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Kevljani; Talks with Ervin; Mom
While in Kozarac, I visited friends and activists there, in Prijedor,
and in a couple of villages. I saw Kasim at his rural home in
Kevljani. Kevljani is known as the location of a couple of the
largest mass graves that were discovered in that region after the
war. As you're traveling east from Kozarac towards Banja Luka,
Kevljani is the last Bosniak village before you arrive to the
Serb-populated village of Omarska.
Omarska is not only the location of one of the largest mines and ore
processing centers in this part of Bosnia. In 1992 it was used as a
concentration camp, and thousands of Bosniak and Croat prisoners
were held there in 1992. Hundreds were killed.
There was middling return to Kevljani after 1999. Kasim, a survivor
of Omarska, was one of the returnees. He lives alone in the rebuilt
house of his family. He has plenty of land. He sold his donkey and
cow, but he still has a number of African hens, and Bilof, a big
Tornjak sheepdog. He gardens and takes care of other people's
property as well.
Kasim was making jam and juice from grapes when I arrived. He raises
chard, tomatoes, peppers, and green onions. He says, "I have
somewhere around 50 sheep and goats. I'm only milking two goats,
however much I need personally.
"There are no workers now; it's a catastrophe. Wherever you look,
there are houses, land, forests, everything, but no people."
Most of the
houses in Kevljani are rebuilt, and most of them are empty. Kasim
says that in this area, most villagers used to have cows, but they
have sold them and are now taking care of sheep. It's easier, less
Kasim says that he has seen wolves, jackals, and wild boar around
the village. "That's nature," he says. "For the wild animals, the
biggest problems are food and water. For three months this year,
there wasn't rain. So then they had to come closer to where we live.
If they have food and water, then they won't come into the populated
areas. But food wasn't growing out there in the forest. Then there's
a chain reaction, where they draw each other in. The deer, the
pheasants, and the rabbits, they come in closer, and then the wolves
have to as well. I was surprised by the wolves. They will attack.
And if you run into a lot of the wild boar, that can be dangerous
Around 30 people still live in Kevljani. Kasim says that everyone
who could leave, has left. At least 50% of the people are over 70
years old. There are about a half-dozen children. They are in
families that are not capable of leaving, says Kasim, because they
have various problems.
Altogether in the three villages of Jakupovići, Hadžići, and
Kevljani there used to be about 1,900 people. Now there are about
130. Kasim says that in all of Bosnia-Herzegovina, thousands of
villages have been emptied or reduced to ten inhabitants. The
attrition is partly due to genocide and ethnic cleansing, and partly
to the ongoing exodus. And it's not just Bosniaks who are leaving;
Kasim says 50% of
the young people have left Omarska as well.
"It must be
plenty lonely," I said. Kasim: "I got used to it."
Kasim told me, "The border to Germany is open, Western Europe is
open. Whoever can go, does. Germany is now looking for 400,000
workers." I remarked that this was ironic, given that Germany had
expelled hundreds of thousands of Bosnian refugees in 1998. Kasim:
"Yes, and people who were expelled then, can now go back. You can
see how many have left by the numbers in school. Today there are 60%
fewer pupils in the schools in Kozarac, Trnopolje, and Omarska, than
there were 12 years ago. The population in Bosnia is low now, one
and a half or two million; that's equivalent to one city in Germany.
Not even a really big city.
"And people are right to leave. You can't wait, 30, 40 years,
thinking that maybe things will get better, but maybe not. It's sad,
because this is a beautiful country. We
could have a good life here. We have forests, good land, water,
mountains, everything. This is a country where
ordinarily, people really want to work, but they've made a country
of invalids, depending on humanitarian aid. So then those who should
be working don't want to work anymore."
I commented that the Bosnians who come to my country are very good
workers. Kasim: "And in Europe. People want to work. The Swedish
government said that in their history of accepting refugees, there
were never asylees like the Bosnians. They all found their way very
quickly. They assimilated—the children started going to school
immediately; people got jobs, found apartments, everything."
I asked Kasim if his family had the same house before the war. "We
had our house here," he said, "but they torched it during the war.
It was rubble, and then I came and cleaned it all up and we had it
built completely new."
"So with reduced activity and contact, I feel like I've lost the
social connections I once had. And overall, it is a question whether
we have among us the critical mass for change. But locally, at
least, we are associated with the basketball court, since we
renovated that court and asphalted it 20 years ago. Now we need to
upgrade it, and renovate the playground too. We need to do
fundraising. We should expand Kozarac.ba, hire some young people, do
video work and place it on YouTube. We need to develop media work
further, to keep up communication in the town and with the diaspora."
Every time that I've gone to Kozarac in the last few years, I've
noticed the increased effects of the exodus. This time, I was out on
the street on a Saturday night, and it was all but deserted. There
was a wedding party going on in the otherwise closed kafana,
Both the bride and groom, emigrants in the diaspora, had come back
from abroad to celebrate their union in the old home.
"Half of the villages around here are empty. In Kozarac, half of the
stores are closed. You have Sarajevo, Banja Luka, where there are
some people, but if you travel a little, say, from Bihać through
Petrovac, Ključ—once there were people there, there were many
kafanas by the road, and stores. But now, when you drive that route,
everything is closed.
"It is a question, whether we have enough energy, capacity, people
to do work. With what we have, it can be depressing. You have to be
strong. As an activist, I'm supposed to be an
optimist, but I'm also realistic. As you get older, and change,
maybe you have a different outlook, or experience. You know, as they
say, a pessimist is an 'optimist with experience.' It's a new,
in-between category. For myself, I manage, thank God; when I feel
dissatisfied, then I try to strengthen myself, spiritually."
I asked Ervin for his evaluation of the latest political crisis. He
answered with one word: "Rijaliti." That refers to the reality shows
that are popular in Bosnia-Herzegovina and the surrounding
countries. Ervin assesses the ongoing political drama as primarily
for show. The secessionist measures taken by the Serb separatists
make everyone in the country fearful of war.
Ervin says, "For the people in the ruling parties, everything is
fine! They live off the governmental budget. In the Federation you
have even more public officials, because you have the cantonal
level. There are cantonal ministers; they have a treasury, a car and
driver, a cleaner... So, there's a huge bureaucracy—maybe as much as
a third of the population, if not more, lives well—and too well.
They live from thievery and they no longer hide it; they are
"For example, take those scandals, a producer of raspberries buys
ventilators for the hospitals. Simply, no one is thinking about any
progress, just looking at how to steal from the budget, how to win
votes, and we ordinary people pay for everything, we're paying the
taxes. And we get repression, the police in our lives, and it's not
the law. This is not rule of law. Our politicians like stabilocracy
more than democracy. And it is clear that the international
community deals with and supports our politicians who are thieves.
"Now the Croat
leaders are saying that if there is no electoral law reform as they
conceive it, there's no Bosnia-Herzegovina. Dodik says there is no
such thing as Bosnia. At the same time, they say they are for peace,
but then just like that—there's no Bosnia. I don't believe there is
potential here for some bigger conflict. We have the possibility,
maybe, for some controlled chaos, police actions. I'm afraid that we
are headed for religious collectivities, where there will be a kind
of Palestinization among the Bosniaks.
"We need a citizens' state, we need to remove the enshrinement of
'constituent peoples,' but how to do this? We need to remove the
RS—not just because it was created from genocide, but because it is
a bad idea economically. It can't survive. We need to remove the
Federation too, for that matter. If you got rid of those ten
cantons, that huge level of government that is completely
unnecessary, then you could save billions in the budget."
I asked Ervin if the Prijedor municipality would help the Optimisti
with any of their planned projects. He said, "No, they won't help
us, because I'm still on the blacklist for having been in an
activity where we used the word 'genocide.'" Over ten years ago the
municipal assembly banned the use of the "g-word" in Prijedor, after
activists organized an event where they commemorated the effects of
genocide in the municipality. The local officials objected to the
word on general principles. I would say they object because it is
the truth, and an appropriate use of the term, given what happened
in and around Prijedor in 1992.
But, Ervin says, "It has not been determined in court, as it was in
Srebrenica. So really, in 2022, the 30th anniversary of the start of
the war, we should have a commemoration of '30 years of un-convicted
genocide,' since it has not been settled in this municipality."
I ventured that, given the law against the use of the term
"genocide," my book, which I had just given him, must be contraband.
Ervin said, "In Prijedor they planned things very well, unlike, say,
in Srebrenica. Here, they didn't hurry with the killing, but they
targeted the people who had been our leaders, in sports, in the
economy, in science. That's the way the systematic cleansing took
place; they didn't hurry! They took care of it very precisely. While
in Srebrenica there wasn't time, they just had to take a large
number of people. Both here and there, they committed a crime that
was big enough that we will never again be able to be together. You
create a division of the peoples—that's what it is when the crime is
planned, when genocide is a strategy.
"Then after all that, the Serbs went on a counter-offensive,
equating the victimization. 'We're all victims, everyone committed
crimes,' they said. The presentation of the character of the war was
changed from a classic aggression, to civil war. The fascists are
now commemorating anti-fascism.
"Wise people tell us not to forget what was done. Of course, you
have to confront the past, as we always say. But some things are
worth forgetting. And I remember everything that happened, maybe too
well, as if it was yesterday. In that way, there is a dictatorship
of the past. As you get older, life is like a roll of toilet paper:
the less there is left, the faster it turns."
I was having dinner with my friend Nedžad
at Neira's, a pleasant kafana with outdoor seating, on the main drag
in Kozarac. It was Sunday, September 26, 2021. While we were talking,
my brother Roger called at about 9:00 p.m. He called to tell me that
our Mom had died that day. It was not a surprise.
I booked a flight back to the US for the next Friday. That left me
four days to finish up things in Kozarac, Banja Luka, Tuzla, and
Sarajevo. I had to forego visiting Srebrenica.
I used to call Mom (Eleanor was her name) every week. She had driven
a car until she was 97. And she had folkdanced up until then, for
nearly 60 years. Then she broke her hip, and it was downhill from
there. But by the year of her death she couldn't walk anymore, nor
could she hear. I would visit with a laptop and write things down
for her to read; then she would respond orally.
In her many decades, Mom was a world-class mother, a social worker
for a while; then she worked in a city office of services for the
elderly, and she finished her working life, after getting a Masters
degree, solving traffic problems in New York City. She was an
environmentalist, a dancer, a spontaneous and intuitive person (the
perfect complement to my father). In her retirement, she went from
being an amateur photographer to an award-winning one whose work was
displayed in many exhibits.
There are much more eloquent thoughts about my mother here
in this memorial site than what I can write now. But seeing those
last years of my mother's life—even though it wasn't that painful,
and certainly not dreadful, neither was it particularly joyful.
With Mom gone, now my brothers and I are on the front line facing
I talked about my mother's last years with Kasim. He said, "In our
customs, the youngest son would take care of the elderly parents.
But before, there were always at least three, maybe four or five
people in the family, and spouses, so there was always someone to
look after them. Now, it's sad, that there's no one and the biggest
problem is that parents are alone here, the children are abroad.
They are in America, in Europe, or somewhere else, and they can't
just leave, and you can't bring the parents there. And everyone has
to work, the man, the wife, kids in school."
The problems of taking care of the elders in their last years in
Bosnia are similar to those that we have. We're trapped in the way
that we compartmentalize the generations; obviously elder people
would be able to edge towards the end of life so much more
comfortably and pleasantly if they were able to have their loved
ones around them, the way it used to be.