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

Zepa Marks Anniversary Alone

While diplomats converged on Srebrenica to honour its victims, none seemed to remember the fate of the forgotten enclave of Zepa.
By Ilda Zornic

The picturesque Zepa valley
The only sign marking the road to Zepa village
Camil Basic, a returnee living in extreme poverty, sits in front of his barn
Some parts of Zepa village have been rebuilt better than others
The remains of a burnt out house stand as a reminder of the war

On the outskirts of the village of Zepa, emerald green fields, ringed by dense forest and mountains, stretch for miles. The scenery is idyllic, the silence of the wilderness on a July summer's day broken only by the sound of birdsong and crickets.


A winding lane snakes through the forest to reveal houses nestling at the foot of the hill. It could be Austria, or a scene from the the Sound of Music were it not for the ominous skeletal remnants of a burned-out house at the village entrance. A dusty piece of cardboard held up by two rocks on the road bears the name of the village.


One of six UN safe areas during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia and Hercegovina, Zepa fell to Bosnian Serb forces on July 25 2005, two weeks after the same troops overran the enclave of Srebrenica.


Ten years on, the world and the local authorities appear to have forgotten both the village and the handful of residents who returned after the bloodshed was over.


Srebrenica, which became infamous as the site of the biggest massacre in Europe since the end of the Second World War, was the first casualty of the Bosnian Serb drive in 1995 to eliminate the last Bosniak pockets in eastern Bosnia.


At the start of 1995 there were six such enclaves. Three of them, Zepa, Srebrenica and Gorazde, lay on the banks of the Drina river that divides Bosnia from Serbia. Their capture was a key strategic goal of the Bosnian Serb leadership.


In the days that followed the fall of Srebenica on July 11, Serb forces under General Ratko Mladic executed about 8,000 Bosniak men and boys.


By July 14, the massacre was complete and many Bosnian Serb units had moved on to Zepa, where an assault had already commenced.


General Radislav Krstic, deputy commander of the Drina Corps, who has since been sentenced to 35 years imprisonment by the Hague tribunal for genocide, gave the order to attack Zepa on July 13.


"I have decided to immediately begin an attack and break the enemy in the enclave of Zepa with the aim of liberating and cleansing Serb Podrinje of Muslim forces and liquidating the enclave," Krstic wrote in his order to the troops, a copy of which has been seen by the Balkans Crisis Report.


"After breaking the enemy in Srebrenica enclave, our forces will continue action on a mission to break the enemy in Zepa enclave and create conditions for actions towards Gorazde," the order continued.


The 1995 attack was reprise of an earlier, unsuccessful assault. In the summer of 1992, Mladic's forces had attempted the same goal but failed. Bosnian forces ambushed them in a narrow canyon and inflicted serious casualties.


Zepa survived for another three years, while victims of ethnic cleansing elsewhere in eastern Bosnia streamed in, raising the population to a peak of about 17,000.


In May 1993, a UN Security Council resolution proclaimed Zepa and Srebrenica safe areas, which was supposed to guarantee the safety of the civilian population.


Seventy-nine Ukrainian soldiers were stationed in the enclave to protect the area and its inhabitants. Most Bosniak soldiers in the enclave duly surrendered their weapons to the UN force, as the latter demanded.


As Serb forces made their last advance on Zepa, the then UN commander in Bosnia, General Bernard Janvier, allowed Ukrainian peacekeepers to leave Zepa defenceless and unguarded, just as the Dutch soldiers had abandoned Srebrenica to its fate.


"The UN should have protected us but did not," Mustafa Omanovic, a representative of the Zepa returnees, told BCR.


The number of fatalities in Zepa was far lower than in Srebrenica, but thousands of residents still lost everything they had - ethnically cleansed into lands that now form the Federation.


In talks held just before the enclave fell, the Bosnian commander, Avdo Palic, negotiated an evacuation plan with Mladic and his aides, Zdravko Tolimir and Rajko Kusic.


Mladic offered 50 coaches for the evacuation of Zepa. At first, the Bosnian side refused but later, as one Bosnian official said, they decided they had no option. "It is better to take part in ethnic cleansing than allow ethnic killing," this official recalled.


Palic remained behind after the fall to oversee the evacuation of the civilians to Bosniak-held Kladanj. The buses containing the women from less fortunate Srebrenica had terminated there two weeks earlier.


The evacuation deal ensured there was no repeat of the carnage in Srebrenica, but there was bloodshed nevertheless. Witnesses recalled Serbs taking some 50 men and boys off the buses at various checkpoints and executing them in cold blood. It is believed that about 80 people from Zepa were executed in total in the last days of July, while many more died earlier during the siege, from shells or malnutrition.


Palic also disappeared. Mladic's troops took him away after the last bus left Zepa, and he was never seen again.


Most men of fighting age, aware of the slaughter of their counterparts in Srebrenica, had split into groups and melted into the forests around the enclave. The larger group headed for Kladanj. About 800 swam across the Drina into Serbia, accompanied by some of the women and children, where an uncertain fate awaited them.


Omanovic was 13 when he escaped to Serbia. "The women, children and old were evacuated to Kladanj thanks to Palic while the men ran through the forests," he recalled. "Once there they loaded us onto buses and trucks and took us into camps, where they beat, abused and starved us." Omanovic and most people in his group remained in camps in Mitrovo Polje and Sljivovica in Serbia for six months.


Ten years on, Paddy Ashdown, the international High Representative in Bosnia, ordered the Republika Srpska, RS, to deliver a full report on Palic's disappearance. On July 25 this year, exactly a decade after Zepa fell, Ashdown received the RS report but its contents have not been revealed.


A decade after its fall, Zepa is tranquil but devoid of visitors. A new mosque, a school and a few new houses testify to the fact there is life in Zepa, though the makeshift roofs of the houses hint at the poor quality of that life.


Before the war, the village and surrounding area had a total population of 3,000, with 750 children attending the primary school. Today, 500 returnees have come back, of which only one is officially employed. The rest make ends meet somehow, forgotten by the RS government that now rules the area.


The Serb authorities have ensured that the reconstructed school, which has only six pupils, bears the name Saint Sava, a Serbian saint and hero. There is no shop, hospital, or post office. "We are completely cut off from the world. If someone gets sick we have to take them to Sarajevo," said Omanovic.


The factories where the locals once worked have all closed. "The Federation authorities and international organisations sent help a few times but the RS government turns a deaf ear to our pleas," added Omanovic.


The first organised returns to the area started in 2000. Those who came back said they did so either because they could not survive elsewhere, or because they believed the returnees would be looked after.


Omanovic, who was sent to the United States after being freed from the camp in Serbia, regrets his decision to return.


"I was foolish. I thought things could not be bad now the war was over, but I was wrong," he said. "No one thinks of us, or visits us. Only the women of Srebrenica remember us sometimes."


In front of a rundown wooden shack with cellophane in place of windows, Camiz Basic, 75, welcomes visitors with a smile on his face but despair in his eyes.


His wrinkled face and dirty clothes are signs of the poverty he endures, living alone with no water, electricity or money for food. "It is as if the war is still on but without the shooting," he said.


"I had to come back, as I wanted to live out my last years on my land with my people, where I was born," added Basic, who returned in 2002 with his wife. She died soon after.


"The municipality does not help. I plead with the Federation to help but nothing happens. If only they would give me a little house so that I don't have to freeze here in winter."


Two weeks ago, hundreds of diplomats and members of the international community in Bosnia joined local politicians and thousands of mourners to mark the tenth anniversary of the fall of Srebrenica.


But two weeks later, on July 25, Camil Basic and the rest of the Zepa survivors marked their anniversary alone in their picturesque former enclave.


No one was there to share Basic's memories of the horror that befell the village ten years before or echo his prayer that "someone will save me from the horror of life since the war".


Nerma Jelacic is BIRN/IWPR country director in Bosnia and Hercegovina. Ilda Zornic and Aida Alic produced this article as part of their BIRN/IWPR journalism training.