Articles on the Bosnia Conflict




By Peter Lippman
June 18, 2010

Srebrenica and Bratunac

                  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

To contact Peter in response to these reports or any of his articles,

JavaScript must be enabled to display this email address.


Some of the names in this report have been changed to protect people’s privacy.

View of Srebrenica

From Bijeljina I traveled last week to Srebrenica, where I spent a few days catching up with old friends and meeting with all kinds of activists. I was confronted with two conflicting visions of the place: first, that Srebrenica is a dying town -- or even a museum of death. On the other hand, there are committed activists, including many young people, who insist that there is hope for the town, and that they will struggle as long as it takes to revive Srebrenica.

The first image was the most obvious -- in fact, two people I knew in Srebrenica have died since I was last there, and people were telling me that the burden of the history of Srebrenica, and the accompanying trauma, are destroying people.

As I sat in the small pubs where people casually meet -- as if they are lounging in the town’s communal living room -- old friends and new acquaintances alike told me that Srebrenica was a “dying town.” One evening Hakija Meholjic said, “Look up at that apartment building, and see how few lights are on. The whole street above us is empty. On the weekend you’ll see who really lives here.” Many of the people who work for the municipality go back to their postwar homes (i.e., the places in the Federation to where they were displaced during the war) on Friday. They are called “vikendaši” -- weekenders. Others returned to live in Srebrenica in the early 2000s and, usually with the assistance of an international relief organization, repaired their homes. But many of these people have also returned to the Federation (one of the two “entities” comprising Bosnia, the other one being the Serb-controlled Republika Srpska - RS), or moved abroad.

Each time I go to Srebrenica I notice something new, something that looks a little better. Last time it was the new department store that dominates the center of town, replacing the empty old eyesore, and making it possible for people to buy a needle without having to travel to Bratunac. This time there was less improvement: a few new kafanas, but some of the old ones were closed. There is a pleasant outdoor kafana in the town’s central park, but the grass could use a mowing. The entrance hall to the Dom Kulture (community center) has finally been painted and the place is not as gloomy as before. Even the restrooms on the third floor are now presentable.

New department store in the center of Srebrenica

The biggest change in town is the completion of the gleaming new mosque, at the upper end of town just below the old (reconstructed) White Mosque. Hakija commented, “They will close the old mosque and open this one, but who will go there?”

New mosque in center of Srebrenica

I walked up to the house of Amela, where I would sleep. She told me, to my dismay, that my friend Salih had died last year. Amela returned to Srebrenica from Tuzla in 2005. Her husband, the first person to return to Srebrenica after the war, died this year. She is lucky to have employment in Srebrenica. She said, “You have to be strong. The municipality doesn’t care about us. We ordinary people don’t like them. They will pretend to be reasonable, to you (as a foreigner), but they don’t take care of us. People here are sick, many have died. This place is ruining people, physically.”

I visited my friends at the organization “SARA.” They are finishing one project and have applied for support for others, but things are going very slowly. They have not received answers. “Bice bolje” -- “It will be better,” says Stana, the director.

I ate lunch at Omer’s cafe. He told me “They have paved the roads to the villages, to Suceska, and all the way to Osmace. Now they are paving the road to the lake. Meanwhile we are working, and we get money, but no one is producing anything in Srebrenica.” I said hello to his wife and asked her how’re things, and she said, “Treba biti zadovoljna” -- “One should be satisfied.” They are among the few who are employed.

I met Danis, who is employed in a factory in Potocari. He came back to Srebrenica four years ago. Danis said that things are hard in the winter: “It’s ok until September. But returnees leave; it’s better to be unemployed in Sarajevo than unemployed in Srebrenica…There are no new factories in the municipality. There was talk about some projects, but then the economic crisis hit.”

Danis lost one brother and a brother-in-law in the Srebrenica massacre. The brother-in-law and his whole family were found, but of Danis’s brother, they have only found part of his skull and one arm bone. Danis explained to me that the surviving family of a victim has the right to decide when to bury the victim’s remains after 50% of the body has been identified.


From last week’s newspaper: In 2010, so far, 17,633 people have lost their jobs in the Federation. The total unemployed is 357,115.   Of that number, one quarter are in Tuzla Canton (89,945); another 67,000 in Sarajevo Canton, and 66,000 in Zenica-Doboj Canton. The total unemployed includes 71,779 war veterans.  …These figures only cover unemployment in the Federation. Elsewhere I read that the number of unemployed for all of Bosnia-Herzegovina is around a half million, in a country that numbers approximately four million.


I met with Melika Malesevic at the Kuca Povjerenja, “House of Trust.” Ms. Malesevic described programs that her organization implements, such as training young people from Srebrenica in trades and providing equipment so that they can set up shop and stay in the municipality. They implement projects not only in town, but in some of the villages; Ms. Malesevic told me that thirty percent of the population of the municipality is in the villages.

Kuca Povjerenja brings doctors to Srebrenica and provides medical exams and medicines to people in Srebrenica. Ms. Malesevic told me, “We have even been introducing Reiki therapy, which is starting to catch on -- even in the villages.” Kuca Povjerenja helped equip the first dental clinic to open (just a month ago) in Srebrenica.

One of the projects the organization works on is a weekly seminar on “collective memory,” in collaboration with the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights based in Belgrade. The organization “connects people so that they can form their own understanding of recent history,” says Ms. Malesevic.

Another way Kuca Povjerenja works to foster coexistence is in the sports arena: “We support sports activities, because that is a venue where people can come together. We have provided football equipment and prizes. We have also sponsored cultural activities, such as Srebrenica Days, organizing games for the children, and concerts. We will help promote the Guber spa, by writing up local oral legends of the place. We hope to restore the old vibrancy to Srebrenica.”

Arguing against the notion that Srebrenica is a dying town, Ms. Malesevic summed up by saying, “Life in Srebrenica is different from what you see in the media. The image of Srebrenica that the media presents is a big lie. There is a future here. There is life in Srebrenica. I am certain of that. It is with the youth. The situation is not wonderful, but there is a future.”

At the end I told Melika that I had the impression she must have done something before this work, to prepare her for such a responsible position. She said, “Yes. I was a logoraš (a concentration camp prisoner). Afterwards, I spent ten years doing research and advocacy for an organization of camp survivors.”


I walked down to the youth center run by the Savjet Mladih (Youth Council). Milena Nikolic Mikica is the director of the center. I had a good long talk with Mikica, a very energetic and articulate young woman. The Youth Council was started in 2002, and the next year young people got together and cleaned out the building that they presently occupy, without asking permission from anyone. They had the good luck subsequently to get support from then-Mayor Abdurrahman Malkic, and the municipality consented to allow the youth group to use the building for fifteen years.

Mikica Nikolic described the origins of her organization: “The first thing that connected us all was the prejudice from the outside against Srebrenica, that there was no youth here, and no creativity. We took this as a challenge, to show that it was not true. We held performances here; our activities were mainly cultural. We helped create space for creativity, organizing young people in the local community.

“Our first action was during Dani Srebrenice (the annual festival, “Srebrenica Days”) in 2003. This building was in ruins then; it was being used as a public toilet. That day we pulled off a guerilla action, cleaning the building. From then, step by step, we have created the basis to work. We lobbied to get use of this space. First we cleaned the building, then we asked for the resources to use it.”

The young people of Savjet Mladih started from scratch in learning how to become activists, create an NGO, organize projects, and lobby for youth services. Activists from the group now collaborate nationally, in both entities, with the most prominent and effective youth organizations. Says Mikica, “We are working on the local, entity, and state level advocating for the creation of official youth policy. Now, since 2006 there has been a law regarding youth policy in the RS. This is in regard to youth organizing. And finally, three months ago, a similar law was passed in the Federation. These laws advocate for better conditions for young people. We have called for a local commission for youth and for the development of a strategy for youth services.”

Mikica, activist with the Srebrenica Youth Council

These are critical issues in a country where the leading politicians are much more concerned with crooked privatization and lining their own pockets than with renovating schools and playgrounds, or providing young people with access to the internet and to computer labs.

Mikica describes the uphill battle of her organization and the irresponsibility of some local authorities: “We are struggling for basic things; it is as if we still have to prove ourselves, to get approval from the municipality. We have received only 1,000 KM of support for this year -- that’s perhaps enough for toilet paper. We should not have to prove ourselves -- they should be coming to us to show us why they deserve our support.”

Mikica works in one activist capacity or another every day of the week. She told me that some of her friends say to her, “You’re so boring, always talking about politics,” but she responds “This is not politics, this is my life.”

While at the youth center I talked to a couple of youngsters who frequent the place and perform in a local rock band.  One was wearing a t-shirt that showed the logo of the rock group, “KUD Idiota.” On the back of his t-shirt it read, “We’re only here for the money.” They told me, “This is a great place; it has spirit. But there’s no economy, and few people. The government doesn’t allow us to get jobs here.”

“Voting doesn’t seem to help anything,” they continued. “The politicians are just campaigning in order to have four more years of good salary. People are leaving because there is no work here. A huge number of those who finish college elsewhere stay there.”

On the positive side, one of the teenagers told me, “There’s no hate here among us young people. I think that’s normal; why would I hate someone?”


I took an afternoon trip to Bratunac to spend some time with Stane and Mirko of the organization Odisej. Odisej is the organization that fought for coexistence and cooperation between Serbs and returned Bosniaks at a time when it was dangerous to do so, and they made a difference. See their website and also my report on their work from 2008.

Odisej now has a clean little office nearer the center of town, instead of the dark (though rich in atmosphere) youth center they had before, which was always under threat of expropriation from the nearby school. I recalled Odisej’s escapades with the police in previous years. Mirko and Stane told me that they now have “exceptionally good relations with the police,” but that they are still regarded with suspicion by the city authorities. They said there is no longer any tension in Bratunac, except if there is an “incident,” and if there is an incident, the tension subsides more quickly than before.

Recalling the early days of the group, they said, “When the first Muslims came back to Bratunac, we couldn’t go in the kafanas with them. They would be kicked out. So we made a plan, we arranged for two of us to meet, a Serb and a Bosniak, and to have a big hug in a very public place. Then we went back into a kafana together. There, a Serb in the kafana criticized one of us for associating with Bosniaks.  So then there was tension between Serbs; the Muslims weren’t relevant. In a way, that is progress.”

On the subject of confronting the past, Stane said, “We are always looking at who did what to whom during the war, but people are not prepared to lay wreaths together for each other’s victims. …There are some people who are stuck, who have pathological problems. But ordinary people can’t sustain this hate; they live on money, not on hate.

“We are in favor of doing slow work with quality. Little by little, until people become more mature. When we (Serbs in Bratunac) first began to talk about Srebrenica, we were called traitors. And women who report domestic abuse are also called traitors. But we are trying to transform that mentality. A victim is a victim.”
Mirko and Stane described one project to me, where they were collecting charity aid for the needy, as a way to try to get people to give without asking for something in return. Only material goods were solicited; no money changed hands. “The main point of this was for people to have a feeling that they were helping someone. We don’t have that initiative. For fifteen years, twenty years, people have not helped each other out of the goodness of their heart. Now, in this project, people were helping out without asking whom the aid went to.”

Among other projects, Odisej works to help people find employment by creating a database of unemployed people’s skills and talents, and then hunting down jobs -- sometimes by going door to door. The organization has around ten volunteers who help with projects.

Both Mirko and Stane were themselves displaced during the war. Reflecting on their years of activism, Mirko commented, “We activists who are around 25 to 30 years old, we have no careers; we don’t dare start raising a family. We are thinking about how to bring peace to the people, not how to buy our third car. We lost our childhood, our chance to take vacations at the sea. But what we have done is not in vain, because our children will be able to have a normal life.”

Stane mentioned ideas for the popularization of the practice of “confronting the past.” This is a term that is in currency among activists and NGOs today. The dominant trend is to sweep the painful history of the 1990s under the rug, which is the least healthy way to deal with it. But here and there, especially among young people, activists are trying to encourage the airing of exactly what was done to whom, and who did it, in the war. Odisej has been involved in this task, which has to happen on a very local, personal level.

There has been much vague talk about “reconciliation,” without generally defining the word. People who are sometimes called “humanitarian profiteers” flocked to Bosnia -- especially in the several years after the war -- and made a business of teaching “reconciliation.” But I think that long before there can be talk about reconciliation, folks in the villages and towns have to be “confronting the past” in an honest way. That also happens in The Hague, of course, but it’s not enough.

Stane broached one manner of confronting the past openly, and in a way that is accessible to young people: presenting the message through local rock and rap bands that are very popular here. He mentioned the popular performer Edo Maajka, who lives in Croatia, but is from Bosnia and performs here regularly. I have noticed also that there is at least the embryo of an underground rock scene that expresses dissent and anti-nationalist sentiments, but I would not say that it’s a strong movement at this point.


I went down to Potocari to visit my friend “Munevera.” Her husband Salih died last October. Munevera has a farm, and she still works all day. She seems very sad. She told me that “it was the lack of justice that killed Salih; he could not get used to the new system, and that ate him up.” Salih was 60. She said, “Sixty, that’s not really many years.”

Munevera has six milk cows, some calves, and a bull -- altogether, 12 animals. Here’s an example of the new “system” that Munevera mentioned: she told me that the Republika Srpska government classifies milk they produce in different grades. She is paid based on the grade of the milk. The milk is then sold to a company in Tuzla, in the Federation. But the RS pays Munevera for a lower grade than the milk really is, and then tells the Tuzla company that it is a higher grade.

Munevera, discussing the economic crisis, says, “There are people from here who live in Germany, and they come here two or three times a year. They have started coming less often, ‘because of the economic crisis,’ they say. If the crisis affects them that way, then how does it affect us? However, people won’t work here. They have gotten used to humanitarian aid. Some people received tractors and sold them; I need a tractor, but I can’t get one. So much international humanitarian aid has come into Srebrenica, the place should be paved with gold. But people fixed their houses and then went back to the city. That was a mistake.”

Munevera forgets that not everyone has a farm or some other opportunity to work, but her remarks about corruption and profiteering are well-placed.

She continues, “But I’m not afraid of the crisis, after what we lived through in the war, with no food, always worrying that someone would get hurt or killed. Now we can work on the farm. So the crisis doesn’t interest me.” But Munevera works seven days a week; she says, “The cows don’t know about Ramadan, and they don’t know about Christmas.”


I went to the memorial cemetery, at the other end of Potocari from Munevera’s farm. The sun burned as I walked around the silent complex, which is noticeably more full of graves now than a couple of years ago. The wooden grave markers of last year’s reburials have been replaced with gleaming white stone.

Silence at the Srebrenica memorial cemetery, Potocari

I had been told about a cross that had been erected above the memorial cemetery as a provocation. However, I did not see it, and a tour guide told me that it had been placed near an excavated mass grave at Budak, just over the hill from Potocari.

The guide invited me to go with his group to the museum across the street, set up in part of the old battery factory where the Dutch troops had their base during the latter part of the war. The huge empty hall has been converted into a simple memorial with two rooms, one for movie projection, and one with photos and text about some of the victims of the massacre.

On my way back to town I ran into Muhamed, who works for the municipality. We chatted for a while; I told him of my two impressions of Srebrenica. “He said no person is complete without carrying an involvement with the past, the present, and the future within him.”

Wall at Potocari bearing names of the Srebrenica massacre victims


The biggest news from Srebrenica last week was the conviction, in the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), of seven men who were involved in the top levels of command that carried out the massacres at Srebrenica fifteen years ago. Vujadin Popovic and Ljubisa Beara received life sentences for genocide, and all seven were convicted of crimes against humanity (or aiding and abetting such crimes) and violation of the laws and conventions of war.

The ICTY’s decision is significant because it reinforces other somewhat less definitive court findings about genocide. General Radislav Krstic was earlier convicted of genocide, but on appeal, his conviction was reduced to that of “aiding and abetting” genocide. That says that someone committed genocide, but that Krstic did not plan it; he only helped implement it.

In another legal decision from a few years ago, the International Court of Justice (also known as the World Court) found that Serbia “failed to prevent genocide.”

The legal definition of genocide very clearly states that proof of intent is required in order to define a crime as genocide. The two legal decisions that I just mentioned found that genocide was committed -- this requiring prior intent (i.e., planning) from someone. But that “someone” was not identified. Here, Popovic and Beara were identified as guilty of genocide. Another culprit, Drago Nikolic, was convicted of aiding and abetting.

The significance of this decision, in addition to providing a small measure of symbolic justice for the victims, is in the connection it makes between the local perpetrators of the genocide and the command chain that goes all the way up through Karadzic and Mladic to the military command in Serbia. The present genocide conviction should reinforce the case against Karadzic, who is himself currently on trial for genocide, among other things.

Here’s an excerpt from an article on the conviction by one commentator:

“What the UN court's June 10 ruling does establish is that Popovic, Beara, and Nikolic were all in the chain of command of General Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb military commander who remains a fugitive 15 years after he was indicted on charges of genocide and crimes against humanity.
“Critically, it also establishes that there was a premeditated plot by the Bosnian Serb leadership to carry out genocide against Bosnian Muslims. The judges wrote that the defendants' most brutal crimes were carried out under a directive issued by Karadzic to create ‘an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival’ for the Srebrenica population.”
(From a June 11th Radio Free Europe report by Ron Synovitz.)

It is to be hoped that the recent conviction, and an eventual conviction of Karadzic for genocide, could help to prove legally that Serbia was involved in the attack and genocide in Bosnia. Of course, everyone who is the least bit interested in this history knows that is true -- but there are political reasons why Serbia, the EU, and the United States wish to leave this entire issue buried forever.

The day of the conviction, I sat in Zahida’s kafana in the middle of Srebrenica and waited for the bus to take me out of Srebrenica. On the radio the newscaster announced the conviction of seven men. Alija, sitting near me, just said one word: "Mashallah," meaning, roughly, “thank God.”


Balkan Witness Home Page

Articles index





Contact Balkan Witness

Report broken links