bosnia report
New Series No:32-34 December - July 2003
Bijeljina: a bastion of apartheid
by Hasan Hadzic

Will the Orthodox Church leaders ever be able to explain why Bosniak houses and other buildings in Bijeljina's centre had to be destroyed so that, on the land 'liberated' in this manner, their Bishop Vasilije Kacavenda could build his residence? The person who signed on behalf of the Bijeljina municipality the document legalizing the 'gift' to the Orthodox Church of 11 expropriated Bosniak houses is Svetozar Mihajlović, [until January 2003] Minister for Civil Affairs and Communication in the Bosnian government. Milovan Blagojević, vice-president of the Bijeljina municipal council at the time of this scandalous legalization of the extortion, is deputy minister of Foreign Affairs [also until January 2003] and a member of Ivanić's PDP. What role in all this is being played by the OHR?

A list of executed 'Muslim extremists and terrorists' from April 1992, signed by the notorious and now deceased Ljubiša Savić Mauzer, contained 400 Bosniak names of which some were of children and old women. This, of course, is not the only death list, but students of Greater Serbian genocidal strategy assert that the number of victims would have beed in thousands, not in hundreds, had the will of Mauzer and local leaders prevailed. Željko Ražnjatović Arkan was commander-in-chief of this first phase in what would soon turn into a flood of atrocities committed in the Drina valley and all over Bosnia-Herzegovina. He, however, was only executing a general plan crafted by the Serbian state security and the JNA's intelligence officials, according to which the sight of ruthless executions witnessed in Bijeljina would serve to destroy the will to resist among Bosnia's defenders in other parts of Bosnia-Herzegovina. The plan contained also a specific instruction that the number of dead should not exceed a certain 'reasonable limit' which world opinion and international institutions would be able to tolerate. Once the international community proved willing to accept the first episode with its hundreds of dead, it sent a signal for an unrestrained slaughter of thousands upon thousands of inhabitants of Zvornik, Bratunac, Vlasenica and Brčko.

The same analysts claim that Bijeljina was later used too as a laboratory for testing different aspects of the Republika Srpska project. While, for example, in Bratunac, Vlasenica and other towns not even a Roma with a Bosniak name could remain after April 1992, in Bijeljina the deportation of the Bosniaks was conducted in several phases. Using the Bosniaks of Bijeljina, indeed, Vojkan Durković perfected a commercialized model of ethnic cleansing, by ransoming Bosniaks for safe transport across the Majevica. This town is also to be remembered for the enforced conversion to Christianity of its Muslim inhabitants. The great rush to 'voluntary' conversion during the war has, of course, nothing in common with a true change of religious belief - it was just the price of survival, especially for Bosniak women married to Serbs.

Bishop Kacavenda's mission

This recall of the war is necessary for understanding the grotesque situation in which Bijeljina Bosniaks find themselves today. At the time of the signing of the Dayton Agreement, there were 1,800 Bosniaks living in Bijeljina, which is something of a record for Republika Srpska. That provided the basis and encouragement for a massive return of Bijelina refugees in the afterwar period, so that today some 7,000 Bosniaks live in the town. This, and the fact that a similar number of Bosniaks has returned to the nearby town of Janja, has upset the guardians of Serb supremacy in this 'suburb of Belgrade', as the town is now known. Among these, key roles are played by the town mayor Dragutin Ljubović and Bishop Vasilije Kacavenda of Zvornik and Tuzla, who has chosen Bijeljina for his new residence. As a result of their efforts Bijeljina has became the site of a fierce anti-Bosniak campaign that has included an explosion on the premises of the Islamic Community and the demolition or closing down of several Bosniak shops and restaurants, among them a café owned by Jusuf Trbić, the most popular Bijeljina journalist in the prewar period.

Trbić was, to begin with, exposed to an unprecedented public attack from the Serb political parties, unions and media, who gave a twisted interpretation of a speech Trbić had delivered at the launch held for The Serbian Side of the War. One of the ringleaders was Rada Perić, a functionary of the Serb Socialist Party (SPS), who used local television to send a message that Trbić had no right to speak about fascism and the lack of law in RS, given that his café in the town centre was operating unhindered. The same message was sent to Serb 'patriots' from several other sources, as a result of which Trbić's café was thoroughly demolished and there is no hope that it will ever open again.

The punishment of Jusuf Trbić sent a clear message to other Bosniak intellectuals and business people not to contemplate return or, in the event that they nevertheless do, to keep out of sight. Hence, while today you can find a Bosniak snack bar in the middle of Srebrenica, Zvornik or other places known until recently as the most obdurate and backward towns, this is not true of Bijeljina. In contrast to the above-mentioned places, where at least a few municipal bodies are headed by Bosniaks, in the Bijeljina town hall a Bosniak cannot even get to be a porter. The same situation prevails in the education, health, justice and other public services. Of 15,000 Bosniaks living in the Bijeljina municipality, only one holds the post of teacher (in Janja).

Although over a year ago the Human Rights Chamber obliged the municipal leaders to permit the reconstruction of Bijeljina's five destroyed mosques, the site of the former Atik mosque in the centre of Bijeljina has only now been fenced off. The strongest resistance comes from Bishop Vasilije, who claims that, if rebuilt, the mosque would spoil the view of his residence, including the courtyard and the church, which he has erected on land seized from Bosniak families.

More generally, the bishop is breaking all records in implementing a great Orthodox revolution. Among the new street names, and in heavy competition with various tsars, vojvode, princes and kings, a significant number has gone to Orthodox Church dignitaries. The city hospital is named after the Holy Magi, while every institution in the town boasts its own Christian slava [saint’s day], including the library, the police station, the electric power station, etc. Recently, an impressive cultural programme celebrated the slava of the 'town and municipality'. Previously there was only one slava for the municipality as a whole, but now the intention is to stem the influx of Bosniaks into the town in which, before the war, they had an absolute majority. The intention is to show that Bijeljina is, and will remain, an exclusively Serb town. The high point of the above-mentioned celebration was the appearance - watch out! - of a Serb mixed choir called Srbadija [Strongly Serb].

A Reserve Destination for Money Laundering

What pains in particular the Bosniak and Roma repatriates is that all these festivities are regularly attended, seated in the first row, by the head of the OHR office in Bijeljina François Peres, whose three-year- long service in Bijeljina they characterize as the main obstacle to the return of a multi-ethnic life. In the latest letter sent by a group of Bosniaks and Roma to the High Representative Paddy Ashdown, they state among other things: 'We believe that Mr. Peres is one of the persons most responsible for the difficult situation in which Bosniaks and Roma find themselves, and that he is one of the main pillars of the Greater Serbian policy here. His open collaboration with Serb nationalist politicians, the complete lack of response on his part after the demolition of several Bosnian shops, and his support for a policy which often amounts to a special war against everything that is not Serb and Orthodox, are some of the reasons why we request of the High Representative his immediate dismissal.'

While Bosniaks and Roma are forbidden to build or work, the Serb building fever is in full swing. In this field Bijeljina must surely be unrivalled in the whole Balkans. As we learn, 6, 000 flats are currently being built, and other facilities do not lag behind. ‘Money is flowing through Bijelina streets, though industry is in ruins. Serb refugees are massively attracted here, maybe because of the bridges and Serbia's proximity. Bijeljina became the privileged area of settlement of Serbs relocating from the Sarajevo region, who arrived with a lot of money. Furthermore, the investors here include people like Momčilo Mandić [arrested 13 April 2003] , who now live in Belgrade but who need a reserve location for money transfers in the case of emergency. [Belgrade gangster] Skrabe's murder has caused a great commotion here too; you never know what the Belgrade kosava [north wind] might bring. In Bijeljina you meet also Belgrade's business elite, which likewise finds it useful to have an alternative business location in the border area, for money laundering and similar business operations. You can find here too the accompanying rabble of old and dissipated Belgrade "workers for the national cause" - writers, journalists, actors and others. That is the reason why Bijeljina is called "Belgrade's suburb"; the local people are proud of that', we are told by a colleague from the Serbian capital who, like our earlier interlocutors, wishes to remain anonymous.

The colleague from Belgrade gave a short presentation to the Dani team on how to make functioning car doors, steering wheels, gear levers and all other car parts, since Bijeljina holds the record for the number of stolen cars. It is not lagging behind in the number of solved and unsolved murders either - as befits a Belgrade suburb.


This report appeared in Dani (Sarajevo), 6 December 2002


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