Feature 07 Feb 13

Coming Home to Face the Past

Years after the Bosnian conflict, refugees who have returned to their homes are still trapped between war and peace and suffering the devastating consequences of ethnic divisions.

Denis Dzidic

Sudbin Music found it hard to get to sleep the day he came back to Prijedor, eight years after he fled as a teenager during the war.

“I remember the first night upon my return – I slept with one eye open,” he said.

“I will never forget that night… returning to the place where we survived the massacre. It was horror. We sat and waited for who will be the first to cry. I will admit, we all cried that night.”

Now 38, Music is just one of more than two million people who abandoned their homes between 1992 and 1995 during the Bosnian conflict.

When Bosnian Serb forces attacked the village of Carakovo near Prijedor, burning most houses to the ground, Music and his family were arrested and taken to the notorious Trnopolje detention camp, and their home was destroyed.

He later fled to Slovakia and then lived in Germany for several years before deciding to return to Prijedor with his mother and two sisters in 2000.

Music says he had a “huge desire” to return to his roots. But his brother refused to go back, claiming he could not forget the past, and moved to the United States instead.

More than 55,000 non-Serbs were forcibly displaced from Prijedor in 1992, he says. Of the 2,417 Bosniaks living in his village of Carakovo in 1992, less than 20 per cent have returned.

Just before the war, 80 schoolchildren from Carakovo enrolled in the first grade. This year, there was only one child.

“This is the last phase of ethnic cleansing,” said Music, who believes that those who have come home have been abandoned by the authorities and left to rebuild their lives alone.

“The returnees are the greatest heroes of our time, and nobody cares for them. We are the only ones that offer a connection between ethnic groups. We are bringing down the barriers and are actually facing up to the past, the war crimes,” he said.

Of the 2.2 million people who abandoned their homes during the war, 1.3 million are now permanently displaced across the world, according to the Centre for Studies on Refugees and Internally Displaced People in Sarajevo.

If returnees are to prosper, Bosnia must build a new society where its different ethnic groups are reconciled with each other and with the past, says Bosnian transitional justice expert Goran Simic.

“We have hundreds of thousands of people walking our streets, suffering from traumas, and the state is doing nothing to help them. When you look at it that way, it is hard to imagine a good future built on this past and present,” he said.

But genuine reconciliation can only come when people face up to the crimes committed by their own ethnic group, Simic believes.

“We are living in a state of war; we may have stopped shooting at each other, but there are different kinds of war,” he said.

A Thousand War Crimes Unprosecuted

In December 2012, Bosnia’s council of ministers asked parliament to adopt a new law on refugees, returnees and internally displaced people aimed at ensuring that everyone who fled during the conflict has the right to go back to their pre-war homes or choose to live elsewhere in the country.

Efforts have also been made to improve living conditions for returnees. In November, the country’s Bosniak-Croat entity, the Bosnian Federation, decided to spend nearly five million euros on projects for agriculture and small businesses in order to help those returning to the Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska.

Bosnia, Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia also raised around 300 million euro at a donor conference in Sarajevo last year which will be used to try to resolve the housing problems of 27,000 refugee families in Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.

But while the situation for returnees has improved over the past few years, many still live without jobs in communities dominated by other ethnic groups, says Selma Porobic, director of the Centre for Studies on Refugees and Internally Displaced People.

“The return of those forcefully displaced between 1992 and 1995 is a crucial part of the development of peace in our country and its overall prosperity,” said Porobic.

Many have not come back because dominant ethnic politics, segregation and unemployment make life unsustainable, but Porobic believes that the situation could improve if more war crimes perpetrators were prosecuted.

“Otherwise, the legacy of war is still quite present in the everyday lives of all Bosnian citizens and especially the returnees,” she said.

Away from the high-profile trials at the Hague Tribunal, there are still more than 1,000 open war crimes investigations in Bosnia relating to the 1990s conflict.

Aleksandra Letic from the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights of Republika Srpska argues that these cases must be dealt with.

“The lack of vision to face the past and the refusal to move away from wartime politics is a clear burden on the return process, especially to smaller communities. Impunity and acceptance of war criminals is a strong message which means that war ideologies have not been put to bed,” said Letic.

A ban on public grieving

Another man who survived the Prijedor detention camps and decided to return to Republika Srpska is Mirsad Duratovic. Today he is the president of the former camp detainees’ association in Prijedor.

Duratovic says that despite some estimates that 25,000 Bosniaks have returned to the Serb-dominated city, the number is closer to 10,000, a mere fifth of the pre-war amount. Those who have come back often rely on organisations like his for their basic needs.

“Our association has become a social service. All of the things returnees need, they come to us, when they need help with wood, medicine, a doctor’s appointment,” he said.

Duratovic says that returnees to Prijedor also suffer because they are not allowed to publicly grieve for Bosniak victims of wartime killings.

In May last year, the mayor of Prijedor, Marko Pavic, banned a gathering of victims’ families to commemorate the deaths of Bosniaks and Croats, saying that such an event would “undermine the town’s reputation”. Pavic objected to descriptions of the killings as genocide. 

Porobic claims that some of Prijedor’s Bosniak returnees are actually emigrating again because of the situation.

“In this part of Bosnia, obstructions to sustainable return are visible in several sectors, such as the lack of jobs or political pressures, and through refusing to allow returnees to commemorate crimes against this population during the war,” she said.

Schools Without Children, Homes Without People

Another town in the Republika Srpska entity which saw terrible violence and the wartime expulsion of civilians is Bratunac in eastern Bosnia, near the Serbian border and Srebrenica.

In 1991, the Bratunac municipality had a population of more than 30,000, two-thirds of whom were Bosniaks. But in April 1992, Bosnian Serb forces seized many areas and triggered an exodus, and since then have remained the dominant majority in the town.

One of those who fled but has since returned, Cazim Jusupovic, said that war crimes prosecutions can serve to reassure those who have come back.

“This year we have had arrests for war crimes in Bratunac and that gave strength to returnees. They’re starting to believe that justice will come. Otherwise, there is constant fear,” said Jusupovic, the president of the Sustainable Return organisation in Bratunac.

But because the town’s administration is Serb-dominated, returning Bosniaks sometimes feel powerless and marginalised, he says.

“We have the most problems with the fact there are no Bosniaks in municipal government structures. The Bratunac municipality assembly has abolished the returnee commission, even though we still have many requests to rebuild homes,” Jusupovic said.

Stojanka Tesic, an activist from the Bratunac Women’s Forum which gives legal aid to returnees, says that compared to other areas of Republika Srpska, the town has managed to attract a relatively high number of refugees back, “regardless of the poverty and wartime events”.

But until that wartime legacy is properly dealt with, there will be no ethnic reintegration, Tesic believes.

“Each ethnic group still has its own experience and traumas and sorrow, which we all keep within us. We have not yet started being sad and happy together,” she said.

Sudbin Music says that many of those who have returned still only interact with people from their own ethnic group.

“We [Bosniaks in Republika Srpska] live in reservations. It’s the same for Serbs in the [Bosniak-Croat] Bosnian Federation,” he said.

Although Music decided to come back and face the past, he fears that unless there is progress, others may not, leaving some communities permanently trapped between war and peace.

“Today we have mosques without men to pray and schools without children. We have empty homes,” he said.


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