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Bosnia-Herzegovina: Return To Normal Life Is Slow In Srebrenica (Part 2)

  • Jolyon Naegele

In July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces overran the UN-declared safe haven in Srebrenica. They rounded up the residents, sent the women and children away, and then executed at least 7,000 Muslim men. In the second of two reports from Srebrenica, RFE/RL correspondent Jolyon Naegele reports on the problems of administering a community of displaced persons whose continued presence prevents the return of the town's original inhabitants.

Srebrenica,, Bosnia-Herzegovina; 7 December 2000 (RFE/RL) -- Five-and-a-half years after the mass murders by Bosnian Serb forces of Bosniak Muslim men, the biggest problem Srebrenica faces is not the massacre's legacy. Rather, it is the town's ongoing occupation by displaced Serbs from Muslim- and Croat-administered parts of Bosnia.

The refugees say their homes were burned down and they have no jobs to go back to. They are occupying the homes of Srebrenica's original inhabitants -- Muslims and Serbs.

Stanojka Najerec is a 77-year-old pensioner from Donji Vakuf in west central Bosnia. She too says she has nowhere to return to since her house was burned down. She says she lost two sons and a grandson in the fighting. After living in refugee camps, she and her daughter were settled by Bosnian Serb authorities in Srebrenica, where she says they have been for the past five years.

"I barely get by. I have nothing, no land, no property, nothing, no money, just a small pension -- 70 [German] marks for the last three months. They used to give 50 [marks] a month, now they give less than half that."

Najerec says she lives on a diet of bread. She asks: "How can I buy anything if I have no money and medicines are expensive?"

The Republika Srpska minister in charge of returns to Srebrenica is Senad Subosica. He says some 9,000 displaced Serbs from the Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation reside in the town and the surrounding municipal district, making up the overwhelming majority of its current population. In addition, he says, there are almost 1,300 displaced Serbs from destroyed villages elsewhere in the Srebrenica municipality who are occupying other people's homes in the town.

Subosica admits that until the displaced Serbs vacate the houses they are now occupying, the return of former Muslim and Serb residents will be very difficult.

"In arranging the resettlement of Bosniaks (Muslims) here and simultaneously finding alternative housing for the current users of this property, Srebrenica is a particularly difficult position, because about 60 percent of its housing has been destroyed."

Subosica says a two-way project for mass resettlement is being prepared, which requires cooperation with all the communities in the Muslim-Croat Federation from which Serb residents fled to Srebrenica. In his words, "we will help these municipalities to take back their citizens in a dignified manner so as to enable the dignified return of Srebrenica's Muslims and other displaced residents to their homes."

Srebrenica Serb Mirko Sekulic, an unemployed waiter, lost his wife to a sniper's bullet during the fighting and is now struggling to raise his two children on his own. He says he feels like a foreigner in his own town because of the large number of displaced Serbs from other parts of Bosnia, who far outnumber everyone else in Srebrenica:

"New people have come here from elsewhere and they have taken places here which should be inhabited by those who always lived in Srebrenica. But people who sometimes show up on the square to sell a bag of potatoes -- they've taken the Bosniak (Muslim) homes as well as posts in local government and one can't get around them. These people are narrow-minded and politically very illiterate."

Mirko's older brother, Marinko, is a frequent visitor to Srebrenica. But for the time being, he continues to live in Tuzla in the Muslim-Croat federation with his Muslim wife. Marinko Sekulic says:

"I want to move back here as soon as there are normal conditions. [That means] my children can live in security, my wife and I can earn a living, and above all that we free up our house so that I have somewhere to return to. At the moment, I have nowhere to live here."

Marinko Sekulic, who works as a reporter (for RFE/RL's South Slavic Service), says that before the war some 11,000 people were employed in the Srebrenica municipality. Today, only 200 are employed, mainly in office jobs with local authorities or with international organizations and non-governmental organizations.

In Sarajevo, the first deputy high representative of the international community in Bosnia-Herzegovina, [U.S.] Ambassador Ralph Johnson, expresses frustration with what he says is the Srebrenica municipality's ineffective administration.

"We got the very clear impression that some leadership on the Bosniak side was discouraging Bosniak (Muslim) refugees from going back to Srebrenica, just as the hard-line leadership on the Serb side was trying to frustrate them from coming back. [Why?] Because -- in one of these really sad cases -- it was in the interest of the extremists on both sides to keep this division alive. That is, to keep alive the memory of Srebrenica as a place of historical horror and to discourage returns, each [side] for their own reasons."

Johnson describes the reconstruction of the municipality as very slow, in part because the area is what he describes as an "economic wasteland." He says some modest gains have been made, including the appointment of the town's first Muslim policeman since the end of the war -- perhaps the harbinger of a multiethnic police force. But returns of Muslims and Serbs are slow and few -- they are largely the town's pensioners -- considerably less numerous than returns to remote but self-sufficient communities in the hills near Srebrenica.

Johnson says that there have been no significant security breaches recently. But he notes that in July, just prior to the fifth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre, some houses that had been prepared for returns were burned down. He also notes that Srebrenica was the scene of substantial voter fraud in last month's (Nov 11) local elections. As a result, the OSCE has withdrawn a third of the mandates from the main Bosnian Serb party, the Serbian Democratic Party.

Johnson says:

"The international community can't simply move in and change mind-sets. And so we have to keep pushing away, removing officials who are recalcitrant, uncooperative, trying to encourage donors to help provide building materials -- for example, for the reconstruction of houses -- and trying to evict or remove people who are illegal occupants or double occupants, get them out. You have to get a critical mass, [that is,] a number of apartments or houses vacated, so that minorities will have the confidence that they can go back. They're not going to go back in ones and twos. They're going to go back when there is a group that feels it can make itself secure by being there. So there's no magic solution to places like Srebrenica."

The outgoing mayor of Srebrenica is a Serb, Milisav Marijanovic. He says he and his municipal council are doing what they can to return the town to a semblance of normalcy.

"For a variety of reasons, Srebrenica met the fate that it did in the course of the war and after the war. Personally, I feel that the people did not deserve this. But we can't escape what happened. Now we are working for the benefit of the people of Srebrenica so they can start living something approximating a normal life."

The mayor says Srebrenica, in a note of hyperbole, is the only place in Republika Srpska and possibly in all of Bosnia-Herzegovina where every building was damaged during the fighting -- and where, in the five years since the fighting ended, not a single new home has been built. Marijanovic is critical of the international community for imposing a system of municipal government in which both Serbs and Muslims are represented -- the mayor is a Serb, his deputy is a Muslim and so on down through the local government. All official documents must be signed by both a Muslim and a Serb representative. Mayor Marijanovic describes this system as ineffective.

Srebrenica's chief of administration is a Muslim, Ibrahim Hadzijic. He returned from exile in Tuzla 18 months ago but still spends his weekends in Tuzla with his family.

Hadzijic says security in Srebrenica remains a problem, with freedom of movement not yet at the desired level. Hadzijic notes that multiethnic schools, police and courts -- which he says should have been established by now -- cannot be set up unless full freedom of movement is assured. In addition, Hadzijic says, Bosnian Serb war criminals are still at large in Srebrenica.

"Everyone probably knows who they are, but no one wants to say. Everyone knows. And everyone is afraid. Everyone is scared."

But Marijanovic, the mayor, denies any major war criminal is at large in the municipality.

"As far as I know, [no]. None of those publicly indicted [for war crimes] are here. As for those indicted secretly, it's a hypothetical question whether someone is potentially indicted or not. And an indictment without proof does not mean someone is guilty."

In spite of reports of violence, Marijanovic insists that Srebrenica is among the most peaceful towns in Bosnia.

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