bosnia report
New Series No: 23/24/25 June - October 2001
 
What country is this? - the view from Foca and Gorazde
by Lynne Jones

‘So what do you call this country?’ I asked. Ciril looked at me, astounded, ‘Republika Srpska!’ ‘And where is it?’ ‘Not in any country, it is independent’. We were sitting in a bleak, chilly classroom in the Foca in 1998. Fourteen year old Ciril had agreed, along with nineteen other teenagers, to talk to me about how the war had affected his life, and how he made sense of what had happened. He had taken me to meet his family, talked movingly how much he missed his beloved uncle who had been killed on the line in the last year of the war. He had tolerated hours of my questioning without any sign of irritation or ill humour. Now however he was clearly taken aback at my stupidity. ‘And what about Bosnia?’ ‘Bosnia does not exist anymore.’ ‘So where is Gorazde?’ (the neighbouring town). ‘I heard about Gorazde. I don't know exactly where it is. Maybe in the Federation? That's the name of the country of the Croats and Muslims,’ he added tolerantly.

Ciril was not unusual. His contemporaries had found my question equally odd. Many agreed that Bosnia-Herzegovina did not exist any more, and they avoided the word if they could. Stojan told me he preferred to call himself Yugoslav even though he knew he was not, because ‘Republika Srpska is not a country, it's not independent and Yugoslavia [FRY] is recognised’.

View from Foca

Foca is not far from FRY. It is perched on a fork of the Drina between wooded mountains in Republika Srpska, one of the two entities that make up Bosnia-Herzegovina. But three years after the Dayton Peace agreement had created this arrangement, the town had a neglected and disjointed feel, full of oddly placed space, like the one at the top of the hill in the centre, under the destroyed watch tower. There is nothing there but rubble and a small rim of broken outer walls, belonging to what was once a cluster of small shops. The teenagers did not discuss these spaces. Like the name of the country they inhabited, they never mentioned them. Most of them were not here when they were made. Jovan told me that an order came by courier ‘when the war started: to take whatever we could and leave.’ Other Serb families received similar messages. So when the fighting began in the town on April 7 in 1992, most of them were with relatives in the country, or Serbia or Montenegro. ‘We stayed until Foca was liberated,’ Jovan explained.

Ivana was in town and witnessed a little of what liberation entailed. ‘We Serbs could move freely around the town and those [Muslim] families who stayed, had to remain indoors. The police were taking Muslim people from their houses, to the prison to work. We Serb children, we were watching.’ She went to play with her Muslim friend Amela. ‘And then police came. They had come before to take away her daddy.’ Amela had been upset and crying. ‘Now they were looking for weapons, and then I was afraid. I ran out of the house. Nobody in her family went out for fifteen days, and then they started moving out of the town. The police sent some of them. When the police sent those families away, their apartments remained empty and everything was turned upside down. I felt sorry for them. And then people went into their houses, and took things and sold them.’ One night she stood with her mother watching Muslim houses burn across the river. Her mother was crying and said ‘Don't watch, maybe it will be our homes next.’

According to Human Rights Watch, the military take-over of Foca was coordinated by a local Crisis Committee of established by Radovan Karadzic's Serb Democratic Party (SDS), who called on the assistance of paramilitary groups from Serbia and Montenegro. It took nine days, after which the Muslim population, who had made up more than 50% of the population, were either forcibly expelled or imprisoned in detention centers, where they were routinely tortured, beaten, and terrorized. Many died in the process, or were summarily executed by Serb forces. Many non-Serb women were held in special centres, including the local high school, and repeatedly sexually assaulted.

After talking with children at the school, I would regularly follow the route Amela's family must have taken. Some of the scenery had since changed. There is a bus station covering the site where the Aladza Mosque once stood. Almost half a millennium old, it was dynamited in 1992. The cobbled street continues past the overgrown gardens of burnt out villas in Donje Polje, where many Muslims had lived, and over a bailey bridge built to replace one of the three destroyed by NATO bombing in 1995. The poorly surfaced road is narrow, with the Drina flowing fast on one side and pasture and orchards rising steeply on the other. The only indication that you have left Republika Srpska is a small orange stick with a blob on top, stuck beside the roadway, and a slight improvement in the quality of the tarmac. The lollipop marks the Inter-Entity boundary line between the Serb entity and the small island of Federation territory that makes up the municipality of Gorazde. After twenty minutes driving, the valley widens, the river slows to a broad stream, and you reach the outskirts of the town of Gorazde, slowly rebuilding itself after four years of siege and bombardment.

View from Gorazde

In Gorazde, twenty teenagers had also agreed to help in the study. They found my question as to where they were living as bizarre as had their counterparts in Foca. And more than half of them shared the view that Republika Srpska was not part of Bosnia-Herzegovina, although they did believe that Bosnia still existed. Samir explained that Foca was in Yugoslavia, which was now controlled by Milosevic, and Mostar was in Herceg-Bosna, which belonged to Croatia. Narcisa told me that towns like Foca were ‘occupied’, by Serbs from Serbia, as distinct from Bosnian Serbs. Adnan told me Republika Srpska was ‘down by Belgrade.’

It seemed that while these teenagers had failed to understand the geographical reality of Dayton, they had grasped its psychological meaning, with all its implied contradictions, more clearly than the architects of the Agreement had.

‘Why did we fight if they are coming back?’ Vesna, one of the Foca teenagers asked me. ‘This war wouldn't make sense. It would mean that the war was for nothing. Because after the war some people left their homes, they were forced probably, and if they come back now, why were those people fighting?’ She could not understand it. She did not particularly like living separately, but she was worried that if people lived together again there would be another war. Almost all the Foca children agreed with her that the return of the non- Serb population would be dangerous. They were convinced that living together had led to war, so that is what would happen if they lived together again. Moreover, although most of them hated politics and despised all politicians, the majority would have voted for a national party if old enough to vote. Ciril told me one day that he now thought his uncle had died for nothing. He had come to see that the whole war was just so that some people could get rich. Even so his uncle had believed it was necessary to stop Muslims running the country as they had in Ottoman times. Now it would be ‘impossible’ for Serbs to live in such a situation. He was not quite sure how it would be impossible, he just knew it would.

They had not always felt like this. Before the war many of them had had no concept of ethnic identity. One Serb girl told me that she had had no idea when asked for her religion at school, so she chose ‘Muslim’ because she liked the sound of the word. Ciril's family's closest neighbours, and one of his best friends, had been Muslim. They had got on well and respected each other. But now their views had changed.

Not even an ear

‘To be honest I think we made a big mistake when we didn't exterminate them,’ Ciril's father told me one Sunday morning, sitting in his shop. ‘We had the possibility, but the Command, and people in power, Parliament didn't let us.’ He could see the horror on my face and shook his head sadly. ‘You won't be able to understand us easily. There are a lot of contradictions. If I believe in God then I shouldn't say something like that. Maybe I am still full of anger.’ He explained how his own father, who had always talked of ‘brotherhood’, had suddenly changed after Jasanice, when a group of some sixty-five Serb civilians, some old and some very young, had been massacred in a village near Foca. ‘He told me "not even a Muslim ear should remain", because Muslims had betrayed the trust of the Serbs too many times in last two or three hundred years, so the time had come for them to be destroyed. Now I see that he was absolutely right. If they cannot be exterminated, I want them far away from me.’ ‘Is this a lesson Ciril should learn?’ I asked. ‘Absolutely. I'm sorry, because the West could separate us. Republika Srpska will be a country no matter what.’

Both parents were sure that the Muslims wanted to exterminate them. Ciril's mother remembered her Muslim neighbour asking how their rooms were arranged in the house. At the time she had thought nothing of it, now she was sure it was part of a plan to kill them in their beds. Other families, less upset than Ciril's, felt the same: Ivana's mother saw how sad she was about her friend and told her: ‘somebody has to go, them or us, or this war won't end. No matter if it's Serbs or Muslims, it would be more dead people.’

As to the atrocities that had happened, they were sadly unavoidable in war. And criminals on both sides committed them. There was nothing ordinary civilians could do in such circumstances to protect their neighbours. ‘Anyway in Srbinje we put them on buses, they were not hurt,’ a Serb friend told me one evening. Srbinje is the new name for Foca, although many still prefer the old. ‘But didn't they have the right to stay?’ I asked, ‘How could they stay? They would have been killed.’

Killers at large

The known killers were still at large that year. In December 1997, Zoran Vladicic, head of the criminal department of Foca Police, beat up two Serb detainees in the police station. Later one of them died. The International Police Task Force filed a report but it had no power to act. Velibor Ostojic, former leader of the Foca Crisis Committee and the wartime Minister of Information for Republika Srpska, who had assured international media that the only camps that existed were for ‘captured Muslim fighters’, was nominated to head the Human Rights Commission of the Bosnian Parliament. His close associate Petar Cancar, wartime mayor of Foca and another leader of the Crisis Committee, was made Minister of Justice in Milorad Dodik's new RS government at the beginning of 1998. Ciril's family greeted this decision with roars of laughter. ‘Tuta’ otherwise known as Janko Janjic, a notorious member of one of the paramilitary groups, could regularly be seen on the restaurant terrace, next door to the IPTF station. He was filmed happily bragging of his crimes and showing off his hand grenades, while French NATO officers drank coffee nearby. Dragoljub Kunarac gave himself up to the International War Crimes Tribunal at The Hague that spring, but changed his plea from guilty to not guilty when he realised he was not being charged with one rape but many. In June German SFOR, having charmed us all with gifts of footballs to local schools, snatched one of the headmasters on his way to give out the school certificates. Milorad Krnojelac had been on a secret list. He was charged with crimes against humanity and alleged to be responsible for the torture, beatings, killings, prolonged imprisonments, forced labour and inhumane conditions that had existed when he was Warden of the KP Dom Prison. Some 600 non-Serbs had been detained there during the first 18 months of the war. Ivana's mother joined a local demonstration in protest, although she refused to join in the trashing of the OSCE office: ‘that was some crazy woman’ she told me.

We had become good friends, and whenever I went round she would read my future in the coffee grounds (it was always bright), and ask for news about old friends in Gorazde, where she had worked before the war. But she did not want to go back: ‘they would want me to apologise, and I did nothing wrong,’ she said.

This feeling that the hatred on both sides was absolutely mutual, and begun by the Muslims, was pervasive. Natasa, who had lived in a village near Gorazde, could not tell me what the differences were between ‘Turks’ (her term) and Serbs. She had had many Turk friends before the war, but she had not actually known they were Turks then. But she knew she did not like Turks now, nor did she want to see her old Turk friends again. It took her sometime to workout why, because they had not done anything to her personally. She just knew that ‘Turks hate Serbs’. And one night another friend exploded at me: ‘I HATE Muslims for what they did to us, why did they start this, we don't want to live with them and they don't want to live with us and anyone who tells you different is lying. When they say they don't hate us they are lying.’ ‘They are wiser and they can pretend’, Ciril's father warned me. ‘We are always honest.’

Gorazde Open City

Perhaps so and yet I could find no evidence of this wise pretending among the children and their families in Gorazde. As in Foca, much of the Serb population, forewarned, had left of their own accord before the onslaught had begun on the city in May 1992. The first strange thing Muslim children had noticed in April was that Serb children weren't coming to school but seemed to be taking trips to the country. Sanela was jealous. She lived in a Serb area, all her playmates had gone and she asked if she might have a weekend in the country as well. No one denied that some of those remaining had had a difficult time. Although there was no organised campaign against them, houses were burned and many were harassed and driven away. But in November 1997 Gorazde declared itself an Open City, committed to Serbs returning. None of the teenagers or families I talked to were against it, even though they thought it would be difficult at first. ‘I don't want a Muslim Republic of Bosnia’, Alma's mother told me, ‘I don't want to go covered, I don't want to live in Iran.’ Her daughter felt the same. ‘We have to be with others, we cannot live alone. How can we be alone in the house and not be with anybody else?’ They were disturbed by the idea of a mono-ethnic society. Elvira, who used to live in a village in Republika Srpska and lost her father in the first year of fighting, wanted to go home. She felt that ‘if they [Serbs] don't come back there is a possibility of war.’ Whereas living together ‘they probably wouldn't start a war because they are together with us.’ Her preference if she could vote was for a non-national party. The majority of other Gorazde children felt the same.

Two years have passed since I had these conversations. Some of the children I talked to are now old enough to vote. The results of both the local and the national elections held this year [2000] suggest that little has changed. In both the municipal and the national elections in the Federation, less nationalist parties, such as the Social Democratic Party and the Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina, increased their share of the vote. In Republika Srpska the hard-line nationalist Serb Democratic Party {SDS), founded by Radovan Karadzic, got 40% of the vote. Haris Silajdzic, leader of the Party for Bosnia-Herzegovina, had continually called for elections to be deferred, arguing that they could not be democratic while a million and a half people remain displaced, and that they would continue to legitimise ethnic cleansing.

There has been a trickle of returns of non-Serbs to Foca, but according to a recent report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), alleged War Criminals remain a powerful political force in the area and the International Community does little to stop them. Zoran Vladicic is still head of the criminal department of Foca police, along with three others alleged to have committed war crimes, all provisionally authorised by the UN Mission to Bosnia-Herzegovina to carry out police duties. Ostojic and Cancar have been listed by the RS Ministry of Defence as potentially indictable, but remain an active influence in Foca politics.

There have been some more attempts at arrests: ‘Tuta’ blew himself up and injured two Germans when they tried to arrest him this October. The town rose in protest; just as they had when French SFOR shot and killed another indictee, Dragan Gagovic, as he was driving five little girls home from a karate tournament in January 1999.

Justice crawls

Meanwhile justice crawls slowly at The Hague. Of the 65 indictees, 38 are currently in proceedings and 27 remain at large. Bosniak authorities have handed over 4,000 dossiers to the tribunal. Krnojelac's trial began last month. His Defence echoes the same arguments that many of the families presented to me in Foca: that one should understand Serbian history. First their unselfishness, in for example opting for Yugoslavia rather than Greater Serbia in 1914, and thus assisting Slovenes and Croats to statehood. Secondly their victimisation and repeated betrayal by all other ethnicities in both World Wars. And thirdly the fact that Muslims provoked the conflict in the early nineties by refusing to stay in Yugoslavia with them. If ‘excesses’ occurred, Krnojelac could not have known much about them, nor was he in anyway responsible. He had joined up out of patriotic duty, and was responsible only for the ordinary prisoners and not for military detainees. The Yugoslav Army uniform in which he had been seen, for example, was an old one belonging to his brother. He was wearing it because his own house in the Muslim area of town and had been burned down, so he did not have sufficient clothes.

In the pre- trial brief there is no attempt to argue that the ‘excesses’ did not occur. In an adjacent courtroom the trial of General Radislav Krstic, indicted for genocide and crimes against humanity for his alleged involvement in the massacres at Srebrenica, has come to its closing stages. Similarly the Defence rests not on denying that a massacre occurred in Srebrenica, but on proving that Krstic was not there at the time. Perhaps here one can detect a shift. Two years ago the children in Foca, when asked where the worst actions of the war had occurred, all identified atrocities against Serbs, such as at Jasanice. Only one of them knew what had happened in Gorazde, because he had a long-range gun outside his house and knew where it was targeted. And the few who had heard of Srebrenica were sure it was propaganda. In July of this year the Prime Minister of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, admitted that a mass crime had occurred there, and that relatives had a right to commemorate it. But perhaps that is one of the reasons he only got 10% of the vote in November

The International Crisis Group want the SDS banned because of Karadzic's continuing leadership, and its continued anti-Dayton stance. They argue that a conspiracy of silence still continues in RS, with the collusion of the International Community, for the sake of political expediency and perhaps to hide secrets of their own. Sources close to ICTY suggest that the French wanted to prevent Gagovic surrendering himself to the Tribunal, where he might have revealed illicit dealings with French UNPROFOR during the war. And the effect is to consolidate nationalist power and make inter-ethnic reconciliation impossible.

What happened at KPDom

It is a long way from Foca to The Hague. Last week the courtrooms were completely empty, apart from a small bunch of Croatian law students watching Mario Cerkez and Dario Kordic on trial for their involvement in the massacre in the Lasva valley. Krnojelac's trial was closed to protect the prosecution witness. So I sat on a plastic chair and watched coloured squares on a TV monitor as a Muslim doctor, who had lived and worked in Foca before the war, described the isolation, interrogation, beatings and disappearances that had occurred at the KP Dom. He had been unable to help when the man in the bed next to his died of untreated internal bleeding. Nor could he do anything for a mentally disturbed man who hacked at his ear and his fingernails and later committed suicide. Krnojelac, a slight balding man in glasses dwarfed by his guards, sat impassive. Mr Bakrac, his Defence council, did not contest these matters. In his morning cross-examination he worked hard to get the witness to speculate as to how ‘anxious’, ‘unsafe’ and ‘insecure’ Serbs must have felt when the Muslim-led Party for Democratic Action (SDA), of which he had been a member, held a rally of 100,000 in the town in 1990. The witness had not been there and would not do so. He reiterated that the SDA had been for equal rights for all citizens. In the afternoon - when the witness stated that he knew Krnojelac was in charge of the prison because, among other things, he had had him released from isolation; and that he had seen him in uniform - Mr. Bakrac complained that the witness was ‘drawing conclusions from the facts’. This drew a weary remonstrance from Judge David Hunt: ‘You cannot complain if you have spent an hour asking him to draw political conclusions, that he continues to draw conclusions on other matters. If you want him not to draw conclusions and just state the facts, we will instruct him to do so, but you have attempted to have it both ways.’

I felt as I had in Foca. On the one hand the families wanted me to understand that their historical experience meant that they knew they could never be safe as a minority in an independent Bosnia. On the other they could not understand why Muslims might not feel safe living as a minority in a Serb-dominated Yugoslavia. ‘To be honest I don't know what they were afraid of, because they never, never had bigger friends than Serbs. I still think that they can only live together with Serbs. They cannot live with Croats for sure. Serbs are the kind of people who forgive and forget,’ Ciril's father had said to me, shortly after he had been discussing Serb history and the need for the extermination or expulsion of Muslims from the area. Nor had this hindsight and foresight allowed any of the Serb adults to see what was happening right under their noses.

In July of this year, at the tenth anniversary of the founding of the SDS, Ljiljana Zelen-Karadzic (Radovan's wife) announced that the project of ethnic separation had been successful. Radovan Karadzic recently told his party that the best way to avoid Dayton implementation was to cooperate as little as possible and wait until the International Community went home. In his memoir To End a War, Richard Holbrooke describes how in September 1995, in the midst of the NATO bombing campaign and in the run-up to the Dayton negotiations, he and his colleague Roberts Owen browbeat President Izetbegovic into accepting a preliminary agreement in which the central state - Bosnia-Herzegovina - lost its title of Republic while the Serb entity acquired it, by retaining its warborn name Republika Srpska. ‘You are giving up nothing’, ‘The name means nothing’, they told him, given that Milosevic had in return agreed to recognise Bosnia within its internationally recognised borders. Holbrooke goes on to write that this is the first aspect of the negotiations he would revisit. ‘We underestimated the value to Pale of retaining their blood-soaked name’. He also believes he underestimated his own negotiating strength.

 

Ethnic strait-jacket

Today one of the signatories to the Dayton Peace Agreement is dead, another indicted, and the third about to retire from politics; but the impact of ‘the blood-soaked name’ lives on. The International Community appears increasingly frustrated and impatient with Bosnia, chastising it for clinging to ethnic politics and failing to create a properly functioning State. Yet it fails still to acknowledge the ethnic straitjacket in which it confined the population. The tragedy is that a second generation of young Serbs is now growing up convinced that ethnic cleansing was a defensive necessity, and that the only way to avoid future war is to live alone, in squalid poverty if necessary. While down the road their Bosniak neighbours live in a town whose isolated population has no viable existence outside a multi-ethnic state. But there are small signs of hope. The Bosnian joint Constitutional Court recently ruled that Bosniaks, Serbs and Croats must enjoy full legal equality everywhere on Bosnian territory. The decision was taken by two Bosniak and three foreign Justices outvoting two Croats and two Serbs. In the previous Entity constitutions, Serbs were privileged in Republika Srpska, and Bosniaks and Croats in the Federation. It is the first real step to a society based on citizenship not ethnicity, but like those other hopeful provisions of the Dayton Agreement: the right to return home and the arrest of war criminals, it needs to be enforced.

 

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