At just 17, Nedžad Avdić was convinced his life was over. After days walking bare-footed, starving, thirsty and exhausted through the verdant Bosnian countryside near Srebrenica he was captured by Bosnian Serb forces and loaded onto a lorry alongside thousands of other Muslims.
The convoy stopped in a remote field. Nedžad was told to get in line. He knew that the killing was about to start.
“We were tortured and dying for a drop of water,’ recalls Nedžad, now 38 with a young family of his own.
“We were forced to take off our clothes. One of soldiers tied our hands in the back. At that moment I, a 17-year-old boy, realised it was the end.
“I thought that I would die fast without suffering. Thinking that my mum would never know where I finished they began to shoot us in our backs. I did not know whether I lost consciousness, but I lay on my stomach bleeding and trembling.”
Miraculously, it was not the end for Nedžad. Despite being shot in the arm and the stomach, he managed to survive by lying amongst the rows of dead bodies one of only 11 men to do so
“I was left for dead, but the soldiers did not know it. They were shooting the other wounded. I wanted to die but did not dare to call them to kill me. I was bleeding and waiting to die,” says Nedžad.
“When the Serb soldiers left the field for short time, I was trying to turn my head and in one moment I could see somebody was moving among the dead in front of me. Two of us survived and managed to untie each other and to run away crawling and hide in bushes before the next lorry arrived.”
After days of wandering through the woods, hiding in the streams, sleeping in the grave-yards, Nedžad managed to reach the territory under Bosnian government control.
Few were so lucky.
On Monday, 21 years will have passed since the single greatest atrocity on European soil since the Second World War: the genocide of 8,372 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica during the Bosnian war.
The anniversary will be especially poignant in Glasgow this year, as a team from Bosnia and Herzegovina will be taking on Scotland at the homeless world cup. Four members of the Bosnian side survived the genocide at Srebrenica.
Back in July 1995, Nedžad’s father, uncle and any other relatives sought shelter at the Dutch military base in Potočari, just outside Srebrenica. None survived.
Since then, Nedžad has devoted his life to making sure his sisters were able to get an education and develop their careers. He now has three daughters and is living in Srebrenica. He says: “Despite everything, I hope that I can teach my daughters to grow up without hatred. This will be my success.”
Nowadays Nedžad works in import and export for a small car company back in Srebrenica. But life in the town has changed dramatically since the war ended in 1995.
In the days of the former Yugoslavia, Srebrenica was a mixed town with a significant Muslim population. Now Srebrenica is part of Republika Srpska, the autonomous Bosnian Serb statelet created in the Dayton Peace Accords. The red, white and blue of the Serbian flag flies from local cafes and government buildings.
In March, the Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadžić was found ‘criminally responsible’ for the Srebrenica genocide at the UN tribunal in The Hague.
But, says Nedžad, “Karadzic’s and (general Ratko) Mladic’s work remains in place here in Srebrenica forever. We as a community are totally devastated.
“They often make our lives impossible here. I have so many negative examples that I feel on my own skin, but I do not want to emphasize them. I always try to find something positive, although it is very hard.”
A memorial service organised by Remembering Srebrenica Scotland will be held at Cathcart Old Parish Church in Glasgow on July 15 to remember the victims of the genocide.
Resad Trbonja will never be able to forget April 1992. Back then the tall, strong-featured Bosnian was a rebellious 19-year-old, spending his days strolling around his native Sarajevo in Converse trainers and his treasured Levi’s t-shirt, listening to the Ramones and the Clash.
“A week later my life was totally different,” Resad says.
Overnight he went from being an ordinary European teenager to a soldier, having to defend Sarajevo against the longest siege in modern history.
He would donate blood to get some food to eat and had to collect old tyres to burn for heat. One winter, during a lull in the shelling, he witnessed a group of children
who were desperate to go sledging, when they did so, a shell exploded
killing all six of them, just leaving their sledges intact.
Today Bosnia is at peace, but the wartime divisions remain, especially in politics.
‘“Bosnia is always the same. You have three different interests that are clashing all the time,” says Resad who works tirelessly to help others learn from the Srebrenica genocide.
The recently released Bosnian census shows that the population has fallen by a fifth since before the war. Last year alone 80,000 young people left.
“Without a new political force in the country I don’t think see anything changing. We need a new blood,’ says Resad.
Nevertheless he is hopeful for the future.
“Only by listening to the life stories, and remembering what happened, can we reach out to people and, hopefully, contribute to a better, safer future.”
Around midnight on July 11, 1995, word reached Srebrenica that Dutch peacekeepers had abandoned their observation posts on the outskirts of town.
The soldiers had arrived in the Eastern Bosnian “safe haven” just over two years earlier, ostensibly to provide a buffer between local Bosniak Muslims and encircling Bosnian Serb forces.
When 19-year-old Hasan Hasanovic heard that the United Nations troops had retreated to their base he knew he had two choices: escape or die.
“I decided to flee through the forest with my father and my brother trying to survive,” says Hasanovic in flawless, clipped English.
He had bartered sugar for English lessons from a local teacher during the three-year-long siege of Srebrenica that ended in July 1995, in the largest act of mass murder on European soil since the Second World War.
Twenty years later Hasanovic works at the Srebrenica Memorial centre, a small museum attached to the sprawling battery factory that once housed the Dutch contingent.
Everyday Hasanovic recounts the same terrible story, nervously turning his wedding ring around his finger as he describes that hot July night when he set off with some 15,000 men to walk more than sixty miles through thick forest to the nearest Bosniak-held town, Tuzla.
The ad hoc human column gathered around six miles outside Srebrenica.
When they started to move Bosnian Serb army units on the overhanging hills began shooting indiscriminately. Hasan Hasanovic was among the crowd pushing forward in panic, desperate to escape the hail of bullets. “I lost sight of my father and my twin brother. Since then I have never seen them,” he told me.
Hasanovic kept walking. A man offered him sugar and water, which he hungrily accepted. The further they walked, the less the men looked at each other, fearful of seeing death etched in one another’s faces.
The following day, around forty miles from Tuzla, they came to rest on a hillside. They had been walking for hours. Some kicked off their shoes, others closed their eyes. Then gunfire ripped through the air.
A thousand men were killed in a matter of moments. Hasanovic managed to break away, seeking shelter in the forest. Below, Serb voices on loudspeakers promised food and safety. Those who surrendered were killed.
Hasanovic walked on. The rubber boots and the hours of wading through streams and forests tore the skin off the soles of his feet. More than once he narrowly escaped Serb militiamen.
“On July 16, after days and nights of being hunted like animals, we reached Tuzla,” he says. The tall chimneys of the industrial city framed a makeshift refugee camp.
The field of white tents seemed to go on forever. People flocked to Hasanovic when they heard he had come from Srebrenica. Had they seen their son, their uncle, their father?
Each time he shook his head dolefully.
Amidst the crowd he spotted his mother, his younger brother and his grandparents. They gripped each other tightly. But there was no sign of his father or his brother.
Of the 15,000 men who set off on the “Death March”, only 3,500 survived. The fate that awaited those that remained in Srebrenica was, if anything, even worse.
Although just a few miles from the Serbian border, Srebrenica had long been a predominantly Bosniak area.
When war broke out, in April 1992, after Bosnia declared its independence, the town’s population swelled as Muslims in the surrounding villages fled the Bosnian Serb offensive to carve out a state of their own from the ashes of the disintegrating Yugoslavia.
Within months some 65,000 refugees had sought refugee in Srebrenica, more than doubling its prewar population.
The Srebrenica enclave was an easy target for the Bosnian Serb army. Attacks were frequent. On April 12 1993, artillery fire hit a school playground. Seventy-four were killed and over a hundred wounded.
Four days later, the United Nations declared the establishment of a “safe haven”.
Life was hard – food was scarce – but the arriving peacekeepers offered protection from the Bosnian Serb forces. Bosniaks gave up their weapons. Fatefully, they were promised they would not need them.
It was beyond our contemplation that the United Nations would betray the people of SrebrenicaHasan Hasanovic
“Everyone had the feeling that they lived in a big concentration camp,” Hasan Hasanovic recalls. “But people were still happy to have anything, to survive. It was beyond our contemplation that the United Nations would betray the people of Srebrenica.”
Srebrenica occupied a crucial strategic position. Without it, the Bosnian Serb dream of creating an ethnically pure state would be stymied. In early 1995, the attacks intensified. Hasanovic’s school was closed again. “Something wrong was coming. People could feel that there was evil in the air.”
This “evil” arrived in early July 1995. The shelling of Srebrenica got worse, much worse. Dutch troops retreated in the face of the Serb offensive.
United Nations commanders initially refused their requests for airstrikes against Serb positions. By the time they relented – dropping just two bombs – Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic had taken peacekeepers hostage.
There would be no full-scale attack on the Bosnian Serb lines. Emboldened by the success, Radovan Karadžić, President of the Serb Republic, ordered his forces to take the town.
In Srebrenica, people began to flee. Almost all able-bodied men began the “Death March”. More than 20,000 sought refugee at the UN compound at Potocari a few miles outside the town.
On July 12, Mladic walked through Srebrenica, handing out sweets to children and mugging for watching television cameras. “No matter if you’re old or young you’ll get transport,” he said. “Don’t be afraid – women and children first.”
The Serb army began separating all men aged 12 to 77, putting them onto buses. At Potocari, Dutch soldiers expelled the Bosniaks sheltering in their base, leading them directly into the hands of the waiting Bosnian Serb military.
Over the next four days, Mladic’s forces killed more than 8,000 men, in Srebrenica.
In a brutal, systematic massacre, victims were shot and clubbed to death in fields and behind houses, in warehouses and abandoned buildings.
Recently released documents suggest the involvement of Greek and Russian far-right fighters in the slaughter.
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice in The Hague ruled that Bosnian Serbs committed genocide at Srebrenica.
Srebrenica changed the course of the Bosnian war. NATO’s subsequent intervention led to the Dayton peace agreement in December 1995.
Bosnia and Herzegovina was effectively divided into two, between the Croat-Bosniak Federation and “Republika Srpska”. Srebrenica became part of the new Serb Republic.
It took Hasanovic years to find out what happened to his family.
In 2003, his father joined the rows and rows of brilliant white marble headstones at the Potocari graveyard, across the road from the former Dutch base. “In 2005 I buried my twin brother which was the hardest thing in my life.”
A skull missing a mandible sits bolt upright on a stainless steel mortuary slab. Scattered around the head are fragments of bone shaped into a skeletal form. A few ribs, a fibula, two tibias, a handful of fingers. A humidifier hums in the corner.
On the opposite wall, a poster begs “Help Identify Your Loved Ones. Give Your Blood Sample”. The message is written in Bosnian and English.
This small office, in a nondescript business park on the outskirts of Tuzla, is the forensic laboratory of the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP). Funded by international donors, the ICMP was founded at the behest of Bill Clinton at the G-7 summit in 1996.
The commission task was to bring order to the chaos of war by assisting formerly hostile Balkan governments identify and trace some of the 40,000 people missing at end of the Yugoslav wars.
Around 70 per cent of those missing were from Bosnia. In Srebrenica and elsewhere, Bosnian Serb forces used bulldozers to push bodies into unmarked mass graves, which were subsequently exhumed, sometimes multiple times, to hinder identification. Consequently forensic scientists were regularly faced with the kind of scattered remains lying on the Tuzla mortuary table of tenacious Serbian forensic anthropologist Dragana Vucetic.
“When they removed those skeletal remains, often with big trucks, they destroyed the integrity of individuals so very often we don’t find complete bodies, maybe only in 10 per cent of cases,” Vucetic told me.
In the first five years, the ICMP identified just 140 Srebrenica victims, mainly through clothing and body parts. “We had to find another method for investigation. So we made a DNA lab,” says Vucetic.
Blood was collected from tens of thousands of Bosnians, both in the Balkans and across Europe where they had fled as refugees. Within months of the DNA lab opening in 2001, the ICMP had its first positive match. By the close of the following year, it had over 500 more. So far ICMP has identified over 85 per cent of those who died in Srebrenica.
Most victims are buried in the cemetery at Potocari, often during the annual July 11 commemoration.
The process of identification is arduous. Bone samples from victims are taken for DNA testing and matched with profiles on the ICMP database. “We don’t test each bone because that is very expensive. We only test one bone from each sample or each body part,” Vucetic explains as she lifts the heavy door that leads into the cold storage unit. Inside, shelves are lined with the remains of Srebrenica victims, thick plastic body bags on the lower rungs, brown paper bags for clothes and personal possessions above them.
The room has a pungent smell of raw flesh. It reminds me of a long forgotten summer job in a meat factory.
Scattered among the body bags are the remains of 300 individuals awaiting identification. The burden of proof is heavy.
Courts require that DNA matches are 99.95 per cent probability or above. Once a body has been formally identified it is pronounced dead. Family members are contacted.
The ICMP facility is open to the public but they are discouraged from coming to see the remains. “It is very emotional for them to see skeletons. Usually they expect that they will see something else. After 20 years it is still stressful when they come here and see bones,” says Vucetic.
Despite the ICMP’s efforts, almost a thousand people are still missing. It is “most likely” that there is another, so far untraced, mass grave lying amid the verdant Bosnian countryside, says Edin Jasaragic, who works at the ICMP’s main administrative centre, in an old basketball stadium in downtown Tuzla.
Some of those who survived the “Death March” from Srebrenica were inside this austere, Communist-era concrete building. The hard plastic windows are still riddled with bullet holes. On the ground floor, there is a shop that specialises in prosthetic legs. Landmines kill around 20 Bosnians every year.
As well as identifying victims, the ICMP has played a key role in criminal prosecutions. So far 46 individuals have been put on trial at Bosnian state courts for their role in the Srebrenica massacre, including 38 people charged with genocide.
The ICMP’s forensic evidence has also been crucial in the 21 trials related to Srebrenica at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, among them Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadžić and Ratko Mladic.
Despite these successes, justice has been “very slow” says Muhamed Durakovic, a Srebrenica survivor who now works for the ICMP in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. “There are hundreds of people roaming the streets of Srebrenica who are war criminals.”
Someone who took away your child is now working as a police officer or a public official in Srebrenica.Dragana Vucetic
Nevertheless, the ICMP is one of the few genuine success stories to emerge from the impoverished, fissiparous post-war Western Balkans states. Their innovative DNA approach has been exported around the world, helping to identify victims of natural disasters and political violence everywhere from the United States and the Philippines to Chile and Iraq.
“The ICMP has learned a lot in Bosnia over the past twenty years, it has a pool of experts that can deploy anywhere in the world to assist in cases of disaster or war, any time a government needs to identify a large number of individuals” says Muhamed Durakovic, who until recently was stationed in Libya.
Since the ICMP opened, the crucible of human suffering has shifted, to Ukraine, to Syria and numerous other conflagrations.
Silently, Bosnia and Herzegovina, a comparatively small conflict in a relatively unimportant part of the world, has slipped down the international community’s list of priorities.
The ICMP is due to follow the diplomats next year, moving its main operations out of Bosnia. The impecunious Bosnian government is unlikely to step into the breach to fund expensive DNA laboratories.
In a grim irony, the facilities at Tuzla are only likely to remain open if another mass grave is discovered at Srebrenica.
In the 1970s, the Yugoslav government released a promotional video to encourage people to move to the spa town of Srebrenica. Grainy footage shows a gym filled with healthy Bosnians. There is no distinction made between Bosniak Muslims, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats.
The streets, bounded by tree-lined escarpments, are neat and well tended. It looks for all world like a socialist paradise.
Srebrenica today is a very different place. The once modern apartment blocks are crumbling. Overgrown branches hang across the main thoroughfare. The red, blue and white Serbian tricolour of the Republika Srpska flag hangs limply from a municipal building.
As we drive slowly through town a table full of middle-aged men outside a bar all turn in unison to stare. Srebrenica, on the way to nowhere, is now a by-word for our darkest instincts.
The white minaret of the local mosque still looks down over Srebrenica. Before the war, the vast majority of the town’s 36,000-strong population were Bosniak. Now Srebrenica and the surrounding villages is overwhelmingly Serb.
Some Muslims, however, did take up the option of returning to their former homes afforded under the Dayton agreement, even if it meant living cheek-by-jowl with the men who murdered their loved ones.
In 2002, Hatidža Mehmedović came back to Srebrenica. Her family home had been burned down. Her husband and two sons had been killed. But she was determined to return. “We came here for one reason only, to live with our memories,” Hatidža Mehmedović tells me when we meet under the shade of a large wooden gazebo in the graveyard for Srebrenica genocide victims at Potocari.
Her family’s remains, identified by the ICMP in 2010, are buried nearby.
“They killed everything I had in this world. These are wounds that will never heel,” says Mehmedović, who wears a white headscarf. “This is not a life. This is hell. We returnees, we lost everything.”
Mehmedović is president of Mothers of Srebrenica, an association that represents victims of the massacre. “Many mothers have been left without joy. Our hearts are cold. We will never live to see how it is to see your sons marry. We will never have the joy of holding our grandchildren on our knee, thanks to the United Nations and the great powers.”
The Mothers of Srebrenica launched a legal case against the Dutch peacekeeping forces, arguing that they did not do enough to protect the people in their charge. Last year, a district court in The Hague ruled that the Netherlands is liable for the deaths of more than 300 Bosniak men and boys expelled from the UN base in July 1995.
The onetime Dutch military compound still stands at Potocari, across the road from the field filled with slender white gravestones. The Mothers of Srebrenica and others hope to eventually create a huge memorial on the site of the base, but for now it largely stands empty. I climb through an open window into what were once the soldiers’ quarters.
On the walls are crude drawings of naked women and Dutch phrases, untouched in twenty years. In one scrawling, just below a naked couple in bondage gear, there is red heart pierced by an arrow, slowly bleeding.
On July 11, the annual commemoration for the victims of Srebrenica is held at Potocari. This year’s 20th anniversary service was thrown into doubt after Naser Oric, a wartime Bosniak leader in Srebrenica, was arrested in Switzerland.
Oric, a former bodyguard of notorious Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic, is accused of war crimes against local Serbs. The Srebrenica organising committee said the event would be postponed until Oric’s release.
Last week, Swiss authorities announced that Oric would be extradited, but to Bosnia rather than Serbia. The decision caused uproar. Mladen Ivanic, who represents Serbs in Bosnia’s unwieldy tripartite presidency, said he would not be attending the Srebrenica commemoration “in this atmosphere”.
The political wrangling “is setting Bosnia-Herzegovina back to the state of war”, Ivanic added. Serbian president Tomislav Nikolic’s visit to Sarajevo has been cancelled.
Republika Srpska’s president Milorad Dodik went even further. Last week, the pugnacious Bosnian Serb leader, called the Srebrenica massacre ““the greatest deception of the 20th century”.
Previously Dodik, who has ruled Republika Srpska almost unopposed for a decade, has said that, “if a genocide happened, then it was committed against Serb people of this region, where women, children and the elderly were killed en masse.”
Such denial of what happened at Srebrenica, and across Bosnia, runs deep. “Srebrenica hoax” is a popular search term on Google.
Videos on YouTube promise the “real” story of what happened in July 1995, often using language and arguments familiar to Holocaust deniers.
“It is always very difficult to hear stories of denial when we all know what happened, especially those of us who were eyewitnesses to the atrocities and the killings,” says Srebrenica survivor Muhamed Durakovic. “We know what happened to these people. We have seen and witnessed their executions.”
Near Srebrenica, Bosnian Serbs recently put up anti-European Union posters on a warehouse where Bosniaks were killed in protest at a leaked draft United Nations resolution that suggests July 11 should be a memorial day. The resolution, penned by the UK, was vetoed at the UN this week by Russia.
Arguments over Srebrenica are symptomatic of the “polarised” nature of contemporary Bosnia, says Srecko Latal, a Sarajevo-based analyst with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network. “This country, this entire region, never initiated its reconciliation process.”
The various international courts established to deal with war crimes in the former Yugoslavia focused too much on legalistic definitions and not enough on building bridges on the ground, says Latal.
The Dayton peace accords created an awkward state structure in which the three ethnic blocs – Bosniak, Serb and Croat – all have effective veto.
In the two decades since the fighting stopped, the recent past has become a political tool, pushing competing ethnicities further and further apart.
“This country is ethnically cleansed,” says Latal. “You don’t have any ethnic mixing anymore in big towns. In schools a majority are mono-ethnic. Kids learn about other ethnic groups from the media and history books and they are all tainted.”
Srebrenica, although fading from many Western memories, still has a resonance beyond Bosnia and Herzegovina’s contested borders.
Less familiar are the countless other massacres: over 5,000, mainly Bosniaks and Croats, were killed in Prijedor in 1992 alone; that same year 3,000 went to their deaths in the eastern town of Visegrad, some of them thrown alive from the town’s bridge; in Zvornik a further 2,000 were killed. The vast majority of this “ethnic cleansing” took place in what is now Republika Srpska.
Last spring, I visited a village called Carakovo, a few miles outside Prijedor in northwestern Bosnia. Before the war, Carakovo’s population was 1,200. Now it is 300.
The only thing that is growing is the graveyard, as more remains are identified and more mass graves discovered. “I feel like the last Mohican here,” Sudbin Music, a community worker who miraculously survived the Serb death camps, told me. “I ask myself, ‘What are you doing? Are you waiting for the next disaster?”
Elmina Kulasić was just a child when she was forced to leave the nearby town of Kozarac. After growing up in Chicago, Kulasić came back to Bosnia three years ago to work with other “returnees”.
The policy of re-settling people in their former homes has been a “failure”, she says. Only a fraction of those who left during the war have returned. “Everyone is ignoring survivors.”
Instead survivors of Bosnia’s vicious war are often used as political footballs.
On July 11, Bosniak politicians will line up with international diplomats and foreign correspondents in the VIP section at the cemetery in Potocari. Afterwards they will make speeches promising “never again.” Then, when the television cameras have stopped rolling, they will get back in their expensive cars, leaving Srebrenica, and its now childless mothers, until next year.
Dayton ended the war but bequeathed a labyrinthine political system structurally disposed to gridlock and stasis. Corruption in Bosnia is rife, according to Transparency International. Political tensions have increased. Dodik regularly threatens Republika Srpska’s secession, potentially splintering Bosnia. Croat politicians agitate for the creation of a “third entity”, centred on Herzegovina with a capital in Mostar. Bosniaks look east for patronage, to Turkey and the Gulf states.
“The political, economic and social situation has got worse since the war,” says Srecko Latal. Meanwhile, the international community has largely switched off. “The European Union is still ignoring that part, if not all, of the Balkans is a boiling powder keg once again.”
Last February, Bosnia did erupt – but not along ethnic lines. Tens of thousands took to the streets demanding jobs, higher wages and a better future. The municipality headquarters in Sarajevo was set alight, as was a government building in Tuzla.
The protests eventually petered out, but the frustrations that underlined them have not. Bosnia’s official unemployment rate is over 40 per cent, even higher among the young.
Average monthly salaries are less than €400. “There is not much hope here,” says journalist Nidzara Ahmetasevic, who lived in Sarajevo throughout the three and a half year long siege of the city.
“During the war it was easier than now. It was simpler. It was a war. They were shooting 24-7. You were scared. You lived like an animal but it was easier. Now you feel all the time under pressure. You feel like you are going to explode but nothing is exploding.”
Resad Trbonja was just 19 when he swapped his Converse trainers and Levi’s t-shirt for a Bosnian army uniform and a place on the frontline defending his native Sarajevo. More than two decades later, he is pessimistic about the future of the country he took up arms to defend.
“We are not going in the direction I was fighting for,” he says. “I didn’t fight for a Muslim country. I fought for Bosnia and Herzegovina, for all its citizens regardless of their faith. I wasn’t prepared for this ethnic division.”
Back at Potocari, a Bosnian state police car is permanently stationed outside the graveyard. On a warm summer’s afternoon there seems little need for such measures. Shirtless workmen toil in the fields beside empty roads. The air filled with the smell of freshly mown grass. Birds sing in the trees.
This idyllic scene belies the political reality. Srebrenica now belongs to Republika Srpska, a state-within-a state whose leaders continue to deny what happened two decades ago. “It is a big hypocrisy that this part of Bosnia where the genocide happened belongs to Republika Srpska,” says Hasan Hasanovic, as a group of Bosnian schoolchildren walk through the Srebrenica memorial. Many are crying.
Six years ago, Hasanovic returned from Tuzla. He now lives in Srebrenica with his wife and young daughter. “Our lives are now a sort of mission. We live everyday trying to bear witness to genocide and all the people who don’t know.”
Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina – The violent breakup of Yugoslavia at the end of the Cold War left a painful legacy. It is estimated the conflict claimed over 100,000 lives, with thousands more missing, amid the chaos of ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.
Many are still struggling to deal with the pain and to find closure.
Founded at the behest of then US president Bill Clinton at the G-7 summit in 1996, the ICMP was tasked with the almost impossible – to trace and identify the 40,000 people missing at end of the Yugoslav wars.
A skull missing a mandible sits upright on a stainless steel mortuary slab. Scattered around it are fragments of bone shaped into the form of a skeleton. A few ribs, a fibula, two tibias, a handful of fingers. A poster poster on the wall pleads in Bosnian and English, “Help Identify Your Loved Ones. Give Your Blood Sample”.
Among the unaccounted were the more than 8,000 killed in the Bosnian town of Srebrenica in July 1995.
The massacre that took place at Srebrenica was the largest atrocity committed on European soil since the Second World War. Men and boys, overwhelmingly Bosnian Muslims, were shot in warehouses and bludgeoned to death on fields and football pitches.
A US soldier serving with the NATO-led peacekeeping force in Bosnia patrols while Bosnian forensic experts inspect bodily remains found in a mass grave in the eastern village of Kamenica, near the town of Zvornik [Danilo Krstanovic/Reuters]
Bosnian Serb forces used bulldozers to push the bodies of their vicitms into unmarked mass graves. The bodies were subsequently exhumed, sometimes multiple times, to hinder identification.
The international community is still struggling to define the extent of the killings, 20 years later, and Russia vetoed the UN genocide resolution on Srebrenica on July 9.
Now these scattered human remains lie on the mortuary table of Dragana Vucetic, a tenacious Serbian forensic anthropologist at the ICMP Tuzla lab.
“When they removed those skeletal remains, often with big trucks, they destroyed the integrity of individuals. So very often we don’t find complete bodies,” Vucetic said.
Many bodies were so badly decomposed that the ICMP identified just 140 Srebrenica victims in its first five years, mainly through clothing and body parts.
“We had to find another method for investigation. So we made a DNA lab.”
Blood was collected from over 70,000 Bosnians, both in the Balkans and across Europe where they had fled as refugees.
Within months of the DNA lab opening in 2001, the ICMP had its first positive match. By the close of the following year, it had found more than 500 additional matches.
So far ICMP has identified nearly 7,000 people who died in Srebrenica.
Hasan Hasanovic was just 19 when Bosnian Serb forces led by the notorious general Ratko Mladic overran the Srebrenica enclave in July 1995, without the Dutch peacekeeping forces firing a shot.
Along with around 15,000 Bosnian Muslim men, Hasanovic fled to the hills, walking more than 100 kilometres to safety. Just 3,500 survived “the death march.” Hasanovic’s father and his twin brother did not make it.
His father’s body was identified in 2003, and interred among the rows and rows of brilliant white marble headstones at the graveyard for Srebrenica victims, located across the road from the former Dutch base at Potocari.
In 2005, Hasan Hasanovic buried his twin brother, too. “That was the hardest thing in my life,” he told Al Jazeera.
The process of identifying the Srebrenica victims is arduous. Bone samples from victims are taken for DNA testing and matched with profiles on the ICMP database. Courts require that DNA matches are of 99.95 percent probability or higher.
Once a body has been formally identified, the person is officially pronounced dead.
The ICMP facility is open to the public but relatives are discouraged from visiting to see the remains. “It is very emotional for them to see skeletons. Usually they expect that they will see something else. After 20 years, it is still stressful when they come here and see bones,” said Vucetic.
In 2010, the ICMP contacted Hatidza Mehmedovic. The remains of her husband and two sons – both killed at Srebrenica in July 1995 – had been identified.
“They told me my younger son was a complete body but I wasn’t brave enough to go and see him,” she told Al Jazeera.
Now Mehmedovic has just one wish – closure for all those who lost loved ones when Bosnian Serb forces took Srebrenica.
“All we want is justice so the criminals get punished and we find those that are still missing so mothers can at all least get the satisfaction of finding their sons. Many mothers have died – and will die – without being able to bury a single bone.”
Many women in Srebrenica are still awaiting to hear about the whereabouts of their loved ones who disappeared during the war [Damir Sagolj/Reuters]
Almost 1,000 victims of the Srebrenica massacres are still missing and experts believe that at least one mass grave remains hidden in the verdant countryside in eastern Bosnia.
At the ICMP’s Tuzla facility, the remains of around 300 individuals await identification.
After identification, most will be interred during the annual July 11 commemorations at the Srebrenica victims’ graveyard. This year more than 100 people will be buried here.
In addition to identifying victims, the ICMP has played a key role in criminal prosecutions.
So far, 46 individuals have been put on trial at Bosnian state courts for their role in the Srebrenica massacre, including 38 people who have been charged with genocide.
The ICMP’s forensic evidence has been crucial in the 21 trials related to Srebrenica at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia at The Hague, among them, the trial of Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.
Despite these successes, justice has been “very slow” said Muhamed Durakovic, a Srebrenica survivor who now works for the ICMP in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.
“There are hundreds of people roaming the streets of Srebrenica who are war criminals… Someone who took away your child is now working as a police officer or a public official in Srebrenica. To the victims that is totally unacceptable,” Durakovic said.
Meanwhile, a Srebrenica denial movement has sprung up. “Srebrenica hoax” is a popular search term on Google. Videos on YouTube promise the “real” story of what happened in July 1995, often using language and arguments familiar to Holocaust deniers.
Many of these denials emanate from Republika Srpska, an autonomous, majority-Serb region within Bosnia and Herzegovina. After the 1995 Dayton peace accords, which brought the conflict in Bosnia to an end, Srebrenica became part of Republika Srpska.
Recently Milorad Dodik, Republika Srpska’s president, called the Srebrenica massacre “the greatest deception of the 20th century”.
Workers dig graves at a memorial centre for Srebrenica Massacre victims in Potocari. Nearly 136 identified victims will be buried at a memorial cemetery during the ceremony, their bodies found in some 60 mass graves around the town [Dado Ruvic/Reuters]
Arguments over Srebrenica are symptomatic of the divided nature of contemporary Bosnia. “The political, economic and social situation has gotten worse since the war,” said Srecko Latal, a Sarajevo-based analyst with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.
The country’s patchwork of ethnicities are drifting further apart.
“You don’t have any ethnic mixing anymore in big towns. In schools a majority are mono-ethnic. Kids learn about other ethnic groups from the media and history books and they are all tainted,” said Latal.
The prospect of European Union membership, once held up as the goal that could unite post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina, looks increasingly remote. In recent years, much of the international community has pulled out of the country.
Meanwhile, the ICMP is one of the few genuine success stories to emerge from the impoverished, fissiparous post-war Western Balkans.
Their innovative DNA approach has been exported around the world, helping to identify victims of natural disasters and political violence everywhere from the United States and the Philippines to Chile and Iraq.
Next year, however, the ICMP is set to move its main operations to The Hague.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s cash-strapped government is unlikely to step into the breach to fund expensive DNA laboratories.
In a grim irony, the future of the forensics lab at Tuzla could depend on discovering another Srebrenica mass grave, and soon.
The longer any online discussion goes on, the greater the probability that someone will make a comparison involving Hitler or the Nazis. This maxim – known as ‘Godwin’s Law’ – is so widely accepted that it has even made it into the Oxford English Dictionary. So today I would like to propose an #indyref equivalent (but please don’t call it ‘Geoghegan’s Law’!): the longer any discussion about Scottish independence goes on, the greater the likelihood of someone adducing the Balkans.
‘Balkanisation’. It is a word that, rightly, strikes fear into anyone with a decent memory or a cursory knowledge of late 20th century European history. A phrase borne of the Ottoman Empire’s collapse and redolent of the crackle of gunfire and the heavy thud of mortar rounds.
I don’t know about you, but I haven’t seen many snipers on Sauchiehall Street, or armed militias on training exercises at the Rest and Be Thankful. But that hasn’t stopped some senior figures evoking the ‘B’ word recently.
‘Balkanisation’. That is what George Robertson warned will happen if Scots vote Yes on September 18. “The fragmentation of Europe starting on the centenary of the first world war would be both an irony and a tragedy with incalculable consequences,’ the former NATO secretary general and Labour Defence minister said in a speech at the Brookings Institution in Washington in April.
Lord Robertson has previous when it comes to making wayward predications. It was he, after all, who in 1995 prophesied that ‘Devolution will kill Nationalism stone dead’.
But Robertson is also a Labour politician so his hyperbolic intervention is at least understandable in those terms. Unlike Carl Bildt’s. Earlier this month Sweden’s foreign minister, and former UN special envoy to the Balkans, warned in an interview with the Financial Times that Scottish independence would lead to the “Balkanisation of the British Isles” and would set off “unforeseen chain reactions” in both Europe and the UK.
‘Balkanisation’, in the referendum debate, is a dog whistle. A shrill sounding off to a particular audience, largely international, that believes that behind every nationalist movement lies chauvinism. Scottish nationalists have hidden their true nature thus far, even perhaps from themselves, but a descent into the ethnic abyss is an ever-present danger.
What we talk about when we talk about the Balkans is the likelihood of violence and terror ripping previously placid polities apart.
But what if we actually looked at whether the Balkan experience might be able to better inform the independence debate? Might we be able to learn something the practices and procedures of forming new nation-states on the edge of Europe, all roughly the same size as Scotland?
One such area is the vexed question of who would be the legal successor state if Scotland votes yes. Nationalists say both Scotland and the rest of the UK; unionists maintain that only the UK could rightfully claim to be the successor. Here a glance in the direction of the Balkans is instructive. In their brief union in the 1990s, both Serbia and Montenegro claimed they were the successor state to Yugoslavia. Neither won the argument. All six ex-Yugoslav republics were deemed successor states.
The recent political and economic experiences of the Balkan states are worth considering, too. The Yugoslav system was already crumbling by the early 1980s, well before Slobodan Milosevic had whipped Serbs into a nationalist frenzy. But for much of the previous two decades, Yugoslavia enjoyed a high standard of living, broadly on a par with much of Mediterranean Europe.
This is no longer the case. Serbia ranks 64 in the 2013 Human Development Index; Macedonia is 78; Bosnia and Herzegovina comes 81st. (The UK by comparison is 26th). The Balkan states are among the most unequal in Europe.
The reason Balkan states fare so poorly is not because they are separate rather than united in a Federation. It is not even, directly, because of the war. It is because they have been ruled for two decades by varying combinations of disinterested international representatives and nakedly self-interested politicians that took advantage of the power vacuum since the late 1980s. Kleptocracy, not clichéd nonsense about ‘ancient hatreds’, has been the biggest blight on the Balkans.
There are lessons for Scotland in all this: like the Balkans before the 1990s, Scotland has never been independent in the modern sense of the world. The travails of the Balkan states are a stark warning about how poor governance and corruption can become hardwired into nascent institutions, the importance of democratic checks and balances and the problems of nepotism in small countries.
But this, of course, is not what George Robertson and Carl Bildt mean when they unwittingly evoke ‘Geoghegan’s law’ (Ok, maybe we can call it that). They mean that Scotland, and Europe, will collapse in an orgy of violence. That only the strong-arm of the status quo – like that of Marshall Tito – can save us from the worst of ourselves.
The Balkans has plenty to teach Scotland in the run-up to September and afterwards. ‘Balkanisation’, however, does not.
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.”
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.”
A bold new political platform is arriving in tiny Kosovo: Corruption should be legalized and serious diseases outlawed. A Formula One racing track should be built around Kosovo’s capital, Pristina. Urinals should be installed in the foyer of every public building in the city.
These are just some of the policies proposed by a new, tongue-in-cheek politics that has started bringing laughs to the often stagnant politics of Albanian-majority Kosovo.
Partia e Forte, i.e. The Strong Party, is of course a spoof, an example of Balkan satire and sense of the absurd. The party got founded after a conversation among friends in a Pristina cafe two years ago. But after Sunday’s local elections, it is on course to win at least one seat in the city council.
“There was a need for a party like this in the political scene to bring something new, and not just continue with the same boring politics,” the Strong Party’s so-called “Legendary Chairman,” Visar Arifaj, explained the day after the local elections, which continued into a 5 a.m. post-election party.
The Strong Party taps into a perpetual roiling discontent in Kosovo, especially among the young – and comic relief in what is an often heavy dialogue around the tense Serb-majority enclave of North Mitrovica.
Over half of Kosovo’s population are under 25, and they make up many of the 40 percent unemployed figure. Corruption scandals have been present for years and have fed a disillusionment with mainstream politics, mostly dominated by parties that emerged from the independence struggle in the 1990s.
Like the Best Party in Iceland, Mr. Arifaj believes that farce can be a highly effective form of protest. “If you just criticize you are not doing anything new. By not opposing them, by becoming one of them, we are showing how ridiculous they are.”
Arifaj and the rest of the Strong Party have certainly succeeded in holding Kosovo’s political class to ridicule. Playing off a slew of universities that have sprouted all over Europe’s youngest state in recent years, Arifaj made a campaign “pledge” to build a college in every single neighborhood.
“The prime minister appears to want universities in every village; well, we’re going further,” he said during the campaign.
The Strong Party has a novel approach to solving Kosovo’s unemployment crisis, too. “We don’t think it is a problem that 40 percent are unemployed. We think that the 60 percent who do work are the main problem.”
“What we will try to do is make everyone not have to work. Everything should be done by computers, so people can get their salaries just by sitting at home,” he says.
Strolling around Pristina in Arifaj’s company it is clear the party hit a nerve in a city that does have plenty of creative youth. It is hard to move more than ten feet without someone stopping to shake Arifaj’s hand or pat him on the back. “We were a bit surprised by how people accepted and how they do love [the party],” he says.
“In the beginning we didn’t know how people would react to it. If they would throw stones at us or kiss us. We are glad it went the good way!”
The Strong Party brought “humor to the dull pre-electoral campaign” says Ilir Deta, executive director of the Kosovo think tank Kipred. “It is a success that they will be represented by a counselor or two at the municipal assembly.”
The party intends to contest the 2014 general election. Behind their comic appearance lies a serious message. “Kosovo has one of the youngest populations in Europe. A lot of young people are not represented politically,” says Yll Rugova, a graphic designer and one of the Strong Party’s 1,500 “vice-presidents.”
“There are people like us in countries like Serbia and Macedonia and maybe, maybe we can develop something together that break the borders. That sounds a bit cheesy but it is really something that could happen.”
Kosovo‘s prime minister has issued a last-ditch appeal to Kosovan Serbs to vote in critical elections this weekend that are widely seen as a make-or-break moment for the republic.
In an interview with the Guardian, Hashim Thaçi said that the abandonment of polling after attacks in northern Kosovo earlier this month was a result of “pressure, threats and other methods”, and added that he would hold Serbia responsible if there was a repeat performance in the re-run vote in North Mitrovica on Sunday.
Thaçi said that a successful vote was vital to a peace deal between Kosovo and Serbia and encouraged ethnic Serbs in the republic to vote. He said the only ones who would lose by participation in the elections were extremists and radical groups in north Kosovo.
Voting was suspended in North Mitrovica on 3 November after masked men burst into three polling stations in the town, which is predominantly ethnically Serbian, firing teargas and destroying ballot boxes. “We know what happened, who did it and why they did it,” Thaçi said.
The local elections followed a peace deal brokered in April by the European Union between Serbia and its former province. Under the terms of the agreement, Belgrade will dismantle the parallel systems that deliver a range of services from healthcare to education in north Kosovo in return for greater autonomy for ethnic Serbs across Kosovo.
Many in the north refuse to recognise the Kosovan state, which declared independence in 2008. The highest turnout in the other three Serb municipalities in north Kosovo was just 22%, but Kosovo’s electoral commission decided to accept these results and to limit the re-run to the divided town of North Mitrovica.
“If the people were allowed to vote the participation would have been over 25%,” Thaçi said. “What we need now is political stability in north [Kosovo] to create legitimate local institutions and investments, and then things will change.
“Kosovo is not endangered by Serb integration. Kosovo is endangered if they do not integrate,” he said of Kosovo’s 120,000 Serbs.
The Brussels agreement has proved controversial in both Serbia and Kosovo, but Thaçi rejected criticism of it. “How should we handle the situation with Serbia? Should we start the war again? Kill each other? This is the best possible deal for both countries,” he said.
Successful implementation is widely seen as essential to Serbia’s and Kosovo’s EU ambitions. “It is the best solution for Kosovo and Serbia to become EU members, and also the best solution for the region,” Thaçi said. “We didn’t fight against Serbs: we fought to remove Serbia and its oppression mechanisms in 1999.”
The future of the Brussels deal hinges on who comes out to vote on Sunday, said Ilir Deda of the Pristina-based thinktank Kipred. “It all depends on what the northern Serbs want to do. Do they want to kill it by boycotting or do they want to legitimise it by electing a Serb mayor?”
Thaçi’s counterpart in Belgrade, Ivica Dačić, warned ethnic Serbs in North Mitrovica to vote “unless they want the city to be led by an Albanian”.
Dačić told Serbian TV that the system of largely autonomous Serb municipalities, agreed with Pristina in Brussels, would break down if Serbs did not participate in the re-run. “If the mayor is Albanian, it will mean that we are not be able to set up the administration, and we will not be in the position to create the community of Serb municipalities, which could lead to conflicts and perhaps even to armed conflicts,” he said.
Scars remain from the last war. On Friday, an EU prosecutor indicted 15 former Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) fighters on charges of torturing and killing civilians during the 1998-99 conflict with Serbia. Among the accused are Kosovo’s ambassador to Albania, Sulejman Selimi, and leading members of Thaçi’s governing PDK party, including Sami Lushtaku. Despite being in prison, Lushtaku won the mayoral contest in Skenderaj earlier this month with more than 88% of the vote. “He won because people trust him,” Thaçi said.
But Thaçi said that any former KLA members convicted of criminal charges would be expelled from the party. “We had previous examples where people were in judicial proceedings and they were elected as members of parliament. But from the moment when someone is found guilty by a court they will not remain in politics after that.”
This piece originally appeared in the Guardian, 15 November, 2013.
On Sunday November 3, Kosovo held local elections. Across the country
turnout was moderate-to-high — except in four majority ethnic Serb
municipalities north of the Ibar River, the de facto border between
north and south Kosovo. In Zvecan, just 11.2 per cent cast a ballot.
Leposavic and Zubin Potok were a little better – 22 percent of the
electorate turned out in in each – but in North Mitrovica, the main
urban centre in north Kosovo, the poll was a disaster. Serbs refused
to vote. Around 5pm, a group of masked men forced their way into two
polling stations in the town, throwing tear gas and smashing ballot
The November 3 violence in North Mitrovica was hardly a surprise. The
Belgrade-backed candidate for mayor, Krstimir Pantic, had been
attacked two days before polls opened, leaving him with a deep gash on
his chin. ‘We expect trouble this evening,’ my Serb fixer said matter-of-factly
the morning before the vote as we drove to my hotel, which overlooked
the OSCE’s gated compound. ‘On the one hand you are quite secure here,
but on the other if there is trouble it might end up here.’ In
September, a Lithuanian officer in the European Union’s Rule of Law
Mission in Kosovo (EULEX) was shot dead outside the town. No one
claimed responsibility, but the killing – which bore the hallmarks of
a professional hit – was widely blamed on organised criminal networks,
which have a lot to lose from any thaw in North Kosovo’s fourteen-year
old frozen conflict.
The north is home to around a third of Kosovo’s 120,000 or so ethnic
Serbs. Unlike elsewhere in Kosovo, Serbs here share a large land
border with Serbia and have, since the war ended 1999, lived in what
is effectively a parallel state, with Belgrade administering (and
paying) for everything from social welfare to health and education. In
North Mitrovica, Yugoslav-era cars, many without number plates,
clutter footpaths, and Serbian flags fly from lampposts outside drab
Communist-era apartment blocks.
I arrived in North Mitrovica on foot – the main bridge spanning the
Ibar has been blocked to vehicle traffic by a huge mound of earth and
stones, since July 2011. A black stretch limousine cruised up and down
the main street. This, I was later told, was a ‘mafia’ wedding. The
bride was the daughter of a well-known local gangster who graduated
from ‘bridge watching’ for interlopers coming across the Ibar to petty
crime and then large-scale drug dealing. Now he lives in Belgrade –
where his wife is a close confidante of Serbian pop singer, and
Arkan’s former wife, Svetlana Ražnatović (better known by her stage
name, Ceca) – but he retains a lucrative foothold in North Kosovo.
The November 3 elections followed a deal between Serbia and Kosovo
negotiated in Brussels, in April, by EU high representative Catherine
Ashton that gave Pristina a greater role in the north in exchange for
more autonomy for ethnic Serbs across Kosovo. Belgrade had called on
Serbs in North Kosovo to vote – warning that they could lose their
state jobs if they didn’t – but in North Mitrovica shop windows
displayed stickers in support of a campaign to boycott the vote. ‘This
process did not include the Serbs in the North, which is a good basis
to fail,’ a rather reluctant opposition mayoral candidate, Oliver
Ivanovic, told me on the eve of the poll. That night, youths stood
drinking outside the local office of the right-wing Democratic Party
of Serbia (DSS). The DSS, headed by former nationalist Serbian PM
Vojislav Koštunica, bitterly opposed the Brussels Agreement.
Next morning I visited a polling station at Sveti Sava school. It was
a Spartan affair: a few Orthodox icons on the walls, a handful of
election observers and even fewer voters with little sign of security.
Outside a dozen or so kept a silent, intimidating vigil. I recognised
a couple from the DSS party the previous evening. I approached one – a
man in his 20s with a Serbian flag patch on his leather jacket – but
all he would say was: ‘Kosovo is Serbia’.
As the day darkened, so did the mood. Reports of the attack on the
polling stations filtered through. ‘Be careful, there’s no police here
to protect you,’ a Serbian photographer warned as we stood on North
Mitrovica’s main street, waiting for the crowd to clear. It did, but
only after the OSCE had pulled out its contingent and closed the
polls, two hours early. Rumours circulated that the Serbian government
had organised the attacks to prevent the ethnic Albanian candidate
winning the mayoral vote in North Mitrovica. ‘Belgrade failed. They
promised something that they couldn’t deliver, so they did this to
stop the voting,’ a man, who had not voted, told me in a local bar.
Subsequent reports suggested that boycott protesters themselves were
behind the attacks.
After almost a week, Kosovo’s central elections commission declared
the vote in three polling stations in North Mitrovica invalid. (The
results in the other three Serb majority municipalities north of the
Ibar would, the Commission said, stand despite accusations of
intimidation and very low turnouts.) Repeat elections in North
Mitrovica were hastily arranged for November 17. Two days before the
vote, Serbian Prime Minister Ivica Dacic paid a visit, telling a crowd
of around 5,000 that “you need to help us in order to help yourselves,
so that we can continue helping you.” Public sector workers were sent
a communiqué telling them what time they would be expected to go and
vote and which government official would lead them to do so. Other
encouragements reportedly included sugar, cooking oil and cash.
Amid a massive security operation, 22.38 per cent voted.
Kosovo went to the polls in run-off elections on Sunday (December 1).
The Belgrade-backed ‘Srpksa’ (“Serbia”) list won the vast majority of
Serb municipalities, including in North Mitrovica. Some in Pristina
fear the power Belgrade could exert on its former province through the
Union of Serb Councils established under the Brussels agreement.
South of the Ibar River Sunday’s vote was a disaster for the
establishment Albanian parties. The ruling Democratic Party of Kosovo
(PDK), led by former KLA fighter Hashim Thaci, lost power in five
municipalities; Ramush Haradinaj, who has twice been acquitted of war
crimes in the Hague, lost his power base in the west of country; and
even the opposition, Democratic League of Kosovo (LDK), which won a
number of municipalities, is in turmoil, having seen Vetevendosje
(Self-Determination) wrestle control of the capital, Pristina.
Many of Vetevendosje’s voters are young urbanities that do not
necessarily support their brand of left-wing politics and pan-Albanian
nationalism but they are fed with up the corruption and lack of
opportunities in Kosovo. ‘It’s an electoral earthquake,’ a friend in
Pristina told me on Twitter. ‘I’m hopeful this spirit will continue,
though it’s too early to tell.’
Mitrovica is a Kosovan city divided in two: Serbs live in the north, Albanians in the south. It’s the flashpoint for Serb reluctance to be living in a Kosovan state.
Back in the days of socialist Yugoslavia, Mitrovica was a rather prosperous city. On the outskirts of town, the vast Trepeca mines were one of the largest industrial complexes in the country, while Mitrovica itself was home to Albanians, Serbs, Bosnians, Turks and other minorities.
Today, the name Mitrovica is synonymous with division. The Ibar River has become a de facto border since the war in Kosovo ended in 1999, separating a mainly Albanian population in the south from majority Serb North Mitrovica.
On Sunday (17.11.2013), voters in North Mitrovica went to the polls in a repeat election, called after violence and intimidation marred voting in the town earlier this month. The election was seen as crucial for the Brussels agreement – which was signed between Serbia and Kosovo in April – but many of the around 20,000 ethnic Serbs in north Mitrovica are wary of any change to the status quo.
“A huge majority of the people are against any sort of tight connection with Pristina,” says Oliver Ivanovic, who was standing for mayor of North Mitrovica and won enough votes to contest a run-off on December 1. “Pristina is there, we cannot underestimate that fact. We are part of Kosovo as long as Kosovo is part of Serbia.”
Like Serbia itself, the vast majority of the 40,000 ethnic Serbs spread across the four municipalities of north Kosovo refuse to recognize Kosovo’s independence, which was declared in 2008.
“No Serbs recognize Kosovo independence,” says Ivanovic. “We have to live with this fact, which is not pleasant. [But] because there is no alternative, the Serbs will not leave here.”
Over the past 14 years, North Kosovo has developed in isolation from the rest of the country. Here Serbian flags fly and signs in Cyrillic and English proclaim, “This is Serbia.” A system of parallel structures, funded by Belgrade, provides everything from schools and health to the courts system.
Oliver Ivanovic says it all starts with controling the car parking
But almost a decade and a half of isolation has taken a toll, too. Cars, many without license plates, clutter up footpaths. With a weak rule of law, lucrative illegal trades have flourished in everything from fuel to firearms.
“Putting law and order on the street means fixing the streets and parking space,” says Ivanovic. “Our fight for improvement in law and order starts with parking. You have to make it clear to people that things are changing. That Mitrovica is changing.”
‘Different people with a different culture’
The division of the town has come at a big social price says Sinisa, an ethnic Serb primary school teacher who didn’t want his surname used: “Before the war the town was organized in a proper way. All the facilities were shared around the town but by dividing the town, now we just have the general hospital and all the other facilities, two stadiums, sports hall, health centre, railway station, everything is in the south.”
Memories are long, but it’s not that long ago that Serbs died in the Kosovo war
But Sinisa has no desire to return to how things were before the conflict: “I don’t want to be integrated. I am satisfied with life here. Yes, my neighbors can come, we can co-operate and work together but at night they go and sleep in their part of town. They are different people, with a different culture.”
Commerce offers the best opportunity to bring Albanians and Serbs together, says Niall Ardill, a former business lecturer in North Mitrovica’s university who recently completed a study on the private sector in north Kosovo.
“The business community is more advanced than the political community,” he says as he stands beside the main bridge connecting north and south Mitrovica. A huge mound of earth and stone has blocked the bridge since 2011, when Kosovo police attempted to take control of border crossings.
Around 30 per cent of companies in the north trade with the rest of Kosovo. But twice as many would like to. “We have found that companies that trade with the south really benefit,” says Ardill.
The main barrier is not politics, it’s capacity: “A lot of the processes and procedures they use might be outdated so that’s something that needs to be looked at from an investor point of view and from an international donor point of view.”
In the mixed north Mitrovica neighborhood of Bosniak Mahala, local shopkeeper Artan Maxhuni, an ethnic Turk, complains that the biggest problem for his clothing business lies with the wider economy.
“The economic situation in Kosovo is bad, really bad,” he says. “Everywhere in Kosovo is bad, not just in Mitrovica, but Mitrovica is especially bad.
“I have Serb customers, no problem, but people have no money.”
Just past the armed Italian police that keep a constant vigil on the bridge over the Ibar, in largely Albanian south Mitrovica, Aferdita Syla, executive director of Community Building Mitrovica, is trying to nurture cross-community links in the divided city.
“In July we brought 40 kids on an activity – 20 from the north, 20 from the south,” Syla remembers. “Their first reaction when they met each other was, ‘Wow, they are normal.’ Because for a long time they had no contact with each other, they thought the other was not human.”
But in a divided city, making connections is easier than keeping them. “They don’t have this daily contact. That is where we are lacking. We have to cross this bridge more.”
North Mitrovica, Kosovo – In this city politics is literally written on the walls. On the main street of this predominantly Serb town in north Kosovo, a brightly painted mural declares, “This is Serbia”. Nearby graffiti calls for the European Union Rule of Law Mission in Kosovo to “go home”.
Once a prosperous, ethnically mixed city, Mitrovica has been divided since the war in Kosovo ended in 1999. A huge mound of earth and stone blocks the bridge connecting Serb-dominated North Mitrovica from the larger Albanian settlement south of the Ibar River.
In recent weeks, new messages have begun appearing on North Mitrovica’s walls: “Kosovo is Serbia”, “1389” (referring to the year the Battle of Kosovo was fought) and, most prominently, “boycott”.
On November 3, local elections were held across Kosovo, in accordance with a peace deal signed by Serbia and its former province in April. Serbia pledged to recognise the authority of Kosovo’s government over the north in return for far greater autonomy for Kosovo’s ethnic Serbs. Underpinning the deal was both sides’ ambitions to join the European Union.
In the rest of Kosovo, the elections passed relatively peacefully but in North Mitrovica, amid a highly visible boycott campaign supported by the right-wing Democratic Party of Serbia and smaller ultranationalist groups, problems quickly arose. By midday, the turnout rate at polling stations in the town was in the low single digits. Outside, groups of nationalist youths held an intimidating vigil.
At around 5pm, masked men simultaneously stormed three polling stations, firing tear gas canisters and smashing ballot boxes.
Oliver Ivanovic is running for mayor of North Mitrovica [Bojan Slavkovic/Al Jazeera]
Officials from the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) were evacuated from North Mitrovica and the voting was suspended. Last week, Kosovo’s electoral commission declared that the election in North Mitrovica will be re-run on Sunday, November 17.
The international community was widely criticised for the electoral failure. “There was strong resistance to the election here in North Mitrovica, and everybody knew this. It shows poor planning and understanding of the situation by international organisations, which allowed those elements opposing the elections to organise,” Mitrovica-based analyst Branislav Krstic told Kosovan media.
Serbia has refused to recognise Kosovo since it declared independence in 2008. But the Serbian government called on the 40,000 Serbs in the north to participate in the recent elections. For many Serbs living in north Kosovo, this was tantamount to a betrayal.
Even the candidates running in the election were ambivalent about the vote. “From the beginning it was not well prepared. It was not transparent. This process did not include the Serbs in the north, which is a good basis to fail,” said Oliver Ivanovic, who was running for mayor of North Mitrovica. “It was a hidden process, hidden from both sides without any involvement of those who are supposed to be involved. What they agree is going to affect our lives. We have to be asked what we think.”
Over the past 14 years, north Kosovo has developed in isolation from the rest of Kosovo. Parallel structures funded by Belgrade provide education, health, and court systems, and many in North Mitrovica are wary of any change to the status quo. “A huge majority of the people are against any sort of tight connection with Pristina,” said Ivanovic, referring to Kosovo’s capital. “Pristina is there, we cannot underestimate that fact. We are part of Kosovo as long as Kosovo is part of Serbia.”
Almost a decade and a half of isolation has taken its toll on North Mitroivca. Cars, many without license plates, block footpaths, and drab Communist-era apartment blocks look down on streets that have changed little since the dying days of Yugoslavia. While many shop shelves are half-empty, lucrative illegal trades in everything from fuel to firearms have flourished.
Around 35 percent of North Kosovo’s population of around 70,000 is unemployed, said Niall Ardill, a former business lecturer at the town’s university. Most of those who do work are employed by the Serbian state.
“Conflict potential is still the biggest barrier to trading,” explained Ardill, who was recently involved in a study on private-sector business capacity in north Kosovo. Only about 30 percent of the companies surveyed engage in trade south of the Ibar River – partly because of the prohibitively high cost of insurance levied by the Kosovan government on Serbian-registered vehicles that are the norm in north Kosovo.
Masked men raid Kosovo polling station
“Economic integration is a good way to get people to talk to each other – you’re able to push economic growth but also integration and conflict resolution,” said Ardill.
The division of Mitrovica has inflicted social and economic costs on the Serbs living on the north side of the city. “Before the war, the town was organised in a proper way. All the facilities were shared around the town. But by dividing the town, now we just have the general hospital and all the other facilities, two stadiums, sports hall, health centre, railway station. Everything is in the south,” said Sinisa, an ethnic Serb primary school teacher who declined to give his last name.
Before 1999, life in Mitrovica “was not perfect but it was good”, he said. Now Sinisa seldom travels to the south of the town anymore, “because of the danger”.
“We are just waiting for what will happen tomorrow. You have the feeling that everything is normal, but we are always waiting for what politics will bring.”
Continually manned by international police, the barricaded bridge over the Ibar River is open only to foot traffic. On the ethnic Albanian side, Aferdita Syla, executive director of Community Building Mitrovica, said both the Kosovan and Serbian governments failed to engage with people on the ground ahead of the recent elections.
“People were not involved in the process at all. Nobody told people what was involved,” she said. “It is all between Pristina and Belgrade. You see things going on in the sky and you just hope nothing will fall on us. There are people who don’t want to lose their power and they are making a lot of trouble so they don’t lose the benefits they have from the situation.”
Worry of ‘half-legitimate leaderships’
In the other three Serb-dominated municipalities in the north, Leposavic and Zubin Potok recorded a voter turnout of 22 percent, while 11.2 percent of voters in Zvecan cast ballots. Despite reports of intimidation in some of these areas, Kosovo’s electoral commission said there would not be a re-run in these municipalities.
Ilir Deda, the head of Pristina-based think tank Kipred, warned that accepting results based on such low turnout could see “half-legitimate leaderships” emerge in the northern municipalities. “This will lead to further instability in the north in the years to come and create a permanent crisis of legitimacy, governance and ultimately lead to non-functional municipalities,” he said.
If North Mitrovica’s Serbs can be convinced to vote in Sunday’s re-run, they will elect a local mayor as well as representatives for the Union of Serb Councils, created to represent most of the 120,000 Serbs across Kosovo under the April agreement. Some in Pristina have expressed concerns that the association’s close ties to Belgrade could undermine the state of Kosovo.
In North Mitrovica, Ivanovic supports the new association but is critical of the Belgrade government’s calls for Serbs in Kosovo to vote only for members of an approved “Serbia” list.
“For the democratic process, it is important to have a full spectrum [of parties] – not to have this one-party list, like in Communist times,” he said. “Now we need a proper campaign, competing on ideas and personalities.”