Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Bosnia-Herzegovina 2021, Journal #4

2021 Journal index

Journal 1: Returning to Bosnia with books; protests; population count; Vesna
Journal 2Inzko's laws; "Hospice care"; Activism vs. emigration
Journal 3: Pandemic; Mostar and corruption; Emptying Kozarac
Journal 4: Visiting Kevljani; Talks with Ervin; Mom
Journal 5Folie ŕ Deux; Zulfo

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Visiting 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 work.

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 too."

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."


I met and had morning coffee with my old friend Ervin several times while in Kozarac. Ervin returned to the town with his family early on, and plunged into activism. Before social networking existed as we know it, Ervin helped connect the widespread Kozarac diaspora via the web site, which is still active today. And with Satko Mujagić, he formed the community organization
"Optimisti," which has provided a variety of services to young people in Kozarac over the years.

I talked with Ervin about the state of activism in Kozarac, and the mood of the town these days. He said, "
Optimisti has some plans, but we have to see whether there will be energy for activities. We are in a 'standby position.' With the pandemic, some things have changed. It has cut right through our community. There has been a curfew on and off; at one point it was from 8:00 p.m. all the way to 12:00 noon. You couldn't go out until noon, and you just sit there...and it makes a big difference that people from the diaspora have not visited for two years.

"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, 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, Stara Ba
šta. Both the bride and groom, emigrants in the diaspora, had come back from abroad to celebrate their union in the old home.

Ervin commented,
"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 stealing publicly.

"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 Ned
žad 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 mortality.

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.

My mother died the day before my father's birthday. Nermina, in Banja Luka, said, that "the death is the birthday of the soul." She also said, "The relationship is still there; it has just changed in waves. It is no longer physical."

I know the relationship is still there. I am still carrying the feelings of my father's death 35 years earlier, and just beginning to process how I feel about the loss of my mother. I told a friend, who happens to be a therapist, "I don't have any fancy words for how I feel. It's just sad."

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