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

Srebrenica Status Question Won't Go Away

Muslim returnees now hope international community will back demand for town to be separated from Republika Srpska.
By Merdijana Sadović
It’s a warm, sunny day in Sarajevo and the weather is perfect for a football match. Thousands of people move slowly towards the gates of the city’s main stadium to watch a game between rivals from Bosnia’s two entities.



The chanting fans, adorned with colourful scarves and t-shirts with the emblems of their teams, are unaware of a group of children watching them through barbed wire surrounding a small camp set up just a few dozen metres from the stadium.



Only those who come close enough can see a large banner above the camp’s main entrance which reads, “UN protected zone Srebrenica”. Another banner, a few metres away, reads, “Encouraging victims to accept results of genocide is an act of genocide”.



Inside the camp, men and women walk around aimlessly; some of them sit in front of dark green tents, smoking and chatting, while children play in a big white tent, which serves as a TV room and a conference centre.



A woman in her mid thirties looks as her two daughters - 10 and 8 years old - chase each other around the tent.



“I hope they will pass their school exams this year,” she sighed. “I would hate it if they failed - they were both such good students in Srebrenica.”



The woman, who wished to remain anonymous, says a few weeks ago she and her husband sold everything they had in Srebrenica and came to this camp with their children, hoping to put pressure on the Bosnian authorities to change the status of this eastern Bosnian town. They don’t want to be part of Republika Srpska, RS, any more, she says.



They left Srebrenica during the war and returned five years ago, but life was a struggle. Her husband couldn’t find any work and they managed to survive only because they had a few dozen sheep, which they sold when members of the Initiative Board for Special Status for Srebrenica announced their plan to set up a camp in Sarajevo until their demands are met.



The board insists that Srebrenica cannot be governed by the RS authorities who, they claim, are responsible for the 1995 genocide and demand the status of a district, which means it would be run by the Bosnian state.



Although quite small, the camp resembles a refugee centre set up at Tuzla airport shortly after Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995. In the days following the takeover of this town, around 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed and thousands of women and children were expelled. These crimes were classified as genocide both by the Hague tribunal and the International Court of Justice, ICJ.



The camp, consisting of 29 tents erected on a small plateau overlooking the stadium, was set up on April 16 this year. The number of its residents fluctuates, but there are usually at least 75 adults and 25 children, and they are all Muslim returnees to Srebrenica.



“Srebrenica can no longer be part of Republika Srpska whose institutions, such as army and police, committed genocide against its Muslim residents. That was clearly stated in the ICJ ruling,” said Camil Durakovic, president of the Initiative Board.



Durakovic also sleeps and works in the camp, in a small, cramped trailer, which is his bedroom and office. He was 16 when Bosnian Serb troops overran Srebrenica. He was wounded while escaping from the town, he says, showing deep scars on both legs. Durakovic made it to Bosnian territory though, and headed for the United States, where he finished high school and studied law. He returned to Srebrenica in April 2005 because he “missed his home”, but was not happy with what he found there.



“Bosnian Muslims can hardly find any work in Srebrenica and they don’t feel safe. Eight Serb policemen who are on the list of potential war crimes suspects work in the local police station, but the RS authorities don’t seem to care,” he said.



The RS government keeps promising they’ll do everything they can to improve the economy and conditions for Srebrenica citizens, but that’s still not happening, says Durakovic.



He claims Muslim returnees began thinking about special status for the town six months before the ICJ ruling on Bosnia’s genocide case against Serbia, but he says the verdict - which confirmed that Bosnian Serb forces were responsible for 1995 Srebrenica genocide - prompted them into action.



He says the situation in Srebrenica is very grim - local institutions employ mainly Serbs, while Muslim returnees struggle to make ends meet. Also, their children go to Serb schools, where the Srebrenica massacre is hardly even mentioned. According to official numbers, around 900 Muslims have returned to Srebrenica so far, but Durakovic warns that more and more of them area leaving the town again, this time for good.



The Bosnian Serb authorities, particularly the RS premier, Milorad Dodik, have accused Srebrenica returnees of being manipulated by Bosnian Muslim politicians, who, he claims, want to use the ICJ ruling to destabilise and even abolish RS.



“I don’t deny that genocide occurred in Srebrenica, but you cannot blame the RS institutions for that,” said Dodik in a recent television debate on the returnees’ request for a special status, aired on Federal Television, FTV. “I did not participate in that crime, so why should I feel responsible?”



A number of Bosnian politicians from the RS and the Federation participated in this debate held in an improvised TV studio in the Srebrenica camp in Sarajevo on May 21, but they failed to reach any agreement on the future status of this town. Muslim and Croat representatives, as was expected, insisted on the special status for Srebrenica as the only fair outcome, while Serb politicians squarely rejected the idea.



“People who now live in this camp are the victims of our differing understanding of the ICJ ruling,” said Bosnian premier Nikola Spiric, a Serb, in the FTV debate. “They blame the RS authorities for genocide, while we claim the individuals are responsible, not institutions. Srebrenica wouldn’t gain anything with a special status, and it will not get it.”



The television debate left the residents of the Srebrenica camp disappointed.



“Bosnian politicians showed they can’t solve this problem, so it’s now up to the international community and the UN Security Council to impose a solution - that is their obligation after the ICJ judges clearly said the RS institutions are the main perpetrators of genocide,” said Durakovic.



“Srebrenica is the only town in the world in which the occurrence of genocide was confirmed by the UN’s highest court, so why would anyone say our request is unrealistic?”



Amir Kulagic, an engineer from Srebrenica, says the status of a district might encourage a mass return of pre-war residents to the town, especially those who are highly educated, and so help to bring about the revival of the whole region, which was among the richest in the former Yugoslavia before the war.



He adds the Initiative Board enjoys the support of many Srebrenica Serbs too, who are tired of living in an undeveloped town with dead economy - however, they are afraid to say that in public, because they fear possible repercussions.



But it seems not all Serbs are afraid to show their support. Durakovic mentioned a Serb from Brcko who brought food to the camp few days ago and told the returnees he hoped their demands would be met.



In front of a big green tent, a young man smokes a cigarette and listens to the ecstatic cheering coming from the stadium - the match is over and the team from RS lost five nil.



Puffing on a cigarette, Hasan Hasanovic, says he’s been here from the first day the camp was set up. When asked what he does during the day, he shrugs,

“I’m killing time, hoping someone will solve our problem.



Stubbing out his cigarette, he says, “I will stay here as long as it takes, but I’m not going back to Srebrenica. Not if it remains in the RS. ”



Merdijana Sadovic is IWPR’s Hague project manager.