Bosnia: a house divided

Author: Katherine Boyle, The Hague
Uploaded: Thursday, 18 January, 2007

According to a recent IWPR analysis, whereas one of the Hague tribunal’s aims is to promote reconciliation, in fact ethnic divisions in Bosnia show little sign of easing.

Overnight people became beasts.

Seida Karabasic can think of no other explanation for the beginning of the Balkan wars, which in 1992 turned neighbour against neighbour in her municipality of Prijedor. ‘Because it happened so quickly, a lot of people don’t trust those of other ethnicities anymore,’ said Karabasic, who is ethnically Muslim, or Bosniak. ‘They feel [the fighting] could happen again at anytime.’

Across Bosnia, this distrust is evident not only in people’s attitudes, but also in the ethnic makeup of communities. Many areas that were ethnically diverse before the war are now home to homogeneous communities. The shift has been facilitated in part by the large number of Bosnians who were killed during the war or fled the country. But another significant contributing factor has been the relocation of many Muslims, Serbs and Croats to different areas of Bosnia.

Since the wars of the nineties, Bosnia has been divided into two entities, the primarily Bosniak and Croat Federation and the mainly Serb Republika Srpska (RS), in which Prijedor is located. Strong Muslim communities are located in Travnik, Bocinja/Zavidovici, Tesanj, Maglaj, Bugojno and Zenica, while prominent Serb areas include Banja Luka, Trebinje and Bijeljina. Ethnic and religious differences between the territories are quickly apparent.

As travellers drive into the RS, they are greeted by a sign proclaiming ‘Welcome to Republika Srpska’ in Cyrillic letters. Underneath the words is the RS coat of arms – two warlike eagles wearing an elaborate crown topped by a cross, likely symbolic of the Serbian Orthodox Church.

In Prijedor, the population after the war was almost entirely Serb. Now, it is the most ethnically mixed municipality in the RS, with the highest number of Bosniak returnees. Yet despite this progress, only half of the pre-war Bosniak population of 49,500 has returned, according to the US State Department’s 2006 International Religious Freedom Report. However, even in areas that are only partially mixed, ethnic conflict occurs. In Prijedor during 2005, a Muslim graveyard was desecrated and mosques were vandalised three times during the month of Ramadan. And most Bosniaks in the municipality maintain that Prijedor will never be the same as it was before the war. They claim the area was once a model of tolerance where many ethnic groups peacefully co-existed, but say it is now fiercely divided along ethnic lines.

It is difficult for some Bosniaks to forgive and forget Serb persecution that occurred in the municipality, particularly when they think of those who will never be able to return to Prijedor. Karabasic is the president of the Izvor Association of Prijedor Women, an organisation dedicated to finding out what happened to Prijedor’s 3,228 missing and killed persons. Her own father was murdered by a sniper during the war, and her brother, a member of the Bosnian Army, was paralysed. As she leafs through a thick, heavy book, hundreds of black-and-white snapshots stare out from its pages, including 123 children and 228 women. Above some names there are question marks. They were unable to find photos of these individuals, said Karabasic, explaining that any pictures were likely burned along with the person’s home during the war.

Many of these people are thought to have died in the concentration camps that surrounded Prijedor in 1992: Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm. The camps were closed in August 1992 when journalists released photos of Omarska’s gaunt inhabitants, but an unknown number of detainees had already been executed. The International Commission for Missing Persons, ICMP, has been active in advocating the exhumation and identification of their bodies from mass graves around the area. With their help, a number of victims have been identified through DNA testing.

But a decade later, the atrocities committed still haunt the friends and relatives of the missing and confirmed dead as well as the survivors of the camps. And many Bosniak residents of Prijedor claim that the Serbs refuse to acknowledge what happened. ‘The crimes need to be discussed openly,’ said Karabasic. ‘Serb local people don’t want to hear about it.’

But for others, such as Lejla Arifagic, it is something that cannot be forgotten. Her father’s body was exhumed from a mass grave near Omarksa camp last year. ‘The last time I saw my father was May 25, 1992,’ said Arifagic, who is now a 23-year-old journalism student in Sarajevo. Later, after they were separated, she heard he was in Omarska. No word came until a decade later, when her mother received a phone call requesting that they both give DNA because a mass grave with 200 men in it had been unearthed near Omarska. After his body was identified, a funeral was held in July, which she said has provided her with some sense of closure. ‘I’m always dreaming of him,’ said Arifagic. ‘That’s a normal thing for me, but now, after the funeral, the dreams are nice. I have a feeling he is fine now.’ And knowing where he is may also provide a sense of healing, she said. ‘I have a place I can go and pray, a place I can go and talk and a place I can go and cry if I want to,’ she added.

But despite the notoriety of the camps and the large number of Muslims killed, visitors to Prijedor will find no memorials for their dead. In the town, there are only memorials for Serb civilians and Serb soldiers. Karabasic points out that a civilian memorial would have been much more inclusive had the government erected it for all civilians rather than just Serbs. Now, she said, it only causes resentment. Azra Pasalic, the Bosniak president of Prijedor’s municipal council, agreed, but noted the municipality is working to erect a new sign or statue that would honour members of all ethnic groups who lost their lives in the war.

Many Muslim returnees to Prijedor are also deeply upset that they have been unable to go back to their former jobs, added Karabasic, despite laws stating that they must be reinstated to the positions they held in 1991. ‘The local government says they can’t and won’t [reinstate them],’ said Karabisic, noting that the government is now primarily made up of Serbs. ‘They say they won’t fire someone in order to hire someone else.’ If the difficult economic situation improved, she added, it would likely improve relations between ethnic groups. For now, however, she said she believes Serbs hire only Serbs, unless they are forced to maintain a percentage of Muslim employees in order to receive money from an NGO.

Judge Nusreta Sivac has been unable to regain the judiciary post in Prijedor she held before Serbs overran the town and took over all its legal positions in 1992. Afterwards, she was put in Omarska camp, along with many other detainees who had leading roles in the community. When Sivac returned to Prijedor she found a former co-worker squatting in her apartment. Although the man refused to leave, with the help of the authorities she was eventually able to force him out in 2002. When neighbours realised she was back to stay, she said she returned home one night to find the word Omarska spray-painted across her door, dredgin

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