Things are difficult in Bijeljina, especially for Bosniak returnees, and worse in Srebrenica. In Bijeljina, my friend Salem told me: “Economically, we are on the edge of desperation. People are poor; it is hard to live. Ninety per cent of the Bosniak returnees here are unemployed. People lack money to put their children through school. There is social exclusion; we do not exist in public life.”
It’s not so good for many of the Serb residents of Bijeljina either; one has to play along with the dominant nationalist politics to get ahead. Zoran, a man who won’t play along, told me: “I would live better if I were in one of the political parties. If you don’t join a party, you condemn yourself to failure. But I don’t want to sell myself.”
I asked Jusuf Trbic, the only Bosniak municipal councilman, whether grassroots activism might change things. He replied: “There is no possibility,” and then listed a number of people who had participated in war crimes but were now high officials in the Serb-controlled entity. They included a chief of police, a television director, and a chief prosecutor in the region. He asked me: “If you have that kind of system, what kind of hope can you have, what can you expect?”
Trbic continued: “There aren’t going to be changes as a result of the fall national elections. The same people, or similar, will win. Essentially, there won’t be any change without a change in the constitution. A stronger state could guarantee equal rights.” Trbic placed his hope in the possibility of pressure from the international community: “There should be a new international conference where they impose new governmental institutions; believe me, then there would be cooperation.”
So far, however, the international community has given mixed signals to Bosnia’s leaders, exerting only mild pressure for reform and simultaneously cooperating with the worst of the profiteer-politicians.
I moved on to Bratunac and Srebrenica to talk to other acquaintances. In Srebrenica I found a community in apparent stagnation. A new, imposing mosque in the center of town was the only noticeable change in the last year or so. There are no new factories and talk of investment has not born results. Many returnees have repaired their homes and gone back to Sarajevo or Tuzla.
A couple of teenagers at the youth center told me: “Voting doesn’t seem to help anything. The politicians are just running in order to have four more years of good salary. People are leaving because there is no work here. A huge number of those who finish college elsewhere stay there.” On the positive side, one of the teenagers told me: “There’s no hate here among us young people. I think that’s normal; why would I hate someone?”
I looked around to find out what people were doing that was positive and hopeful, first talking to Melika Malesevic at the Kuca povjerenja, or “House of Trust.” This German-supported NGO implements a wide variety of projects, from support of cultural activities to training local youth in useful trades and equipping the new local dental clinic. They have even introduced Reiki energy therapy to the municipality, and it is catching on in the villages.
Among its many other activities, the House of Trust is conducting weekly workshops among a mixed-ethnic group of youth to develop what Malesevic calls “collective memory.” She says the media present a negative image of a Srebrenica in which there is no hope and where people do not get along. “This media-produced image is a notorious lie. We are enabling people to check the truth with each other; these workshops connect people so that they can form their own understanding of recent history together.” At the end of my visit, Malesevic stated emphatically: “There is a future here. There is life in Srebrenica. I am certain of that.”
There are other brave activists in Srebrenica and nearby Bratunac, people who work at grassroots level with young volunteers, advocating for inter-ethnic cooperation and struggling for the provision of services for young people.
In Bratunac, members of the local organization Odisej recently conducted a campaign to collect food and clothing for needy families. Activist Miljan Vujevic explained: “There has been hate now for so many years. We did a humanitarian action to counteract that emotional stagnation.
“We collected food and clothing donations for needy families. That project gave people the opportunity to give. We collected three and a half tons of food and clothing. The main point of the project was to generate among donors a feeling that they could help someone. We have lost that; for 15 or 20 years people have not helped each other. Now, people had a chance to help others without asking what ethnicity they were.”
One of the most dynamic organizations in Srebrenica is Savjet Mladih, Counsel of Youth, which runs the local youth center. The activists who formed this organization came out of the successful nationwide conscientious objector movement of the late 1990s and early 2000s.
In Srebrenica, as the energetic young director Milena Nikolic recalled, they initiated their organization by pulling off a “guerrilla action” when they cleaned up a local building that was in ruins, removing rubble and garbage, and afterwards pressuring the local government to allow them to use the building as a youth center. Nikolic is a strong believer in change through local action; she says: “This is not work, for me; this is my life.”
Real change is happening very slowly in Bijeljina, Bratunac, and Srebrenica; there are many who only think of the latter town as a grim museum of atrocity. But for the youth who live there, there are reasons to organize, not just mourn.
I can’t prove that Trbic’s dire prognosis about grassroots change is inaccurate, but I hope the young leaders of Bratunac and Srebrenica can do so. I prefer to believe in the hope that they offer.