Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Tale of Two Cities: The Struggle to Return Continues in Bosnia

Magazine article Washington Report on Middle East Affairs

A Tale of Two Cities: The Struggle to Return Continues in Bosnia

Article excerpt

MOST PEOPLE who remember the Bosnian war of 1992-1995 know that extreme nationalist Bosnian Serb forces, backed by Serbia's then-President Slobodan Milosevic, attacked areas of Bosnia and Herzegovina and began to expel non-Serbs from more than half of the country. Fewer know that in the second year of the war nationalist Bosnian Croats, backed by the expansionist regime of Croatian President Franjo Tudjman, also launched an attack against Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) in parts of the country, aiming to carve out a separatist Croat territory.

By the time the Dayton agreement of December 1995 brought the war to an end, over two million Bosnians, or half the population, had been displaced. For the past 11 years, thousands of ordinary people have tried to return to their pre-war homes and get back to work. Meanwhile, the former warlords and authors of ethnic cleansing, many of them still in power, counter the return effort with obstruction, harassment, and apartheid.

Most refugee return has taken place in villages where people have been able to support themselves, albeit meagerly, with subsistence farming. Due to various forms of obstruction, return to the cities has been much more difficult. Two mid-sized cities, however, have enjoyed relatively solid return-Stolac in Croat-controlled western Herzegovina and Kozarac in Serb-controlled northwestern Bosnia.

Stolac is one of Herzegovina's oldest settlements, and boasted an astonishingly rich collection of historical monuments from Ottoman times and earlier. The pre-war population of some 19,000 was just less than half Bosniak, one-third Croat, and a fifth Serb. During the war Stolac was taken over by Croats and all its non-Croat citizens expelled.

Kozarac has a long history as well. A secondary town in the municipality of Prijedor, its population numbered around 27,000 before the war, with over 95 percent of its residents Bosniak. Early in the war, separatist Serbs took over the town, expelled or killed all its Muslim residents, and destroyed over 5,000 houses.

Kozarac: Exile and Return

The Prijedor region became notorious during the war as the location of the infamous Serb-run concentration camps at Omarska, Keraterm, and Trnopolje. Many people from Kozarac were interned at these camps, and over 3,000 of them were killed by war's end. The rest were exiled to parts of Bosnia under Bosniak control, or to nearby Croatia and other surrounding countries.

During the war some activist women formed such groups as "Women of Bosnia" and "Through Heart to Peace" (Srcem do Mira) to help and encourage their fellow refugees in collective centers, especially in Zagreb. Soon after the war ended in late 1995, members of Srcem do Mira led a convoy of displaced Kozarac residents to visit their pre-war homes. They traveled the short distance from their temporary residence of Sanski Most, in the Croat-Bosniak-run Federation, into the Republika Srpska, the Serb-controlled entity. But when they arrived at Prijedor, around 20 minutes shy of Kozarac, they were repelled by hostile Serbs throwing stones. Turning back, they regrouped in Sanski Most and prepared for a long campaign of return.

By the spring of 1998, when this writer first visited Kozarac, it was still a town full of wrecked houses. The few houses that had been left intact were either owned or had been taken over by local Serbs. Around 150 displaced Serbs from Croatia and central Bosnia inhabited the elementary school, and nationalist graffiti defaced the walls of the few buildings left standing.

Unlike in many other towns where Bosniak residents had suffered a similar fate, however, Kozarac's would-be returnees had several advantages. One, ironically, was that most of their houses had been destroyed. This made it impossible for displaced Serbs (or profiteers) to take over their property and move in, in which case the new residents would have been much more difficult to dislodge. …

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