409 Souls to Rest in Potocari

It’s been a long time since I posted – too long – maybe over a year. But today I need an outlet so today I start writing again.

It’s 11 July 2013. It’s eighteen years after the massacre in eastern Bosnia – the UN safe zone of Srebrenica – started. The ICTY has concluded that the systematic slaughter of over 8,000 men and boys (and women, children and elderly who either got in the way or who were simply picked off for the perpetrator’s fun) was genocide. 

Today, 18 years later, 409 new individuals’ mortal remains will be buried alongside nearly 6,000 identified people. For whatever personal reasons, families have chosen to bury their 409 loved ones this year – perhaps they found the skull of a father or the leg bone of a son that will complete the skeleton – at least complete it enough to bury it and find some sort of tenuous closure. The sad fact is that the longer we go on without finding those other 2000 remains, the less likely we are to literally piece them together. That’s 2000 people who had family and friends who most likely need that burial ceremony to start mourning and attempt to move on. 

11 July in Srebrenica is always a rather insane event. The international community and journalists flock to the memorial center and cemetery in Potocari. For one day they “remember” what happened, and send pictures through wires like AP throughout the world. But the captions get smaller each year on the photos. And the news stories get put lower and lower down in the newsfeeds. But people in Bosnia and Herzegovina can’t and won’t forget. The mostly women who come to cry and to say goodbye to their boys – their wailing and fainting or their silent prayers – that’s all that I remember from the past three burials I’ve attended. And their stories and lives go on, before and after this day. In Tuzla and Srebrenica, in Sweden and St. Louis. But the newspapers don’t capture that complexity, because who wants to read about an old woman who makes jam from the Podrinje berries while she speaks about her dead son? 

Yes, it’s a hulabaloo today. A lot of skeptics and cynics vent their frustrations at the way Srebrenica draws tens of thousands of people today, while towns that also experienced massacres like Foca or Prijedor hardly get noticed. I understand that. I’ve lived in those towns, and I’ve lived in Srebrenica. But you know what these folks don’t seem to get is, the mourning of the people living there is the same. The tears shed are the same. The Bosnians and internationals alike who mourn for Srebrenica – seemingly only for Srebrenica  – they do it because it’s the only way we know how to. How can one go one each day, mourning publicly or privately, for each horrendous murder that took place during that horrible war? It’s not that people, the informed ones at least, don’t recognize the tragedies in other towns. It’s that Srebrenica has been elevated to a symbol of tragedy. 

Srebrenica is Bosnia’s chosen trauma (well, part of Bosnia, since some still deny it even happened). The Hague seems to think it too difficult to define genocide in other areas – those of us living in Bosnia know that genocide indeed did occur all over the country. Because of this, Srebrenica represents something bigger than itself.

11 July provides an opportunity for individuals to remember the conflict and process the fact that their people were targeted for destruction. Now, I know political manipulation is rife in Bosnia, and Srebrenica has been used over and over for various causes. But I also think the public mourning and memorialization of Srebrenica gives people and communities a space to face the past – and this is critical because this public space does not exist otherwise. In a country where memorials are ethnicized and numbers of the dead are inflated or deflated depending on who is using them, people are desperately seeking a space for reflection.

People need a day like today. Bosnians need Srebrenica because they know what it means for their country on a broader scale. Maybe the internationals aren’t nuanced enough to get that, but Bosnians are a lot smarter than that – they know that their tears are for the children in Srebrenica but also the men who died in the Omarska Camp in Prijedor and the women raped in Foca. Until we have that official space to recognize the gravity of such crimes (which, it seems, the ICTY will never provide), then we must use the opportunities recognized throughout the world as a true tragedy. 

So today when we say Ne Zaboravi – Never Forget – we mean Srebrenica. We also mean Sarajevo. We mean Mostar and Travnik, Banja Luka and Tuzla, as well as Bijeljina and Prijedor. For the souls in Srebrenica and all others  – 11 July 1995. 

Bosnian Independence…. for half of us?

For the half of us living in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, we’re celebrating the 20th anniversary of Bosnia’s split from Yugoslavia.  If you’re in another part of the country then it’s a different story.  Kind of crazy that half of the country claims we’re independent today and the other half says it was back in January.  ‘Tis why Bosnia is so complex, interesting, and frustrating all in the same day.  Here’s what we [ghost writer, Julia Dowling, thank you very much] think at the Center for Peacebuilding:

What Bosnian Independence Means to Me

Today, the 1st of March, half of Bosnia and Herzegovina is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the country’s independence.  For the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the majority Bosniak and Croat entity within the country, businesses are closed, transportation on a holiday schedule, and citizens recognize the day the country declared its split from Yugoslavia in 1992.

For the other half of Bosnia and Herzegovina however, the Serb-majority Republika Srpska, it is business as usual.  Independence day for Republika Srpska is instead held January 9th, when the Republic of the Serb People of Bosnia and Herzegovina was proclaimed in 1992.

In many ways, today symbolizes the deep divide the peoples of Bosnia face despite a decade and a half between the cessation of war and the present.  The federal government barely functions and, because of years of barriers to ethnic cooperation, our citizens are growing farther apart from one another instead of growing together for a promising future.

The Center for Peacebuilding is working on reestablishing communication and building trust within divided communities.  Last Thursday, we took the first step in planning our newest project Truth, Healing, and Reconciliation in Community with a roundtable discussion between local community members.  This project will create a safe space in which individuals of every ethnic identity can share their personal war story as others support and bear witness to a truth different than their own.  Our grassroots story-telling will begin to heal the wounds of war that everyone living in Bosnia carries.  As one round-table attendee noted, “we must build a house from the foundation stone up.”  Person by person and story by story, the project will provide the mortar that binds the bricks together, the reconciliation that people of Bosnia desperately need.

This may be one of CIM’s most challenging projects – it will be the first initiative of its kind in the Balkans – but the deep need for local reconciliation calls us to continue despite skepticism and criticism coming from all sides.  As our project develops, we’ll be sure to post news and updates.  Thank you for your continued support and being peacebuilders in your own hearts and communities.

In Peace,
Vahidin Omanovic, Co-Director
Center for Peacebuilding/Centar za Izgradnju Mira

Bosnian Politics – Possibly Worse than American Politics?

I know, I know, it sounds impossible that anything could be worse than the absolute circus going on in Washington DC these days (you know I love you, DC, but get it together).  And sometimes I still think that there still is nothing worse than Congress and the schmucks running for the Republican nomination, especially with this birth control business.  But realistically we all know that there are many places far worse off than the US of A.  Bosnia is by no means in a position similar to Syria, Iran, Zimbabwe or other states in crisis.  But the crisis Bosnia had nearly 20 years ago continues to have major ramifications on life today.

Present Bosnian politics have essentially paralyzed the country and the political rhetoric is, many have claimed, not very different from that heard in the years and months leading up to the war in 1992.

Here's a map of pre-war Bosnia and post-war Bosnia.  You can see how ethnic groups have moved to stay within their own entity's borders.

Here's a map of pre-war Bosnia and post-war Bosnia. You can see how ethnic groups have moved to stay within their own entity's borders.

Here’s a quick primer on the post-war political history in Bosnia, which has contributed to the current state of political immobility: In the fall of 1995, the major warring parties in Bosnia (the Bosnian Serbs and Serbians, the Bosnian Muslims, and the Bosnian Croats and Croatians) were brought together by Richard Holbrooke in Dayton, Ohio for negotiations.  The result of the Dayton Accord was a divided Bosnia – two “entities” that would function completely separately except for the National Government which consisted of representatives from the 3 major ethnic groups.  Now Bosnia has the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina (the Muslim and Croat entity) and the Republika Srpksa (the Serb entity).  The majority of Bosnia’s population now lives within the borders of their own ethnicity’s entity, meaning that Bosnia’s interethnic makeup during Yugoslavia has been transformed.  Before, villages with Serbs would sit next to Muslim towns, and vice versa.  Now most populated areas are majority Serb or majority Muslim or majority Croat (yes, there certainly are exceptions to this, but the overall tone of interethnic cooperation has been destroyed).

Ok, so what does that mean now?  It means that almost everything in political life comes down to ethnicity.  Whether or not Bosnia’s citizens want this, it is the reality.  Three of the four major political parties are ethnically based and consistently spew hateful rhetoric against the other parties.  The Muslim majority party, Party of Democratic Action (SDA), cannot ever agree with the Serb majority party (Serb Democratic Party – SDS), who rarely agrees with the Croat majority party, Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ).  To be clear, I don’t blame the parties for certain conflicts; recently the Serb Party in Parliament called to abolish the National Court (which charges war crimes transferred from the Hague) because they believe it would be better to try such cases in entity courts.  Certainly, a terrible and unjust idea for all ethnic groups involved – how can we expect justice for victims and perpetrators if they are on trial in areas where they are often the hated minority?

But it goes without saying that the Federal Bosnian Government simply does not work.  The three ethnic majority parties plus one heavyweight multi-ethnic party (the SDP) have created a stalemate on nearly all national matters.  I mean, they were unable to form an official government (one with Ministers of Defense, Foreign Affairs etc…) for FOURTEEN MONTHS.  That’s right.  Bosnia and Herzegovina operated without a fully-formed government for fourteen months before a breakthrough this December.

So critical national affairs are consistently stalled in Sarajevo, but does Bosnia’s politics affect people’s everyday life?  You bet.  

You better join a political party, and if it’s not the right party for your area, then you’re plum out of luck for things like work, housing, and other advantages that come with Bosnian nepotism and corruption.  My friends from all over Bosnia face problems because of politics:

A good friend of mine, X, doesn’t agree with ethnic politics, even though X lives in a town where their own ethnic majority is in power .  X is instead, a party member of the multi-ethnic SDP party.  Guess what?  Even though X is a kind, compassionate, and brilliant person who speaks multiple languages, X simply can’t find a job in town.  Sorry, you lose because you envision a multi-ethnic future for Bosnia!  X has a partner, V, who also faces issues – V is not a member of any political party and because of this, has been blackmailed at work, and has not been offered a long-term contract at their job…. every three months when the contract period is up there is the chance that V will be terminated unless V caves and joins the local ruling political party.*

So people who should be celebrated because they refuse to play into ethnic biases and a political system corrupt from top to bottom are instead left out of the whole process.  What does this mean for Bosnia’s future?  Where are the moderate, tolerant voices?  I honestly don’t know what the future holds for this beautiful country and its incredible residents, but the opportunities denied my friends make me incredibly angry and sad.  Political rhetoric is getting worse, and if the economy and employment situation doesn’t improve I don’t see a very peaceful future.  Uncertainty makes people afraid, and that can cause them to turn to those who act like they hold the answers – the answers in today’s Bosnia are all ethnic.  I don’t have any real insight or suggestions for fixing this, except that education in conflict resolution and tolerance must be taught on the grassroots level.  Let’s rebuild relationships so that people can say “you know, I have a Serb friend that is a really great person – maybe those politicians are wrong about all Serbs being evil….”  It can only start there.

*To ensure anonymity I have replaced names with letters.  In the current Bosnian political climate,  it very important to give as few details as possible lest someone happen upon this entry and my words cause even more problems for my friends.