Monday, 10 September 2012 10:06

Bosnian summer – A European travel journal Pt. 3

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Part 3: More dead than alive – Srebrenica, Republika Srpska

I apologise in advance, because there are some facts I have been holding back: the political situation in Bosnia is far more complicated than described so far. I have already written about the three constituent peoples in Bosnia and Herzegovina and how they mostly live in a kind of interethnic apartheid. But the segregation isn't only done by invisible lines like in Mostar. The whole state is divided into two entities which hold most of the legislative and administrative powers. The two federal states are The Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina where mostly Croats and Bosniaks live, and the Republika Srpska (the RS, meaning "Serbian Republic") where mostly Serbs live. Additionally, there is the Brčko District - a small neutral area, too mixed to assign to any of the federal states. Federation and Republic - sounds like Star Wars? Well, this is real and unfortunately it is also less easy to distinguish good and evil.


After having spent three days in the Federation I now wanted to see the "other" side. I reach Srebrenica at noon two days before the anniversary of the massacre that took place here on 11th July 1995. About six kilometres before the town sign, the bus passes the Potočari Memorial with the graveyard for the massacre's victims. More than 5600 bodies from the mass graves have been identified and buried here so far. When the bus reaches Srebrenica the first thing I see are graves again - this time not the white Muslim but the black Orthodox tombstones. The town itself is nearly empty due to the great heat. There seem to be more dead than alive here.

Srebrenica massacre

On the 11th July 1995 Bosnian Serbian forces under Ratko Mladić took over the UN safe area without the UN soldiers firing a single shot. More than 8000 unarmed Bosniak men and boys were systematically killed. Women and children were raped and tortured and eventually deported to areas that weren't under Serbian control. It is considered one of the worst crimes in Europe since the Second World War.

I meet Nedim at the motel in the middle of the town. He is here for the summer, as a volunteer to help former inhabitants who fled the town during the war and need to come back now for registration. The Council of Europe is coming to town today to monitor this registration process. Allegedly, human rights violations take took place that they want to investigate, but it seems questionable whether the Serbian police will let them in.

Nedim is a tall, dark haired young man with a three-day beard who orders Gulash soup and frequently has to interrupt our conversation because one of his two mobile phones rings. He is project coordinator at "Youth Initiative for Human Rights" (YIHR), a regional NGO-network with independent offices in Sarajevo, Belgrade, Zagreb, Potgorica and Priština that aims to promote laws and legal mechanisms to improve the protection of human rights and democracy in the ex-Yugoslavian states. The transnational approach sounded too good to be true and I am excited to find out more about what to me seems like a truly 'European project' and its approach to reconciliation.


"We mostly try to raise awareness in divided communities. There are many cases of discrimination in the country and not many go to court." Nedim says about his involvement. "We also organise street actions like blocking a bridge in Sarajevo to show that the city is in a way still occupied or wearing white bandages which the Serbs forced people to put on if they were of another ethnicity." 

"We have a society of denial."

Another focus lies on education. The YIHR organises summer schools for people from all ethnicities and different parts of the country to help them hear the other side. "There is no common Bosnian identity among young people," he says. "You have to distinguish between the cities and the rural parts where people just don't connect with the others. Most of them have distorted images. We have a society of denial: there is a denial of facts, or people trying to justify things even if they know the truth. And politicians use the context of war crimes for election campaigns. It is a cold war state and the majority votes for nationalist parties and thereby actually supports the status quo." I ask about his identity. "Ethnicity?" he says. "I don't know. People would say I am Bosniak. You are not identified by yourself but by those who don't like you." And European? "I don't know. There are such huge differences between the North and the South. What do the states really have in common? But there is no alternative to the EU for Bosnia. This is a small and rather insignificant country."

You won't hear a positive story from him. He is working so hard to improve the situation in his country, yet it seems he has lost faith long time ago. When I ask what will happen on the 11th of July, he tells me that the Orthodox community in Srebrenica, ignoring what happened 17 years ago, will put together music events and parades celebrating St. Peter's festivities, while only a few kilometres away 520 Muslims, victims of the massacre who have been identified during the last year, will be buried.

They have reached a deadlock here. Most people aren't moving an inch from their position 17 years after the end of the war. That night I leave Srebrenica with a bad feeling. I don't stay for the Memorial Day because I never wanted to write about the war and its dreadful consequences. However, I feel like I'm doing it all the time. 'Divided' is the one word with which I would sum up my experiences. But it is too early to draw conclusions yet. I want to see more of the RS before I paint a black and white picture of this very blue and green country.

The author will discuss questions of European identity with other young Europeans and with Croatian journalist Slavenka Drakulić at Europe@Debate on September 13. You will be able to follow the debate via live stream. The event is organised in cooperation with Körber FoundationEurozine - Europe's leading cultural magazine and Europa neuer Ideen e.V.

Last modified on Monday, 10 September 2012 12:14

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