Bosnians still appear far from living in peace

Friday, July 7th 2000, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Serbs, Muslims continue to fear each other 5 years after massacre took at least 7,000 lives

SREBRENICA, Bosnia ­ – Welcome to a city in denial.
Rajka Maksimovic, a Serb refugee, doesn't want to talk about the infamous massacre of more than 7,000 Muslims, mostly men and boys, after Srebrenica fell to Serb forces five years ago. Maybe, she suggests, something worse happened to Serbs.

Milorad Radic, also a Serb, explains that he moved to this eastern city after the massacre was reported. He couldn't say whether the stories about the massacre are true or not.

Similarly, other Serbs in Srebrenica don't want to talk about the massacre or prefer to talk about atrocities they say were committed by Muslims. Some openly profess their desire to live apart from Muslims and dread the return of those who once lived there. They are decidedly not the vanguard of a kinder, gentler and multiethnic Bosnia that the international community has struggled to create.

For Muslims and Serbs alike, Srebrenica may well be the emotional epicenter of Bosnia's civil war and the aftermath. Serbs want it. Muslims want it. It's strategic and symbolic.

For the world, it became a metaphor for the horrors of ethnic conflict. It also has served as a sobering example of the world's failure to stop mass murder, the worst that Europe had seen since World War II.

After war broke out in 1992, heavy fighting wracked the Srebrenica area. Both Muslims and Serbs committed acts of ethnic cleansing, although Serb forces are widely viewed as the most egregious practitioners.

In 1993, the Security Council of the United Nations declared Srebrenica a "safe area" that was supposed to be free from armed conflict or other hostile acts. By the summer of 1995, the Muslim population within the Srebrenica safe area had swollen to an estimated 60,000. Many had fled other parts of eastern Bosnia.

Serbs ultimately launched an attack on Srebrenica, brushing aside Dutch peacekeepers. U.N. officials failed to commit additional forces to protect the Muslims in the safe area. On July 11, 1995, Srebrenica fell. In the days that followed, thousands of Muslim men and boys were killed in mass executions.

The Dayton peace accords, signed in late 1995, brought an end to the hostilities. Srebrenica, ethnically cleansed of the Muslims who represented the majority of its residents before the civil war, was repopulated with Serb refugees. Srebrenica became a stronghold for Serb hard-liners who have resisted efforts to establish a stable, multiethnic Bosnia.

But Srebrenica's tragedy has not been forgotten by its former residents. Muslims are making plans to commemorate the fifth anniversary of its fall. U.S. soldiers, part of a multinational peacekeeping force in eastern and northeastern Bosnia, are working with both Muslims and Serbs to avoid trouble.

Perhaps the most graphic reminder of Srebrenica's horrific past can be found more than 40 miles away, in the northeastern city of Tuzla. The remains of roughly 4,000 victims of the Srebrenica massacre are stored in a warehouse there. Bags of bones fill multitiered racks. The identities of most of the victims are still unknown.

Forensic experts have painstakingly cataloged and photographed personal effects that may help families identify a loved one who was lost in the massacre. The International Committee of the Red Cross recently began circulating a book that contains photographs of the personnel effects.

There also are plans to set up four DNA laboratories in Bosnia to help identify remains. That effort is being led by the International Commission for Missing Persons, which was established in 1996 to help resolve missing persons cases in the former Yugoslavia and is chaired by former U.S. Sen. Bob Dole.

The work for forensics experts is likely to increase as larger numbers of refugees resettle.

In a small community called Sultanovici, near the eastern city of Zvornik and roughly 20 miles northwest of Srebrenica, two Muslim houses are surrounded by smoldering garbage. Some officials believe that the garbage hides a mass grave site. That suspicion is bolstered by a confirmed burial site nearby, in a community known as Liplje. Sun-bleached femurs and rib bones are scattered amongst the weeds. The burial site was discovered when a Muslim family returned home and began tilling the garden.

The site will be investigated at a later time. For now, it is cordoned off.

Resolving the fate of Bosnia's missing, estimated at more than 20,000, is a critical and daunting task. It may be many years before burial sites are found and excavated, and the remains identified.

"Without resolution of this issue, it is hard to imagine that a durable peace or that reconciliation between the ethnic communities will be possible," Jacques Paul Klein, coordinator of United Nations operations in Bosnia, said earlier this year at a meeting in the capital, Sarajevo.

In Srebrenica, reconciliation is far from being realized. The city's municipal government includes a Muslim mayor and several Muslim assemblymen. But they reside in Srebrenica only for part of each week, and even then, under guard. Serb extremists, reluctant to lose control over a strategic city, still exert substantial power.

Only two Muslims, both older than 80, live in Srebrenica permanently. All that is left of the city's mosque, which once overlooked Srebrenica's center, is the foundation and fragments of tombstones.

Muslims increasingly are visiting Srebrenica, some to tend family graves, others in anticipation of returning.

Fazilu Smajlovic, 47, is a Muslim refugee who once lived in the Srebrenica area. Her husband was killed in 1995 while defending the city, and her brother-in-law was killed in 1992. Her house was destroyed. She now lives in the village of Memici, which lies between Zvornik and Tuzla. She would like to return home but is afraid.

"They killed many of us," she said, referring to Serbs.

Some Muslims have lobbied, so far unsuccessfully, for the addition of a U.S. base camp in the area – in part for protection but also because of the job opportunities that a U.S. facility provides.

Poverty is pervasive. There are few jobs and fewer employers. Srebrenica's mineral waters and spas once attracted tourists, but that was long ago. There is little to suggest that the city's economy will see a dramatic upturn anytime soon.

Many of the Serbs are refugees who live in houses or apartments formerly owned by Muslims. They are unable or unwilling to return to their own homes, which now may be in predominately Muslim or Croat areas. But they also fear that they will be thrown out as Muslims return to Srebrenica.

Mrs. Maksimovic, 45, does not understand why Muslims want to come back. "Because we were fighting, we should not mix with each other." Muslims, she said, "are not normal people."

She said she left her pre-war home, now in a mostly Muslim area, because of harassment from neighbors.

"They were telling me I was a traitor, I have a radio in my house, that I was working against the Bosnian government," Mrs. Maksimovic said. "I didn't do anything like that."

Her husband is an electrician, and she is a tailor. There's been little work for them in Srebrenica, and providing for their two young sons is difficult.

"It's really hard, but I would rather live this hard than go back." Mrs. Maksimovic said. "I feel better among my people."

Mr. Radic, 37, formerly a security guard for a state-owned television station, is more open to the idea of a multiethnic Bosnia. But he's not ready to move back to his pre-war home in a suburb of Sarajevo. For now, he lives in a Muslim-owned apartment with his wife and three children. The owner has already told him that she plans to reclaim her property.

In five or 10 years, or perhaps 20, Mr. Radic said, he believes that there is a chance that Bosnia will become a multiethnic state.

"I don't have anything against Bozniacs," Mr. Radic said, using the term commonly used to describe Muslims in Bosnia. "They are good people. But they had some extremists, just like we did. I think some time needs to go by."