Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Report #6 – Srebrenica, part one
By Peter Lippman
August 2013

2013 Report index

Report 1:  Kosovo, mid-July, 2013
Report 2Sarajevo, July 2013
Report 3Sarajevo, continued July 2013
Report 4Tuzla, July 2013
Report 5Mostar, July 2013
Report 6Srebrenica, August 2013
Report 7Srebrenica, continued, August 2013
Report 8:  Prijedor and vicinity, August 2013
Report 9:  Prijedor and vicinity, part two, August 2013
Report 10: Tomašica, December 2013

Previous journals and articles

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At the end of July I traveled to Srebrenica to visit a few friends, interview folks, and catch up on the situation there. There’s much that’s been going on in and around the town since I was there last fall.

Just a couple of weeks before I arrived, the annual commemoration and reburial of newly identified remains of Srebrenica massacre victims was held at the memorial cemetery in Potočari. It was July 11th, the eighteenth anniversary of the fall of the enclave.

This year 409 remains were reburied. That number includes a newborn baby girl who died just after being born, in the chaotic crowd of terrified refugees who had gathered around the Dutchbat base on that day in 1995. Dutch soldiers buried the infant in an unmarked grave near the base, and her remains were not found until this year.

As of this anniversary, 6,066 identified victims have been reburied at Potočari, and 88 elsewhere. Well over 2,000 are still missing.

A couple of days after the commemoration Srebrenica survivors, including members of several women's groups and the March 1st  Coalition, visited several places that had been known to be killing sites during the massacres. Among these was community agricultural center in the village of Kravica, where some one thousand captives were shot in one night. (For my previous writings about the March 1st Coalition, click here and here, also reports #2 and 3 of this series.)

These locations were held as off-limits by the local Serb-controlled police, and the women became involved in a scuffle with special police as they attempted to enter the agricultural warehouse. The mothers had cut through a wire fence and broken through a police cordon to arrive at the building. The police responded violently, injuring eight women, most of whom were widows and survivors of the Srebrenica massacres.

Soon afterwards, Srebrenica police called several activists for
“informational conversations,” the traditional police euphemism for interrogation. People from the March 1st Coalition and from the mothers’ organizations alike were called. One activist from the Coalition commented on the interrogations thus: “The policy of harassment of returnees is being carried out from Prijedor and Kozarac to Višegrad, Foča, Rogatica, Zvornik, and Srebrenica…it is unacceptable that the families of the victims are being summoned for interrogations because they were carrying out visits to honor the victims of genocide, while on the other hand, the entire government of the Federation becomes involved [i.e., undertakes security measures] when representatives come from the RS to Sarajevo to remember their fallen fighters.”

Hatidža Mehmedović, president of the organization Srebrenica Mothers and one of those called for interrogation, sad that she is “prepared to answer for everything,” but that “the law exists that allows us to visit all the places of mass execution....Those places are not private property. I know that I will be seen as guilty because I am Hatidža. I am guilty because I was not supposed to survive, let alone to visit the scenes of the crime.”

Emir Suljagić, coordinator of the March
1st Coalition, said that there is “no longer any doubt that the government in the Republika Srpska behaves as occupiers towards the non-Serbs who live there…What happened today in Srebrenica, in Europe can only happen in Belarus, as in Afghanistan. From the point of view of human rights the RS entity is Kandahar and the government in Banja Luka behaves towards non-Serbs the way that the Taliban in Afghanistan do towards those who are not in their favor.” He also accused the RS police forces of having participated directly in the execution of Bosniaks, now summoning the mothers and children of those victims for interrogation.

In response to
Suljagić's comments, Prime Minister of the Republika Srpska Željka Cvijanović announced that her government was preparing a criminal indictment against Suljagic, saying, “We have analyzed everything that Suljagić said, and in his statements there is much more than that which is called unacceptable language. Hate speech is in question here, which could cause serious disturbances in relations between the ethnic communities.” In turn, Suljagić said that he looked forward to such a court case, saying that he would prove that “the RS is implementing a policy of occupation towards non-Serbs, from their educational policy and the fact that public institutions, the elementary schools, have Saint’s days, they force non-Serb children to observe those Saint’s days, to what happened in Kravica...Prime Minister Cvijanović and I know that nothing is going to come of that indictment.”

Oddly, Srđan Dizdarević, respected president of the Sarajevo-based Helsinki Human Rights Committee, concurred with Cvijanović. It’s hard to tell what the background to this stance on the part of an otherwise very reasonable man was, from a distance. In response,  Suljagić called on him to “come to Bratunac and to see how it is to be a non-Serb under this occupying regime, in which the government behaves like the Wehrmacht.” And Dizdarević answered that “any speech that qualifies a contemporary state as fascist is undoubtedly hate speech and should be sanctioned.” Suljagić’s lawyer pointed out that Suljagić’s statements did not constitute an attack on any ethnic group or religion.

Meanwhile the SDS, the Serb nationalist party which poses as opposition to Dodik’s party, got into the act. The SDS is Dodik’s rival, but the competition centers mainly around power, and around which party will win laurels as the fiercest nationalist. So it was just a political move when the head of the SDS caucus in the RS Parliament criticized pressure on the activists by saying, “The RS government should have stopped Suljagić in 2012 when we were all watching what was happening in Srebrenica...Suljagić should be taken seriously, as he has shown that he knows what he wants, how much he can achieve, and he saw that the authorities in the RS closed their eyes at certain moments regarding the March
1st Coalition and the elections in 2012.”

One of the ways you can see that this is just politics is that, in fact, the RS authorities did not close their eyes during the municipal elections in Srebrenica a year ago. They actively brought in “voters” from across the river in Serbia. They just didn’t bring in enough of them. (I witnessed this and wrote about it earlier this year – see this.)

Attempts at repression against the activists continued. In mid-July three burglars attempted to break into Suljagić’s house in Bratunac, up the road from Srebrenica, when he was away. However, when they discovered that not only was his dog there, but also a friend who was guarding the house and taking care of the dog, they gave up and went away. Police declined to investigate the incident “because it was raining.”

Harassment of Bosniak returnees and expressions of hate towards Muslim returnees have escalated in the eastern part of the Republika Srpska. In early August, at the end of Ramadan, the 73-year-old president of the local Islamic community, Nezir Dardagan, was beaten by drunken attackers on his way to an early morning religious service. Dardagan had to be hospitalized. In Srebrenica the only Muslim doctor working in that municipality was summarily fired, only to be reinstated under great pressure from activists and the international community. In Višegrad a returnee was threatened with confiscation of her house, which after the war had been occupied by some displaced Serbs, because she was unable to pay them $15,000 for improvements that they had made to the house – with materials donated by the RS government.

Around the same time, in the Serbian Orthodox church in the center of Srebrenica, visitors sang songs honoring Ratko Mladić, Radovan Karadžić, and World War II Chetnik leader Draža Mihailović. And at a country fair near Bratunac a visiting band sang of a “new Vukovar” and a “new Srebrenica,” that is, implicitly calling for new massacres of Muslims.

View of Srebrenica

More On The Proposed Law On Residency (Prebivalište)

Soon after
Ćamil Duraković won the mayoral election in Srebrenica a year ago in spite of finagling by those wishing to throw the vote to the candidate of Milorad Dodik's party (see this), local police in the municipality began to annul the newly-registered residency records of people who had voted for Duraković. In fact, three hundred returnees' names were removed from the residency lists based on accusations of “fictitious registration.” Proof of false registration was never demonstrated, and activists from the March 1st Coalition appealed against this process to the District Court in Bijeljina. In a rather surprising decision, the Court agreed with the Coalition and required that the police in Srebrenica cease their abusive practice.

After all these years the right to return to one’s pre-war home, as enshrined in Annex 7 of the Dayton constitution, is still under assault. The proposed new law on residency, still under discussion in Parliament, threatens to establish new obstacles to return. Among other things, it prevents potential returnees from registering their residence in their pre-war home if their destroyed homes have not been rebuilt. The new law also allows extensive investigation of returnees’ residency including permitting authorities to demand documentation beyond what was previously required. The law also renders very unclear the rights of exiled Bosnians in the diaspora who are potential returnees. The March
1st Coalition has characterized this law as having the goal of “erasing a broad group of citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina from the records that afford numerous rights, especially the right to vote.” The Coalition has pointed out that displaced persons are legally entitled under present Bosnian law to treatment that eases, rather than hinders, their return.

In mid-July the law was passed by the Council of Ministers, (equivalent to the US Cabinet).  Then in early August the state-level House of Representatives did the same, but to date the law has been blocked in the House of Peoples. Meanwhile, in spite of the decision in Bijeljina, the Republika Srpska police have continued with their illegal interpretation of existing laws, putting the as-yet unadopted revision into practice and annulling the residency of additional returnees.

Furthermore, the Republika Srpska government is starting to fine property-owners who have been absent from their property if they are not paying their taxes. People in the diaspora who own land with demolished houses on it have often neglected to register their ownership of that land since the war, and to pay taxes for it. The RS has recently begun to implement a policy of penalizing these owners by levying increasing fines on the land, eventually leading to confiscation.

Some Visits

On arriving at Srebrenica I stopped first at the little kafana on the way to the house where I stay. I call the place “Zahida’s Shack,” even though Zahida, who works there from breakfast time till nearly midnight, doesn’t own the place. But she’s the soul of that kafana, everyone’s guardian, a warm presence. A force of nature, but a gentle one. Zahida’s Shack has come to be the “anchor business” for me in Srebrenica.

After a little visit with Zahida I went up to Suada’s, where I stay, and chatted with her a while. Suada is an early returnee, and works for the municipality. As such, she is an employee of the Republika Srpska. She told me that t
he RS reduced government workers’ pay by ten percent this year, after having done the same thing three years earlier.

Suada doesn’t get involved much in life in the town. A friend of hers invited her to a book promotion, and some people from Srebrenica who live in Sarajevo and Tuzla were speaking. They have finished their doctorates in those towns and they write about Srebrenica. Suada said to me, “You come here regularly; if only the politicians would come that often. No one asks the ordinary people how they are living. Nothing is moving forward here. I went to the book promotion, but I won’t go back. I experienced an emotional shock there, because those people make their careers on Srebrenica but they don’t give anything to the city. I won’t go back to those events, because I don’t have two or three lives to live through all that.”


I dropped by the Srebrenica Youth Center (Omladinski Centar) to talk to Mikica Nikoli
ć, whom I've visited in years past – read this and this. After many years of very effective and steadfast youth activism in Srebrenica, she is now stepping down as director of the Center. We caught up briefly on what’s new with that local institution.

Mikica told me, “We have achieved some good results, in the sense that we have developed good communication at the local level and with other organizations in BiH. So we’ve been able to prepare bigger projects. I’m glad that we’ve achieved this level of functioning. The Omladinski Centar is in the municipality budget for this year. We have 10,000 KM designated for the Center. And we have 7,000 KM for the work of the Youth Council of Srebrenica (Savjet Mladih), for programs in the area of the municipality. This is a new budget item. So there’s a real material basis on which to work. We arranged to have two preparatory intern positions in the Center, from September. This involves two people who have finished college and will work here for a year. The municipality will pay for this. So things are somewhat stabilized.”

Q: It looks like your relationship with the municipality is a lot better than it was before.

Mikica: Yes, we are collaborating very well. We had a program of monitoring the work of the municipal assembly. We had trained some young people to do the monitoring for eight months, and at the end they drafted a report. Through the process, we and the assembly became better acquainted with each other. It became appropriate that the assembly would be part of our projects and be aware of what we were doing.

We have implemented a lot of projects: for example, in March we had a group of ten people who came from five countries to do a project, a theater festival. Those were five incredible days. We tried to have the money that participants spent go to the local stores and restaurants, to have them go to all the restaurants, and to stay in people’s houses, so that people here could earn from that event. And during those five days of people being here, 8,000 euro were spent in Srebrenica. So those were some real resources that were directed this way.”

Q: How did the “Baby Revolution, the Bebolucija, look to you here in Srebrenica?

Mikica: “I supported the protests, although couldn’t be there. I expected something bigger to happen, that it would carry on longer. But activists have a big, long-term problem, in that ordinary people are marginalized; they aren’t thinking for themselves. It would have been good to see the Bebolucija grow; it needed to be taking place in Banja Luka as well.
And you have to have people working in every little place, in Srebrenica, Bratunac and elsewhere.

“In the long term, we need to work to overcome the boundaries created in the Dayton agreement. This will mainly take place in the economic sense. And when I look at this as an activist, we have never offered the authorities a solution, for anything. Never. I remember times when we have been involved in various projects and protest actions, and we have not offered any solution, just saying, 'We're asking for this, we're asking for that,' and so on. Then, without a concrete strategy and demands, it's easy for them to break up our effort. So we need to come up with more concrete ideas about changes.

“Unfortunately, the protest events became subject to political manipulation. The media in the Federation supported the actions, but in the Republika Srpska, politicians condemned the protest. They blamed the whole thing on the March 1st Coalition. But really – and the activists recognize this – part of the problem lies with the clumsy and overgrown government in the Federation.”

We talked about politics. Bosnia is almost always either winding down from one election or winding up for the next. Mikica said, “The politicians here work in a manipulative way. That which should be important is no longer important. For example, what are the politicians offering in their platforms? How many people even read someone's platform? Rather, they read the politicians' names, that's all. And also, a politician may advocate for multi-ethnicity, for employment for more people; politicians have to have their political platform. But they know that people don't read that. Because, understand, there are many uneducated people. That means not that they can't read and write, but they are uninformed. So the politicians don't care what those people think. And they're all 'democrats.' But the reality is completely different. And we citizens are the ones who allow them to operate this way, and it will stay this way until the people push the politicians to behave differently.

Above the stage in the Youth Center there hung a banner that read, “Bunt Protiv Mržnje,” Revolt against Hate. I asked Mikica what this referred to. She told me that it was an initiative of her organization, promoted by a network of eight youth groups in Srebrenica and Bratunac. The network was formed in April of this year, in response to periodic incidents that activists characterized as having been caused by prejudice. This includes recent desecration both of Orthodox and Muslim cemeteries, as well as the above-mentioned singing of nationalist songs in Bratunac and in the Orthodox church in Srebrenica.

In response to these and other incidents, youth organizations from the two municipalities got together and held a series of workshops on the theme, “Incidents committed from prejudice and crimes committed from hate.
” The network of youth activists then carried out a survey of 451 citizens of the two municipalities, asking them their opinions on the incidents. The response was that a majority of those questioned were aware of the incidents, but they did not display an inclination to react to them.

The network has since carried out some projects and actions, including the plastering of public places in Srebrenica and Bratunac with stickers that read “Revolt against Hate: Initiative for the struggle against hate-motivated incidents.” Activists announced the goal of raising the awareness of citizens about the existence of incidents and to prevent further such incidents. A statement released by the network in August expressed concern about the singing of “songs that cause fear and insecurity on the part of others,” which read, in part,

“We are concerned on behalf of our children and their future, where such occurrences and hate speech are becoming everyday events, and in all spheres of society, which causes fear and mistrust among all citizens. In recent times we are witness that the majority of activities that have been carried out by certain politicians and religious leaders in our surroundings have resulted in greater and greater discord and mistrust among members of the different religious communities. We consider that the basic reason for this is the lack of dialogue and will…

“The situation and the direct results of such incidents are visible as well in the social networks where an increased level of intolerant and violent speech can be observed. WE ARE ALL RESPONSIBLE, and when we say ‘all,’ we refer to the entire local community and every individual who lives in this area.

“We young people, gathered around the joint initiative, call upon the community to take responsibility and we call upon the citizens, that is, the civil, religious, and political sector to do the same…the Revolt against Hate expects the mayors of Bratunac and Srebrenica municipalities to weigh in on these incidents, to take a position, and to initiate dialogue on these and other themes between the Orthodox and Islamic communities and citizens…”

The statement’s heading reads, “The basic principles of every faith are peace, love, and tolerance!”


I went up to the municipal building and visited Senad Subašić, who works as an economic advisor to the municipality. We discussed the economic potential of the municipality which, before the war, was economically one of the strongest in Bosnia-Herzegovina. 

Senad said, “We need to concentrate on the economy, to work with the potential of our resources, and to resolve problems with the infrastructure. The Embassies have helped. They have helped fix the roads, the clinics, and the playgrounds. And we could develop our fruit production, raspberries, blackberries.

“In Yugoslavia the big mistake was that bad companies were supported. You can’t duplicate capacities in a superfluous way, as was done in Yugoslavia.

“There has to be two-way trade throughout the region. For example, zinc is mined here. In Bulgaria they can smelt the zinc. Recently there was a meeting in Croatia with the Serbs, Slovenians, and Bosnia, to talk about such arrangement.”

Senad shows me a study, about two inches thick, of 250 sources of drinking water in Srebrenica municipality. He shows me a bottle of Vivia water from Lukavac, and says, “This water can’t be better than what we have here.”

Senad brings up one of his current ideas, the promotion of bioplastics – a word I had not heard before, although I have seen plastic bags made from corn. He says, “There could be a factory of bio-plastics here. You can make the plastic from corn, from potatoes. If you plant a ton of potatoes, you get sixty tons back.”

I asked Senad about one of the strongest potential income generators, the Guber spa which, before the war, attracted tourists from around the Balkans and beyond. The spa has been famous at least since Austro-Hungarian times for the curative powers of its mineral springs. Senad told me, “Guber is the main way that Srebrenica can come out of its economic crisis. People would come, and there would be money.”

The restaurant and hotel that were surrounded by different mineral springs, at the center of the spa, are located in the hills above Srebrenica, at the end of a several-kilometers walk through the woods. This building was bombed and burnt up during the war. I would walk up there every time I visited Srebrenica, imagining and feeling the good times that were had there in better days. There have even been a few festive gatherings there since the war, for example on May Day. Last fall I went to the former spa and saw that a developer had started to construct a couple of massive buildings. But the construction site was fenced off and no work was underway.

I asked Senad what was going on with the building project, and he informed me that reconstruction of the Guber spa is being blocked by the Republika Srpska government. He explained, “There is a concession for the hotel, and a separate one for exploitation of the waters. The RS government is not allowing the hotel owner to have access to the waters, so he can’t function.”

We talked about the population of returnees in Srebrenica – this refers both to Serbs and Bosniaks. Senad read me off the list of nineteen local communities within the municipality, with population figures for each one, compiled by a Japanese survey group. The figures for everyone officially living in the municipality, Serbs and Bosniaks both, totaled to 4,428 residents, with some two thousand of these living in Srebrenica town.

These numbers refer to the registered inhabitants and, as always, they can’t be precise. There are registered returnees who have not actually returned or only spend part of their time in Srebrenica, and there are returnees who have actually come back home to stay, but who have not registered in Srebrenica – often because they prefer the pensions and/or health services that they receive in the Federation. With the recent census (completed October 15th), whose results will be out early next, the figures may become more accurate. Or maybe not.

Senad wound up our conversation on a positive note, saying, “The conditions for real life exist here. There are cultural events: Dani Srebrenice (the summertime festival Srebrenica days), and  a film festival.” I should point out that both of these events were strongly supported by the Youth Center, as well as other organizations including Prijatelji.  
“Now the street lighting is LED, and we have a TV station. The water is good. The internet service here is the same as in Vienna,” Senad continued. “Around 2,500 people are employed here, and a thousand unemployed. Though there are some farmers who are employed, but they are not registered as such. If we can add 250 more jobs, then we will be on a level economically with the EU.”

It’s pretty clear that Srebrenica is better off than when I first went there in 1999, when it was a miserable place and no Bosniaks had returned yet. But I’m not sure that the Srebrenica represented in these last comments is the same one I encountered outside and at Zahida’s shack, or at Suada’s. My friend Vanja at the NGO SARA says that “it’s worse here than it was five years ago.”


Artist's conception of future Guber spa                                                                         Guber spa construction at a standstill

I spoke briefly with Tatjana Mihajlović, an official at the local office of the OSCE (Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental organization).  She said, “People who live here are all in the same situation, regardless of whether they are Serb or Bosniak. In the villages it is difficult to buy things. Places like Krušev Do and Luka are remote. And it is harder to get employment here than in places like Sarajevo and Tuzla. The critical mass of people here is lacking. There is a lack of investment and jobs. For the amount of money that has been donated in the cause of Srebrenica, the results are too small.

“Meanwhile, there are 102 people employed at Cimos [the Slovenian-owned auto parts factory in Potočari. The company is looking to sell the factory. They want to leave. So those people might lose their jobs.”

All this reminds me of something that the journalist and activist Hasan Hadžić had recently said to me: “The hope for recovery in Srebrenica was lost when only ten percent of the population returned. It lost critical mass in the late 1990s. If it had been 20% or more, things could have been different.”

But there are more hopeful people in Srebrenica, not only Senad Subašić. There are the activists, pozitivci who are making things happen.


I was sitting in front of Zahida’s shack one night. Emir Suljagić came over and sat with Ćamil Duraković and some other people. As he left he said hello to me. I told him to take care of himself, because I had heard about the attack on his house. He said not to worry, “They can go fuck themselves.”


I was talking to Amela, the daughter of my old friends Munevera and Salih, at her brother’s kafana one evening. Amela’s friend “Rizo” came over to sit down with us. He recognized me from somewhere and the first thing he said to me was “agent.” (That’s pronounced “AH-ghent.”) I replied to him, “It’s amazing that everyone knows that I’m a spy, even though I know nothing about them.” Amela said that I was “Agent 007.” I said, “No, make that Agent 000.”

Rizo asked me what year I was born. In Bosnian you don’t ask how old someone is, but what year they were born. When I answered him, Rizo said I was one year younger than his father would be, if he were still alive. He said that his father died when he was 45. I said, “That’s very young!” Then he made it clear that his father had been killed when Srebrenica fell. They were in the column of men who were trying to escape through the woods. His father was about a half hour from the free territory, when there was an ambush and he was killed.

I did not say anything, because it did not seem to me that there was anything I could say to this. To say “I’m sorry” just feels too puny.

Rizo said that he had started to write a book about his experiences after the war, but that he stopped. He wishes he had done it, but if he does it now, it makes him “too nervous.” He can’t do it. At the time, he says, he remembered everything, all the details, but now he doesn’t. I said that for some people, the writing could be a kind of therapy.

As we were talking, the muezzin began calling the ezan, the prayer that calls people to the mosque. The dogs around the mosque started barking. Rizo said that this was because “when the muezzin starts calling, demons that are hanging around the mosque fly away. The dogs can sense them because they are more sensitive to that sort of thing than we are.”

Rizo asked me what religion I was and I said that I was Jewish. He asked me why Hitler killed so many Jews, and I said, “For the same reason Šešelj killed so many Muslims.” Rizo was grasping for an explanation, saying, “maybe it was because of fear.” Regarding the Bosnian war, we agreed that the killing was about controlling territory.

Rizo was very unhappy about what was going on in Bosnia and in Srebrenica. He was saying, “They steal, and they don’t give us anything. They have fixed facades to the buildings in Srebrenica, what good do facades do us? Amela said, “Give us jobs and then when we get money we’ll fix them ourselves.”

Rizo, looking up at the sky, asked me if I believe in God.

I said, “Ok, if I get to define God in my own way.” I told him the story of the neighbor kid who asked me if I believed in God. I was only about four years old, so I didn’t know the answer. I consulted with my mother, and she said, “God is in you.” I didn’t understand that, but I never forgot it. After about forty years I decided that what my mother had said made sense. So this is what I told Rizo.

I said that I didn’t know why people think of God as out there somewhere, or up in the sky. Rizo said, “It’s just what people do, they look up when they mention God.” I said that as soon as you separate God from yourself, you are separating everything essential from yourself, and you are relinquishing responsibility for everything good or bad, and relying on dogma. In that case, I said, the whole proposition goes south and I don’t want any part of it.

Rizo said that some people have said to him that God doesn’t exist, but that he believes. For example, if I have a book, and he steals it, well, then something bad will happen to him.

I asked, “What about all the people who do horrible things and nothing happens to them?”

Rizo answered, “Sometimes it is delayed. Or it will happen to their children.”

I: “Sometimes nothing happens.”

Rizo: “Or they will get a bad conscience.”

I: “Some people don’t seem to have any conscience. You’re talking about morals and conscience. Those are things that we have in us, if they exist at all. So I’m sticking with what my mother said.”

That was the extent of our conversation. But thinking about it later, I realized that Rizo was basically defining God as justice.

Next report: Srebrenica, part two.


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