bosnia report
New Series No. 6/7 September - December 1998
Election Day in Srebrenica
by Alison Snape

Tuzla, Saturday 12 September 1998

At 8 a.m. they gather to board the buses: women of all ages, some in head-scarves, others smartly lipsticked and trouser-suited; men, mainly old or young. The morning sun warms us as we leave Tuzla and climb into the hills, but at Kladanj a strong wind rises, sweeping the beautiful valley with dark clouds. Here, in 1995, in shock and mourning, the women of Srebrenica reached Bosnian government territory, leaving their men to terrible slaughter. Today a small number plan to reverse their journey, to make the symbolic gesture of voting in their own municipality, and to come as close as possible to their old homes.

At Kladanj the buses and passengers regroup, joining others from Sarajevo and dividing for various destinations within Republika Srpska. In a convoy of three buses we head out towards Vlasenica. At the unmarked 'border' we acquire an escort. Ahead of us are the RS police, in a battered Opel Kadet, emergency lights flashing, while a white UN jeep brings up the rear. At the roadside small knots of people stare after us. Most do not react; a few give the three-fingered nationalist salute. At Mitrovice our police escort increases, the Opel giving way to a more official-looking vehicle. On twisting roads, we pass further into the mountains. An SFOR patrol passes, heading in the opposite direction: but there seems surprisingly little military presence.

11.45 a.m. Suddenly, we stop at the roadside. An empty bus sits in a dirt lay-by. On one side of the road are ruined farms, deserted apple-orchards; on the other, a rough bridge crosses a broad stream. A signpost with a hand-drawn arrow points across the bridge and down a wooded track: 'Polling Station this way'. Cautiously, passengers emerge from the buses. The stream marks the edge of the Srebrenica municipality. The town is 20 km away across the mountains, almost 50 km by the main road. This is as close to home as the voters will get today. Our UN observers, French and Jordanian, tell us that this is a special polling station. 'It's nice and quiet for these people, you understand.'

One bus-load at a time, RS police escort us down the shady track. The polling station, an ordinary house, stands in a clearing among steep hillsides. There are only two polling booths, so voting will take some time. The sun is hot again as voters sit patiently on the grass. The officials gather in the shade on the porch: a Finnish OSCE supervisor, a Ghanaian International Police officer, the Chairman of the Election Committee, and Amir, a Bosniak member of the Srebrenica Council in exile who accompanied us from Tuzla. The Chairman, a genial Serb in a grey cardigan, claims to be neutral, but admits to a position on the Srebrenica Council. He strolls among the waiting groups, exchanging casual words here and there. Amir approachesÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ him: 'Why did you play nationalist music when we came for the council meeting?' he asks. The Chairman makes an evasive reply. Both men are smiling, but we sense the tension between them. Amir claims that as an Election Committee member he should accompany voters into the polling station, but he lacks the necessary OSCE accreditation and permission is refused. He is allowed in only to cast his own vote.

The Finnish OSCE supervisor is happy to answer questions. 'No', he says, 'it's not a special polling station.' He is expecting 250 refugee voters from the Federation, and 23 local Serbs. He says the Federation voters are not taken into Srebrenica because the road is bad, and they would have to go round by Bratunac, another two hours drive. White-uniformed EU observers arrive, and the supervisor reports his refusal to let Amir inside. Otherwise no problems, he says, everything is smooth. One of the EU observers is Dutch. He says he volunteered especially for this station. 'It has significance for us.' They are accompanied by a Dutch newspaper journalist, the only reporter we encounter all day. The Dutch observer asks us what we think of security, and when we say we don't see much, he replies: 'Be assured, they are here.' We peer up into the forests, but can see nothing. It is strange to feel watched, a slight intimation of what it might be like to have snipers in those hills.

The sound of gun-shots dent the quiet afternoon. No one reacts, but after a pause the EU observers stroll back down the track to investigate. We sit on the edge of a water trough, and people come to the tap. An elderly woman washes fruit. Behind her glasses, her eyes fill briefly with tears as she tells of the loss of her only son. She offers us some grapes. A group of boys pose, laughing and joking, for a photograph. Mostly 18 years old and voting for the first time, they were 15 when Srebrenica fell, just young enough, if they were lucky, to escape the killing fields. A bearded man washes at the tap before praying. His hand is heavily bandaged. When he comes back, he stops to speak to us. 'I may be injured,' he says, 'but today I don't feel it, because I'm so close to my home.' He shakes our hands, and asks us to send him photographs of Srebrenica.

On the steps of the polling station, a young woman suddenly comes face to face with her former neighbour, a Serb. At first he tries to ignore her, his eyes sliding away, but she persists. 'How are your mother, and your sister?', and gradually they begin to talk. Afterwards she sits on the grass, crying gently.

The EU observers come back. 'Nothing to worry about, just a ruined house being dynamited.' Eva, our driver, questions them about the road to Srebrenica. 'It's bad,' they say. 'No surface. Your car won't take it, and you might miss the road entirely.' Gradually they give way to Eva's persistence, and lend us their SFOR map. They will be coming that way and will retrieve the map later. Back at the road, people are more relaxed, picnicking in the fields and taking apples from the trees. The young boys crowd around our car, 'Take us to Srebrenica,' they call. Further on, we encounter SFOR armoured personnel carriers, and stop for a route consultation. This SFOR zone is usually Russian, but for the elections the Americans have taken over. They are bemused by the five female occupants of the car: Eva, our Polish-Icelandic driver, Kristina, a German human-rights activist who spends most of her time with Amazonian Indians, two Norwegian film-makers, and myself. 'Are you guys here from school?', they ask.

After a short stretch of pot-holes we are back on good tarmac. We approach Srebrenica, as the Bosnian Serb Army did, from the south. The road is steep and winding and we can see the red roofs of the town well before we reach it. We drive slowly down the main street, stopping to film and take pictures. The houses are almost all part-ruined, but rebuilding is evident. People sit on repaired porches and balconies, or stroll in thÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ e streets, but the shops and the hotel are derelict, their fronts graffiti-ed or papered with election posters. I expect some emotional reaction, but my mind shies away from reconstructing the past. This could be just another war-torn, gradually healing Bosnian town. But it is not: it is Srebrenica.

In the main square our hire-car with Croatian plates and our cameras attract attention. There are some smiles from women and children, but from a knot of men gathered at the cafe a policeman emerges. The Norwegians show their press cards, the rest of us our passports, and he writes the names and numbers in his notebook. Honour satisfied, he returns to his group. Then, as Ellen the camerawoman films in a sidestreet, a car stops beside her and a group of men climb out. 'You can't film here. Don't you know where you are? Get lost.' We take a few more pictures to show we are not frightened, and drive on northwards.

As we leave town, the sky darkens and heavy rain begins to fall. We speed our progress along the road the refugees took, jumping out at Potocari to photograph the Dutchbat sign, amazingly still there, roughly painted, red on white. A guard yells at us from inside the compound. We drive on in the dark, past the massacre site at Kravica, along the steep banks of the Drina to Zvornik, then west to Tuzla. The next day we visit our friend Almasa in Tuzla. She runs from the door to hug us, her arms strong. Everyone must have breakfast. No one can leave without food.

We fill up with eggs, sausage, bread and coffee. When we tell her we have been to Srebrenica, she says that some of her former neighbours there have invited her back to visit them. She wants to go, and thought about taking a bus, but the terror of her 14-year-old son Elvir was too great. His father and elder brother disappeared at Potocari, and if anything happens to Almasa he will be alone. Eva, who lives in Sarajevo, promises to return with a car and accompany her. For three years, says Almasa, she has talked endlessly, to anyone who asks her þ to the Red Cross, to War-Crimes Investigators, to Human-Rights The growing roster of fancy eating establishments in Sarajevo includes a stylish Lebanese restau- rant, an Indian restaurant and three Chinese restaurants. At the other end of the food chain, McDonald's is trying to create a network to supply buns, burgers and fruit pies so it can open its first outlet in the Bosnian capital. The city is awash in new cafes. By unofficial accounts, Sarajevo has more cafes per capi- ta than any other city in Europe. And they are filled, day and night.

Three years after the Dayton peace agreement stopped the shooting in Bosnia, Sarajevo still bears the scars of the 42-month battering it took from Serb ar- tillery. There are plenty of crumpled buildings and hollow-eyed lost souls. But the anti-sniper barriers have come down, the trams have been running for some time, and there is a score of new boutiques to admire in the main commercial district. Benetton was the pioneer; now Sarajevans can shop for Versace clothing and Swatch watches.

Normally, all this consumer activity would be taken as a good sign, but in Sara- jevo, the reality is far different. Bosnia has become a ward of the internation- al community, and Sarajevo has the feel of a colonial capital with a foreign ruling class and a downtrodden local populace. Bosnia provides something of an object lesson in the difficulties of intervention in the former Yugoslavia, even as NATO considers whether to hit the Yugoslav army with air strikes to deter it from further attacks against civilians in the restive province of Kosovo. Western intervention stopped the killing in Bosnia, but beyond that significant accomplishment, things have not exactly worked out as planned.

In Sarajevo, the expensive restaurants and boutiques are servicing the ever-ex- panding bureaucracy of international experts who have come to help spend the $5 billion in reconstruction aid that was promised at Dayton. There ÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÌÔ are an estimat- ed 12,000 to 15,000 expatriates working in Bosnia, most of them from Europe and the US. They work for 463 organizations, employing about 50,000 to 60,000 lo- cals. The local Bosnians generally work in low-level capacities þ drivers, translators, secretaries. For a Bosnian, landing one of these jobs is considered a real plum. That's because there is nothing else. The official unemployment rate is 60 percent. The real unemployment rate is probably closer to 80 per cent.

Despite the nice veneer of the Versace mannequins in Sarajevo shop windows, the Dayton peace process is not working out as well as its American creators had hoped. Only a tiny fraction of the 1.7 million people displaced by the war have been able to return to their homes, and there is no longer much talk of an exit strategy for NATO. The new government structures that were designed to share power among the three ethnic groups and reintegrate the country simply do not work.

Critics jump on design flaws, but the real problem is that Dayton's signers þ Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic, Croatia's Franjo Tudjman and, to a lesser extent, Bosnia's Alija Izetbegovic þ never believed in the unified, multi-ethnic Bosnia envisioned by Dayton. This was readily apparent in last month's national elec- tions. Ultra-nationalists, backed by their counterparts in Belgrade and Zagreb, took all the key Serb and Croat positions. The Muslim side continued its drift toward a harder ethnic line. The federal parliament and other 'joint' institu- tions such as the three-member presidency do not function. The Muslim-Croat Fed- eration exists on paper only. A phone call from the Serbian entity within the country, the Republika Srpska, to the other in-country ethnic ruling council, the Muslim-Croat Federation, requires an international operator. The Republika Srpska still uses the former Yugoslavia country code.

For all practical purposes, Bosnia is governed by the Office of the High Repre- sentative, an agency originally created by Dayton to oversee the implementation of the civilian aspects of the peace agreement. The current 'high rep' is a no-- nonsense Spaniard, Carlos Westendorp. He has been forced to function pretty much in the manner of a colonial governor because local governmental structures are paralysed by ethnic mistrust. The most basic issues þ the design of the national flag, the design on the common currency and car license plates that do not advertise the driver's ethnic origin þ ended up hopelessly deadlocked in the federal parliament. Westendorp unilaterally picked the flag, delivered a com- promise on the currency and removed nationalist symbols from license plates.

Bosnia's politicians seem to prefer it this way. It allows many to spend their energies lining their pockets and grandstanding on ethnic issues rather than governing. They don't have to worry about the practical consequences; they know the high rep will be there to clean up the mess.

'How long is the high rep going to be running things around here?' a very senior Bosnian Cabinet adviser, a man who always has an hour or three to sip cognac with foreign journalists, was asked recently.

'Forever,' he replied. The idea didn't seem to bother him in the least.

This article appeared in the Chicago Tribune on 12 October 1998


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