Peter Geoghegan

Journalist, author, broadcaster

Bosnia returnees still burying their dead

Twenty years after the war, mass graves containing the bodies of Bosniaks continue to be found [AP]
Carakovo, Bosnia – Sudbin Music has a problem: He needs to bury 50 bodies.

“Where can we put them?” Music, 40, wondered aloud as he stood on the edge of a graveyard in the northwestern Bosnian village of Carakovo. In front of him, 400 slender white headstones cluttered the plot of land. “We don’t have room for any more.”

The bodies that Music referred to come from Tomasica, a nearby mass war grave discovered last year. Tomasica contained the remains of around 1,000 Bosniaks, also known as Bosnian Muslims, killed by Serb forces in 1992. Fifty of the bodies come from Carakavo, and will be interred at a special ceremony on July 20.

Everything was destroyed like Hiroshima. [There was] nothing.

– Sudbin Music, war survivor

Before the Bosnian war, Carakovo – a largely Bosniak village perched on the hills above the belching smokestacks of the nearby industrial city of Prijedor – appeared calm and peaceful. Two decades later, it seems little has changed. Dogs bark and lambs bleat on a quiet afternoon. A muezzin calls out for prayer from a white-washed minaret. Across verdant fields stand large, sturdy-looking houses with high gates and satellite dishes.

Carakovo looks prosperous. But looks can be deceiving.

Remnants of war

Only 300 people remain, down from 2,500 before the war, said Music, who is the secretary of Prijedor, a group representing Bosniak and Croat concentration camp victims.

The town feels abandoned. Music pointed to recently built houses: “They are in Slovenia, they are in Austria. They are in the Netherlands, their neighbours are in Sweden.” We passed a ramshackle construction, its concrete peeling: “That house is occupied – the only one on the street.” In Bosnia, monthly incomes average $575. For most people, the opportunities abroad are too good to turn down.

Under the Dayton Peace Accords that ended the Bosnian war, the area became part of Republika Srpska, the “Serb Republic”, but all refugees had a right to return. Music came from the US in 2000, one of the first Bosniaks to move back to Carakovo. “Everything was destroyed like Hiroshima. [There was] nothing,” he recalled. Over the next couple of years others came back, too. But the flow of returnees became a trickle, then it stopped completely.

“I spent all my beautiful years here, 14 years. I feel like the last Mohican here,” said Music. “I ask myself, ‘What are you doing? Are you waiting for the next disaster?'”

Bosniaks have returned to a land where Serbia’s red, blue and white flag flies from every government building. The state, dominated by ethnic Serb politicians, has done little to help them. In Prijedor, the office for returnees is housed in the same building as the headquarters of the local Serb Democratic Party, the political vehicle created by Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb leader on trial at the Hague for war crimes.

Few survivors return 

A few kilometres down the road stands the predominantly Bosniak town of Kozarac. Two decades ago, Kozarac was largely reduced to rubble. Since then, most of the houses have been rebuilt, but few former residents have returned. Among those that have is Fikret Alic, the man whose emaciated frame behind barbed wire at a Serb-run camp became the iconic image of the Bosnian war.

Alic, like many others, was taken to a concentration camp at Trnopolje, where visiting journalists happened to take his photograph. The image went global, probably saving his life.

“That picture was taken accidentally. Now I have made it my own mission to talk about it. I’m doing it for the innocent people who were killed,” said Alic when we met at a community centre in Kozarac. He has filled out in the intervening 22 years, but he still bears the physical and mental scars of the abuse he suffered.

He also had to spend years defending himself against allegations that the photograph was concocted. “The fact is that the camps happened, the massacres happened. It’s time we admitted it and moved on,” he said, sitting in a room lined with hundreds of pictures of Kozarac citizens killed in the war.

Another returnee is Asima Memic. “I was the fourth one back,” she said proudly. During the war, three of her sons were taken away to the camp. Only two came back. The remains of the third son were discovered two years ago. “I was constantly hoping. Until they found the bones I still had hope,” she said, visibly holding back tears.

Memic’s return has been a bittersweet experience. Returning Bosniaks swell the population – and the coffers of local businesses – in the summer months, but the rest of the year is often lonely. “As soon as the summer is gone it becomes really depressing,” she said. “A lot of the young people leave the country. People can’t see a brighter future.”

Discrimination looms

Tens of thousands of Bosniaks left the region during and after the war. Most of them are unlikely to come back, said Srecko Latal, a Balkans analyst based in Sarajevo. “The return of refugees has pretty much finished.”

You can put any flag you want out there so long as you give me a job that pays properly.

– Adis Muhagic, returnee to Kozarac

The government of Republika Srpska “did little to help people returning”, Latal claimed.

Today, many Bosniaks feel like second-class citizens in the Serb Republic, expressing concerns that a decree passed by the government in Banja Luka – Bosnia’s second-largest city – on checking people’s residence could target Bosniaks.

In the eastern village of Konjevic Polje, Bosniak children have not attended school since last year as part of a protest against the Serb school curriculum.

“I came back home but the problem is permanent discrimination. Citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina need to be liberated,” Music said. “I don’t belong anywhere. We are a no man’s people.” The answer, Music believes, is “not destroying Republika Srpska or changing the constitution”, it is “re-integration to a normal society, whatever that means. People are going crazy.”

“Bosnia is ethnically divided and paralysed by bad government, but its biggest problems are economic, not political,” said Adis Mujagic, a father of two who returned to Kozarac from the US. “You can put any flag you want out there so long as you give me a job that pays properly.”

“With so many leaving, and so few opportunities at home, the future for Bosnia looks bleak,” said Music. “You will have in five years an ethnically clean Republika Srpska and an ethnically clean Federation [of Bosnia and Herzegovina] under the control of the Muslims and the Croats. And all the youth will have gone abroad.”

This piece originally appeared on Al Jazeera.

Bosnia returnees still burying their dead
Scroll to top