Bosnia's civil society: paths from Srebrenica

Ginanne Brownell
5 July 2007

Camil Durakovic has every reason to be angry. In July 1995, the then 16-year-old boy was forced to leave his hometown of Srebrenica when it fell to the Bosnian Serb army. Along with two uncles and several male cousins, Durakovic tried to get to Tuzla through the Bosnian woods bursting over with thick green foliage - and grenades. Durakovic had been separated two years earlier from his parents who had fled to the hills above Srebrenica and he was raised "like brothers" with his cousins Alija, Asim and Mujic by his uncle Reuf.

Ginanne Brownell is editorial manager at NewsweekTheir second day on the run, during an ambush by the Bosnian Serbs, Durakovic was separated from his beloved uncle and cousins - it was the last time he was to ever see them. Six days later, after surviving a grenade blast, he and several thousand other men and boys arrived safely behind Bosnian Muslim lines in Tuzla. Reunited with his mother days later he learned that he was one of the lucky ones - approximately 8,000 men and boys were bussed out of Srebrenica and systematically murdered in what was the worst massacre in Europe since the second world war (the Bosnian Serb authorities themselves acknowledged a figure of 7,779 killed in their unprecedented statement of June 2004). The true figure from this single incident may be significantly higher; to this day human remains are still turning up in mass graves dotted across eastern Bosnia.

A second departure

Durakovic moved with his family to United States in 1996 and, armed with a college degree in law, he moved back to Srebrenica in 2005. But things in the town have not improved in the twelve years since the Dayton peace accords of November 1995 - which brought peace to Bosnia - were signed. Dayton created what many describe as a Frankenstein structure of government dividing the country into two "entities" of the Republika Srpska (RS), which is predominantly Serb, and the Federation of Muslim and Croats. The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that over 4,000 Bosnian Muslims (referred to these days as Bosniaks) returned to Srebrenica after the war - the pre-war Bosniak population was 27,500 - but they are leaving again in droves.

Also in openDemocracy on Srebrenica and its legacy:

Ed Vulliamy, "Srebrenica: ten years on" (6 July 2005)

Michel Thieren, "There was genocide in Srebrenica..." (11 July 2005)

Peter Lippman, "Srebrenica's search for justice" (24 August 2006)

According to Durakovic, who recently headed the Initiative Committee for Special Status of Srebrenica (ICSSS), in 2006 over 450 Bosniaks were forced to leave their town for the second time. They say that not only are there no economic prospects in Srebrenica, which was a thriving mining town before the war, but because Srebrenica falls under the jurisdiction of the RS returnees claim that the very people who committed genocide against them are now in charge of their police forces, schools and local administration. "It would be like if the Gestapo were in charge of running Tel Aviv", Durakovic says.

Sixty of the estimated 800 Bosniaks still left in Srebrenica set up a tent camp in the middle of Sarajevo in April 2007 in protest over the living conditions in their town. In May the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the United Nations body that effectively runs Bosnia, appointed the former United States ambassador to Bosnia, Clifford Bond, to be a special coordinator to look into complaints by Bosniak returnees. Returnees say they are often harassed by their Serb neighbours, their children are taught the dominant Serbian view of history and they do not feel safe in their homes. The reason lies partly in evidence contained in a 2005 report published by the RS, which found that 500 serving members of the the police may have been complicit in genocide.

The ICSSS had given the international community a deadline - saying that they wanted to be administered by the overall state of Bosnia and that had to be declared by the twelfth anniversary of Srebrenica's fall on 11 July. But from the start it was highly unlikely that anything would change - to give special status to Srebrenica would have required a change to Dayton and there were concerns it could destabilise the country. Thus, on 2 July 2007, as the twelfth anniversary of the massacre approached, Camil Durakovic and his neighbours came to the realisation that they were fighting a losing battle; they have packed up their tent cities and headed home. However not only did Srebrenica get a 26 million mark (£8.9 million) package from the RS and national governments, but maybe more importantly what the initiative committee helped show was that victims' groups are becoming a more unified voice amid the surging choir of discontent that is Bosnia today.

Dayton's legacy

Bosnia remains rigidly divided along ethnic lines, and therefore civil society too has remained largely polarised. "What Dayton did was reward the extreme elements so that all forms of engagement continue to be through ethnic identity", says Iavor Rangelov, with the London School of Economics' Centre for Global Governance. "This has been the reason why civil society has remained weak." But there are some hopeful signs that things are changing. Whereas a decade ago victims' groups - which include missing persons associations, POWs and veterans - were seen as highly politicised, over time they have learned how to be more effective and articulate in their demands. "We are trying to educate them and turn them into advocates", says the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP) director Kathryne Bomberger. "One of the women from a Srebrenica victims' group, when she went to meet the mayor of Sarajevo in 1999, they practically kicked her out of the office but they would not treat her like that today."

One of the original problems with victims' associations was that the war in Bosnia was localised with each region affected in a different way; the war in western Bosnia was different from that in eastern Bosnia and Sarajevo had a much different siege than a place like Bihac. And the war was so personal in character - with old neighbours becoming new enemies - that people called for justice for themselves first and then for their ethnic group. Isabelle Delpla writes in her essay ("'Politics is a whore' : women, morality and victimhood in post-war Bosnia-Herzegovina" in the book The New Bosnian Mosaic that during the war local municipal authorities played a key role in the implementation of ethnic cleansing. Therefore, she argues, associations tended to be most concerned about crimes that took place in their own municipality. "Bosniak victims are not satisfied by the indictments and arrests of suspected Serbs or Croat war criminals who victimised other Bosniaks in other municipalities", she writes. Groups on all sides therefore had little cohesion.

Also in openDemocracy on Bosnia and the wars of ex-Yugoslavia:

Alix Kroeger, "Bosnia's war of memory" (21 August 2002)

Dusan Velickovic, "Belgrade: war crimes in daily life" (28 June 2005)

Tom Gallagher, "Understanding Slobodan Milosevic: between the cold war and Iraq" (13 March 2006)

Julie A Mertus, "Slobodan Milosevic: myth and responsibility" (16 March 2006)

Eric Gordy, "The Milosevic account" (17 March 2006)

Nicholas Walton, "A house divided: Bosnia after the elections" (3 October 2006)

Marko Attila Hoare, "Kosovo: the Balkans' last independent state" (12 February 2007)

Vicken Cheterian, "Serbia after Kosovo" (18 April 2007)

But thanks to institutions such as the ICMP and the International Commission for the Red Cross (ICRC), victims' associations are coming to realise the importance of working together. It's been a tough battle. "Look at the mosaic of family groups", says Walter Veirs, Central and Eastern European programme officer for the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation. "Getting them to work as a group - say all the Croats - for common advocacy is very difficult, let alone getting the different ethnic groups' associations to work together." But organisations have slowly been able to facilitate dialogue by implementing regional coordination boards made up of the more progressive and open-minded groups. "In 1998 there was a screaming match when we brought all sides together - from Croatia, from Serbia, from Bosnia - even within Bosniac groups they were fighting, with Srebrenica groups there were huge fights", says the ICMP's Kathryne Bomberger. "But it has got better and better."

Making Bosnia work

There have been many glitches along the way - in February 2007 when the International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruled that there was not enough evidence to prove that Serbia was responsible for the genocide in Srebrenica the Bosniak groups did not want to meet with their Serb counterparts. Even with those hiccups, Rangelov argues that Serb, Croat and Bosniak victims have slowly and painfully come to the realisation that they share common concerns and problems - that the Sarajevo government turns a blind eye to. "This realisation is what is pushing the cross-entity cause."

One of these cross-entity causes has been the implementation of Bosnia's law on missing persons that came into effect in 2004. The ministry for human rights, which at the time was one of the few unified state ministries, brought members of various victims' associations together and told them to draft what kind of law they wanted. Many view this as a key moment for victims' groups, which for years struggled to get the international community and local politicians to pay attention to their needs because they were seen as highly radical and angry, and as a result marginalised. That outcome was partly due too to the fact that when they began mobilising and expanding across Bosnia in 1998 they used controversial methods - like blocking roads and entrances to public buildings - to garner support.

The law had two major components - the creation of a Missing Persons Institute (MPI) and also the chance for families to get reparations. The MPI, which for the first time will create a unified list of missing persons on all sides, finally came into being in June 2007 with the formation of a steering board. But the reparations - which many hoped would be awarded if the ICJ had found Serbia responsible for the genocide - may never come.

Many argue that these groups should have joined together and had dialogue years ago to get what they wanted from the state and the international community. "There have been inroads but these are very small compared to what is needed", says Refik Hodzic, a human-rights activist who also works for the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). "We have a weak civil society that is reluctant to fully and openly and bravely take on the government on these issues and as long as it is like this we cannot have meaningful progress."

There is hope that with the OHR expected to be replaced in 2008 by a European Union accession mission there will be a sea-change in how these victims' groups are viewed. "People have been protesting for a long time but their protests used to be seen as a reason to disengage", says Rangelov, who in June presented a report on civil society in Bosnia commissioned by the German and Finnish governments. "And what you now see is a slow change in approach in terms of how the international community sees these organisations [because] there is a growing realisation that Bosnia is simply not working." So though Camil Durakovic and his fellow survivors did not get the special status they so wished for they may have helped bring change - no matter how small - to a country still deeply haunted by its recent past.

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