Articles on the Bosnia Conflict
Bosnia-Herzegovina Journal # 7: Kozluk & Bijeljina
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,
A store on the main square of Kozluk with a banner that reads, "Kozluk Town, We Love You"
From Tuzla I headed for Kozluk, a village in the northeastern part of the RS on the road between Zvornik and Bijeljina. Kozluk is the home of the charismatic refugee return leader Fadil Banjanovic "Bracika." I had first witnessed Bracika in action at a return conference in Gorazde in the spring of 1999. There, he stood up in front of a crowd of several hundred local return activists from throughout southeast Bosnia -- both Serbs and Bosniaks -- and launched into a rousing speech, encouraging people to fight for their right to return, in the face of resistance from local authorities and international passivity alike. The audience was stirred by his exhortations.
Fadil Banjanovic "Bracika" in front of his campaign billboard
Later that year I interviewed Bracika at his office in Tuzla. At the time, he was director of the regional association for refugee and displaced person affairs, an agency supported by the Tuzla Canton government.
It was a bumpy interview, interrupted every couple minutes by phone calls, or by Bracika yelling requests and instructions to a secretary in the next room. I noticed that Bracika's voice was always set on one volume: booming.
Bracika was already a leader of his fellow citizens of Kozluk before the war. Together with them, he was displaced from that village early on, as marauding Serbian paramilitary formations swept down along the eastern part of Bosnia.
Center of Kozluk -- Fadil Banjanovic's "office"
Some years later I learned that Bracika had succeeded in leading his people back to Kozluk. I was not surprised, given his tenacity. The fact that he moved back to the village, unlike many other prominent representatives of displaced communities, only increased my admiration for him.
Given this, it was somewhat surprising to me when, last summer, I read about a celebration in Kozluk where RS Prime Minister Dodik was the honored guest. Dodik, not usually on good terms with the Bosniaks, had approved reconstruction of the road and water supply to Kozluk. Reconstruction of such services to return settlements is a widespread and painful issue, due to the apartheid-like situation under which the majority of the return population throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina lives. So it was exceptional that Dodik had approved the reconstruction, and what caught my eye was that Dodik was invited to the celebration, and was feasting and partying with the local population.
I determined to visit Kozluk and talk to Bracika. I was interested in learning about Kozluk's success, and I was curious about Bracika's relationship with Dodik. I also wondered what he might have to say about the difference between Kozluk and other localities, such as Srebrenica, where return had not been as successful.
I took a bus from Tuzla to Karakaj, a little north of Zvornik. Karakaj was a bedraggled and desolate town that had nothing striking about it but campaign posters for various unsavory Serb nationalist municipal candidates. My cell phone didn't even work there. I was relieved when Mirza, an associate of Bracika, picked me up and drove me to Kozluk. On the way, he pointed out a row of houses on a hillside, where five brothers had lived. He told me that early in the war, the Serbs killed them all.
He told me that about 3,000 Bosniaks lived in Kozluk before the war, and around 50 Serbs. As to the present atmosphere in the region he said, "Mainly it's nationalism, but no one bothers anyone else."
Return to Kozluk began in 2001, and everyone, according to Mirza, had returned by 2003. Some from Kozluk work in Austria, because the economy is poor in this region. In the nearby water bottling factory, out of 150 employees, only three are Bosniaks, and the rest Serbs.
Mirza said that Kozluk has all been fixed up. Not much was destroyed, because Serbs moved into those houses right away at the beginning of the war, instead of wrecking them. When the Bosniaks finally returned, some of the Serbs also returned to their pre-war homes, but many moved to Bijeljina and Zvornik.
It was a fine morning and Fadil Banjanovic Bracika met me in the modest village square. A little kafana managed by Bracika stood on one side of the square. Together, the square and the kafana constituted Bracika's office. Bracika had been running on the SDP (Social-Democratic Party) ticket for Zvornik municipal council, and posters with his likeness lined the walls of the kafana and billboards on the square.
We sat outside at a kafana table under one of the billboards and a waiter served us. Bracika was in an expansive mood, celebrating the results of the previous day's elections. The SDP won two seats on the municipal council, doubling its previous representation. As we sat and talked, Bracika answered phone calls every few minutes; people from all over the country and abroad were calling to find out about the election results and to congratulate him.
He held forth on the phone, speaking as much for my benefit as anyone else's, about his victory. He punctuated every sentence with "Eh!!" He could have been Hugo Chavez, more or less.
Bracika delivered an address: "In Bosnia and Herzegovina, what happened, happened. Some say it was a religious war, or a civil war. I say that it was total aggression for a Greater Serbia and a Greater Croatia.
"We were all hurt in this war. I was driven from Kozluk right at the beginning of the war. We were spread out around the world; some ended up in Tuzla Canton. Displaced people were hurt regardless of whether they were Serb, Croat, or Bosniak. I was in Bosnia the whole time. During the war I was a member of the leadership of Zvornik in exile, so I felt the whole experience up close.
"After the war, I saw that the only solution was return. In 1996 and 1997 I helped organize return to Jusici. Then, there was no OHR helping. The people wanted their houses back. The people got going, there was no association. We returned to Dugi Dio, to Mahala...the international community didn't initiate any of this.
"There was obstruction. In 1996 and 1997 thirteen people were killed, whether by bullets or bombs. Around 130 were put in the hospital. Later, Meliha Duric was killed in Vlasenica.
"Return home means death for the big nationalists because it disturbs their plans if I live with Zoran and Djuro (Serb and/or Croat names). So now, the people who made war divided Bosnia; they did everything they could to prevent return. But they couldn't stop the return, because the desire of people to be near their hearth, and near their ancestors' cemeteries, is too strong. So there has been return to around fifty villages in Zvornik municipality. In the region of northeast Bosnia, there has been return to around 600 localities. I'm talking about two-way return."
Bracika had a lot to do with this two-way return.
There was an ink pen lying on the kafana table that read "SNSD," the initials and logo of Dodik's party. I asked Bracika if Dodik was obstructing return. He answered, "Dodik is not guilty; the international community is the problem. Return happened. Nothing could stop it. Here there was the most return, and the strongest activists. Why did people not return to Visegrad, Gorazde, and Foca? In Sarajevo they did favors for people so that they would stay there. On the other hand, in Tuzla they did not give one free place away to any displaced persons. I lived in Tuzla for ten or fifteen years. It would have been a historical mistake [note old-fashioned Marxist terminology] to give people free places to stay there. If the mass of people had returned, it is a question whether the RS would have continued to exist. We reduced the possibility for nationalism."
I asked Bracika why return was more successful around Zvornik than Srebrenica. He said, "The difference between here and Srebrenica is in the leaders; the obstruction was the same."
In fact, there are several other differences; one is that Zvornik municipality is adjacent to Tuzla Canton in the Federation, where so many displaced people from Zvornik (including from Kozluk) ended up. Srebrenica municipality is significantly further from the inter-entity borderline. Geographical proximity played an important part in facilitating return throughout the country. The main reason, however, is probably the well-known fact that the mass of able-bodied men from Srebrenica were killed, and so there were fewer people able to return to that municipality.
Bracika continued, "I'm proud that Kozluk has Roma, Croats, and Serbs. Return has prevented the division of Bosnia; we are a factor in the RS. And there is a good process of return in Janja [a village/suburb of Bijeljina]."
I shared with Bracika my impression that people in Sarajevo have no idea about the state of return in northeast Bosnia. He said, "They don't want to know. We know that there are good Serbs here. We have to help; we extend our hand. I would be happy if there were no Serbs here, but we are destined to live together. We don't have to love each other, but we have to live together."
I said that it seemed to me Dodik was perpetuating division in a smarter manner than his predecessors. Bracika answered, "That is clear. But Dodik is a necessary evil. He defeated the SDS [the party founded by Radovan Karadzic] and the rest of them; he was compelled to use the Serbian nationalist card. I am a friend of Dodik. We might clash, but our problem was the bad road, and he solved it."
I was rather shocked by Bracika's boldness in calling Dodik a "friend," but Bracika is a politician, dealing in the "art of the possible," and that art includes calling powerful people "friends." I was somewhat saddened, however, that he settled for Kozluk and cooperation with Dodik, when there is so much more to be done in the struggle for returnee (now "minority") rights and against apartheid throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina. But perhaps it is not for me to judge. Bracika achieved as much as anyone else, probably more. It's just too bad that there were not one hundred Bracikas.
Turning to the broader field of politics, I said to Bracika, "It seems that Dodik and Silajdzic are collaborating in the division of Bosnia." He said, "You just said it all. But Dodik is smarter. We didn't have a road, a hospital, or water supply. He has made donations, and there will be a fruit-processing plant, and a factory for haberdashery. We went to Dodik with these projects. Now, we have our homes, the mosque, a school, and the road; we just need work."
It was past noon and Bracika invited me inside for "breakfast," which turned out to be a sumptuous chicken dinner. Bracika complained about media isolation: "It is a reflection of the situation that we are only receiving BN television (Bijeljina), Nis, and Pirot (two cities in Serbia). That suits the separatists, that we are watching Chetnik television. And the constant message from Sarajevo about abolishing the RS helps Dodik. Let the courts decide that issue. Let the institutions decide about the questions of war. Here, Dodik has legality and legitimacy. Sarajevo should open up and prevent discrimination. What's good for Serbs there is good for Bosniaks here."
I asked Bracika whether Dodik has a similarly good relationship with returnees in other parts of the RS. He answered, "I'm sorry to tell you this, but I'm only interested in my own courtyard." But he did discuss the Dodik phenomenon a bit further: "Dodik is a businessman; he understands development. He controls the whole government in the RS, from the municipality to the entity level. His infrastructure is a fast train, and we have a place on it. Twenty thousand Bosniaks have returned to this municipality. There are Bosniaks in the municipal government, the police department, and the schools."
As I prepared to leave, Bracika arranged a ride for me to Bijeljina, and made a gift to me of the SNSD ink pen.
From Kozluk I caught a ride north to Bijeljina, which I had last visited in 2006. Bijeljina is notorious as one of the places first hit by extreme Serb nationalist paramilitaries in the very beginning of the war in the spring of 1992. Most Croats, Bosniaks, and other non-Serbs were quickly killed or expelled from Bijeljina, and the city has been ruled by the SDS (Karadzic's party) ever since then.
People started returning to Bijeljina and surroundings in 2000, and return has been relatively successful, especially in the Bosniak-majority suburb of Janja. Which is not to say that the returnees are particularly thriving. Life is difficult for returnees as newly-constituted "ethnic minorities,” and people are struggling.
The atmosphere in Bijeljina is the same as when I left it in 2006. Serb nationalist signs, graffiti, and slogans dominate. Posters of the indicted war criminal Vojislav Seselj, reading "Free Seselj," are abundant. In front of the municipal building there is a huge statue of a soldier on a horse, pointing a spear at a three-headed human figure. The statue, rebuilt during the war, is dedicated to a Serbian king, and bears an inscription dedicated to valiant Serb fighters. SNSD campaign posters read "Moja Kuca - Srpska" ("My home-(Republika) Srpska,) written in Cyrillic. An SDS campaign poster reads "Boze Pravde," the name of the Serb nationalist hymn.
I met with Jusuf Trbic, director of the organization "Preporod" ("Rebirth"). This is a Muslim cultural organization, which has its central office in Sarajevo and numerous branches around the country. Local branches have some autonomy and focus on issues of their choosing. So while it is affiliated with the Bosniak nationalist SDA, the Bijeljina branch is much more concerned with issues of local justice and survival of the returnees, and less tied up with the dogma of the central organization.
Jusuf Trbic is a writer and a former journalist, and he was director of Radio Bijeljina before the war. He has produced two volumes on the history of the wartime mistreatment and expulsion of Bosniaks from the Bijeljina area. He also owns and manages a small storefront café. He is gentle and warm at all times. Probably because of his background, he was prepared to give me an oral presentation that was so well-organized that I can reproduce it here almost without editing.
The pre-war population of Bijeljina municipality was around 100,000, with around a 35% Bosniak component. The city itself was approximately two-thirds Bosniak. To date, about 8,000 Bosniaks have returned to Bijeljina, and a similar number to Janja. However, the municipality is now more populous than before the war, having filled up with displaced Serbs from other parts of the country. In view of this Trbic said, "So return has not been a success. People's property was returned, but that is not enough."
Discussing the living conditions of returnees, Trbic told me, "Only around one percent of the Bosniaks in Bijeljina and Janja are employed. There are some more in the municipal administration, but not many in the companies. Employment is worse for us here than in Srebrenica. The constitution calls for 30% Bosniak employment in the state firms, but now it stands at one percent." Residents of Janja are better off than those in Bijeljina, since they can engage in farming.
Trbic listed other factors influencing the life and morale of the Bosniak community: "A second problem is the atmosphere. The flag, the coat of arms, and the names on the streets, all antagonize us. One street is named 'Srpske Dobrovoljske Garde,' the title of Arkan's paramilitary group. The state institutions have been given religious names: the hospital, the hotel 'Sveti Stefan.' All of the firms have 'name days' [Serbian Orthodox religious dates]. This is a message that we aren't citizens of this entity.
"A third problem is urban development. There is much building, and no one knows where the finances for this development comes from. Some 50,000 Serbs came from other parts of the region. There are between 5,000 and 10,000 buildings that have been constructed illegally. Around 60 of these are in the center of the city. Later, some of these buildings were given permits, but there has been no arrangement for parking, for parks, or for playgrounds. Then, they have to tear down nearby houses for these things, and these houses belong to Bosniaks.
"Fourth, there has been no process for addressing the war crimes that took place in Bijeljina. Ethnic cleansing took place. All the mosques were destroyed: five in Bijeljina, and two in Janja. All these were destroyed on March 13th of 1993. No one has been found responsible for this. SDS has been in power for years. The people who organized these crimes are still there. You can imagine how we feel."
I met with Milan, an activist who had been displaced from the Federation during the war as an adolescent. Soon after the war he found himself in Bratunac, which I had visited earlier (see journal #4), and he worked with Odisej. Confirming my hunch that a young displaced Serb may be inclined to have empathy for displaced Bosniaks, he said, "We displaced persons understand each others' problems. Who needs a war? I know what it was like to sleep on floors, suffer from hunger, and fear from snipers. This is a different time.
"I wanted to see change, and I knew others did too. There was a situation of isolation, darkness; you didn't know what was happening in the world. We are trying to encourage people to get away from generalizations and blaming. At the beginning, we had difficulty registering our organization, and we lacked money. Now people are more mixed; then, it was more tense."
Milan left Bratunac to go to college. In Bijeljina, apparently, there is no organization similar to Odisej, where young people of different ethnicities can come together and break the ice created by their elders. However, activists in Bijeljina assert that the problem is not in the attitudes of ordinary people, but a systemic one maintained by the local authorities.
Salem Corbo confirmed this assessment. He is the leader of an NGO called "Sustainable Return," which supports returnees. The day after Bosnia's nationwide municipal elections, I talked with him at a sidewalk kafana on the large main square. He said, "It is peaceful here, except during the election periods. Now, 3,500 Bosniaks have voted. We are just choosing our own tyrant."
Along the same lines, Jusuf Trbic had reported, "There are no incidents of violence now, because when I returned here seven years ago and founded Preporod, whenever such things happened, we made sure that there was publicity about it in the newspapers. As a result of this we have received some protection because of the authorities' fear of bad publicity. Also, the war has been over a long time, and people know each other here, so they know that someone will have to answer for it if there is violence."
Immediate security is thus not the problem it was in the early days of return, but sustainable return is still very much in question. Mr. Corbo continued, focusing on the problem of employment: "The SDS has been in power here for 18 years. This is a big disappointment. Discrimination has increased. Nothing has been offered, no solution. It is a very nationalist, chauvinist, fascist government. People have not been allowed to return to their jobs, and there is no new work. Out of 17,000 returnees, approximately one percent are employed. In one neighborhood, for one kilometer around where I live, there is no one working. We receive help from the Bijeljina diaspora. We live on 50 KM or 100 KM per month; it was easier to live during the war."
Mr. Corbo looked at me in anguish and said, "People do not have food to eat, or anything to live on. They are traumatized. They can't begin to heal from the pain and trauma. We returned to destroyed houses, without help. So the people are without hope, demoralized. This kafana employs more Bosniaks than does the government. Bobar [a local banker and insurance magnate] employs more as well.
"We returnees need economic improvement. We do not have the minimum social protection. One family receives 41 KM per month. For social cases [indigent families], 80,000 KM has been allocated. Meanwhile, the mayor has 550,000 KM at his disposal for social cases, which he distributes before elections. There are no criteria attached to this distribution; he distributes the funds to his own people, as he wishes. It is the same in other fields."
Party affiliation, as in the rest of Bosnia-Herzegovina, makes all the difference to someone seeking employment. A friend of mine in Bijeljina, a displaced Serb who was a high school teacher before the war, told me that she was invited to join the SDS, with a promise of subsequent employment. She refused, and remains unemployed. Corbo said, "We had a girl who passed all her exams and became a nurse. She's not able to find work; meanwhile, untrained people are working in these positions, because they have party connections."
Corbo listed several other local Serb employers who are happy to employ Bosniaks, but he emphasized the government's discrimination. He continued, "A local commission to help returnees was formed, with three Bosniak members. One hundred thousand KM was allocated to repair houses. This sum was allocated for one year's time. In other words, the members of the commission are paid to do nothing."
Discrimination is particularly evident in education. Corbo told me, "The school curriculum is designed as if there were no second group of people here. In 2004, in Janja there were around 650 students. There are five subjects that are influenced by an ethnic-based discourse. The students in Janja held a strike and succeeded in changing the curriculum to include textbooks from the Federation. But they can't do that in Bijeljina, so all the subjects are from the Serb curriculum.
"When my son was in the fifth grade, he told me that he would not study here anymore. So I enrolled him in school in Tuzla."
"Education is the most difficult area. Here, only one culture and its related subjects are deemed of value. It is accepted that change can only take place through war," said Mr. Corbo
I asked Mr. Trbic, "Would you call this apartheid?"
He replied, "Apartheid is the word for this situation."
As in other parts of the country, the cultural atmosphere in Bijeljina has been "cleansed" -- even the local museum has been stripped of traces of the centuries of Ottoman influence. People commonly tell me that Bijeljina resembles "a suburb of Belgrade," the nearby capital of Serbia across the Drina River.
A large reconstructed mosque dominates one side of the town square, emitting the muezzin's call to prayer at regular intervals throughout the day. Mr. Corbo told me, "The only area where the government is somewhat more tolerant is towards the religious community. The five mosques in Bijeljina and the two in Janja are all being fixed. But meanwhile, there are 80 new churches in Bijeljina municipality, all being financed from the municipal budget."
It is apparent that impunity for war crimes is part of the problem. There are many individuals who were implicated in the violence against non-Serbs during the war--including dozens who participated in the Srebrenica massacres--who are in very influential positions today. Mr. Trbic noted that there are around 800 people associated with war crimes in Srebrenica who are still employed in the RS.
Jusuf Trbic and Salem Corbo named a dozen of them for me. I won't list names here, but one of these people is the chief prosecutor in Bijeljina municipality. A war-time military judge in Bijeljina is now assistant prosecutor for war crimes at the state level. The war-time president of the municipality is now director of the bureau for urban planning. The war-time head of the RS security service is now an advisor to Bijeljina's mayor. The war-time police commissioner in Bijeljina is now director of the waterworks.
One politician who should be named is Mirko Blagojevic, who is the president of the local branch of the Serbian Radical Party (headed by Seselj). He is also a representative in the municipal assembly in Bijeljina. During the war Blagojevic (not necessarily related to the embattled governor of Illinois) was the commander of a paramilitary formation under Seselj.
Mr. Trbic pointed out that "here in Bijeljina, you can't talk about war crimes, human rights, or unemployment. You can't mention Bosnia-Herzegovina. You can't put up a BiH flag. There were US sanctions imposed on Bijeljina, but they were suspended until the new administration comes in.
"These are the facts. We live here. There are no incidents because we avoid them. But if I were to put up a Bosnian flag in my shop, in a half hour someone would come to break the windows."
In another vein, I remarked to Mr. Trbic that I had the impression that people in Sarajevo do not pay attention to what is going on in Bijeljina. Trbic said, "We feel that every day. No one comes to help; they only visit during the elections."
Mr. Corbo elaborated, "Sarajevo has not supported real return. For example, they have not even opened an office of Telecom here, so I have to pay my cell phone bill in Sarajevo. That is how narrowly they are thinking. They have accepted the division, but that is not accepted among the people."
Referring to the Federal government and Bosniak nationalist leaders, Corbo continued, "The Federation government donated money for a factory in Janja, and then they didn't open anything. There has been a very small amount of aid for a large number of returnees. The Bosniak politicians are useless. In Sarajevo, there is only rhetorical support for returnees. Return of non-Bosniaks is bad in Sarajevo, so return of Bosniaks in Bijeljina is bad. The Bosniak leaders do not show the minimum engagement in our situation. We have a mosque, and that is in no sense sufficient."
In the local elections, Dodik's SNSD was pitting the local businessman Gavrilo Bobar against the ensconced SDS mayor, Mico Micic. In a printed interview with Micic, I read that he had been a physical education teacher before the war. He said in the interview that he had been a soldier and commander during the war, and that he went into the war "clean," and came out of it the same way.
Bobar, a pre-war socialist functionary, has never been a member of a political party. He became quite rich after the war through various business enterprises, and he is building himself a luxurious mansion in the center of Bijeljina. Dodik engaged Bobar to run against Micic because Bijeljina is the second largest city in the RS, and the municipality is one of the richest and most promising. Dodik was eager to conquer this traditionally-SDS territory. At one point, his anxiety showed through when he called Micic a "cretin."
Bobar was counting on the Bosniak vote; he was known to be a non-nationalist. For that matter, although he has donated to every monastery in the region, he is an avowed atheist. He has promised the development of factories in predominantly-Bosniak Janja. Jusuf Trbic said of Bobar that "he is not a party hack, but an independent candidate supported by the SNSD. We don't have a good opinion of what Dodik's party does, but Bobar is a reputable businessman. We all know him and are sure that he will not deceive us." Trbic further noted that the director of Bobar's insurance company was a Bosniak, and that Bobar had promised to return Bosniaks to their pre-war work places.
Meanwhile, Micic was very popular among voters in the Serb villages around Bijeljina. He was promising that if re-elected, he would build a road to the door of every house in every village. In the end, Micic won the election.
As I was finishing my conversation with Salem Corbo, I was searching for what he might consider to be a "bright point" on the Bijeljina horizon, there being nothing like Odisej there. Corbo said to me, "Bobar is the bright point." I think that in fact, Salem Corbo and Jusuf Trbic are the bright points.
On my way out of town I ran into Trbic, who was standing in front of his shop. He was impeccably dressed in a suit and tie. I told him that he looked very good. He said to me, "It's all that I have left."
Next -- Bosnia-Herzegovina journal #8: Prijedor and Kozarac