BOSNIA: SURVIVOR FACES TORMENTOR
- A SURVIVOR FACES HER TORMENTOR
Sandro Contenta, Toronto Star, 2/23/04
PRIJEDOR, Bosnia-HerzegovinaA few days ago, Nusret Sivac came face
to face with the man who ran the concentration camp where she was
raped and others were killed.
It's not uncommon in today's Bosnia for victims and perpetrators of a
war that ended in 1995 to cross paths. And nowhere is this more
likely than in the Prijedor area, where Muslim victims of "ethnic
cleansing" by Bosnian Serbs are returning in force.
For Sivac, a pre-war civil court judge who returned in 1999, the
chance encounter was especially charged with emotion.
Walking towards her was Miroslav Kvocka, a Bosnian Serb she testified
against at the war crimes tribunal in The Hague. He was released two
months ago, after serving two-thirds of a seven-year sentence for war
Sivac screwed up her courage.
"I hadn't seen him since the trial," she says, "and suddenly there he
was, walking arm-in-arm with his wife, a Bosniak (Muslim) who was my
childhood friend. They looked so proud."
"Maybe they thought I would be afraid. But I looked him right in the
eyes, and he lowered his head," says Sivac, 52.
Pt. 1: Warehouse of death
It was a moment of personal triumph for the survivor of Omarska camp,
where 3,000 Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats were tortured and
starved. On one of Prijedor's bleak streets, human dignity had
Sivac's personal moment is part of a larger success story in the
Prijedor area, where international pressure and the will of victims
to return has gone a long way to reversing the forced evacuation of
Muslims during the war.
Prijedor's transformation, however, is also the exception. In many
parts of Bosnia, wartime ethnic cleansing has become a legally
Eight years after a gruesome war that turned neighbours into enemies,
Bosnia sits in a precarious position. It has made strides to repair
the damage, but forces are blocking its progress and stoking its
demons. Its stable currency, common passport, and internal freedom of
movement are significant achievements. But its economy is near ruin,
organized crime and corruption are rampant, and leading suspected war
criminals roam free.
And among its three communities Bosnian Muslims, Croats (Catholic)
and Serbs (Orthodox) talk of reconciliation is drowned out by still
powerful fears and hatreds from a war that left 200,000 dead or
Ask a Bosnian Serb about the 1995 massacre of at least 7,700 Muslims
in Srebrenica, and he'll respond by talking of a massacre of Serbs at
some other place and some other time.
Last September, after years of denial, Bosnian Serb authorities
finally acknowledged the extent of the Srebrenica slaughter. But
they've done little to help international officials find either the
mass graves or their wartime leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko
Mladic, who are wanted for genocide.
Renewed ethnic conflict is kept at bay not by a sense that justice
was done, but by war fatigue and the presence of 12,000 NATO troops,
including 1,600 Canadian soldiers. The Dayton accords stopped the
fighting, but have yet to secure the peace.
Adding to the uncertain future is an international community
suffering from "Bosnia fatigue," and sharply reducing its financial
backing after pumping more than $6 billion (U.S.) in reconstruction
funds into the country.
High Representative Paddy Ashdown, akin to the international
community's viceroy in Bosnia, warns: "All I would say to my
colleagues in the West, gently, is have a look and have a care
because the speed at which you are withdrawing international aid from
this country could I don't say will but could put your investment
Ashdown doesn't believe the country will again explode into ethnic
conflict. But he doesn't fully rule it out. The greatest danger, he
says, is fallout from further economic collapse.
He adds: "Everybody can go back to war: If we are stupid enough over
a long enough period of time yeah."
With such troubles, Bosnians ooze nostalgia for their communist past.
For 35 years after World War II, Bosnia-Herzegovina was one of six
republics enjoying relative peace and prosperity in the federal state
of Yugoslavia, headed by Marshal Josip Tito.
The fall of the Soviet Union saw Yugoslavia begin to unravel. Tito's
successor, Slobodan Milosevic, now on trial for war crimes, hastened
its demise by unleashing competing nationalisms that engulfed the
Balkans in a decade of conflict.
In Bosnia, Muslims and Croats voted for independence in 1992,
sparking a civil war with Bosnian Serbs. When fighting stopped three
years later, mass graves dotted the country and 2.2 million people
more than half the population were refugees.
The Dayton peace deal divided Bosnia into two entities, each with its
regional governments: the Republika Srpska, a boomerang-shaped strip
of land hugging the Serbian and Croatian borders, and the Muslim-
A third level of government represents all of Bosnia-Herzegovina, but
ultimate authority rests with the international community's Office of
the High Representative (OHR), whose mandate is to implement the
With so much government, opportunities for corruption weren't lacking.
"We audit different large segments of the economy, and each one
reveals mismanagement, misallocation of funds, and out and out
corruption," says Jason Taylor, senior legal adviser for the OHR,
referring to audits of governments and state-owned firms.
"It has been a tough slog," Taylor says.
The international community, which didn't start seriously pushing for
reforms until 18 months ago, is partly to blame. By then, the
bureaucratic weight of a Soviet-style economy had left 42 per cent of
people officially unemployed, and 50 per cent living at or below the
Bosnia had also developed into what Ashdown calls a "lawless space,"
where organized gangs traffic people and drugs. He describes crime
as "deeply engrained in the cell structure of the body politic."
Joining the European Union and the NATO military alliance is seen by
all sides as their economic and political salvation. But Bosnian Serb
authorities are balking at reforms needed to meet a June deadline
triggering the membership process for both organizations.
To join NATO, a key criteria is the fusing of Serb and Muslim-Croat
armies into a joint command, under the authority of a single minister
"There's still not enough trust in this country for the citizens to
say, `We will have a unified army,'" says Zoran Zuza, chief aide to
Dragan Kalinic, leader of the Republika Srpska's ruling Serbian
Democratic Party (SDS), which used to have Karadzic as its leader. He
says his party has already lost grassroot support from Serbs who
believe it has gone too far in giving up regional powers.
"The alternative to the SDS is radical nationalism," says Zuza, whose
party campaigned 16 months ago with the slogan, "Vote Serbian."
"I don't think these radical forces should be awakened or encouraged.
That's why I'm saying the European Union should loosen things up and
let us join as we are," he says.
Igor Radojicic, a member of the Srpska parliament and secretary of
the opposition Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, sees a
chilling future ahead. Older Bosnian Serbs, he says, have the
experience of inter-ethnic friendships in pre-war Yugoslavia. But
adolescents who lived the ethnic hatreds of the war continue to have
that experience stoked in segregated schools, while facing the
frustrations of a dead-end economy.
"This is the generation that will be coming to power in the next 10
or 15 years. It could be frightening," Radojicic says.
Says Jakob Finci, head of the Truth and Reconciliation citizens'
group: "We have a divided education system teaching our children that
our neighbours are our enemies. So in 20 or 30 years, we can expect a
Finci, a prominent member of Sarajevo's Jewish community of 700
people, says the idea of holding a post-apartheid, South African-
style truth and reconciliation commission was first proposed by
leaders of Bosnia's main religious groups.
Draft legislation to set up the commission is before the state
parliament. It won't provide amnesties to war criminals who confess.
But it will, Finci argues, play a cathartic role for a still
"Testifying in front of the commission will be part of the healing
process," he says, insisting Bosnians must recognize the war created
victims and criminals on all sides.
Observers looking for a bright spot point to the 1999 property law
imposed by the international community, which allows refugees to
reclaim their homes.
Since then, one million refugees have registered their return, almost
half the total displaced. Ashdown calls it "a miracle." But those who
got their homes back didn't all return to live in them.
Kada Hotic and Munira Subascic are typical examples.
Both lost a son and husband in the Srebrenica massacre. Muslims used
to make up about 75 per cent of the town's pre-war population, but
only about 220 of its 27,000 Muslims have reportedly returned.
The apartments Hotic and Subascic left were immediately occupied by
Bosnian Serbs. When they tried to reclaim them under the property
law, Republika Srpska authorities dragged out legal proceedings as
long as possible.
They finally got them back last year, both emptied of all their
furniture. Hotic's was also trashed. "It's completely ruined. Without
big renovations, I can't live in it," says Hotic, 58.
Adds Subascic, 55: "I could have forgiven them taking all the
furniture if only they had left me one photograph of my husband and
To finalize the reclaiming process, both had to register
their "return" with local Bosnian Serb authorities. But the women
continue to live in Sarajevo.
When they visit their Srebrenica flats, they say they encounter
verbal harassment and men who took part in the "ethnic cleansing."
"One man said, `We raped you, we killed you, we deported you and
still you return. What do we have to do to get rid of you?'" Subascic
In similar circumstances, many refugees end up selling their homes
fast and cheap, often to the person illegally occupying it. Those who
do return are often seniors hoping to live out the final years of
their lives in familiar surroundings. The younger generation tends to
remain in adopted countries abroad.
In the Banja Luka area, Catholic bishop Franjo Komarica insists that
only 2,000 of an estimated 80,000 Bosnian Croats who left the area
But two examples tell a striking story of success.
In 1995, Serb residents of Dvar, who made up 95 per cent of the
population, were driven out by Bosnian Croat and Croatian troops.
Today, at least 8,000 Serbs have returned and fewer than 800 Bosnian
In the Prijedor region, the entire Muslim population of 49,500
about 44 per cent of residents was driven out. In the Muslim town
of Kozarac, Bosnian Serb forces in 1992 levelled all the homes
residents had left behind.
Today, about 22,000 Muslims have returned to the area, many to
Kozarac, where international funds have rebuilt the homes.
"We used to live together before, there's no reason we can't live
together again," says Husnija Mujkanovic, 40, while building his
Anel Alisic, 27, was one of the first to return in 1999. He left his
refugee family in the United States, got his apartment back in
Prijedor, and then joined a non-governmental organization working to
Last December, he organized a seminar that brought together Muslims
and Serbs. They toured one of three prison camps Serb forces ran in
the area during the war.
"It's the first time the Serbs went to visit the camps," he says. "I
try to provoke them to think about what happened in the war because
otherwise they just don't talk about it. You have young people
growing up not even knowing there were camps.
"Unfortunately, the people are looking at their future without
knowing their past."
Additional articles by Sandro Contenta
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