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

Bosnia: The Village Where Hate Never Triumphed

Residents of Baljvine, one of the few places to escape the ethnic violence that tore apart Bosnia, tell their extraordinary story. By Marija Arnautovic in Baljvine
By Marija Arnautovic
  • Traditional old Bosnian house in Baljvine. (Photo: IWPR)
    Traditional old Bosnian house in Baljvine. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Bosniak Fuad Kovačević with his son. (Photo: IWPR)
    Bosniak Fuad Kovačević with his son. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Lower Baljvine (Muslim part of the villlage). (Photo: IWPR)
    Lower Baljvine (Muslim part of the villlage). (Photo: IWPR)
  • Sejda Morica plants flowers in front of her house. (Photo: IWPR)
    Sejda Morica plants flowers in front of her house. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Children playing football in the school yard. (Photo: IWPR)
    Children playing football in the school yard. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Road to Upper Baljvine (Serb part of the village). (Photo: IWPR)
    Road to Upper Baljvine (Serb part of the village). (Photo: IWPR)
  • Zorka and Miroslav Tešanović. (Photo: IWPR)
    Zorka and Miroslav Tešanović. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Church in Upper Baljvine. (Photo: IWPR)
    Church in Upper Baljvine. (Photo: IWPR)
  • View of Lower Baljvine. (Photo: IWPR)
    View of Lower Baljvine. (Photo: IWPR)
  • Mosque in Lower Baljvine. (Photo: IWPR)
    Mosque in Lower Baljvine. (Photo: IWPR)

Residents of Baljvine, a small village in north-western Bosnia, like to tell the story of how they shocked a Bosnian Serb army general at the beginning of the 1992 war.

At that time, most non-Serbs had already been expelled from Serb-held territory, thousands of people had been killed, and deep animosity and mistrust existed between Serbs and Bosniaks. But not in Baljvine.   

When Bosnian Serb army, VRS, general Momor Talic called a late-night meeting with Bosniaks in Baljvine and told them that they could not stay in the village, their representative Šaban Habibović responded, “I assure you that we can continue to live with our Serb neighbours.”

“If so, would you dare go now to the Serb part of the village?” Talić asked in return. “I will walk through the entire village if I have to – I fear no-one,” announced Habibović, who turned and walked straight to the Serb part of the village.

When he stood in front of one house and called out the Serb owner’s name, his neighbour didn’t shoot at or insult him, as Talic had expected. Instead, he looked through the window and said, “Šaban, what is going on down there? Do you need my help? Wait, I’m coming down, let me just put some clothes on!”

After witnessing this friendly exchange, Talic - apparently outraged by the refusal of the Baljvine residents to fight each other – exclaimed, “You Muslims are neither real Muslims, nor are you Serbs real Serbs, you people are a very strange kind!”

But the residents of Baljvine are proud to be different. They boast that their village is the only place in Bosnia in which Serbs and Bosniaks have never fought each other - neither during World War Two nor the 1990s. There is not known to have ever been any legal dispute between the village’s communities and their mosque is believed to be the only one in Republika Srpska, RS, the Serb entity in Bosnia, which was not damaged or destroyed during the 1992-95 war.

“When people are smart and they mean good, then there is no hate. But when they hate each other, there is no life,” Serb villager Miroslav Tešanović, 85, said. “The whole of Bosnia and Hercegovina does not have what we have in our Baljvine.”

This fact still seems true, some 15 years after the war. Bosnia appears to have reached a standstill, with progress towards European Union membership limited by growing nationalism. Politicians in RS are now threatening secession; they claim they don’t see a future in a unified state.
 
In this election year, tolerance and co-existence are not words that local politicians often use. Instead of encouraging reconciliation among the three nations profoundly affected by the war, they feed their fears of “others”. Instead of fostering stronger ties between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs, their leaders only cause them to further drift apart. A country once proud of its brotherhood and unity is now only formally a unified state. In reality, it is deeply divided along ethnic lines, with very slim prospects of a better future.

Baljvine has long remained an exception, although villagers struggle to explain just how they have managed to escape ethnic unrest. Some point to a long and enduring common stand against extremism.

Tešanović can recall how during the Second World War, Baljvine residents protected and defended each other from the ultra-nationalist Ustasha (Croat) and Chetnik (Serb) militias.

“I remember that very well,” Miroslav said. “I was only 15 years old. Muslims did not let Ustashas take from us Serbs more cattle and grains then they took from them. When Chetniks later came to the village, they wanted to rob and kill the Muslims, but Serbs did not let them do that.”

When war broke out in 1992, Miroslav says he told his Bosniak neighbours, “You tie your dogs, and we will tie ours (an old Bosnian saying about preventing trouble between villagers).”

Baljvine residents also set up a joint patrol that was composed of both Serb and Bosniak residents, although this territory was under the VRS control all the time. This was the only way, said 70-year-old Šefko Čaušević, the unofficial leader of the Bosniak residents of Baljvine, to prevent extremists from “inciting hatred among the people and forcing them to fight each other”.

Even at the height of the war, Šefko says, young Serb men from the village who were drafted into the VRS took care not to offend their Bosniak neighbours.

“When they were coming home from the front lines and passing through our part of the village, they always hid their guns under jackets because they didn’t want us to see that they carried guns through the village. That meant a lot to us,” he said.

Close to the end of the war, in 1995, when the Croatian Defense Council, HVO, units attacked the village, both Serbs and Bosniaks fled their homes for the nearby Serb village of Bočac. There, according to Šefko, the Bosniaks spent four days hiding under a bridge, relying on their Serb neighbors from Baljvine to bring them food, water and blankets.

”Serb soldiers were not allowed to touch us. We were protected there,” Šefko said. Bosniaks then went from Bočac to the town of Tešanj and after that most of them moved to Bugojno.

“I returned to Baljvine in 1998,” Sefko said. “Our neighbors, Serbs, came back a little earlier.”

Šefko and Miroslav remain good friends. Meeting at Miroslav’s home in the village, they embrace warmly, having not seen each other for a long time, despite the fact that their houses are only a kilometre away from each other.

“Why don’t you come to visit us?” Šefko asked his friend and hugs him.

With a gentle shrug, Miroslav says that he could walk to the lower part of the village, where Šefko lives, but it would be difficult for him to walk back up the hill.

Bosniaks live in the lower part of the village and Serbs in the upper. Both have land somewhere in the middle, but there has never been any legal dispute over this issue - often the case in Bosnian villages – which is another source of pride for the residents.  But despite their close friendships, Šefko says that locals in Baljvine never intermarry.

“That couldn’t work. They are like relatives to us,” he said. “It has happened before that young people of different nationalities fall in love, but parents would not allow it. Our guys used to marry Serb girls, but never from our village.”  

Miroslav and his wife Zorka sit with their guests in their garden, enjoying the first spring sunshine and greeting passing neighbours and friends. There aren’t many young people around, though.

“They do not want to live in the village,” said Zorka, offering nuts and juice to her guests.

In fact out of 1,600 pre-war residents, less than one third live in Baljvine now. Some of those who fled after 1995 settled in the areas where they sought refuge, and it was mainly elderly people who returned after the war. Despite the peaceful co-existence here, there are problems of unemployment and infrastructure.

Locals say that the younger generation prefer to find employment in the city, or seek jobs abroad, rather than work in agriculture which is the village’s main source of income. There is also no secondary school in the village – after the age of ten, children need to go to Mrkonjic Grad, Jajce or Banja Luka to continue their education.

Infrastructure is in a bad state, too. With no running water, residents reliant on private wells.

The local authorities have done nothing to solve this problem, villagers claim, as well as neglecting the atrocious condition of the local road. Residents complain that nobody is interested in helping this rare oasis of Bosnian coexistence.

“Nobody wants to promote this village,” Šefko claimed. “Authorities in Republika Srpska don’t want Serbs and Bosniaks to cooperate. They don’t want to show to the others that co-existence is possible. In this country, a Serb is not considered a good Serb if he does not hate Bosniaks, and vice versa.”

But the village still retains a strong pull on its former residents.  In the courtyard of the village primary school - where Bosniak and Serb children study and socialise together - Marko Vučenović plays football with his youngest son Danijel and other locals. Although Marko lives with his family in Banja Luka, he spends every weekend in Baljvine. Despite owning a large farm and a shop in the village, he could not afford to live here, especially with no secondary school for his four children.

Like others here, while at first reluctant to talk about the war, he is proud of the village’s history of tolerance.

“I remember the pain and suffering, but Šefko knows that better, because Bosniaks were in the worst situation,” Marko recalled. “Unlike them, we could move freely around. They had to have ID cards with them all the time, because the VRS army controlled everything. It was a war, and every fool carried a gun. And you never knew who would pull the trigger, and who would not.”

Today, he says, he teaches his children what he has learned from his parents - that respect for your neighbour is the only proper way to live. When asked whether he plans to return and live on his farm one day, he just shrugs. But 12-year old Danijel quickly said, “I will definitely come back when I grow up!”

Šefko says that during the war, Marko and his wife handed out food from the family shop to everyone in the village, regardless of nationality.

“My family would have been hungry during the war hadn’t he helped us,” he said, adding that he loves Marko’s children as if they were his own grandchildren.

People in Baljvine like to say that a good man remains good even in the hardest of times, and that they have always had more good and wise people than those who were bad.

“Maybe we are simply a bit smarter than other Bosnians,” Marko joked.

The villagers say their mosque was built before the Second World War, when all residents of Baljvine, regardless of their nationality, helped in its construction.

In the opposite direction, up on the hill, is the Orthodox Church, which was built in the early 1990s, again by villagers of both nationalities. Bosniaks believed that if they had their mosque, their neighbors should have a church and even donated money to help build the church. But then the war started, and the church was only completed ten years ago.

“Whoever truly believes in God will not do anything evil,” Marko insisted.

Šefko says he cannot understand why peaceful co-existence is not possible in other parts of Bosnia, now deeply divided along ethnic lines.

“I just don’t understand how anyone who grew up in this country can hate it,” he mused. “How can I hate my village? I was born here. How can I hate people with whom I grew up, just because they belong to another ethnic group? Every holy book says that the first person you have to help and respect is your neighbour. And this is what we in Baljvine have always done.”

The current state of the political situation in Bosnia worries Šefko, who blames the situation on the lack of good politicians.

“People should not be blamed for the situation we are in. They are not bad - it is the politicians who are the real villains. They say people of different nationalities cannot live together, but that is not a true,” Šefko said.

He added with a smile, “People can live together and Baljvine is a great example of that.”

Marija Arnautovic is an IWPR-trained reporter.

As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.

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