Release peace: the magazine
Release peace: the magazine
Analysis & Background Stories on International Affairs
Will Reconciliation be Given a Chance in Bosnia & Herzegovina? The Case Study of Prijedor
Article by: Melita Vilkevičiūtė
Far From a Perfect World
Thousands of people were left with their loved ones killed, houses destroyed, bodies and minds injured. If transitional justice is carried out successfully, wrongdoers are punished, victims heard, hatred and discrimination disappear, only then might peace prevail. In a perfect world, anyway. Far from this perfect world, we will look at the Prijedor municipality in Bosnia and Herzegovina to help us understand the history of ethnoreligious conflicts and efforts by the diaspora to resolve them decades after the guns have been silenced.
When Ethnoreligious Divisions Become Legal
Between 1992 and 1995, 100,000 people were killed and more than 2 million forced to flee their homes as the Bosnian war raged. Most of them were non-Serbs, as the Bosnian Serb forces started the war aiming to create a Greater Serbia and cleanse the Serb-dominated areas from members of other ethnic groups, especially Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims). After the Siege of Sarajevo and the Srebrenica genocide, the international community decided to intervene diplomatically and organized a peace conference in Ohio, during which the today famous Dayton Agreement was signed. But there were no clear winners and no losers of this war. After the Agreement, Bosnia and Herzegovina was divided into two partly independent territorial units: the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Republika Srpska. It adopted a new system of governance under which three presidents rule the country (a Croat, a Serb, and a Bosniak) which, in a way, further reinforced the ethnoreligious divisions.
Former War Criminals? Now Mayor
Republika Srpska did not legally acknowledge its alleged crimes and continued to thrive on nationalistic rhetoric, even greeting several war criminals such as Momčilo Krajišnik or Bijana Plavšić as heroes after they had served their sentences imposed by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). In some cases, former war criminals have returned to politics. For example, Simo Zarić, who was convicted by the ICTY for crimes against humanity, became the deputy mayor in Bosanski Šamac – the same town where his crimes were committed during the war. The aforementioned Momčilo Krajišnik re-entered public and political life by becoming the first president of the Association of Creators of the Republika Srpska (association funded by Republika Srpska).
Living Side by Side, But Not Together
In Prijedor, the Great Serbia project began in 1992. Twenty-eight concentration camps were operated in the region. One camp, the Omarska concentration camp, was created to conduct the eliticide of Bosniaks – to kill and torture members of the Muslim elite, so that the ensuing ethnic cleansing would meet less resistance. Meanwhile, the Trnopolje concentration camp mostly housed women and kids whose men were in Omarska or other camps. Named a “refugee camp” by the Bosnian Serb forces, Trnopolje served as a place where people would wait for their deportation experiencing torture and rape. The discovery of mass graves continues to this day, giving further evidence of the atrocities that occurred.
Returning to a Place in Denial?
Surprisingly, around a decade after the end of the war, many people who had fled decided to return to the municipality of Prijedor, despite ongoing hostilities by nationalists and the Republika Srpska government which, for example, had given houses of Bosniaks that had not been destroyed to Bosnian Serb families. Returning was not easy as the dominant narrative in Prijedor is still one of denial of most of the crimes committed by Bosnian Serb forces. One such example is that on the 20th anniversary of the outbreak of the war, the Mayor of Prijedor, Marko Pavić, refused to allow commemorative events to be organized if they included the word “genocide”.
In recent years, the Prijedor-based Bosnian Serb nationalistic groups Samopostovanje and Princip wrote over 900 Facebook posts, claiming that Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladić is a hero, and that the Bosnian war was started not by the Bosnian Serb forces, but by Muslim extremists. Even the existence of concentration camps is also frequently denied in the Republika Srpska. So, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Bosniaks, Croats, and Serbs might have come back to live as neighbors again, but their different and often conflicting versions of history make reconciliation seem a tall order.
When The System Fails, Diaspora Prevails
The diaspora from the Prijedor municipality mostly consists of former soldiers, concentration camp survivors, and those who were lucky to escape the country right before the war broke out. In the summer, a small but visible part of the diaspora comes back to their native country not only for holidays but to help organize the commemorations of the crimes that took place in Prijedor. While remembering Omarska, Trnopolje, Keraterm, and other concentration camps, diaspora and other activists tell their stories and remember their loved ones whom they have lost, creating an environment where the people who suffered the most can share their sorrow and feel understood. Over the last 18 years, a local NGO in Kozarac, Prijedor region has used financial help from the diaspora to organize an annual basketball tournament in which all people are welcome to participate, no matter their ethnoreligious background.
Against the Narrative
Activists who fight for a narrative of the war that mismatches the one of the Republika Srpska are not liked by the local authorities. Some members of the Bosniak diaspora state to have been threatened on the phone or followed on the streets of Prijedor. Others say that Bosniaks are still afraid to hold the commemorative events in small groups, as when they are in small numbers they may face verbal aggressions or insulting gestures from Serb nationalists living in the neighborhood.
Rebuilding Hearts and Minds
Despite these challenges, the Bosniak diaspora manages to help rebuild the memories, houses, and even entire towns they grew up in. But the rhetoric of the Republika Srpska does not appear to be changing and the dialogue between the different ethnoreligious groups necessary for a reconciliation process has not yet begun.
Peacebuilding is a challenging task, especially when the people who are willing to reconcile do not receive support from local authorities or a great share of their neighbors. The Prijedor region showcases that as long as there are those not afraid to keep the memories of atrocities alive, the truth cannot be silenced. But the question remains how much longer those who fight for their people‘s right to be said sorry to have the energy to do so.