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

The Lost City Of Srebrenica

Four years on from the wartime horrors of Srebrenica, the town is still in despair. Its Serbian residents do not wish to live there and its former Muslim citizens will not return.
By Zoran Tmusic

'Don't touch him,' reads the graffiti over a faded poster picture of war crimes indictee Radovan Karadzic, pasted on a building in the centre of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia.


The scribbled warning to the NATO-led force that still patrols the town is about two years old. In those days the 15,000 Bosnian Serbs who lived there furiously opposed plans to allow the return of Muslims ejected from Srebrenica in one notoriously brutal operation exactly four years ago.


Two years on they seem to have come to reluctant, if indifferent terms with the idea. The mayor is a Bosniak (Muslim) and dozens more Bosniaks come to the town each day, on brief visits. The Serbs' old loyalties to Karadzic and his fellow war crimes suspect Ratko Mladic are gone.


"Karadzic and Mladic should not be tried in The Hague," says Milan S. "We, the Serbs, should try them. The Serbian people were the biggest victims of the policy of those two." Milan is a Serb who moved out of Sarajevo after the Dayton Accord ended the fighting in 1995.


He moved into Srebrenica, which he wryly describes "the darkest corner of the bloody Balkan inn". Four years ago the Bosnian Serb forces entered the supposed UN guaranteed 'safe area' and under the eyes of their supposed protectors forcibly ejected the entire Muslim population. An estimated 8,000 were held back and killed or just 'disappeared'.


Even though they were a majority in the town before the war, there are no permanent Muslim residents in Srebrenica. It gets its Muslim mayor by dint of the fact that former residents were able to vote in local elections two years ago from wherever they had found refuge. However it took OSCE officials until Mar. 4 this year to force both sides to sign an Agreement allowing the election results to be implemented.


According to the Agreement, the post of the mayor went to Muslim Nesib Mandzic, while the presidency of the city council went to a Serb, Petar Janjic. Other offices were distributed according to a pre-arranged 'national key'.


Special rules apply to votes taken in the city council assembly, where the Bosnian Muslims and Serbs hold 24 and 18 seats respectively. No motion can be passed without the endorsement of at least one third of the city deputies from both sides.


"We have already had two sessions of the municipal assembly," says council vice-president Dragan Jeftic, who commanded Bosnian Serb special forces in Sarajevo during the war. "We hold the sessions of the town's government once a week and there are no major disagreements. I did not have any conflicts with mayor Mandzic, we often drink coffee together, and we talk about ordinary things.


"We don't look at each other as enemies, but as people with good intentions."


On paper it would seem that the way is clear for the Muslims to return and at least the semblance of their pre-war co-existence recreated. Except for the fact that the refugees do not want to return home and the Serbs do not want to stay.


Most of the Serbs who came to the town in the winter months after Dayton was signed find it hard to believe anyone would want to live there; many talk of their life in the town as a kind of punishment meted out from on high. All hope that one day, if they are lucky, they will leave the place for good and go to some foreign country.


A young unemployed Serb says: "Muslims are talking loudly about the return to Srebrenica, even though I think they don't wish that. Only crazy people could leave Sarajevo and return to this wasteland. They are coming here in order to find buyers for their houses, or to exchange them for Serb houses in Sarajevo."


A waiter in the town's Hotel Domovija takes the same line. About a dozen Bosnian Muslims working for the local authority stay in his hotel during the week. "I am sometimes accused by local thugs of defending the Muslims," he told Balkan Crisis Report.


"I am not defending them, but I do say: I decently fought them for four years and do not want to fight them any more. I am defending my job, which enables me to support my family. It's been enough of war! To whom is Srebrenica such as it is today any good?"


Indeed, Srebrenica as it is today, truly is good for no one. The wasteland left by war has been hardly touched by the country's reconstruction effort. The destruction ranged far and wide across every square metre of the town.


The Serb 'liberators' even managed to blow up the town House of Culture while mining the mosque next door. And the Potocari base where the Dutch UN troops were based during the massacre is a deserted tangle of scrap iron and weeds.


"This is the end of the world," says Svetozar Antic, another unwilling resident. "This town should be surrounded with barbed wire or a high wall, and turned into a museum of human stupidity. Or it should be rented out to some film company from Hollywood, specialising in horror productions...


"It is summer, and this hole hasn't even got a river, a pool, drinking water, or even a meadow where one could rest."


Ironically Srebrenica was one of the most developed municipalities in Eastern Bosnia before the war. It had factories, silver and coal mines and a large number of private transport companies.


The factories were reduced to piles of iron during the war and the trucks either stolen or shipped to Serbia. The war-damaged water mains are still unrepaired, forcing locals to get their water from wells. Only one in ten of the workforce has a paid job, and they must subsist on average monthly salaries of no more than a hundred dollars.


Council vice president Jeftic seems to be the only person willing to express optimism. He says the deal on the council has cleared the way for three major infrastructure reconstruction projects, funded by foreign aid. "We have recently been visited by the deputy foreign secretary of Great Britain, Tony Lloyd, who promised that the British government would help with the reconstruction of Srebrenica," he says.


The international community may have special cause to help the town. In four years it has not freed itself of charges that it cruelly failed to keep Srebrenica, the 'UN safe zone', as safe as its name implied.


That apparent sense of guilt is encouraging the OSCE and the office of the High Representative, leading the West's continuing work in Bosnia, to pay special regard to the town and to push harder than normal to see a multi-ethnic local authority in place.


But if the aim is to use the new town assembly as a first step to bring Srebrenica back to the world of the living, their efforts are viewed by both Serbs and Bosnian Muslims without enthusiasm. The most optimistic spin that can be put on the situation is that the local Serbs are too apathetic to bother opposing the High Representative's plans for the town.


Jeftic remains hopeful but tempers that hope with realism. "We had a war," he says. "We were on opposite sides and each fought for their own goal. I am afraid that both they and we have lost.


"But I think that we have a chance to redeem what has been lost."


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