Articles on the Bosnia Conflict
Bosnia-Herzegovina journal #4: Bratunac
By Peter Lippman
Journal index (all include photos)
Journal 1: Sarajevo and Bosnia, early September 2008
Journal 2: Sarajevo and Bosnia, early September 2008 (continued)
Journal 3: Srebrenica, September 2008 Srebrenica memorial photos
Journal 4: Bratunac, September 2008
Journal 5: End of the Queer Festival, late September 2008
Journal 6: Tuzla, early October 2008
Journal 7: Kozluk & Bijeljina, October 2008
Journal 8: Prijedor and Kozarac, mid-October 2008
Journal 9: Stolac and Mostar, October 2008
Journal 10: Elections wrap up; more crime and scandals; politics, late October 2008
To contact Peter in response to these journals or any of his articles, .
THE YOUTH ORGANIZATION "ODISEJ," IN BRATUNAC
After leaving Srebrenica, I visited nearby Bratunac, a Serb-dominated town. In the early part of the war Bosniaks were killed or expelled from this town. Around 2002, when SFOR (UN troops) established a base near Bratunac, many Bosniaks began to return. Currently, the population of this municipality is around 40% Bosniak.
I had recently heard about a group of young people who were going against the dominant current of Serb opinion. They were working to recognize and confront the history of what had happened in this part of the country, including the massacres that were perpetrated after the fall of the Srebrenica enclave. Because of this, I was eager to meet them. The group's name is Odisej, and it turned out to be easy to find them.
There is a special background to the story of Bratunac, having to do with the reunification of Sarajevo after the war. As arranged at Dayton, the Sarajevo suburbs that had been under the control of Serb forces throughout the war were to be transferred to the control of the Bosniak-Croat Federation. This transfer took place during the winter of 1995-96, after the signing of Dayton. At that time, some 60,000 Serbs from those suburbs left, intimidated and coerced by their own leaders into moving to the RS.
Nationalist Serb authorities then placed people from the suburbs Hadzici, Ilidza, and Ilijas and other areas, in parts of the RS where they wanted to establish a demographic majority. These places along the eastern border of Bosnia, where many Bosniaks had been expelled, included Srebrenica, Brcko, Bijeljina, Zvornik, and Bratunac. The residents of Hadzici, practically en masse, ended up in Bratunac. (For a personal description of this move, see the story of "Rada" at http://www.advocacynet.org/resource/501.)
Odisej was founded in 2001 by some Bosnian Serbs who had been displaced, as teenagers, from Hadzici. A couple of the founders, Mirko and Stane, spoke with me at length about the history and activities of their group. At first, the atmosphere in Bratunac was too tense for the group to be able to reach across ethnic lines to Bosniak returnees. For that matter, Bosniaks had not started to return in greater numbers. But after a couple of years things began to change.
Mirko explained a turning point in the organization: "In 2004 we had a small, intimate meeting, where we said, 'What will we do? Will we work for integration? It will be very dangerous; they will put pressure on us, and we will be rejected socially.' There were no Bosniaks in the group, but we wanted to open to them. It was a unanimous decision, to be better, to be different, and not to be embarrassed to be able to say, 'I have Bosniak friends,' and for that to be an ordinary thing. Now, these things are happening.
"We are the organization that has made the first step here, in acceptance of returnees, to accept them as people, regardless of their faith. We are the only mixed organization, but sincerely mixed. We have gotten problems from other organizations, Serb NGOs that are only rhetorically 'multi-ethnic.' When we called for the arrest of war criminals, and sent this call to all the other organizations, they criticized us for this. When we approved the arrest of Karadzic, and called for the arrest of all the rest, they said that we were 'politicizing the situation.' Although we consider this one of our primary responsibilities, they all yelled about this. Meanwhile, there are young Bosniaks who come to work with us, and they are criticized by their own people."
I asked Mirko to describe to me some of Odisej's activities in confronting the past and clearing obstacles between young people of different ethnicities. He said, "We have visited each other's war memorials and cemeteries together, in the framework of a seminar. Around 30 people went to Potocari [location of the cemetery where the Srebrenica victims are buried]. It turned out that we knew more than the guards there. We had read reports from the ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia]. People came from Vlasenica, Milici, Sekovici, Bratunac, and Srebrenica. What's essential is that we young people sit together, and share what we have experienced. People had the same experiences, hunger...it helps create respect for each other."
Odisej has been working with Care International. Mirko listed attempts to receive support from various other international agencies, some of which turned out to be "too bureaucratic."
Recently, some members of Odisej traveled to the Swedish Social Forum. Mirko said, "We had a 36-hour bus trip with people from Albania, Macedonia, Bosnia, Serbia, members of the Green Party from Croatia. It was good because we got the chance to get to know each other. But we were constantly stopped and checked, especially in Germany. They were particularly interested in the Albanians They didn't understand, it's not like we were going looking for warm water to swim in. Ninety-nine per cent of our young activists have never traveled out of the country, not even to Serbia."
In late August of this year, in collaboration with Savjet Mladih of Srebrenica, Odisej prepared a first annual multi-ethnic gathering at a camp on the Drina River. Afterwards, I was hearing about this camp from young activists all the way across Bosnia to Prijedor.
Mirko said, "Now we are working on youth policy, trying to get such projects financed, to promote reconciliation. They gave money for war, now they should give money for peace."
I asked if the government of Bratunac municipality gave any support to Odisej. Stane said, "We have good cooperation with the executive authorities, but bad cooperation with the municipal council. We presented a program that we called a 'peace initiative' to the local municipal assembly. But the council always rejects what we propose.
"The local government gave us an office in an out of the way place, and blocked financial resources. Then they harassed us by subjecting us to various inspections, regarding cleanliness, bookkeeping, and similar things.
Outside Odisej's center is a large mural with an illustration of a policeman holding a flashlight and saying, in English, "You from Odisej, again!" The caption of the mural reads, "Let's help the police and beat ourselves."
Mural just outside the entrance to Odisej's center, in Bratunac
In 2006 Odisej carried out a project to put up posters in five municipalities, with a caption that read, "Do you know who your war heroes are?" In one column, there were photos of Karadzic, Naser Oric, and others, war "heroes" (or war criminals, depending on one's outlook) from each of the three main ethnicities. On the other side, there were positive figures, such as the Nobel Prize-winning writer Ivo Andric, popular athletes, musicians, and Bosnia's Oscar-winning film-maker. At the end of the project, Mirko related, "We held a party at our center. The police came, and drove us out of the building. They brought some of us to the police station, and beat us. There was no process. They beat eight of us, brutally, all night.
"After that, we made a big noise about what happened, and since then, no police have come around here. Not when we need them, either."
Mirko told me a little about himself. After arriving in Bratunac at the end of the war, he finished high school: "Then I went to Serbia to study medicine in college. I worked with a youth group there, and came back here in 2005. I had been involved in student government in Serbia. I wanted to share with young people the experience that I had acquired in working with organizations. I'm trying to help them broaden their vision, to understand that there's something else that exists, outside. This is a little place, and we are trying to make it more open.
"Odisej is our child. We want to turn it over to the younger people.
"I have not yet taken employment in health care, because I thought that this was more important. I wanted to have some influence, to help the kids. And to get a job, I would have had to engage in corruption. You either have to pay a bribe, or have personal connections. Under Tito, it was necessary to be a member of the Communist Party to advance. Now, you have to be a member of a ruling party. The political parties appoint the directors of firms."
I asked Stane and Mirko how they evaluate changes in the atmosphere in Bratunac in the past years since they opened up their organization. Mirko said, "My opinion is that it has changed. A lot has changed. After the war, people were very homophobic."
I was surprised that Mirko would mention homophobia right off. I mentioned the tension present those very days in Sarajevo around the time of the Queer Festival. Mirko said, "It's horrible, what is going on. There has been a great degree of homophobia among nationalists." Connecting nationalism and homophobia in the RS with similar attitudes in the Federation, Stane added, "If there hadn't been anything here, there wouldn't have been in Sarajevo either" (referring, I presumed, to the incitement of nationalism and associated xenophobia that was unbridled among Bosnian Serbs).
Mirko continued, "One step we've made here is regarding nationalism, there is not now open hatred or open conflicts. People [both Bosniaks and Serbs] come here to our center to be together, to be in touch, to love each other. They go out together for coffee or to take a walk, they don't have any kind of problems. Once, this was unimaginable.
VOLUNTEERISM, ELECTIONS, NATIONALISM
As we talked, teenagers wandered in and out of the semi-lit and informally-furnished center, sitting at computers, sending e-mail, and chatting. Mirko pointed at the computers and said, "Our computers should be in a museum. They are seven years old. We could use donations, but all of the humanitarian donations to anyone in Bosnia are taxed. Ninety per cent of the young people here don't even have experience with computers. There are no computers in the school. The high school is right here. We would like to help the school, by opening a lab here with 25 computers.
"We have our own web site, but the younger people don't know how to maintain it, and the older people are either leaving, or don't have time. Personally, I haven't had time to work on it."
I asked Mirko and Stane about the state of volunteerism in Bratunac. Stane replied, "You're looking at it. Volunteerism is a new name, but it's an old idea. There are around 30 people working with us. No one here is paid. People over 25 have to go find some work; some of them go dig ditches.
"Before the war, there were people planting trees, and there were people volunteering with the Red Cross. In socialism it was considered that volunteerism was not needed, even actually prohibited in some ways. Associations of over eight people were prohibited; in the army, over six. If there was a 'verbal crime,' then it was another crime not to report it."
Turning to the elections, Stane said, "There are still three ideologies, and people are still easily manipulated. The ideology of a "greater" nation based on ethnicity is a mistaken ideology. Someone said, 'Never have smarter people voted for stupider things.' In the beginning of the war, there were people who came into power overnight, who weren't qualified. There were people who became war commanders, who were illiterate."
I asked, "If everyone votes either as a Bosniak, a Serb, or a Croat, then where is there space for someone to be a citizen?"
Stane said, "We need a common option. If Serbs root for Serbia, and Croats for Croatia, then only Bosniaks are left rooting for Bosnia. Now, during the elections, everyone is throwing around stupidities. It brings everything back to square one, yelling about protecting their 'national interests'. But in fact, no one actually knows what their national interest is. Mine is to have a car, a family, and an apartment, not to get rid of other people."
While we were near the subject of nationalism, Stane provided me with an interesting definition: "There is a problem for people in differentiating nationalism and national chauvinism. Nationalism isn't something bad. There is such a thing as a 'healthy nationalism.' But the nationalism here is mixed with chauvinism, fanaticism, and fascism. When you understand this difference, some other things become clear. Nationalism can be healthy when it recognizes other people. Nationalism means to respect oneself, but it doesn't mean disrespect others."
I have heard this qualified definition of nationalism at times, and it is in strong disagreement with the way most survivors of the catastrophic breakup of Yugoslavia perceive the term. For most survivors, "nationalism" is purely a negative thing. However, I have been looking for the space where people are allowed to be proud of their particular cultural heritage, in a positive manner that doesn't involve looking down upon someone else's culture.
The youngsters of Odisej, in any case, have this attitude. It occurs to me that it may be an influential factor that the organization's founders were themselves displaced people, which perhaps made it possible for them to have empathy for others who had a common experience. It also occurred to me that it is natural -- all but imperative -- for the youth to rebel against their elders. So in a situation where the grown-ups are behaving atrociously, it could be a natural impulse for the youth to open up.
There is an expression in the Bosnian language, "pozitivci," meaning people with a positive attitude. This refers to people who don't merely complain, but work optimistically to change things for the better, regardless of how bad things are. There are plenty of people in Bosnia who have an idea how bad things are, but no idea how to change things. Then there are people who may be intelligent, but jealous, and when they see someone doing something constructive, they just criticize. Finally, there are people like the youth of Odisej, like Dijana in Srebrenica, like the leaders of the early return movement.
I left Bratunac enthusiastic about the pozitivci, wanting to seek out more youth activists around the country.
For Odisej's former website, click here. (mostly in Bosnian)
Bratunac sign: "There is no way to peace. Peace is the way."
Next -- Bosnia-Herzegovina journal #5: End of the Queer Festival