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Where is Bosnia at today?

The spirit of the season
By Suzana Vukic
Suzana Vukic is Columnist in the Hudson/St.Lazare Gazette and a Member of the International Expert Team of the Institute for Research of Genocide, Canada

Four years ago, I wrote a piece called Christmas in Sarajevo and entered it in this paper’s Christmas contest. It won first place in the writing category. Little did I know how great an impact this would have on my life in the course of the coming years. In asking a question – what is Christmas like today for the Sarajevans who survived the nearly four-year-long Bosnian war? –I was embarking on a journey. From that first Christmas story came the desire to learn and write more about this grief-stricken nation and all that it has had to endure.
And where is Bosnia at today?
• • •
In September, a new mass grave was uncovered at the Tomasica mining complex in northwestern Bosnia’s Prijedor municipality. During the war, this region was notorious for its concentration camps – Omarska, Keraterm, and Trnopolje, where Bosnian Serb forces held non-Serb civilians – Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims), Bosnian Croats and others.
Many survivors have shown up at the site hoping to find their loved ones. So far, the remains of 430 victims have been uncovered, according to Emir Ramic of the Institute for Research of Genocide Canada (IGC). Of these, 275 bodies are intact. More bodies continue to be unearthed almost daily.
The clay-like earth in which these bodies were found has preserved them remarkably well, to the point where they were practically mummified; many still have their nails, hair, and bodily tissue.
It took over 20 years for Tomasica to be unearthed because of a conspiracy of silence among the local Bosnian Serb population. In the Serb Republic entity of Bosnia, there exists a pervasive culture of genocide denial, coupled with the glorification of war criminals and their atrocities. There’s no place here for the rights of victims and survivors.
It’s wretched to see what was done to human beings in Tomasica, and to imagine what their loved ones must be going through. Yet I wish I could be there.
It’s impossible to write about the Bosnian War and Genocide without being critical of the Serbian role during the war. Yet if the bodies found at Tomasica had been those of Serbs, I would feel every bit as much compassion for them. In the end, these people are my fellow human beings – over and above all other similarities or differences.
• • •
Earlier in 2013, this country experienced a Bosnian Spring – a wave of protests brought on by the plight of a sick three month-old Bosniak girl.
The crisis began in February, when an expiring law governing the designation of personal I.D. numbers, known in Bosnia as the JMBG, was abolished because of bickering among politicians, specifically Bosnian Serb politicians seeking to create more ethnic tension and strife. They demanded that this law be abolished until Bosnian Serbs could be assigned JMBGs differentiating them from other ethnicities. This resulted in babies born since February not being assigned a JMBG, making it impossible for them to travel outside of the country and jeopardizing their civil rights.
This story highlighted the corruption of the Bosnian political system. It could have ended like so many other such tales, with a passive, indifferent population unable and unwilling to react. But amazingly, Bosnians of all ethnic backgrounds – Bosniak, Bosnian Serb and Bosnian Croat – showed up in front of the Bosnian parliament building in Sarajevo to protest, with babies in strollers in tow.
The change from apathy to activism resulted after news spread of three month-old Belmina Ibrisevic, who was sick and needed to travel outside of Bosnia for a bone marrow transplant, but could not do so because she hadn’t been issued a JMBG.
Parents throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina realized that what was happening to this baby could happen to their own child, regardless of ethnicity. This crucial fact helped break down ethnic barriers.
Despite being issued a passport and receiving medical treatment abroad, baby Belmina didn’t make it. And sadly, at least one other baby girl died in the aftermath of the JMBG scandal. Yet the furor created by these events forced politicians to work on and find a solution to the JMBG crisis. This proved to Bosnians that, in spite of threats by authorities to track them down and have them arrested for protesting, their efforts were still worthwhile.
• • •
This past September, Bosniak parents of schoolchildren at the Petar Kocic school in Konjevic Polje in eastern Bosnia (near Srebrenica) began their own protests in Sarajevo. They camped out in front of the Office of the High Representative (OHR) building for nearly three months until part of their demands were met.
They were protesting issues that they’ve been struggling with for years – specifically, the inequality faced by schoolchildren of Bosniak ethnicity in comparison to their Serbian peers, as part of a system that is often referred to as apartheid.
Bosniak parents are opposed to the fact that their children follow a pro-Serb curriculum. They are taught the Serbian language (as opposed to the Bosnian language). All subjects, including history, are taught with a pro-Serb bias.
In a region that became the killing fields of the Bosnian Serb army following the fall of Srebrenica, this phenomenon creates fear for parents who survived this genocide. They can foresee the day when their youth will be taught a santitized version of what happened to them during the war, and also to have to stand by and watch as their children are assimilated into Serbian culture to the detriment of their own.
Although these people survived genocide barely two decades ago, they continue to fight against annihilation.
Ironically, I’ve written here before about the Petar Kocic school in Konjevic Polje, in discussing the work that my former colleague, Ljuljjeta Goranci-Brkic does at this school, and other places throughout Bosnia, through the Nansen Dialogue Centre. This Norwegian-based NGO uses inter-ethnic dialogue as a tool for peaceful conflict resolution, reconciliation and community-building. The sad fact is that there are people and organizations working hard to prevent future conflicts from recurring here. A great deal of foreign money is still being poured into this effort. Yet at the same time, there are just as many forces working hard to ensure that ethnic hatred will remain alive in Bosnia for future generations.
• • •
I’ve often written about Bakira Hasecic, a Bosniak woman from Visegrad in eastern Bosnia who survived wartime rape, and president of Women Victims of War, an association for women, men and children who survived mass and systematic wartime rape.
This past autumn, Bakira started a campaign to rebuild a house in Visegrad that was the site of the Living Bonfire (Ziva Lomaca) incident in June, 1992, at the start of the war. Bosnian Serb forces locked 70 Bosniak civilians (mainly women, children, and elderly) in this house on Pionirska Street in Visegrad, and then set the house on fire. Few survived.
Bakira and a group of survivors set about the task of restoring this empty ruin after the local Serbian authorities went public with plans to tear it down to build a road that would go through this property. Bosniak survivors of ethnic cleansing in Visegrad believe that these road plans are bogus, and that authorities simply wish to cover up all traces of wartime atrocities. This is a town where people deny genocide, yet glorify the statue of Serbian World War II war criminal, Draza Mihailovic, in the town square.
Armed with power of attorney from the house’s owner, Sumbula Zeba (now living in the U.S.) and donated materials, Bakira organized a crew of people who willingly gave their time and energy. Their aim is to create a memorial centre in this house, so that no one will ever forget what happened here.
For her efforts, Bakira faces prosecution and harassment from local authorities. From the very start, police have shown up whenever workers are present to question them, take down their names, and invite them to the police station for further questioning. Authorities have made it clear that they want all work to stop, claiming it’s illegal. Yet the law allows wartime victims the right to return to their pre-conflict homes and rebuild without impediment.
Bakira remains undeterred: “…we’ll fight with our bare lives….”
• • •
What does any of this have to do with Christmas, you may ask? What does any of what we go through during this period (the harried shopping, and the frenzied eagerness to overdo and outdo) have to do with the spirit of this season? In the end, isn’t Christmas supposed to be about the birth of a child, and the beacon of light and hope that this event shines on our lives, with the promise of salvation for humankind?
We all face stresses and worries in our fast-paced lives. It can be a challenge to devote time and energy to anything other than ourselves and our loved ones. In this troubled world, it may often appear that our efforts to effect change are pointless. Yet my experience tells me that indeed, all efforts to make a difference are worth it. And Christmas is the time to remember that.