly,” said Karabasic. “Serb local people don’t want to hear about it.”

But for others, such as Lejla Arifagic, it is something that cannot be forgotten. Her father’s body was exhumed from a mass grave near Omarksa camp last year.

“The last time I saw my father was May 25, 1992,” said Arifagic, who is now a 23-year-old journalism student in Sarajevo. Later, after they were separated, she heard he was in Omarska.

No word came until a decade later, when her mother received a phone call requesting that they both give DNA because a mass grave with 200 men in it had been unearthed near Omarska.

After his body was identified, a funeral was held in July, which she said has provided her with some sense of closure.

“I’m always dreaming of him,” said Arifagic. “That’s a normal thing for me, but now, after the funeral, the dreams are nice. I have a feeling he is fine now.”

And knowing where he is may also provide a sense of healing, she said.

“I have a place I can go and pray, a place I can go and talk and a place I can go and cry if I want to,” she added.

But despite the notoriety of the camps and the large number of Muslims killed, visitors to Prijedor will find no memorials for their dead. In the town, there are only memorials for Serb civilians and Serb soldiers.

Karabasic points out that a civilian memorial would have been much more inclusive had the government erected it for all civilians rather than just Serbs. Now, she said, it only causes resentment.

Azra Pasalic, the Bosniak president of Prijedor’s municipal council, agreed, but noted the municipality is working to erect a new sign or statue that would honor members of all ethnic groups who lost their lives in the war.

Many Muslim returnees to Prijedor are also deeply upset that they have been unable to go back to their former jobs, added Karabasic, despite laws stating that they must be reinstated to the positions they held in 1991.

“The local government says they can’t and won’t [reinstate them],” said Karabisic, noting that the government is now primarily made up of Serbs. “They say they won’t fire someone in order to hire someone else.”

If the difficult economic situation improved, she added, it would likely improve relations between ethnic groups. For now, however, she said she believes Serbs hire only Serbs, unless they are forced to maintain a percentage of Muslim employees in order to receive money from an NGO.

Judge Nusreta Sivac has been unable to regain the judiciary post in Prijedor she held before Serbs overran the town and took over all its legal positions in 1992. Afterwards, she was put in Omarska camp, along with many other detainees who had leading roles in the community.

When Sivac returned to Prijedor she found a former co-worker squatting in her apartment. Although the man refused to leave, with the help of the authorities she was eventually able to force him out in 2002. When neighbours realised she was back to stay, she said she returned home one night to find the word Omarska spray-painted across her door, dredging up chilling memories.

Because Sivac is unable to regain her job in Prijedor, she is forced to work in Sanski Most, about 30 kilometers away.

These kinds of problems mean many Muslims and Serbs have left Bosnia to seek work elsewhere.

For other Muslims originally from Prijedor, their home base has shifted to Kozarac and Sanski Most, nearby communities that are almost entirely Muslim.

Sanski Most is located inside the Federation. Karabasic, who used to live there, said Bosniak families feel safer surrounded by other Muslims, and since moving to Prijedor she feels “unwanted”. The Arifagices moved to Sanski Most for the same reason after spending the war in Croatia.

In Kozarac, visitors are confronted with the eerie sight of bombed buildings next to large, new houses, many of which are empty. In the cold light of winter, the town looks nearly deserted, although it boasts a number of discotheques, restaurants and even an internet café.

During the summer, however, things are brighter and Kozarac is filled with the sounds of children playing, adults chatting over coffee and, of course, young people flirting.

But here, summer romances are more than just flings. Some of the teens are spending their summer holidays in Bosnia, but live in other communities abroad. Many come back to Kozarac in the summer months with the idea of finding a husband or wife, said 32-year-old Sudbin Music.

The situation seems to benefit everyone: the young person who is able to leave and find new opportunities, the family at home who will benefit from the paycheck earned abroad and the member of the Diaspora who has found a mate with a link to their country.

Music, a slight, blonde man who looks older than his years, is, like many other Bosnians, supported by a relative abroad. His brother in Chicago regularly sends him money because it is so difficult for him to find work in Prijedor.

His community, Carakovo, within the municipality of Prijedor, used to be a largely Muslim area, but now is nearly all Serb as the Muslim residents were killed or forced to flee.

“The political influence of Bosniaks here is zero,” he said.

Although Prijedor has become more diverse again, Karabasic fears it will never be the same as it was before the war.

“Now everyone knows which coffee shop is for which nationality,” she said. “Before the war, everyone went wherever they wanted, lived right next door to each other and were close. Now they are deeply separated.”

Another key cause of division is the controversy over the prosecution of war criminals.

The trials and their sentences seem to satisfy no one. Many Bosniaks feel the sentences handed down are inadequate. Serbs seem to have more conflicted feelings. Some say the trials are important for justice and reconciliation while others believe many of those on trial are innocent or even war heroes.

Karabasic cannot see these divisions being overcome any time soon.

“Never again in Prijedor will Muslims have the position and status we once had,” she said. “We will always remain a minority.”

Bosnia’s capital, Sarajevo, which sits nestled in between the dark mountains, has also become more homogeneous since the war, although here it is the Bosniak population that has increased.

Before the war, the city hosted the 1984 Winter Olympics and was known for its multiculturalism. In 1991, the population was approximately half Muslim, a third Serb and just under a tenth Croat, according to an official census.

But after the fighting began, the city known as the “Valley of Dreams” instead became a place of nightmares.

Rizah Smailbegovic was 12 when the fighting started in Bosnia. Born in Sarajevo, he grew up in an atmosphere where marriages between Muslims, Serbs and Croats were common.

All of that changed when the war broke out in 1992.

“Every time you wanted to go and get bread you would run across the street,” said Smailbegovic. “Someone was shooting at you - it was like in the movies.”

Smailbegovic said his parents never wanted he or his brother, who was six when the war started, to leave their apartment. In some areas, sniper fire and shelling caused schools to be closed and teachers came to an alternative, safer location where their students could gather.

Essentials such as electricity, food and water became scarce commodities as the siege lengthened. And evidence of the era’s violence, in the form of scarred buildings, pockmarked by bullet fire and ravaged by shells, continues to serve as a constant reminder of ethnic divisions.

Now, said Smailbegovic, his peers are suffering the consequences of a childhood spent under siege.

“A whole generation is messed up,” he said. “In a sense, they’ve lost direction. They were raised on a whole new set of values. The people who came to power [in Bosnia] have not been the nicest.”

Smailbegovic described a “shady” political system based on money - both during the war and afterwards.

“It created a lost generation,” he said.

Around 1999 or 2000, the money from NGOs began to dry up, he added, noting that some of the ethnic conflict in Bosnia would disappear if the employment rate and income levels rose.

According to a 2002 estimate by Sarajevo officials, the city was nearly 80 per cent Bosniak, many of the Serbs having fled to more ethnically homogeneous Serb areas of the country.

However, people from every ethnic group have left not only the city but the country as well, hoping to find jobs elsewhere in Europe, Canada or the United States.

Many seem to have left for purely economic reasons rather than to escape current ethnic strife, although the war is largely responsible for the devastation of Bosnia’s economy.

“If Bosnia joined the EU, some would come back,” predicted Smailbegovic.

He is one of the lucky ones, having obtained a job with Civitas, an NGO that works to promote healing and tolerance in war-torn Bosnian communities.

Dejan Drobac, a 23-year-old Sarajevo native, is studying forestry and hopes to find a job in that industry once he graduates.

Unlike many of his friends, Drobac is a Serb but said he was able to overcome ethnic divisions in Sarajevo because his family was one of the few Serb families that stayed throughout the siege.

Drobac described how nationalist parties dredge up ethnic hatred across Bosnia. He said politicians and cultural leaders use scare tactics, such as claiming that their people are on the brink of destruction, to promote nationalism and clannishness among their own ethnic group.

In a new era of largely mono-ethnic townships and regions, the ethnic violence in Sarajevo does seem to have subsided since the Nineties.

But, as 23-year-old Adnan Nuhodzic, a Bosniak from Sarajevo, explains, there isn’t much opportunity for inter-ethnic clashes now.

“Of course there shouldn’t be dislike between groups,” he said. “But there aren’t many Serbs in Sarajevo, so there’s not much material for [conflict].”

Nuhodzic is a friend of Drobac and said he trusts Serbs who remained in Sarajevo throughout the siege.

“One of my first neighbors was Serb, but he stayed here for the whole time,” he added. “Between people who lived through the siege there aren’t problems.”

Yet, despite this trust, Nuhodzic still believes war could break out again, and said when his passport recently expired he took his mother’s advice and renewed it.“You never know what’s going to happen or could happen,” he said. “Now if [war] does happen, I have someplace to go.”

To others, this state of uncertainty is indicative of a greater problem - the clear divisions between ethnic groups that are still present a decade after the war’s end.

“I think, in a sense, the war still goes on, because the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina has never been solved,” said Music. “The Dayton Accords were like the foundation for something that either needed to heal or separate. I live in hope that it will reunite or heal.”

Katherine Boyle is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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