What needs to be the target of activism in Bosnia? In my series of
reports so far I have particularly focused on the campaign for
memorialization of the war crimes that were committed. It is my
opinion that for justice to be achieved, the atrocities that people
endured have to be recognized; the criminals have to be legally
processed; and the victims have to have the possibility of
commemorating the history of their suffering publicly.
There will be more discussion of these things. But there are also
other targets of activism. The protest against the destruction of
Picin Park, as described in my fifth report, in fact opened the door
to protest against corruption, profiteering, and cronyism. And these
phenomena are what’s really behind all the other problems in Bosnia
– even behind the historical revisionism and denial as well.
Grassroots activism occupies a small place in the modern history of
the country; the dominant model for political change is top-down.
Non-governmental organizations, often called the “third sector,”
tend to replicate this hierarchical model, sometimes in the extreme.
While the personality cult of Tito is gone, the rule of one “big
man” has often simply been replicated at lower levels – from the
local party boss all the way down to the bus driver. NGOs exist
along an entire spectrum from the altruistic to the profiteering.
For the most part, their relationship to activism is tangential.
Activism in Bosnia-Herzegovina has its ups and downs, and developing
a grassroots movement in Bosnia is a matter of reinventing the wheel
in very adverse conditions. It is not unusual for an independent
project to arise in one location, where it will last a while, and
then either cooptation by authorities or lack of skilled leadership
will lead to its demise.
"Death to NATO Fascism! Revolution!"
Graffiti in Sarajevo.
I spoke with Darjan, a Sarajevo activist with the organization
Akcija Građana (Citizen Action), and formerly with Pokret Dosta (the
Enough! movement), which I have described before. Darjan mentioned
the height of grassroots activism in Sarajevo, which took place in
February of 2008. At that time, somewhere between six and ten
thousand people came out to participate in a march in protest of an
epidemic of street violence in the city. Not long before,
17-year-old Denis Mrnjavac had been stabbed to death by unknown
attackers while he was traveling in a streetcar. There were many
other such lethal or dangerous incidents that had taken place in
that period. Pokret Dosta was the leader of this protest, along with
several other protests in the year or so before and after that event
As with the activism around Picin Park in Banja Luka, protests about
the street violence were an entrance into protests about other
grievances such as utilities price hikes and, generally, about
corruption. Dosta built a network in several cities around the
country. Unfortunately, the movement lost momentum and today, if it
exists at all, its activity has been reduced to the painting of
graffiti around Sarajevo.
Darjan said, “I split from Dosta because I saw that there was
decreasing interest in actually changing things.” He mentioned that
at its height, Dosta had “about fifty good activists.” But he
faulted the leadership for lack of transparency.
Discussing the situation of activism on a larger scale, Darjan said,
“The problem in Bosnia is that we’re not one society. We have the
societies centered around Banja Luka, Sarajevo, and Mostar. And the
public opinion that could influence the government does not exist…
There is not a network established for collaboration among people.”
“There are problems in organizing and promoting change. The Serbs
from Sarajevo went to Višegrad,
Pale, and other places. Many villagers came to Sarajevo. They think
that things are great for them here, because they have running water
and other amenities. They don’t know that they have the right to
call for more.”
“In 2008 there were the demonstrations, and afterwards there were
four people who lost their jobs because of being involved in the
protest. There were a couple of people who had been working in the
tourist industry; they lost their jobs.
“We held preparatory demonstrations to the big one for three months,
every weekend. There were marches. In that time, there were never
more than three thousand participating. Meanwhile, there were always
more than that number in the kafanas of the city.
“At one point in the demonstrations some people threw some rocks.
[One of the leaders] called for people to go home. That was the end
of it. He should have organized people to come back, to continue the
“Safety on the street is a big problem. But if the Reis [the leader
of the Islamic community] called for a protest because people are
eating cvarci [fatback, a pork product], there would be more
people on the street. As activists we are outsiders, marginalized.
And meanwhile, in the schools they are not teaching critical
“In Western Europe after World War II, democracy developed. People
had more rights, and women’s rights improved too. Here after the
recent war, they did not even prohibit those who started the war
from participating in politics.
“The first post-war election took place in 1996 - that is
unfathomable! They gave the election to the idiots. And since then,
we’ve been running around in the same circle.
“As for those leaders who keep being elected, they are not actually
in favor of Bosnia-Herzegovina becoming part of the EU, because then
rule of law would be implemented. And they would be the first to go
"Legal Crime - Honor" Outraged graffiti,
I asked Darjan about the work of Akcija Građana.
“We started as an informal group, working on that basis for six
months in 2008 without registering. Then, we had a referendum within
the group about registering. I was not in favor of registering, but
we did. By registering, we legitimized the system. And they are the
ones who make the rules of the game. Then, we got support from the
Open Society Fund - but they don’t try to influence us.
“We were arrested at Butmir base [headquarters of the EU military
operation in Bosnia, on the outskirts of Sarajevo] when there were
the negotiations there in 2009. They held nine of us for two hours.
We displayed a banner that read, ‘For us, it’s fine this way’
[satirizing the position of the leading politicians]. That is, it’s
fine for them if we remain in this black hole, where money
laundering is common, as are trafficking of drugs and women, and the
leaders can take pleasant vacations.
“We had gone to Butmir a couple of days in advance to let the
authorities there know that we were going to come and make a
protest. They showed us an area where they were going to let us
stand. But when it came to the demonstration, it didn’t work out
that way. We were arrested. But the media never covered this, not
even for one minute of air play. They just weren’t interested.
“Now our work is going slower, and there is a lack of results. We
have decided to orient ourselves towards high school students, doing
workshops with them. Then, once these people come to the University,
there will be activists. As it is now, activism is weak and there is
no action. In Sarajevo there are about 3,000 students in the
University. If there were that many activists, it could be enough
for a revolution, a strike at the system.
“We had a chance in 2008, but we didn’t know what to do. They called
Q: Are there any effective NGOs working in Sarajevo?
A: Activism can exist in an NGO. But for now, the NGOs are only
involved in humanitarian work. The majority of the NGOs are family
[I am conveying Darjan’s opinion here; I don’t mean to dismiss some
Sarajevo NGOs that are actually quite effective in their areas of
Q: What are the themes of your discontent now?
A: We are calling for responsiveness. For example, in Sarajevo the
water supply lines, the transportation, and the security situation -
these are all in disastrous shape. There are guns and knives on the
streets, stabbings in the streetcars. The cultural institutions are
deteriorating too: The museums, the libraries, the galleries are all
closing. Even in the war it wasn’t this bad.
“All the aid gets stolen. They steal from the state companies, and
from the state budgets; then they build villas for themselves.
Seventy percent of the funds from the IMF go to pay pensions and
salaries rather than towards investment. We are headed in the
direction of the situation in Greece.
“We have wasted a good opportunity to make progress, to make a
European city of Sarajevo, instead of the biggest village in the
country. People here do not accept others, different people. We have
lost our educational system, our health system, and our morals.
Then, we have taken the worst from the West and from capitalism:
corruption, the bad health coverage. …When I come from Vareš
to Sarajevo, it is like coming to a different world.
“There can be no revolution here. All the state companies are here,
so there are well-paid people here. Those who work for the companies
vote, and the large number of marginalized people do not vote. Nor
do many of the women vote either.
“Educated people have left here. Out of 35 people from my elementary
school, there are six who have stayed. Of 32 from my high school, 15
have stayed. I am 34, so half of my life has been spent in waiting,
watching from one election to another.
“There is much poverty, but people are religious. They say, “Ako Bog
da [If God grants].” And I ask a villager, “Did God ever give you a
cow?” You won’t get anything, if you don’t do anything.
“Discontented people in the city are inclined to torch and wreck
things, not to build things. We simply haven’t come back to our
senses here. Gras [the city’s public transportation company] raised
its prices. There was talk of a boycott, but it didn’t lead to
anything. In Sarajevo there is more involvement in drinking coffee
and in betting than in activism.
“If someone comes to Sarajevo they notice these things: beggars, the
ruined buildings, and the shiny new glass buildings.”
For more on Akcija Građana, see
Graffiti in favor of gay freedom,
RETURN TO SREBRENICA
During my time living in Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1997 and 1999,
and for several years afterwards, I paid close attention to the
return of refugees and internally-displaced persons to their pre-war
homes. For approximately seven years after the war, return was the
most important and compelling movement, from the grassroots on up.
International and domestic leaders were themselves pushed and
prompted by movement from the grassroots. Intelligent (and sometimes
charismatic) people who had been high school teachers, social
workers, or office workers before the war were galvanized to lead
their communities back home. People like Zulfo Salihović, Hakija
Meholjić, Vahid Kanlić, and above all Fadil Banjanović “Bracika”
stood out as the individuals who expressed the determination of
their constituency to achieve their right to return.
Return essentially wound down ten years ago, with few exceptions.
Some return took place in nearly every one of the 140-odd
municipalities throughout the country, but in many cases it was mere
symbolic return. There were places where there was almost no return;
other places where, say, twenty percent of the displaced returned,
and a few places, such as Prijedor and Zvornik municipalities, where
there was a truly significant amount of return, approaching fifty
percent of the pre-war population.
In Srebrenica return took place late, and it was weak. On the other
hand, in nearby Zvornik, significant return took place in nearly
every village in the municipality.
It is interesting to compare the two returns. I won’t go into great
length on this here, but I will share a couple of points of
comparison, and then some of the observations of journalist Hasan
Hadžić, who was closely involved with Bracika in the return movement
in northeast Bosnia from the beginning.
I have written at length about return to Srebrenica
and I have written before about Bracika
First of all, return to Srebrenica was fiercely obstructed by the
Serbs who controlled that municipality. In response to this
obstruction, the international community placed sanctions on
Srebrenica, and basically turned its back on the town for several
years. Meanwhile, it was difficult in any case to mount a movement,
because the male population was decimated. There were survivors, but
among them there were also some 6,500 single mothers. The
overwhelming number of families without male heads made it difficult
for potential returnees to prepare to clear the rubble from
devastated property and to plan to rebuild, let alone to do any
A devastated house in Srebrenica
These things are obvious. But behind the scenes, I had periodically
been hearing about obstruction against return from the other side –
from the leaders of the Muslims within the Croat- and
Muslim-controlled Federation, where hundreds of thousands of
displaced people from the Republika Srpska had taken up temporary
residence during the war. I heard, even from former members of the
Muslims’ ruling SDA party, that members of the SDA were acting to
discourage people from returning to Srebrenica.
The apparent reason for this was that it was useful to the SDA to
have what was called a stable, ethnically-homogenized “voting
machine” present in the Federation, in order to keep that party in
Meanwhile, Bracika and his fellow activists, early on, were putting
themselves in harm’s way to establish a foothold for return in the
outlying villages of Zvornik municipality. This movement began
almost immediately after the war’s end.
It helped that those villages were right across the inter-entity
borderline from the Federation, thus relatively easily accessible to
would-be returnees. On the other hand, displaced Srebrenicans had to
travel across many kilometers of hostile territory, at quite some
danger, in order just to visit their pre-war homes.
Hasan Hadžić spoke to me about his work with Bracika, about the
various manifestations of obstruction to return, and about
differences between return to Zvornik and Srebrenica.
“Bracika was my brother. The strongest movement for return was here
In 1996, in Tuzla, we formed the office for return, while in
Sarajevo they were doing the opposite. We exerted pressure in 1996
to create that office.
“We were in Sapna [in the Federation] and we could see them blowing
up houses right next to Sapna, in Jušići
[a village in Zvornik municipality, in the Republika Srpska, where
some of the first return efforts took place].
“On the Serb side, authorities were spending money for the displaced
Serbs to stay in the Republika Srpska. They built hundreds of
settlements, for example, they built one at Branjevo [site of one of
the Srebrenica massacres]. They spent millions on this.
“In Jušići we went step by step.
There were special [Serb] police forces who were drawing guns on us.
They beat older people and women who were staying in one return
house. Then some of our people started throwing rocks at the police
and defending themselves with toljage [clubs]. When this
happened, the IFOR [UN troops] troops came in a transport vehicle.
It was exciting.
“During our early return attempts, they killed a man in Gajevi near
Koraj, near Lopare. They shot at our column of people. This was in
the fall of 1996.
“At the higher levels, there was a General in IFOR who criticized
us, saying that we were a ‘military operation.’ But it wasn’t true,
of course. At the middle level of IFOR there were Majors who
understood us better and knew this was not a military operation, and
they supported our drive for return. They patrolled and helped. When
we returned to Mahala, our men were coming with clubs and rocks. We
knew we could fight because the IFOR soldiers were behind us.
“That General was telling us to go slowly. But you can’t, it would
not have worked. Bracika had a tactic: first we went to clean the
cemeteries. If we had waited for permission, it would never have
“People were already leaving the country, and we couldn’t afford to
wait. So we took those risks. Then other people around the country
saw what we were doing and that it had worked, and took similar
moves, such as in Goražde.
“One of the differences between Zvornik and Srebrenica was Bracika.
But the government really never supported return.
“Bracika was a man of the people. He returned with his daughter and
put her in the school with the Serb children. Sadik Ahmetović
[former vice-mayor of Srebrenica] never did that. Neither did
Šefket Hafizović or Hasan Bećirović
[other highly-placed SDA officials from Srebrenica]. They would come
to Srebrenica like tourists for two or three days and then return to
Sarajevo for džuma [Friday prayers].
“But Bracika’s returning, with his daughter, sent a strong signal to
the displaced people that he was sincere. There were 700 people who
were killed in that area, but return still happened!
“More people returned to two or three villages near Zvornik than to
the whole Srebrenica municipality. But Srebrenica is the cash cow.”
By this, Mr. Hadžić meant that a disproportionately huge amount of
international resources for return and reconstruction went to the
Srebrenica municipality. In my own opinion, this took place because
the international community, in its various forms, somehow decided
to expiate its guilt for the destruction of Bosnia-Herzegovina
particularly in Srebrenica, while ignoring the possibility for
recovery in some other parts of the country. So large amounts of
international aid were channeled to that area (and even larger
amounts promised). An arguably huge amount of that aid never reached
the people it was intended to help.
Speaking of the return effort to Srebrenica, which started in
earnest in 1999, Mr. Hadžić said, “Hakija [Meholjić, wartime police
chief in Srebrenica and a postwar leader of return] was returning
people, and Adib Djozić was coming out in a jeep and scaring people,
saying ‘They will kill you.’ Then people would go back where they
were. Djozić worked for the Ministry of Refugees in the Tuzla
I asked Mr. Hadžić about statements I had
heard to the effect that the SDA, in the early period of return, was
trying to dissuade displaced Srebrenicans from leaving the
Federation and returning home. He answered, “We went to Vozuća with
Hakija and Bracika to encourage people to return to Srebrenica. Then
Djozić and Bečirović came in immediately after that and broke things
up. Having people return didn’t suit them.”
When people talk about encouraging return today, they mean making
the return that has already taken place sustainable. Because of
discrimination and difficult economic conditions it is not uncommon
that people who have returned will pick up and leave again, as I
have previously described – preferably for another country.
Returnees to Srebrenica
On this issue, Mr. Hadžić said, “Return has
ended. There is much money for sustainable return that has come to
the Ministries, but none of it is getting to the actual places of
return. It is being spent on things unrelated to return. For
example, the authorities in Sokolac used money for return to fix the
water supply system. And in Prusac they fixed a road. Neither of
these things was related to return communities.”
For English translations of a couple of Mr. Hadžić’s
ACTIVISM IN PRIJEDOR, REVISITED
In my sixth report, I wrote about events in Prijedor municipality,
in northwestern Bosnia (see
Prijedor municipality is a special and important place in
Bosnia-Herzegovina. The crimes that were committed there during the
war reached extreme heights in the terror that they spread.
Thousands of people were tortured or murdered, and many more
These things happened in many parts of Bosnia. But Prijedor is
special for another reason as well. Expelled citizens of the
municipality were in the forefront in return to their homes soon
after the war. And because there is that returnee population – and
because some of them are brave enough to represent their community
in the face of repression, and to fight for the rights that they
know they have – Prijedor municipality happens presently to be one
of the most active locations of human rights struggle in the
Because of this, and because of the wrongs that were committed in
the municipality during the war, it is important that people who
believe in solidarity around the world support Prijedor. Those who
care about Bosnia-Herzegovina should notice Prijedor, should pay
attention to what is going on there, and should find out how to
support that struggle.
People occasionally say, “Too much support and resources went to
Srebrenica, to the detriment of Prijedor and other places in
Bosnia.” I would not say that there has been too much attention upon
Srebrenica, but there has simply not been enough support or
attention to Prijedor and other places. It is as if the world,
especially international officials who make decisions about
allocation of resources, expiated their guilt on Srebrenica, and
then turned their backs on the rest of the country. Well, we don’t
have to do the same thing.
There is news on the human rights front in Prijedor.
At the beginning of December, a “Committee for Commemoration of the
Twentieth Anniversary of the Mistreatment of Innocent People of
Prijedor Municipality,” composed of eight local non-governmental
organizations, announced a plan to hold a demonstration and march in
protest of ongoing discrimination against Croat and Bosniak
survivors of the war. The event was announced for International
Human Rights Day, December 10th (the anniversary of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights).
Here’s part of what the Commemoration Committee wrote in its
announcement: “Employment that was forcefully taken away [from
expelled citizens of Prijedor] has not been restored; the municipal
government invests the least amount in (returnee) settlements where
the infrastructure and all buildings were completely destroyed. The
discrimination against civilian victims is particularly obvious. The
possibility for them to achieve any of their rights is obstructed in
every manner. The municipal budget apportions funds exclusively for
the Serb soldiers and their associations. Monuments are pointedly
erected to fallen Serbs in public places, in front of schools and
institutions, in a way that intimidates members of the other
ethnicities and minorities. The government has erected a terrifying
monument to Serb soldiers at the place where thousands of women and
children from Prijedor suffered, at Trnopolje camp. At the same time
it forbids the construction of any commemoration at the largest
places of suffering and torture in Prijedor municipality, notably
the death camp at Omarska. In the city itself there is not even the
smallest marking that would commemorate the suffering of non-Serb
civilians. (…) A particularly grave rights violation has been noted
against more than a thousand disappeared Prijedorans. Besides all
other human rights, they have been denied the right to identity and
to a dignified burial.”
This announcement was posted on December 5th. On the 8th,
it was announced that the Prijedor police department had prohibited
the march component of the action.
The Commemoration Committee protested this prohibition, mentioning
that, on May 23rd, the police had forbidden the
organizations of returnees and war survivors from marching to
commemorate the wartime murder of 266 women and girls in Prijedor
municipality. In response to the banning, the Commemoration
Committee accused the Prijedor government of repression and of
promoting apartheid in the municipality. A statement also recalled
the wartime murder of some 800 prisoners at Omarska and Keraterm, as
well as of 200 more prisoners killed in a massacre at Korićanske
Following the prohibition of the demonstration, the police also
called some of the event’s organizers for “informativni razgovor,”
or interrogation. The Commemoration Committee vowed to resist the
repression and these grave violations of rights. Edin Ramulić,
activist with the Prijedor association “Izvor,” refused to respond
to the police’s invitation to interrogation.
Ramulić stated that there was no point in cooperating with the
police, when their dictates were inconsistent and made no sense. In
May activists had been prohibited from gathering on the town square,
with the excuse that the situation was “not favorable for security
considerations.” Now the police department was saying that they
could gather, but would not be permitted to make a march of one
hundred meters down the pedestrian zone and back.
Ramulić further commented, in connection with previous appeals of
such rights violations, that “going into a legal process makes no
sense, because there are no sanctions.” The activists had appealed
to the Ministry for Human Rights and Refugees, to the OHR, and to
foreign Ambassadors, all without results. Foreign officials had even
addressed the problem with Mayor Pavić, but the repression – and
attacks by extremists – just worsened.
Ramulić also noted that even Bosniak members of the municipal
whom returnees and survivors had voted turned against them. They did
not work to defend the activists, and some of them tried to persuade
the activists not to use the word “genocide” in their public
statements. Earlier this year, Mayor Pavić had prevented a
demonstration and threatened prosecution of activists because of
their use of this word. Ramulić said, “Some of those politicians are
close to those who rule the RS; probably the explanation of this
[behavior] is that they are prepared to do anything in the interest
of their own political privilege.”
It is not unusual to hear phrases from activists in Prijedor
characterizing their Bosniak representatives on the municipal
counsel as “collaborators” and “sellouts.” Some of those officials,
upon the banning of the march, gave mild statements to the effect
that, “We will get to the bottom of this.”
condemned the banning of the march, as did several domestic
human rights NGOs.
When International Human Rights Day arrived, some of Prijedor’s
activists decided to march in spite of the ban. Seven young people
walked through the snow, with tape symbolically covering their
mouths, carrying a banner that read, “Where human rights are
violated, civil disobedience is a duty.” Of the marchers, two were
Bosniaks from Prijedor, and two were Prijedor Serbs. There were two
Bosnians from Slovenia who marched in solidarity, and one from
In nearby Banja Luka, members of the human rights organizations
Oštra Nula and the Helsinki Citizens Assembly stood prominently in
the main square in solidarity with the activists of Prijedor. The
Prijedor Commemoration Committee held a news conference and stated,
“On the international day for the protection of human rights, the
police in Prijedor have placed themselves above the law on public
gatherings in the Republika Srpska and have prohibited a peaceful
march, without any legal basis. The police have shown that they work
according to the dictates of the local government and that they are
an important instrument in the establishment of apartheid.”
Meanwhile, RS President Milorad Dodik marked Human Rights Day,
saying that “in recent years the Republika Srpska has created an
environment in which all of its citizens can realize their human and
civil rights, as foreseen by the European Convention on Human Rights
and other international documents. We have succeeded in achieving
high standards and we will continue to do all that is necessary to,
first of all, improve the economic and social position of citizens,
which will be our priority in the coming years.”
One of the Prijedor marchers, Emir Hodžić, wrote a statement shortly
after the action, describing his position: “If the right to free and
peaceful gatherings is guaranteed in the constitution of
Bosnia-Herzegovina and the constitution of the Republika Srpska, who
has the right to violate that right? Once again the Prijedor police
have tried to show, on the day when the entire world celebrates
human rights as the heritage of civilization, that
Bosnia-Herzegovina is an absurd state…”
Speaking of the action of the multi-ethnic group, and the response
from local citizens, Hodžić wrote, “As a Prijedoran, I saw in front
of me concerned citizens, not Serbs nor Bosniaks. I saw the faces of
people who see and know that discrimination on an ethnic basis or
the prohibition of association lead to nothing good, and at that
moment, I felt hope. I felt that I was among my people, that we all
speak the same language, and that we all understand the difficult
path before us.
“Our symbolic civil disobedience echoed around the country. Our
fellow citizens from Banja Luka…heard and conveyed the message by
going out onto their streets. Various associations and workers for
human rights around the country also sent support and solidarity.
Again I felt hope, again I saw my people. We understood each other.
The full article by Hodžić is available, in Bosnian,
An article showing a photo of the march, with an accompanying video,
Shortly after the protest action in Prijedor, the Society for
Threatened Peoples, based in Göttingen Germany, posted an “Appeal to
Members of the EU Parliament, the Council of Europe and the European
Union Agency for Fundamental Rights in Vienna.” The Appeal, signed
by Tilman Zülch for the Society, and Milada Hodžić for the Prijedor
organization Izvor, was sent to seven hundred officials of the
European Union, to the OHR in Bosnia, and to the Bosnian Ministry
for Human Rights and Refugees. It was also sent to the mayor of
Prijedor and the president of the RS. It is available in English
"Death to Capitalism - Freedom to the
People" Graffiti in Prijedor
While the action in Prijedor was taking place on Human Rights Day, a
more general action was undertaken in Sarajevo, Banja Luka, and
Mostar. In these cities activists from the regional NGO Youth
Initiative for Human Rights staged mock burials, complete with
coffins and a funeral march, to bury the human rights and freedoms
that they say no longer exist in Bosnia-Herzegovina.
On December 19th, in Sarajevo, a dozen young people staged a
mock protest against the end of the world, slated for December 21st.
Five hundred people signed onto their Facebook page. In a statement,
the group explained, “We have gathered here today in order to make
fun of some people, especially the Americans,” adding that there was
no chance that the world was going to end. The protestors proved
this assertion by displaying a can of liver paté whose expiration
date was marked as the year 2013.