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Refugees return to Kozarac in Bosnia to rebuild community

Re-making Kozarac is about overcoming dislocation, chronicling the return and restoration of a community in Kozarac in northwestern Bosnia-Herzogovina. Book review.

Re-making Kozarac: Agency, Reconciliation and Contested Return in Post-War Bosnia, by Sebina Sivac-Bryant, tells the story of return and recovery in ethnically-cleansed Kozarac, Bosnia.

Kozarac is a predominantly Muslim-populated town in Prijedor municipality in the Krajina region of northwestern Bosnia-Herzegovina. The widespread ethnic cleansing carried out by Serb nationalist forces during the 1992-1995 war expelled the Muslims, Croats, and others from that municipality. Prijedor also became notorious as the wartime location of several concentration camps where atrocious crimes were committed. By the end of the war, the entire non-Serb population was driven out; more than 3,000 were killed, and thousands endured torture and deprivation in the camps.

Kozarac was home to some 27,000 inhabitants before the war. Serb forces worked to ensure that its inhabitants would never return, by reducing the homes to rubble. They also took calculated measures to incapacitate what remained of the community – even as Serb forces were imprisoning and expelling them – by targeting its leaders for execution in an operation known as "elitocide."

War-torn Kozarac, author's own photographs. All rights reserved.Author Sebina Sivac-Bryant grew up a village near Kozarac. Her teenage years were interrupted by war, and she ended up in London. There, she had the opportunity to fulfill her scholarly ambitions, eventually finishing a doctoral degree in anthropology. Re-making Kozarac is derived from her doctoral field work about the return and restoration of a community in Kozarac.

Sivac-Bryant describes the difficult tasks the returnees have faced in restoring their community; she identifies problems and conflicts, discusses some of the solutions devised by the returnees, and suggests ways that international actors can improve their approach to refugee return and recovery. These lessons can apply not only in Kozarac, but also to other present and future situations of dislocation. The author presents an insightful analysis – the results of more than a decade of anthropological ethnographic research – in language that is accessible to ordinary readers.

Soon after the war's end, thousands of displaced citizens of Kozarac set to work to frustrate the separatist plans of the warlords. Sivac-Bryant describes the background to the leadership of this movement, discussing in detail the 17th Krajina Brigade, a component of the government army fighting to preserve Bosnia-Herzegovina. The Brigade was originally formed in exile. It was composed of displaced inhabitants of Prijedor, Kozarac, and the surrounding region, together with patriotic friends and relatives who had been working in western Europe. The author likens the 17th Krajina Brigade to a "liberation movement within the Bosnian army," a highly mobile force that developed the self-sufficiency and discipline needed to make an outsized contribution to the war effort. The Brigade's goal from the start was to return home to the Prijedor area and, for those fighters from Kozarac, to reclaim their homes in that town.

The cohesion developed by the Krajina soldiers during the war carried into the postwar period, in spite of the fact that the Bosnian army was not able ultimately to retake Prijedor. Making the best of a bad situation, some veterans of the 17th Krajina Brigade stuck together as civilians and led the perilous and frustrating drive to return home.

The demobilized soldiers were assisted in their efforts by volunteer women's organizations such as Srcem do Mira (Through Heart to Peace). Sivac-Bryant describes how women performed a crucial role, alongside the veterans, in organizing return in practical terms but also in dealing with psychosocial difficulties associated with refugee return. Among other projects, they supported refugees from Kozarac who returned from camps in Croatia and from other parts of Europe, gathering in Sanski Most and nearby Lušci Palanka after the war. The displaced people of Kozarac used that area as a staging point for return.

By the early 2000s, Kozarac had become a hub for return to the greater region and, in a sense, a center of support for Muslim returnees to the surrounding area.

In 1996 Srcem do Mira organized bus visits back to Kozarac, but they were met by threats and stones. As Sivac-Bryant describes, separatist authorities in the municipality worked to cement their hold on the ethnically cleansed town of Kozarac by changing its name, moving displaced Serbs from Croatia there, and threatening to resettle would-be returnees in the same locations that had earlier been concentration camps. All this, combined with apartheid-like discrimination against non-Serbs, was part of what the author terms an "effort by the architects of ethnic cleansing to inscribe a new political order into the landscape they cleansed." But the returnees pressed on.

The international community, represented by UN troops and inter-governmental organizations, witnessed the persistence of the returnees, and by 1998, international relief agencies were beginning to rebuild destroyed homes in Kozarac. By mid-1999 return was well under way.

As the returnees broke the logjam of obstruction, they were confronted with difficult tasks that have persisted to this day. The population of traumatized and uprooted people needed to rebuild a community and to re-integrate into local society. They also needed to address unanswered matters of justice, including learning the fate of their missing relatives, seeing the apprehension and prosecution of the war criminals, and overcoming the culture of denial that controlled official discourse. None of these problems was going to be easy to solve.

Several returnees to Kozarac devised an internet network that facilitated the revival of the community. Collaborating with people in the Kozarac diaspora, they created an online community named kozarac.ba. This network helped to reconnect the returnees with a virtual community throughout the diaspora. Long-lost friends and far-flung relatives restored contact with each other, and the online community was able to create campaigns that supported the returnees materially.

By the early 2000s, Kozarac had become a hub for return to the greater region and, in a sense, a center of support for Muslim returnees to the surrounding area. Sivac-Bryant describes how the returnees set about recreating a sense of belonging. An important part of this was to carry out public memorial ceremonies, including funerals of exhumed victims. For the return community, the establishment of cemeteries for these victims, and holding regularly scheduled memorial events, were ways of demonstrating publicly the wrong that had been committed against them.

Meanwhile, as Sivac-Bryant discusses, there has been a tension between the drive to deal with the past, that is, to seek justice and the right to public memorialization, and to "move on," or to focus on activities that ensure security and a better living standard for the return community. On one hand, the author notes important work that local non-governmental organizations have done in creating institutions that support returnees. At the same time, she gives credit to ordinary returnees who are simply living their lives and interacting with their neighbors. These people are creating a coexistence that happens because the contact that they have with each other naturally promotes it.

Sivac-Bryant observes that for the ordinary returnee, it is important to be able to participate in funerals and to commemorate important anniversaries. However, such events last a few hours –and afterwards, there are still myriad practical problems to be solved. Employment is scarce, returnees face discrimination at every turn, and young people have few prospects for success. Employment is scarce, returnees face discrimination at every turn, and young people have few prospects for success.

The author puts the problems of postwar return and trauma in perspective by illustrating a practical approach to recovery. To a great extent the people of Kozarac have "rediscovered their own agency," as the author describes it, first, by organizing a disciplined and effective fighting force during the war, and second, by returning home against the odds. This self-empowerment helped the returnees to begin to heal from their traumatic past. But more is needed. Noting that traumatization and victimhood "need not be seen as permanent, unchanging states of being," Sivac-Bryant argues now, the returnees can advance their recovery from trauma by immersing themselves in the work of earning a living, building their families, and focusing on such practical matters as the education of their children and grandchildren.

Economic development provides an important counterpoint to returnee activism and memorialization; work is as important to recovery as anything else. Of course, this presupposes gainful employment in a functioning economy. However, the fact that corrupt nationalists are controlling the government prevents an inclusive economy from flourishing. Healing through employment is forestalled by the bad politics of the Serb-controlled entity. Thus, as Sivac-Bryant explains, the return community of Kozarac has been forced to devise its own solution.

Fortunately, a few enterprising returnees have provided a model for the self-sufficiency of the community in the form of forward-thinking companies that provide employment. These include the large Arifagić dairy and the manufacturing company Austronet. These companies are run by progressive individuals who are sharing the experience they gained while living in exile, where they worked in an efficient business environment. The leaders practice the business customs they learned in the west, for example, by refusing to pay bribes to local officials and by promoting transparency in business dealings. In this way they are demonstrating an alternative model that has the potential to transcend ethnic politics and to undermine systemic corruption. To a great extent the people of Kozarac have "rediscovered their own agency."

In her conclusion, Sivac-Bryant advocates the principle of economic reconstruction – even if it must take place in the face of massive discrimination – as an important part of the moral and spiritual recovery of the community. The author points out that ideally, such reconstruction will take place as a joint effort between returnees and a supportive diaspora, as is the case in Kozarac. And above all, as she emphasizes throughout Re-making Kozarac, would-be helpers from the international community should take their lead from the returnees. They must respect the instincts and inner drive of those who would recover from war and trauma.

Ms. Sivac-Bryant's book can be accessed here.

All photos in this article by the author.

About the author

Peter Lippman is a life-long human rights activist based in Seattle, Washington. He has spent much of the past two decades in Bosnia-Herzegovina, living there before the war and two years afterwards. Since that stay he has returned to Bosnia fifteen times and is writing a book on postwar human rights activism in the country, first visiting Kozarac in 1998. You can see some of his writings here.


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