Articles on the Bosnia Conflict




By Peter Lippman
June 16, 2010


                  Report index
Report 1: Kozarac, Prijedor. June 2, 2010
Report 2: Banja Luka, Doboj. Tuzla
June 5, 2010
Report 3: Bijeljina,  June 16, 2010
Report 4: Srebrenica and Bratunac,
June 18, 2010
Report 5: Visegrad,
June 25, 2010
Report 6: Roses and Walnuts, June 28, 2010
Report 7: Sarajevo and Travnik, July 7, 2010
Report 8: Srebrenica, July 25, 2010
Report 9: Herzegovina and wrap-up, August 12, 2010

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Before I left Tuzla, I ran into my friend Zoran, a displaced person from Bijeljina, a mid-sized town in the northeastern corner of the Republika Srpska. He was sitting with his friend Mustafa, and I sat with them for a while. Zoran, 70, was expelled from Bijeljina at the beginning of the war. So was Mustafa. Neither were of Serb origin, and that fact doomed them to exile. Zoran told me he has not gone back to Bijeljina for nine years and that he will never go back. He owns land there, and he won’t sell it for a low price. Mustafa goes back once in a while.

Practically the first thing that Zoran told me was, “If I had an atom bomb, I would drop it on Belgrade.” His mother is Muslim. Mustafa’s brother, sick and on crutches, was killed in Bijeljina. Zoran helped his brother-in-law escape from Srebrenica by getting a Serb to take him out. That person lost 76 relatives, from age 3 to 89. Neither Zoran nor Mustafa has any relatives in Tuzla except for their wives. Mustafa’s sons are in Germany; his grandsons don’t know the Bosnian language. Zoran said, “It’s the end for us, we’re finished.” 

Zoran told me how is mother saved nine Jews during WWII. He pulled a worn piece of paper out of his pocket, a certificate from Germany, stating in German that his father had been in a labor camp in Germany during that war. He said his father was in a camp, as was his grandfather, and then he was in a camp in the recent war in Bosnia.


I took the bus to Bijeljina and walked over to the main square to meet my friend Salem Corbo. Nearing the square, I heard music. Salem told me that there was some kind of military demonstration. I said that I thought the music sounded like religious music. He said, “Oh, now the military and religion are one and the same.”

Salem is the director of “Povratak,” a regional organization for refugee return to Bijeljina. “Before the war,” he explained, “the region around Bijeljina had a population of about 60,000 people, and there were about 35,000 in the city. The population of the city was about 2/3 Bosniak. I was expelled from my work place in April of 1992. Around 35,000 people were expelled from this municipality; we had to sign documents that said we were giving up our property. We had the right to carry one plastic bag of our belongings. Some women were subjected to gynecological examinations to make sure they were not carrying out gold.

“At the end of the war, there were only around 5,000 people left in the city; that is, about 25,000 Bosniaks had been expelled, and about 5,000 other people left as well. Then people from nearby villages, and displaced Serbs from other areas, came to the city. Around 6,000 to 7,000 Bosniaks have returned, and between 1,000 and 2,000 Roma. Now there are between 50,000 and 60,000 in the city. But there were more children in school before the war than now. There has been a lot of emigration, and it is the older people who are staying. And the villages are emptying.”

I commented, “It looks like returnees have had to start life over again from point zero.” Below point zero,” Salem said. “There is no one who was born in Bijeljina who is in an executive position in the government. The biggest obstruction to return is the lack of work. 99% of the property has been returned, but few of the returnees have work. In ElektroBijeljina there are 765 workers, and only one of them is a Bosniak returnee. Before the war, 75% of the workers there were Bosniaks.

“Another problem is fact that few of the war crimes cases have been processed, especially in this region; there has only been one case processed in Bijeljina, in all these fifteen postwar years.”

The non-Serb population of Bijeljina suffered attacks and expulsion in the spring of 1992, even before the war arrived to Sarajevo. Salem said, “Bijeljina is the most important city for the Republika Srpska (RS). It was the number one target at the beginning of the war. Today, most goods from Serbia must come in through Bijeljina. This is the cornerstone of the RS, and the SDS [Serb nationalist party Radovan Karadzic] has had a hold on this town for twenty years. Serbs from the countryside and other towns are flooding into this city; every day more of them arrive, around 8,000 to 9,000 per year.”

In the last four years RS prime minister Dodik and his SNSD (Party of Independent Social Democrats) have consolidated control over most of the entity and, in the process, put pressure on the SDS mayors who control a few municipalities, notably Bijeljina and Doboj. The leaders of the two parties compete for the title of “most corrupt.” An SNSD candidate in the 2008 municipal elections nicknamed incumbent mayor Mico Micic “Mico Trecina,” that is, “Mico One-Third,” because, allegedly, he takes one-third of the profit from every major sale or infrastructure project. Salem says that in Bijeljina municipality, Micic’s friends receive the contracts for all infrastructure development (just like Dodik at the entity level).

The atmosphere of Bijeljina, as I have noted before, seems to have been “cleansed” of any non-Serb cultural influence, and it seems a conscious policy to discourage healthy inter-ethnic coexistence. Salem recalled, “In the activities May 9th, observing ‘Day of European Culture,’ there was no mention of anti-fascism. They have removed the monuments to anti-fascism here. They changed the name of ‘Trg zrtava fasistickog terora; [Square of the Victims of Fascist Terror]  to ‘Trg Djenerala Draze Mihajlovica’ [General Draza Mihajlovic Square] after the WWII Chetnik commander. It is as if a bust of Hitler were put up in Berlin. But there, it would only be an incident; here, it is the opposite, an ongoing provocation that we can do nothing about.”

Nor does Salem have favorable words for the leading party of the Bosniaks, saying “The SDA is the worst thing that has happened to the Bosniaks. It was good that during the war people were united around one group to defend themselves, but everything they have done since then has been a mistake.” He mentions competition among Bosniak returnees, who should help each other in solidarity, but there are some who cooperate with the local government to the detriment of their own people.

Salem is not a gloomy man; he is interested in everything alive, it seems. We talked for hours about language, history, film. But his prognosis is dismal. He says, “Economically, we are on the edge of desperation. People are poor; it is hard to live. 90% of the people here (returnees) are unemployed. People lack money to put their children through school. There is social exclusion; we do not exist in public life. What is this refugee return? There is the mosque; people come back, they die, that is all.”

Salem’s return organization coordinates volunteer work to help people. He said, “Serbs come to me too -- everyone has the same problems. This is a strange thing, the way people become united. People see that we all have the same problems. We all lived together before, after all.

“Ninety percent of the Serbs in town think like this. There is a substrata of good, normal, quality people who didn’t agree with Radovan Karadzic. In fact, there was a big part of the RS army that refused to take part in the massacres; that’s why they called in the special forces to Srebrenica. In ongoing court proceedings, the main witnesses are Serbs who saw corpses. They aren’t blood-drinkers, but the system of nationalist exclusion is perpetuated under the name of the Republika Srpska.

“Our relationships with other people are ok. There are villages where people [Serbs and Bosniaks] are roasting lambs together, as if there had never been a war. The problem is with the state. This is not a serious state. We have the laws, but we must respect them, and establish a meritocracy. We have lost our moral values and our sense of responsibility. Only little crimes are prosecuted. The courts only get involved in thefts up to 2,000 KM.

“This all leads to more violence. Problems are possible in Bosnia. It is a sick society. There is less and less laughing and enjoyment of life. The speed of disintegration of morals is faster than I can follow. There was a culture of neighborliness here, where relationships with neighbors are even more important than with brothers. Traditionally, each house had a courtyard, and there was a big gate in front. But on the side, opening to the neighbors, there was a small door in the wall where the neighbors could enter. Neighbors had priority -- until the war. You used to sit under the grapevines and talk; it was a sort of social therapy. The connections were strong. Now there has been too much suffering.”

Before the war Salem held a position in a local cultural institution. Among many other things, he had run a film club there, and organized art film festivals. I asked him if he could do something similar now. He answered, “They don’t allow such a thing. And this city is a village now; people don’t have that kind of interest. Now I work for the return organization, and we have a million problems. The government makes the problems, not the people. They exacerbate ethnic tension in order to divide the voters. If things were normal, then people would understand what the politicians are doing.” Salem expects that the upcoming national elections in the fall will be a period of turbulence.


I spoke with Jusuf Trbic, a leading journalist in the region before the war. Now he serves on the municipal council, and runs a kafana as well. The kafana is a gathering point for some of the returnees. Jusuf describes the general situation of returnees for me: “The only people who have work are those who are farming; otherwise there is nothing. People are looking to leave. The only positive thing now is the security situation; there are no more incidents. The ordinary people are much better than those in the government.”

Trbic is as pessimistic about the upcoming elections as is Salem: “In the elections there aren’t going to be changes. The same people, or similar, will win. Essentially, there won’t be any change without a change in the constitution. A stronger state could guarantee equal rights. This state has accepted international conventions that put human rights above the constitution, but that is not important [to the domestic politicians who could implement the conventions].”

On the current political state of affairs in the RS and the much-discussed and long, drawn-out EU entrance process, Jusuf says, “Dodik’s pockets are full [from corrupt practices]; he and those like him could would only go to the EU if they could continue to behave as they do now; otherwise they will not consent to go. Dodik has made himself equivalent to the state. So any change would amount to a loss of power for Dodik.

“We have always had strong leaders, and people were happy with that kind of situation; they are not politically mature. Unfortunately, that is not democracy; maybe in one hundred years they will be ready, but we don’t have that much time. It is too bad for someone to talk that way about one’s own people, but that is the way it is.”

Trbic places his hopes on international pressure for change: “There should be a new international conference where they impose new governmental institutions; then there would be cooperation.”

I asked Trbic if international pressure would make a difference. He answered, “Believe me, it would take so little to change things. There will be no change without some pressure. It is good that things are peaceful, that there are no incidents. But…if Dodik’s position were under question, he would make problems. It is easy to make problems in the Balkans.”

I asked further if Trbic thought that there were any chance for grassroots activism to change things. He said that there was is “no possibility,” and elaborated, in his orderly journalistic fashion:

“Vasilija Andric Vajo is the chief of the police now, and he was during the war. What can we expect from him? He was involved in Srebrenica. Dragan Davidovic is the director of RSTV; he was the minister of religion during the war, while they wrecked all those mosques. Imagine what kind of government this is, when they have that kind of media and police chief.

“There has been almost no prosecution in this district, only one. Novak Kovacevic was the military prosecutor in Srebrenica during the war; now he is the head prosecutor. There are no Bosnian directors in the RS; none in the television, and there won’t be. So if you have that kind of system, what kind of hope can you have, what can you expect? These problems can’t be solved in the present system, where there is no punishment.

“Bosniaks with children are sending them to school in Tuzla. The people in power here think that if it stays like that, they will succeed in their long-term ethnic cleansing project. It looks like that is true.”

Hearing this vividly pessimistic evaluation, I said to Mr. Trbic, “That is astonishing.” He just shrugged, in a gesture that here expresses profound fatalism.

For more information on Bijeljina, see my report from 2008 here .


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