a couple of long bus rides (Sarajevo-Zenica-Travnik-Vakuf-Jajce-Banja Luka)
and more than a half-day trip through some of the most beautiful mountains
in central Bosnia, on up to Kozarac, an important return community between
Banja Luka and Prijedor.
Kozarac is most of the way from Banja Luka, capital of the Republika Srpska,
to Prijedor, the center of the municipality of the same name. On the way to
Kozarac you pass the small town and mining center of Omarska. Then you get
off the bus at the turnoff for Trnopolje, and cross the street to walk about
a kilometer uphill to Kozarac. Omarska and Trnopolje were the locations of
two of the notorious Serb-run wartime concentration camps. A third one,
Keraterm, is a factory complex further up the road, just before Prijedor.
I walked up the familiar road to Kozarac, a town centered around one long
street, with others radiating out from it. At the beginning of the town is a
shopping and kafana district, also populated by a school, some apartment
buildings, and a number of single-family residences interspersed among
When I first went to Kozarac in 1998, all but a couple of these buildings
and houses were in ruins; refugee return had not begun yet. After several
years of obstruction, return got underway in 1999. Returnees persisted,
received international assistance, and rebuilt their town. On that main
road, only two or three of the ruined structures remain.
However, not all is healthy and happy in Kozarac. On that walk up through
the town, I was struck by the number of vacant kafanas, apartments, and even
one grocery store. Several of these places, including an apartment building,
were posted as being for sale. My rough guess is that some 20% of the
storefronts on that street are now empty. Returnees are leaving town.
Leaving Kozarac, as with other parts of the country, is not new, but the
signs of departure and the decrease in the local population are more
I slept at the Kuća mira, or House of Peace, a meeting place for
activists, local NGOs, and visitors. In 1998 I was present on a rainy day
when people from the women's return organization, Srcem do mira
(Through heart to peace) during a visit from exile, planted a "peace tree"
in the yard of what was then the gutted shell of the old two-story
schoolhouse. When leader Emsuda Mujagić
declared that upon return, they were going to restore the school and make it
a peace house, I thought she was being delusional. But she wasn't; she was
speaking as a visionary. For quite some years now, the
has been a pleasant
meeting center for visitors from far and wide.
next morning I walked down through a somewhat more active scene than I had
witnessed the night before. It was summer, after all: the time when
dijasporci return for an extended visit, open the shutters on their
repaired houses, and catch up on the news from their friends living in
farflung places, from Sweden to Australia.
People were sitting by the
sidewalk, selling food they had gleaned in the woods: mushrooms here, wild
strawberries there. There were several stands selling women's clothes.
up with my old pal Švabo for a coffee, in an encounter that was to be
repeated throughout the week. It happened that Satko was there too, visiting
from Holland. We reminisced and told stories. I described the time I was
arrested in Kosovo; Švabo and Satko, cousins (and both of them activists and
logoraši—concentration camp survivors), talked about their childhood,
remembering the day they were playing hockey and Švabo got not one, but two
Švabo, with assistance from Satko, is the leader of the local self-help NGO
Optimisti, which organizes various projects that engage youth around
Kozarac. Noting that prospects aren't as encouraging around Kozarac as they
were, say, ten years ago, Švabo told me,
"A pessimist is an optimist with
experience. You can't continually find the good in the bad. The situation
here is desperate. People can't find work, so they leave. But then people
who are looking for a worker can't find help. And people don't want to
volunteer, either. You organize something and then people are busy. And now
there's a situation where the people come en masse from the diaspora, and
they're here all summer. And then when they leave, and it's winter, it's
that much worse."
In that vein, I received a comment from a friend who has left Bosnia: "I
read your report...and like very much your optimism towards the end although
I can't bring myself to share it."
But as I responded to my friend, there's an important difference between an
optimist, who believes things are going to get better, and an
activist, who believes that things can get better (this is the
equivalent of hope) and works to make them better. You'll notice that at the
end of my first report I wrote, "it is to be hoped." I admit that the
situation looks so much darker than before, and I understand that so many
Bosnians, given what they've seen in the past few years, mainly see that
darkness. Yes, it is a gloomy scenario right now. Not only are all kinds of
injustices underway, even more than before, but the bright and capable
people are leaving the country. Nevertheless I still hope and believe it's
possible—just possible—for ordinary people to change Bosnia...eventually.
continued his update by saying, "Politicians
are corrupt, and it's worse than before. It used to be that they would hide
it, but now it's done openly and they just laugh about it. But if you commit
some little infraction, then they come down hard on you."
I asked Švabo about the
state of activism for memorialization (see more on this below). He didn't
have any news on this subject. But he commented, "For some people, the
struggle is not to remember, but to forget."
I took the bus to Prijedor, 10-15 minutes away. Although I have always known
fine, bright people there, for me the city has been a place of dread. This,
in spite of the fact that people from among the returnee Muslim population,
together with some local Serbs, have worked tirelessly to confront the past
and to recreate some manner of normal in the place. That's a tall order,
given that some 50,000 non-Serbs (Muslims, Croats, Roma, and others) were
driven from Prijedor in 1992; at least 3,000 of them were killed, with more
than 700 of those still missing.
In my daily log I wrote this: "Prijedor
is pleasant. Flowers posted everywhere. Genocide."
Before the war, some half the population of Prijedor municipality was
non-Serb. In May of 1992, as war was breaking out in other parts of Bosnia,
Serb separatist forces attacked Kozarac, a mostly Muslim town of about
27,000. In the space of a couple of days, the town was shelled, and then
people were rounded up and driven to several concentration camps, with many
killed in the process. Most of the town was bombed to rubble at that time.
In the next months some 6,000 people—mostly men, and a couple of dozen
women—from the broader region passed through Omarska. It was a place of
torture, and between 700 and 800 people were killed there.
There was also Keraterm, the ceramics factory, where some hundreds of men
were kept. One night there was a massacre during which 200 were killed. Then
there was Trnopolje, a village turned into a World War II-style ghetto,
where whole families and communities were interned mainly in the schoolhouse
and adjacent grounds. You don't meet too many local Muslims or Croats from
the region who were not held for a time, during that summer of 1992, at one
of these places.
During the war, some Muslims lay low in the city, trying to survive and keep
out of harm's way. On May 31, 1992, they heard an announcement over the
radio: non-Serbs must hang white sheets in the front of their houses, and
they must wear white armbands when walking about the town. It was chilling
to learn this part of the history, when an activist recounted it to me about
15 years ago.
In June of 1992 Serb forces destroyed Old Town, a Muslim neighborhood, and
then in July they attacked six Muslim villages on the Left Bank of the Sana,
across the river from Prijedor. Here I will quote a few passages from a
recent article by Sudbin Musić, an activist and survivor from Čarakovo, one
of those villages. His father was killed on July 23, 1992, and he wrote a
long and dread-filled essay this month, recounting the succession of
memorial gatherings and reburials of identified victims' remains at the end
of last month.
"July 20 [the date of the annual commemorative reburial at Kozarac] is, in
fact, Prijedor's July 11 [referring to the Srebrenica anniversary], because
of the...six communities on the left bank of the Sana where, between July 20
and 25, 1992, nearly 1,800 men, women, and children were killed. One after
another, from house to house...
"Not long ago we published a story about the massacre in Hegići, surely one
of the most cheerful neighborhoods in Mataruško Brdo [the Left Bank], where
in one hour almost the whole male population was killed...during the time
that we wrote that piece, I found altogether ten-odd people in neighborhood,
surrounded by empty houses, nicely restored...today [for the anniversary
commemoration] everyone is here. We notice many children. Behind us there's
a tent. That's the way of the Krajina [the northwest region of Bosnia]. You
don't leave before you eat and drink."
Sudbin continues, describing the success of the survivors of Hegići in their
project to construct a local cemetery and monument to the victims. He
writes, "At the opening, no officials were present. The commemorations are
too much for them. The death of a hundred people and the remembrance of them
is not even news, while a traffic accident in Pofalići [a busy section of
Sarajevo] certainly is...
"Mama is not feeling well. But she won't go to the doctor. The years have
taken their toll. There is fear of a diagnosis, but more, a feeling of
indifference among women towards death, especially those in a region struck
"My brother and I are the only males who were at home that morning [July 23]
and who remained alive, in our neighborhood. They [the attackers]
particularly "ennobled" themselves at Čarakovo and Zecovi. Zecovi will be
remembered as the killing place of the most women and children in Prijedor
municipality, and Čarakovo as the place where the most [people in one
village] were killed..."
Around the commemoration at Keraterm, Subdin wrote, "The camp was formed by
decree of the Serb government May 26, 1992. According to the data of
Prijedor [survivors] associations, to date there is evidence of 373
prisoners killed in this camp." Most of those killed were from Sudbin's Left
Bank. He continues, "And see, Dragan Kolundžija's
trial at The Hague lasted longer than the prison term to which he was
a guard shift commander at Keraterm, was convicted of a crime against
humanity. He served less than three years in prison.]
"Briševo was the
Croat-Catholic village with the most casualties in Bosnia-Herzegovina...the
village is completely empty. Here and there are a few restored houses that
do not fit in at all with the weeds and overgrowth, with which nature has
taken over this once-lovely and peaceful village..." Sudbin goes on to
describe the way the men of the village, and many women, were tormented and
killed by Serb extremists.
So I say "genocide." Despite the fact that the ICTY (the war crimes court at
The Hague), for political reasons, has avoided finding anyone guilty for
genocide outside of Srebrenica. Radovan Karadžić
and Ratko Mladić were both acquitted of genocide in a half-dozen
municipalities outside of Srebrenica. The cases of both men are on appeal at
present, but it would be a great surprise and a turnaround in international
policy if either of them were to be held to task for the genocide that was
clearly planned, with intent aforethought and with support from Serbia, in
other parts of the country—especially in Prijedor.
If you can read Bosnian, I suggest you take a look at
"Prijedorski dnevnik tuge i prkosa: šta činiti kada je pokolja bilo previše"
(Prijedor diary of sadness and
defiance: what to do when the slaughter was too much) But maybe don't read
it before bedtime.
I walked through the center of Prijedor, where the old mosque has been
restored, and the pijaca (marketplace) has been reconstructed so that
it no longer looks like a rambling flea market. The two-block-long
pedestrian zone is tidy, and it has a pleasant atmosphere, if you don't know
too much local history. The sore thumb of this part of town is the vacant
and hulking Patria department store, a prominent eyesore at the
beginning of the pedestrian area. Really, you would think that domestic
leaders who wanted to promote any sort of pride and esteem in the city would
have long since taken care of that mess.
I met and chatted with Edin Ramulić
and his activist colleague Goran Zorić.
They brought me up to date on their activities.
the movement for refugee return peaked a few years into this century, one of
the campaigns in Prijedor and some other parts of the country, on the part
of human rights activists, has been for memorialization. This has taken
different routes, with mixed success; in Prijedor, most efforts have been
thwarted. There was a drive to create a commemorative center at the Omarska
mining complex and former camp, operated by Mittal Steel since 2004. Due to
obstruction by Prijedor's long-time Mayor Pavić
and indifference by Mittal, among other obstacles, that campaign was
One campaign that is still current is the one for memorializing the killing
of 102 children in the Prijedor area (the youngest was a three-month-old
baby). Goran explained to me that this is the main project for
memorialization these days. The local organization "Kvart" is working with
Edin and Fikret Bačić, father of two of the children who were killed.
Bačić's six-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son were killed, as were a
total of 29 of his relatives in the village of Zecovi. He and the other
activists are working to pressure the mayor and city council to create a
memorial monument. There is resistance to this idea, but Goran feels that,
although an agreement is probably a long way off, there is movement and that
some resolution should be possible.
Goran and Edin have come up with
an idea that the bridge to the restored Old Town could be repurposed as a
monument to the children, and that an installation that would carry the
young victims' names could be created on or around the bridge. Displaying
the names is something the bereaved families insist on, while the local
government—dominated by Serbs—has suggested that there be a monument without
names, or one dedicated to all the children victims of all the last three
wars (WWI, WWII, and the recent one). The families consented to that, on the
condition that the names would be displayed. Goran noted that, however, such
an arrangement would be uncomfortable for the government, since all the
recent victims were Muslim, and their names would reveal that.
A series of meetings between the mayor, some members of the city council,
and activists for the memorialization has been underway. The issues
mentioned here have been discussed at these meetings, and recently,
activists including Fikret Bačić
have come away hopeful. The next meeting will be held in November.
We talked about the idea of establishing a museum as a way of memorializing
the war history. Goran commented that the important thing is for the lesson
of the recent history to be presented interactively, not as a plaque or a
display. That's why, to him, the idea of a memorial at Omarska is not so
attractive, as the former camp is quite out of the way and he thinks that
few people would visit there. And to some extent, he says, there's a similar
problem with a museum: people can avoid it. Also, creating a museum is a
pretty vast undertaking, collecting the material and arranging it well.
Having everything on the internet is another option, but that is a project
that has not been started.
Going to another topic, I asked about the new mayor,
Đaković. In the municipal
elections of 2016, Đaković replaced three-term mayor Pavić.
Pavić retained his position as head of the powerful DNS (Democratic People's
Alliance) party. Goran
thinks that Đaković is a bit more receptive than
But he still has to answer to his party boss, and to the members of the city
council, most of whom are also members of Pavić's party.
is one of the few people I've seen in Bosnia this year who looks as young
and fit as he did in 2015. That should work for him; besides being a
survivor and an activist, he's a member of the
and thus quite involved in local politics. He is one of five Bosniak members
of the Serb-dominated body. He told me, "The new mayor is changeable; with
Pavić, you knew where he stood. Last year, Đaković cancelled the city
council meeting on August 6, the day of the annual commemoration at Omarska.
However, he has refused to do the same this year."
Mirsad works with the liberal-left Democratic Front, led by
Želko Komšić. Komšić
is running for Croat member of the state-level presidency (more on that
later), and Mirsad has recently been over to the US, politicking among the
larger Bosnian communities, in St. Louis and Chicago.
I asked Mirsad what
Bosnians in the diaspora can do to help changes take place in their home
country. "Vote," he said. "There are 30,000 people from Prijedor abroad.
Even if some of them voted, it could make a difference. There are 20,000
Bosniaks in Chicago, and 70,000 in St. Louis. Many in Florida too."
Mirsad talked about the vast amount of money that comes into Bosnia and
Herzegovina through remittances. "There's the money that the banks know
about," he said. "Then there's all the money that people spend when they're
here, so that could double the amount. Someone built a house in my village
and spent 150,000 KM just on the house, not including furniture."
Mirsad talked about this to the Bosnia prospective voters in Chicago, and
told them that their taxes going to Bosnia pay for discriminatory practices
in the Prijedor area. They were mute afterwards, he said.
I asked Mirsad for his take on activism for memorialization; he said that
there's not much of a campaign going on now, other than some efforts about
the children. "It mostly stopped after 2012. There's nothing happening with
Omarska. We are waiting for some new, younger people to take up the
campaign." But he listed about ten different memorial events that now
happen—some of which coincide with funerals reburying identified remains of
victims. Mirsad said that there are more such commemorations taking place
It's my impression that activism in the Prijedor area—just a rough guess—is
down to 10% or 20% of the level of its peak years.
Mirsad distinguished himself late this spring by standing up against a
repressive measure undertaken by the
For nearly ten years, activists and their supporters from around Bosnia and
abroad have demonstratively worn the white armband each May 31 as a way of
commemorating the Nazi-style edict of 1992.
This year, in mid-June Dragoslav Kabić, a
member from Dodik's SNSD party, called for the censure of organizations that
observed White Armband Day, saying that "this was all Bosniak propaganda,
and that Bosniaks and Croats were never required to wear the white armband
in Prijedor." This, not only in spite of the memories of those Muslims and
Croats who tried to survive in Prijedor during the war, also in spite of the
fact that the history of the white armbands was proven and entered into
record before the war crimes tribunal at The Hague.
Kabić introduced his proposal, but when Muslim members of the
requested the opportunity
to respond, they were denied. Thereupon four members, led by Mirsad Duratović,
walked out of the session. Of the five Muslim representatives, only Sead
Jakupović, member of the Social-Democratic Party and president of the
assembly, remained at the meeting. However, the next day he condemned
Kabić's intervention. And what's more surprising, at the beginning of this
month (August 3) not only did Jakupović apologize for failing to interrupt
Kabić, but Kabić himself apologized for his earlier proposal. Reporters were
not able to get at the source of all this strange and uncharacteristic
apologizing. One local activist explained it to me as a way to remove the
shame of the denial from the record before upcoming national elections.
Another simply said, "hypocrisy."
I visited with Sudbin. In somewhat of a darker mood than I've seen him
before, he told me that he is worried about things that are taking place in
his area. There are fewer and fewer returnees remaining in his and the
surrounding villages on the Left Bank, and he's worried about changes in the
atmosphere. Ordinary Serbs are fine, he says, but the politicians and the
media are dangerous. And there are more and more weapons in the hands of
organized groups. One of those groups is the entity security forces (police
and private organizations); another is hunting clubs. This does not only
pertain to the RS, but also to the rest of the country.
I had another coffee with Satko and
Švabo. It was the
night before I left the region for Donji Vakuf.
We sat together one last time at
Intermezzo kafana, upstairs from the Galerija kafana. We were talking about
the people who try to deny the history of the war crimes, and what really
happened at Trnopolje. There is a constellation of deniers among the
political heirs of the war criminals and, outrageously, there's a nexus
between them and some leftists abroad. Thankfully, about the only one most
people have heard of—if at all—is Noam Chomsky. He regularly presents a
scandalous reconstruction of wartime history—both in Bosnia and Kosovo—that,
not coincidentally, resembles the Serb apologist line. One aspect of that
has been his focus on Trnopolje, which he describes as a place that people
could come to and leave voluntarily.
Yes, they could come voluntarily—or they could wait and be killed in their
villages. It was a matter of going out of the fire, into the frying pan. You
could also be killed, tortured, or raped at Trnopolje—though the conditions
in that camp were a holiday, some of the time, compared to Omarska. Chomsky
asserts, entirely without context (perhaps unknown to him) that you could
leave Trnopolje, with the implication that it was safe to do so.
survived Trnopolje, tells me that he is running out of energy to fight the
deniers. He and Satko
said that you couldn't leave Trnopolje. Then Svabo said there weren't
fences, but there were machine gun emplacements around, creating an
invisible fence. Then he said people could leave, but they had to leave
their i.d. at Trnopolje, and that if they didn't come back, someone would be
killed in retaliation.
Based on what I've heard from many survivors of Trnopolje, yes, there were
instances in which a prisoner at Trnopolje could leave. This pertained
mainly to women who, with permission, could go to their nearby villages to
get food or clothing from their houses, for their interned families. Kemal
described it best to me when he likened Trnopolje to a WWII ghetto; that is,
internees were stuck within the larger confines of the village, rather than
behind a specific fence. Occasionally an individual prisoner was allowed to
leave, temporarily; often that person was going into great danger, given the
massacres that were taking place outside. It happened that some who left did
not return alive.
So much for Chomsky and his support for the Serb extremist revisionist
historiography. If you want to learn more about his dishonesty, see
Balkan Witness; Articles on the Kosovo and Bosnia Conflicts: Deniers of
Serbia's War Crimes, and especially:
Chomsky's Denials of Serbian War Crimes and other misleading and false
statements he has made on the Bosnia and Kosovo conflicts.
That morning, as I was waking up, I heard a siren in Kozarac. It was an
unusual sound. As I was walking down to the kafana, I noticed six or seven
policemen/women stationed along the street. I asked
and Satko what was going on. They told me that the there had been a
motorcade with President Dodik, or some other important official, moving up
to Mrakovica, on Mt. Kozara, to attend a commemoration of a Partisan battle
during World War II. In that event, in early July of 1942, Partisans broke
through Nazi lines to unite two sections of their forces, in order to
prevent being surrounded.
This is part of the noble anti-fascist history of the Prijedor region.
Unfortunately, that history has been co-opted and distorted by Dodik and his
fellow nationalists. Today the favored interpretation is that it was always
the Serbs who were the anti-fascists, and it was the Croats and Muslims who
were collaborating with the Germans. This shameless lie works in the service
of the separatists in the manner of the popular phrase, "kad jebe lud
zbunjenog," when the crazy fuck the confused.
President Dodik, speaking at the the commemoration at Mrakovica, declared
that "the RS was created in order to defend the freedom of the Serb people."
He continued, "Serbs have freedom only when they have a state. And today
they have two states, the RS and Serbia." Discussing World War II history,
he asserted that "Serbs were massively anti-fascist, and Muslims only joined
that movement towards the end of WWII."
and Satko chuckled at the irony of the political heirs of the (fascist)
Chetniks celebrating the Partisan battle.
Epilogue: sharing a post from Anto Tomić,
survivor of Keraterm:
It was as if from a film, like lightning from the clear sky, this morning I
was met by a smile. From ear to ear.
On the second look, I recognize the owner of the smile. And a hug. A solid,
He recognized me first. He says, "You haven't changed at all."
--(sve ti jebem), I said, "Did I
really look like this 25 years ago?"
He, 25 years older, 50 kilos heavier.
I, 25 years older.
The last time we saw each other was in Keraterm, at the end of June, 1992.
At that time, I didn't feel like
He, still less.
His story, what he lived through and survived in the camp at Keraterm in
just one night, the sadistic mocking by the Hague convicts
Čupe Banovića, and co., cannot be retold. It's not for the ears of humans.
And he still smiles.
Out of spite.
Index of previous journals and articles