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

Foca: Unemployment Dashes Hopes of Bosniak Return

The few who have gone back say scarcity of work, not inter-ethnic tension, is why others won’t join them.
By Simon Jennings
High in the hills above the small eastern Bosnian town of Foca stand the houses – dilapidated and empty – abandoned by Bosniaks driven out by Bosnian Serbs during the bloody war of the early 1990s.

Gardens lie unkempt, and while one house boasts a new roof, its battered walls remain in a state of disrepair. Deep in the valley below flows the turquoise water of the Drina River – which is said to have run red with blood during the slaughter here in 1992. On either side, the valley rises steeply. Fields that were once home to hundreds of cattle and sheep lie disused and overgrown.

Before the war, this area of Bosnia was a thriving home to Bosniaks and Serbs who lived peacefully together, farming the land as cattle herders and working in the government-run steel factories and flourishing logging industry. But today, the area’s industry has fallen flat; very few of the 21,000 Bosniaks who lived here before the war have returned; and the town, which lies 50 kilometres southeast of Sarajevo, has high unemployment.

In 1992, most Bosniaks in the area were driven out by a combination of Bosnian Serb soldiers, police and paramilitaries, who carried out some of the most horrific atrocities of the war against the non-Serb population. A campaign of brutal ethnic cleansing saw the setting up of detention camps, where Bosniaks were systematically tortured, raped and killed. Their property was also taken over and destroyed.

According to judgements handed down by the Hague tribunal, girls as young as 12 were locked up and raped on a daily basis. The court has convicted five Bosnian Serbs of war crimes in Foca during the war, while a further seven have been found guilty by the Bosnian War Crimes Court in Sarajevo.

Bosnian Serb military commanders Dragoljub Kunarac and Radomir Kovac were convicted at the tribunal for rape as a crime against humanity following disturbing testimonies from the victims. One witness testifying in March 2000 under the pseudonym “Witness 75” told how she was raped by Kovac.

“Every evening, I think, he raped me and [witness] number 85 together in the same bed, with music playing, Swan Lake, actually. He did that sort of thing. And he told me, ‘I killed your brother. What do you want? What can you do about it?’ That's what he said,” she told judges during the trial.

Kunarac and Kovac were sentenced to 28 and 20 years in prison respectively.

The Hague trial of Bosnian Serb prison commander Milorad Krnojelac also revealed the brutality of crimes against non-Serbs in Foca. Judges concluded that guards under his control at the town’s Kazneno-Popravni Dom prison “beat the inmates with their fists and feet or with batons” and that “shots were sometimes heard and the detainees never returned to their rooms”.

Krnojelac was sentenced to 15 years by the Hague court’s appeal judges in 2002.

Before the war, Bosniaks living in the Foca municipality outnumbered Serbs. Today, a decade and a half later, just 850 Bosniaks have returned to the region.

Many international observers believe that the sheer brutality of the crimes committed here means most people, many of whom have started new lives in Sarajevo or even other parts of Europe, simply do not want to come back.

But for those that have returned, it is a lack of work – rather than memories of the conflict – which is the main problem they face today. Unemployment in the municipality stands at 45 per cent.

“There aren’t jobs here,” said Fatima Coric, who returned with her family to their home, six km outside Foca in 2002. “There are so many people in the villages, but there are no jobs.”

Today, Fatima lives with her son, daughter and grandson. In 1992, the whole family was forced to flee to Montenegro and then to Hungary before they returned to rebuild the life they left behind.

Before the war, her family had lived off the land, running a farm of five cattle and 60 sheep.

“The situation was good before the war,” remembers Fatima. “My husband and father-in-law worked and they had all these animals and it was a good life, but now..there are no cattle.”

She has received no financial help to restart her farm, she said. No one in the family has found regular work and Fatima pays the electricity bill out of her pension.

Fatima’s children, who were in the fourth and seventh grade when the war broke out, managed to finish their schooling in Hungary. Her son, a trained mechanic, occasionally chops wood for ten Bosnian marks (ten US dollars) a day. The local flour mill that employed more than 200 people before the war is also long gone.

“Economic issues are now the main problem here,” said Fatima.

Many of those returning to the area have trouble rebuilding their homes destroyed during the conflict.

Under the 1995 Dayton Agreement that brought peace to the Balkans, the Bosnian authorities were given responsibility for repairing damage to the homes of all displaced people upon their return.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, UNHCR, the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, and the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, among others, were also mandated by the accord to provide assistance to returnees in Bosnia.

But not everyone has received funds, said Fatima, who added that she hadn’t had much help.

“We got the materials for the house from Caritas [a Swiss NGO],” she recalled. “But we had to pay builders to do the work.”

Fatima feels lucky to have rebuilt her house as there was “no structured system” of financial help, she says.

While some people received a great deal of aid from various organisations, she said, others are still trying to find the cash to complete the restoration of their homes.

According to Ismet Hotovic, of the Organisation of Refugees and Displaced Persons in Foca, some people return to the area to exploit the aid on offer, only to leave again.

“They build a house with the materials and when they have finished they sell it. Or they take the materials [donated from] the international community and when the international community [representatives] leave, they take the materials and build a house in Sarajevo,” said Hotovic.

This practice has taken money away from people who have genuinely returned, he said, and has also allowed the government to vastly inflate returnee figures. While some sources say the number of returnees to the area is as high as 4,000, Hotovic, who says he has counted each and every one, insists that only 850 have returned.

He says that people returning temporarily to take aid in this way had also reinforced the widespread belief that Bosniaks were not welcome in the region and that Serb aggression awaited them.

“It makes me really angry,” said Hotovic. “These people say they can’t go back to Foca because people are kicking them out. That’s a lie, nobody is kicking them out.”

Hotovic denies that inter-ethnic tension was the main reason people were reluctant to return. His own house – next to the main road just a few km from Foca – was the first Muslim house to be burnt down in 1992. But since he returned in 2000, he has had no trouble, he says.

According to him, while some tension still exists, joblessness is a far greater problem, “As far as the fighters from both sides are concerned, we’re in the same basket. It’s a difficult [economic] situation for both [sides].”

Factories were looted and destroyed during the war and although some have started up again, they now run at a fraction of their pre-war capacity.

According to Guy Dionne, project manager of the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, in Foca, the growth of such companies and the potential employment they could offer is limited by access to technology and markets.

UNDP works closely with the logging and metal-processing industries in the hope of reviving their fortunes.

“To re-establish your marketing channels, you have to speak foreign languages, you have to have adequate technology or up-to-date products to fit international demand,” explained Dionne.

“You need certification in terms of quality standards… [and] the financial reporting of firms for accessing credit or capital investment needs to be of a higher standard than it is currently.”

The effect of the decline in industry can be seen in the town of Foca itself, to which fewer than 20 Bosniaks have returned.

At the entrance stands a memorial to the Serb soldiers and civilians killed in the war.

After the conflict ended, the town was renamed Srbinje – literally “place of Serbs” – until 2004, when a Bosnian court ruled that the name be changed back. All of the town’s mosques were destroyed during the war including Aladza Mosque in April 1992 – one of the most revered in the Balkans. More than 2,000 Foca residents are also still missing – the vast majority of which are Bosniaks.

Passing through the centre of the town, one cannot miss the swarms of jobless young people who gather throughout the afternoon. Some wander aimlessly through the streets while talking with friends. Others sit in the central square, gazing at passers-by until late in the evening.

Sanja Kulic, a Serb teacher at the Foca High School, says up to 80 per cent of her students will try to leave Foca to go to university or find a job elsewhere.

“They are aware that it is very difficult to find employment here in Foca. The current situation in our society and our economy is very difficult,”

she said.

Irineja Mihajlovic, a Serb junior school student living in Foca, is one of those who see their future elsewhere.

Asked if she would return to Foca to find work after university, she says, “I really doubt it, even with a degree I think it is difficult to find work here. A lot of people are unemployed and there aren’t many jobs. Those that become available often get filled by people with connections and no expertise.”

Hotovic holds out little hope that more Bosniaks will return to the region. For him, the movement of people is in the opposite direction, illustrating this with a joke that has become well known here.

“If all of the borders around Bosnia and Hercegovina opened up, where would you go?” one man asks a friend.

“I would climb the nearest tree,” he replies.

“Why would you want to climb a tree?” asks the first man.

“Just to save myself from the stampede.”

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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