In 1995 the small town of Srebrenica in Eastern Bosnia was home to the worst massacre in Europe since World War Two. Now international aid, and the burials of victims of the massacres, are part of a process allowing the town to move forward, and begin to build a new future. The story of Srebrenica today, a town slowly reconciling itself to its past, unfolds through interviews with returning refugees, and those who can’t face ever going back; with the International Commission on Missing Persons; with EU Ambassador Michael Humphries; and with Lord Paddy Ashdown, internationally appointed administrator of Bosnia.
Srebrenica is a traditionally Muslim town in the north east of Bosnia. In July 1995, after a three-year siege, Serb armed forces entered the town and, over the following four days, massacred between 7000 and 8000 Muslim civilians. Most of them were men and boys. Another 35,000 Muslims, mostly women and children, were driven out into other parts of Bosnia. Srebrenica became a symbol of the horror of the Balkan wars. Now international aid, and the burials of victims of the massacres, are part of a process allowing the town to move forward, and begin to build a new future.
Lord Paddy Ashdown, High Representative, Bosnia Herzegovina, says: ‘Srebrenica is the worst single case of mass genocide on the territory of Europe since the Second World War’¦ After every war in history refugees have a theoretical right to return but they never do. The refugees after the Second World War, eight or nine million of them, lived in displaced person camps, they never went home, they were assimilated’¦ But here a million, a million, have returned home’¦ This is a miracle. It has never happened before in the whole of history.
In June 2004 Srebrenica reopened its football club for the first time since the end of the war. In a community that only nine years ago was deeply and bloodily divided, it’s a minor miracle’¦ because the club is multi-ethnic. Abdurahman Malkic, Mayor of Srebrenica, is optimistic: ‘
Perhaps I shouldn’t overstate this but the kids here are not affected by the past. And I hope they will be brave enough not to be scared of the future.’
But those returning face many difficulties. There’s a dire shortage of housing and around ninety per cent unemployment. No one knows the difficulties of balancing the competing demands better than Abdurahman Omic, the man in charge of the town’s ‘reconstruction and returnee’ programme: ‘In the beginning there was aid but nobody to give it to because people were scared to return. Everybody had a good reason for not coming back. Now we have lots of people who want to return but we don’t have any funding. It’s difficult to find a house – even a shed – to live in.’
Srebrenica is within the Serb Republic. Yet even here, where memories of the July 95 massacre are still vivid, people are returning home, albeit in smaller numbers. So far more than 2,500 Muslims, have come back or are planning to, though the town’s population is still less than a fifth of its original size. Serb refugees are also returning. Serb returnee Miroljub Obradovic, a farmer, found his house in ruins: ‘The house was almost completely destroyed. Only the walls were left standing. There was no roof, no windows.’ But now he’s being helped to rebuild his home with money from the European Union. ‘They fixed the roof, the kitchen, the bathroom and the entrance hall. So I’m happy because now I don’t have to rent somewhere else to live,’ he says.
The EU money has gone into big schemes to rebuild the region’s infrastructure, and small projects such as grants to families to help them return to their homes and land. It’s part of the European Union’s wider commitment to the Millennium Development Goals, an international agreement halve world poverty by 2015.
Outside the city it’s even more difficult. During the war whole villages were destroyed and thousands of families killed or driven from their land. Joulsa Nukic recently returned to her remote village home with her son Salco. They are living in a tent beside their burnt-out house. There used to be 20 families in this former Muslim village. Today, Joulsa and Salco are the only residents. Salco lost his father and a brother when the village was ethnically cleansed by Serb soldiers:
‘In this house lived a family of Muslims. The man was killed. In the house over there was another Muslim; he was also killed. He had three sons; two of them were killed, only the third son survived, this house is his. The same thing happened to everybody else in this village. This house belongs to a man who is still alive. He will come back. The house behind the white one belongs to a man who had a son and a wife; none of them survived. Only one old woman from this family survived – she is in an old people’s home.’
On July 11, 2004, the ninth anniversary of the killings, some 300 bodies were formally buried at the newly-built Potacari Cemetery, site of one of the early massacres. They were laid alongside over a thousand bodies, buried last year. For many of these mourners it’s the end of a nine year search for their missing relatives, but mass graves are still being discovered. Munera Subasic has come to bury her husband: ‘In some way today I am happy because my husband will have a home forever and I can stop looking for him. I’ll know where he is.’
But her son, who was taken at the same time, is still missing. There are believed to be more than 50 mass graves scattered across the region. Only about half have been so far exhumed.
Says Katheryne Bomberger, Chief of Staff, International Commission on Missing Persons: ‘If you have lost, as did many of these women, fifty members of your family, your life is never going to be the same ever again and there’s a sense of injustice and anger that you’ll carry with you for the rest of your life. But I think that there is a sense of relief at being able to bury them, a sense of relief knowing where they are finally, and hopefully end an element, a chapter, of the war for that person.’
But Vesna Mustafic says she knew when she left Srebrenica that she would return because she loves this town. ‘My memories of Srebrenica are that this is a town with a good heart. ‘¦ I think if we always talk about who is a Muslim and who is a Serb we will put the thought in people’s minds. I think instead we must start to talk about people. This is the only way we can encourage people who think differently to change their minds.’
For people like Vesna, the youth clubs that are spring up, where children can grow up without the old ethnic hatreds, represent a new hope and a new beginning.
Paddy Ashdown is upbeat: ‘Is there life coming back to Srebrenica? Yes I can see it. I can see it in some of the remarkable little civic groups that have been established, I can see it in the young men who work in the memorial centre.’
The website of the Office of the High Representative and EU Special Representative contains much useful information, and also Lord Paddy Ashdown’s biodata.
For a Croatian perspective on the Bosnian situation, visit the Croatian Information Centre.
To read UNDP’s Rights-based Municipal Assessment Project (RMAP) and Report, click here
General information in English on Bosnia and Herzegovina can be found on the websites of the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OCSE)’s Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Bosnia Herzogovina, the CIA World Factbook, Tourism in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and the Lonely Planet WorldGuide.
Response International is an aid agency working for victims of conflict in Bosnia.