Bosnia’s many Histories make me Dizzy

June 7, 2010
If all history is local, then Bosnia-Herzegovina is a place of hundreds of different local perceptions.

There are conditions that all Bosnians share: young people leave school without prospect of employment; parents struggle to feed their families; pensions are miserly; all are robbed by the profiteers who pretend to guide this state. However, in each locality people view the conditions of their life through a different prism.

Local conditions vary depending on how many people were expelled; how much fighting there was in the area and how many brutal atrocities were perpetrated. Post-war developments also influence the atmosphere, such as how many refugee returns took place and whether local authorities have taken steps towards reconciliation and exposed murky wartime history to the healing light of public examination.

Here are some of my impressions based on my contact with people in the past week, traveling across the northern part of Bosnia. I will start in Kozarac. After years of visiting this small town of Bosniak returnees, I finally visited the sites of the notorious wartime concentration camps at Omarska and Trnopolje. Given that history is usually rewritten by the victors, I was surprised to see that Mittal Steel, the owner of the Omarska complex, has left standing the “white house,” in which prisoners were forced to wash off the blood of their own fellow townsmen.

Back in Kozarac, I sat in a kafana with my friend Ermin, who gestured up the street and told me: “That man who is working on a house there abused me in the camp. I look at him and think, ‘God, how the world turns.’ I do not hate him, though that is for my own sake, not his. In this way, I become stronger and he remains just a insignificant person.”

With the help of their strong diaspora, the Kozarac returnees have struggled mightily to recreate a semblance of normality in their ethnic enclave within the Republika Srpska. For them, and for the Bosniak returnees to nearby Prijedor, a version of apartheid reigns.

A different sort of “normality” prevails in Prijedor, which is still dominated by local Serbs. A newcomer arriving without historical knowledge could only think: “What a quaint, lovely town! Too bad about the unemployment problem.” Bosniaks and Croats once constituted nearly half of this municipality’s population.

Expelled early on in the war, only a minority has returned. Mayor Pavic, the local strongman, holds the town in the palm of his hand. The atmosphere on the central pedestrian walkway is indeed pleasant but those whose sensitivity runs a little deeper say that it is all “shminka” (makeup), a façade.

In Banja Luka my young activist friend, Damir, helps organize protests against rising prices, which he understands to be the result of corruption. “Everyone knows the politicians are stealing, but people are apathetic,” he says. “We hardly have enough to eat, but some people say, ‘At least we have our Republika Srpska…’”

Damir wants to travel. He says: “We are ghettoized here, cut off both from Europe and from the Federation.” But waiting for a visa to go abroad “is like waiting for rain in the desert”, he complains. Damir finished a graphics degree but cannot find employment. He wants a normal life.

Moving on to Doboj, I met Srdjan, who told me that the Republika Srpska leader, Milorad Dodik, is a strong leader. “He will win again in this year’s elections,” he predicts. “He helps the Catholic community; the Ferhadija Mosque in Banja Luka (a 16th-century building demolished in the early 1990s) is being rebuilt; and a new synagogue has been constructed here in Doboj.”

Srdjan says that the Republika Srpska “is much better organized” than the Bosniak-Croat Federation. “Dodik has successfully sold some of the large state-run corporations to Serbia and Russia, and he promotes the Republika Srpska Development Bank.”

I did not bother to point out to my acquaintance the perception of Dodik to the outside world, that he has grown immensely wealthy from the very deals that Srdjan boasted about. It was more important to me to hear his version of the story.

I become a bit dizzy from listening to all the conflicting interpretations of history that confront me. Arriving in Tuzla, I visited the staff of the local organization of survivors from Srebrenica, “Zene Srebrenice” (Women of Srebrenica). They showed me dozens of snapshots that people had given them of their lost loved ones.

Holding snapshots in my hand, looking at aged photos of ordinary people who loved life and were then exterminated, the nature of Bosnia seemed simpler to me. For the widows of Srebrenica, history is indeed simple. It stopped on July 11, 1995, when an army of extreme nationalists conquered their town and tried to eradicate them from the face of the earth. Their present, and whatever future they have, is permanently darkened by the oppressive memory of that act.

I want Damir, the widows, and yes, Srdjan, to have a normal life. But hope is in short supply since, as Damir told me, “People only look one metre in front of their faces, though you can understand the reality here if you are here for just five short days.” For me, the only hope is in the growth of grassroots action, over the long term.