Genocide still haunts the streets, troubles the minds and overshadows the economy
Srebrenica limps under the weight of Europe’s last genocide. Houses that were bombed to ruins twenty years ago, have become nothing more than big flowerpots. They stand next to small-town stores that struggle to survive in an economy that is still recovering. “Srebrenica was below ground zero. We have only just started building the future”, says Mayor Ćamil Duraković.
A story by Coen van de Ven & Kasper Goethals (all rights reserved)
Adim Duraković (26 years old) looks tired, his face is grayish and he has deep shadows under his eyes. He rubs his hand over his short-shaven head and waves his arms in discontent. From the terrace of a dilapidated hunter’s lodge he looks at his city in the valley. “We could be so rich. If the war hadn’t happened, I would read the newspaper every morning, before going to work”, he says. The middle class dream seems miles away for Adim. He has been unemployed for five years and sees no better prospect for the future. To kill the time, he parties the nights and days away with friends in the ruins of Srebrenica.
The old hunter’s lodge must have been beautiful. It stretches in three levels between the woods on a hill next to the city. De big marble floor tiles are cracked; on the walls there are some holes of stray bullets. The entire building is covered with graffiti. “Punk is not dead”, a cute little heart and a hastily sprayed Serbian cross: it has become a sketchbook for Srebrenica’s youth. Adim has spent dozens of evenings in the lodge with friends, but many have left the city. “You go to Sarajevo or Tuzla as soon as you see an opportunity”, he says. He also wants to leave to the more prosperous cities in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, but the only way out is a job offer.
From 1992 until 1995, Bosnia was the battlefield of a war between Bosnian Muslims (Bosniaks) and Bosnian Serbs. Together with his mother and sister, Adim escaped in 1992, to Tuzla, a safe city for Muslims. Even though he was only three years old when it happened, he still remembers it clearly; “my mother was sitting on my right, a bag with our belongings was laying on my left side. My mother and me held our little sister safely between us. She was only four months old. I could feel something bad was going on.”
Adim’s father stayed behind with many other men. There was still fighting going on and they defended Srebrenica. In 1993, the UN decided to mount a safe area around the city. After the Canadians had defended it for a year, the Dutch took over. The Dutch Minister of Defence at that time, Joris Voorhoeve advocated for a humanitarian mission. The NIOD-report that investigated the case of the Dutch involvement wrote in 2003: “with this [intervening in Bosnia] The Netherlands could show what it’s worth; the Dutch prestige on an international scale would rise.” Srebrenica became Dutch responsibility. NIOD: “a destination that was denied by other countries with the power of reason.”
On the 11th of July 1995 troops from the Bosnian Serb Army invaded the safe area. Dutch soldiers capped with blue UN-helmets, negotiated a way out for themselves and a small group of Bosniaks that worked for them. They watched as Adims father, together with more than 8000 other Muslim men from the ages of 15 to 77, were separated from the women, children and the elderly.
The men — with the exception of escapees — were brutally murdered. One by one they were shot dead in empty factories, barns and on riverbeds. General Ratko Mladić the leader of the Serb army would from now on be called the butcher of Srebrenica. It was the first and last genocide in Europe since the Second World War.
“All our potential was gone in one blow”, says Ćamil Duraković, the Mayor of Srebrenica and a second cousin of Adim, “not only our forests, mines and farms, also our biological capital was wiped out. Our managers, doctors, and fathers; the heads of the family and society were all gone at once.
A loss that is hard to compensate with money. Hundreds of millions in Euros coming from the international community flowed to the area. The Netherlands took a prominent role in the aid caravan; with 122 million Euros. “We are extremely grateful to the Netherlands, for their constant support”, says Alexandre Prieto, project manager of the UN Development Porgramme (UNDP) in Srebrenica. After ten years of humanitarian relief, the Netherlands supported the reconstruction of roads, the power supply and the waterworks. In the last ten years they also worked on supporting the reconciliation process and economic development. “The Netherlands provides a huge amount of support”, says a former employee of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs that visited Srebrenica, “but the emptiness that was left behind by the people that disappeared is still there.”
Opposite of the old Dutchbat (the Dutch Battalion) base, Potočari, lies an impressive burial and memorial centre. More than 5137 victims that were found primarily in mass graves, lie in the graveyard. Still hundreds of men have not been found. Row by row the white marble tombstones remind how things went horribly wrong in 1995. Around a Muslim prayer room in the middle of the area, forms an outline of a stone circle with the names of all the victims buried there. Some women lost all their men at once. Their sons, husbands, fathers, brothers, uncles…
“I go there regularly”, says Adim. His eyes seem even more black than usual and stare aimlessly in the distance. His strong jaw line tightens. “My father and uncle were buried there”, he says.
Despite the gruesome truth that the visitors have to swallow, the place is serene. Young trees cast whimsical shadows over the white graves. The place contrasts with the old Dutchbat base across the street that was once a battery factory, apart from a few museum rooms that are under construction at the moment, little has changed in the base.
In a backdoor room in the base, there is still a half-eaten jar of pickles in a closet that the Dutchbat soldiers forgot. On the floor lie wrinkled maps of the area and old copies of the Dutch newspaper Algemeen Dagblad. Soldiers besmirched the walls with pubertal drawings and texts. In some dark corner, there is still an empty can of Heineken that was never cleared away.
Heineken beer, always associated with the Netherlands, is nowhere to be found in the bars of Srebrenica today, but the brands of beer still betray the background of the bar owner. Whereas the Serb Bosnians drink Jelen or Lav. The Bosniaks drink Tuzlanski or Sarajevsko — if they aren’t teetotaler because of their religion.
The hospitality industry seems the only one that can survive in Srebrenica’s uncertain market. Besides the beer brand, the flags and football logos also differ strongly. Bosniaks more often support football teams from Sarajevo and use the yellow and blue of the Bosnian national flag, while Bosnian Serbs prefer the blue-red-white flag of Serbia. “We can drink together”, Adim says, “we can even talk about the war, but from their eyes, I can see that my Serbian friends think differently than me. Deep inside we don’t agree with each other.”
A couple of other guys drink their beers next to Adim in the lodge. Serb or Bosniak, it doesn’t seem to matter, but they give away their background with the beers they bring to the table. They all drink the different brands, but this way ethnicity always slumbers, even when they are having fun. One of the boys that drinks greedily from a bottle with a Serbian label, arrived in 1996 in Srebrenica.
He came to live in the city one year after the triumphant general Mladić walked into Srebrenica and “gave the city to Serb nation as a gift”. He was only three years old and doesn’t seem to be aware of Adim’s sour sensitivity surrounding those events. When the calls for prayer from the mosque reach the lodge, he frowns and says: “I think that constant yelling from the minaret is irritating.”
That those calls for prayer would probably never sound again in Srebrenica after 1995, was hard to stomach for the international community and the Bosniaks. To prevent the genocide from being consolidated, they stimulated the return of Muslim survivors to Srebrenica. Houses were rebuilt and a river of development money flowed towards the city.
The first people to come back were six women. They came to live in Srebrenica again, in search of their murdered sons. “A hard and difficult step,” explains Branka Antić-Štauber, the head of Snaga Žene (Women’s power). “The first women lived together in the ruins of their old houses, warming themselves only to an old stove and each other. They lived in a place that was completely taken over by others. I asked them where they found the courage to do that, ‘why should we be scared, we are already dead’, they answered”, says Antić-Štauber.
After that, many more followed; the imam, the football coach and in 2005 the current Mayor, found their way back to Srebrenica from all corners of Bosnia and the world. Together with the return of the first Muslims, came the focus on reconciliation. All over the town, offices of NGOs popped up and the cultural centre was rebuilt.
“When we arrived here, the atmosphere wasn’t good. Grim. We were ignored”, says Damir Peštalić the head imam of the mosque in Srebrenica. He came as one of the first in 2003 with his wife, to live between the Serbs. “It was a unique situation, there were no other young Muslim couples here, mostly widows”, he explains.
“There were no basic services, shops or street lights’, says Peštalić. When the Muslim returnees took their first steps in the destroyed town, Adim had been on the run his entire life. After he arrived in Tuzla as a little kid he stayed at friends’ houses, family and with acquaintances. It didn’t matter, as long as they found shelter. On the move, he didn’t have to worry about religion or background. He didn’t know much about differences between Muslims and Orthodox Christians.
Adim learned that lesson when he went back to Srebrenica at the age of 14 to visit his grandparents that had already returned. “The first weekend that I came to stay over, I met two brothers that I played with. We had fun. When I came back a month later they told me that they couldn’t play with me anymore. The town had talked about it and they prohibited the kids from playing with me.”
It was in this period that imam tried to approach the Orthodox community in the town. He drank coffee every day, and tried to make no distinctions between Muslim and Christian. “After a bit over two years the Serbs started to appreciate me, they said: “that imam is a good guy, we’ll spent time with him.”
Adim says that his mother raised him to not distinguish between Serbs and Bosniaks. “She taught me to treat everybody with respect, but she keeps distance to the Serbs herself”, he says.
Antić-Štauber from the women’s organisation Snaga Žene explains that life will never be the same for women that lost their dearest in the genocide. Her organisation supports those women that have returned with seeds for flowers and vegetables. “It has a therapeutic effect on the women to work with their hands in the soil. They have something to be proud of again.”
Adim’s mother got a greenhouse from Snaga Zene, just like tens of other women. In and around Srebrenica, the greeneries are filled with roses. “It is not enough to sell, but she loves flowers and gardening, it makes her happy”, says Adim.
The colorful front yards change the streetscape and remind of old days. “My mother told me that the streets were filled with flowers and that every family took care of their garden before the war”, says Adim. “With the flowers in the streets Srebrenica became more beautiful and attractive for other women to come back”, says Antić-Štauber.
For some families the harvest has become profitable again. “Some families live off their crops and the sales of their flowers”, says Antić-Štauber. Every second Saturday, she comes to Srebrenica and the neighbouring valley in Potočari, with Snaga Žene. Besides psychological and social counselling, medical care and economic advice, they provide seeds for over 60 women. The organisation got a bit over 1 million Euros from the Netherlands in the period of 2003 until 2014.
Muška Halilović looks at her farm on the mountain. Deep in the valley the church and mosque glister in the sunlight. She is one of Snaga Žene’s success stories. In the end of 2004 she returned to the house of her parents on the top of the mountain. Her husband and her four sons survived the war, but her brother didn’t. The return was heavy. The house was filled with bullet holes. “I had to cry when I saw it for the first time, we had to crawl through the window to get inside.”
The development aid also reached the farm of the family Halilović. They got 20 sheep from the UN Development Programme, a greenhouse and seeds from Snaga Žene and she is currently building a shed being, for which she got planks from Care International. The three organisations are amongst the biggest recipients of Dutch money.
Hollandia? I was in the Netherlands”, says Muška’s son Ermin with a shy smile, “in the Efteling!” Many children in Srebrenica have been to the Netherlands for school trips. “The man with the long neck”; Ermin will remember the Dutch amusement park for the rest of his life. His brothers and classmates in the school, yell names of cities such as ‘Terneuzen’, ‘Nijmegen’ and ‘Amsterdam’, when they come across Dutch visitors.
The family Halilović rebuilt the house and planted their first apple trees. “The first year we plucked 1 kilo of apples, now we harvest tons every autumn”, says a proud Muška. On her greenhouse, the stable or the sheep’s meadow, there is no sign of a Dutch flag claiming the development aid.
“The Netherlands chose to stay under the radar in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, says Prieto from UNDP in Srebrenica. The Embassy leaves it up to the recipients to decide whether to mention that they got the money from the Netherlands. Because of that, only few people know that the country provided a big financial support to projects such as the reconstruction of the airport in Sarajevo.
Still many NGOs that received money from the Netherlands don’t try to hide the country’s involvement. The Dutch flag is displayed on a plate on the school, the social housing project, the playground, the cultural centre and the tourist offices. Twenty years after the genocide the Netherlands is still very visible in Srebrenica.
The Embassy of the Netherlands is working on the termination of the last projects and thinks about how they can give a last push in the back so the city can become economically and socially independent. In the next years their work will have to be done with a substantially lower amount of money.
For organisations such as Snaga Žene, that hurts. According to them, now is the time the international help can’t demise. “It may take a long time, but some of the traumatised women really get back on their feet. You can not hurry that process”, claims director Antić-Štauber. Mayor Duraković also doesn’t want the money flow to end; “We came from very far, below ground zero. We have done 80% of the reconstructive work. The foundation for the future is built, but we’re still not where we once were. Now is the time to invest successfully in the economy”, he says.
The house of Adim’s grandparents, where he lives with his mother, was built half with money from the government, and half with their own money. Many houses have only been built up halfway. Next to the ruins of wars, stand hollow shells made of red bricks, with holes instead of windows and doors. Some people ran away with the money that was meant for finishing their old house, some couldn’t cope with the financial burden or the bureaucratic hassle, others just decided in the end that they didn’t want to return to Srebrenica. The houses belong to people that will never return or have long gone, making the city into a permanent ghost town.
After the humanitarian aid, the reconstruction work and the support of the identification process of victims, the aid focus shifted towards the economy. “The last years we actively try to improve the living conditions, so people can build up a life here”, says Prieto from UNDP.
The city has received a lot of aid, but the many millions haven’t always landed perfectly. Citizens wonder where the money has gone. The city is filled with empty buildings. “Some people started an NGO and ran away with the twenty thousand Euros they got”, says an employee of Care International, an NGO that received 6 million Euros from the Dutch government in the period of 2002 until 2009.
“I have received 50,000 Euros in instruments, but of course I didn’t need that much”, says a Belgian music therapist that is in Srebrenica on one of his last visits. In 2008, he got 80,000 Euros from the Flemish government for therapy of traumatised children. “It was fun to have that many instruments”, he says. For years, thousands of Euros in donations came in. While he is packing his stuff he says that he is going to take the instruments with him to Belgium for personal use. “Why would I give it back to the community? They never gave me anything either”, he says with noticeable irritation in his voice.
He did give music lessons, but there wasn’t much therapy involved, “I didn’t go very deep in my therapy. Just the making of music was a lot of fun. I have worked on my own album”, he says. He came here mainly because he wanted to leave Belgium, he says. He became a fortune hunter in a disaster town, with money meant for rebuilding social cohesion and guiding traumatised kids.
Besides empty offices such as that of the Belgian music therapist, Srebrenica is full of empty shop windows. Adim doesn’t understand, “a normal city has at least a bakery, a butcher and a pharmacy, we don’t have that.” Not any more, but they did exist. The pharmacy is still there, but has been closed for years, the expensive oak wooden furniture has never been moved, there are still medicines on the shelves. In the same street a butcher and a bakery closed in the last years. “The bakery received a lot of financial support from an Austrian foundation. All the equipment and the renovation of the building were paid for. When he opened, everybody was enthusiastic, but after a couple of months he left with all the equipment”, says an employee of Care International. The imam still gets angry when he thinks about it, “everybody asks himself why they gave that man so much money. He wasn’t trustworthy at all.”
“Something strange is going on in the city centre”, says the head of the local TV-station and support platform for beginning entrepreneurs. Her organisation received a little under half a million Euros since 2006. She doesn’t deny that there has been some corruption in the town, but she thinks that the small market is a big reason for why the local businesses aren’t taking off.”
Mayor Duraković doesn’t understand why anybody would want to invest in local entrepreneurs instead of in industry, “it sounds nice to westerners, ‘start-ups’, but there is no market for them.” He isn’t happy with the way the money was spent in Srebrenica. “If I hear that the Netherlands gives 5 million Euros every year to Srebrenica, my jaw drops.”
He criticises the high wages that employees of NGOs get, he calls them a waste of money. “The driver at Care International earns more money than me”, he says and he continues: “Alex [Prieto from UNDP] earns 5000 Euros a month while I, as Mayor, earn 750 Euros. He is a friend of mine and although he does real work, he is not indispensible.”
The Mayor thinks jobs are the biggest priority for the city and he downplays the need for psycho-social support and reconciliation, “we have learned to live with each other a long time ago, different cultures have lived next to each other long before the west could. They can learn from us. If a westerner with a high salary brings us together to sit in a circle and talk, the people laugh at him silently. We need factories instead of psychologists”, he says. He would prefer to see the money go directly to the municipality, he says, “if they would give me 5 million Euros, Srebrenica would have 2000 more inhabitants next year and the economy would be booming.”
Despite the scornful opinions about NGOs working on reconciliation, the Muslim returnees have noticed big changes on the level of trust. Imam Pestalic saw what he calls notable improvement. “The situation today is completely different, the people have learned to appreciate each other again.”
“It is a pleasure to see how children walk to school together and play with each. I don’t see any divisions anymore there”, says Peštalić. “It is the older generation that has a hard time overcoming the past.” Some of imam’s peers in the town say they are part of a lost generation. Peštalić, doesn’t agree; “we are an honoured generation. We have the opportunity to play a role in the process of reconciliation.”
In order to work on reconciliation, an invisible line in the city has to be crossed. Most of the Muslims live uphill, while the Serbs live lower in the valley, but that was already like that before the war. “The Orthodox Christians lived primarily in the socialist building blocs downhill”, the imam explains, “the Muslims prefer the small houses with only one floor.”
Besides that coincidental division, the flags and beer brands keep reminding of different background. There may not have been a fight or open argument between the communities for years, there is still a big distance. Imam Peštalić sometimes drinks coffee with the priest a hundred meters from the city centre, but they don’t talk about genocide. “The priest remains silent and I understand. In the Orthodox Church there is little room for personal interpretation from the priest.”
Still the imam thinks that there should be more recognition from the Serb community of what happened”, the last war criminals still have to be caught and tried. “Even here in Srebrenica there are still war criminals walking around untouched.” Adim says he could point at them right away, “in the flat behind the park, where my father had a restaurant before the war lives one of them”, he says.
The priest has also seen the relations in the town change over the last ten years, but he has a different view than the imam. Many Serbs that came to Srebrenica after the genocide have left again. The imam sees a community with more mutual respect, but the priest disagrees; “the Serbs have slowly become second rate citizens. The municipality bullies us, they don’t want to repair the old path to the church that also leads to Muslim houses”, he says while he looks at the city from the church garden, “it gets worse for Serbs every day.”
The Mayor on his turn, points at the government of the Serbian entity within Bosnia and Herzegovina; “the Republika Srspska steals our natural resources. The silver mines, forestry and sources of mineral water are all registered in the neighboring Serb towns and we can’t do anything with it.”
A 2014 report from Unicef shows that poverty in Srebrenica is 29%, while it is only 10.9% in the neighboring town Bratunac, where the woodcutting company is registered. Every day multiple trucks with wood drive from the woods around Srebrenica, through the city centre in direction of Bratunac.
Both groups complain and blame the politicians that represent the other group. It isn’t an easy context to come in as an NGO to rebuild the economy, “we favor the minority in all of Bosnia”, says Prieto from the UN, “in Srebrenica the minority is Muslim and they get make up 75% of the total recipients of UNDP support in the area.”
Despite their caution, it is often the outsiders that disturb the peace. Adim knows that the city needs the help from outside, but he doesn’t like the way they keep focussing on the differences. “I sometimes get angry from all the strangers in town. On the 11th of July we remember the genocide, the entire year you didn’t see anybody and then they come on the anniversary to repeat how bad it all was.”
Six years Adim exploded on the day of remembrance, “I saw hamburger tents — sometimes even Serbs — and all those people that stood their acting important between the graves. They use the death of my father to profit from it, while all I want to do is mourn.” The years after that he avoided being in Srebrenica on the 11th of July and went to a music festival in Croatia to escape, these days he goes again to support his mother.
War tourism is a heavy topic in the town, as the wounds are still fresh. Some women and children have only buried their men recently and some men are still not found. Mayor Duraković thinks they should tap into the attention going to the war history, “it is not easy to say so, I also lost a lot of relatives, but we should use it. It could bring in money that we need to rebuild the town”, he says.
Every day, tens of buses from all over Bosnia come to Srebrenica. Every student in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina has to see the memorial with school. The owner of Pansion Misirlije, the hotel that hosts most of the westerners that come by, gets dispirited when he thinks about how much potential income is lost for the town, “if they would just start with installing public toilets in the city, then the students would get out and maybe consume something. And the old touristic attractions of the town such as the ruins on the hills of buildings from the Roman Empire should be made accessible. It is not that expensive the mown the grass so tourists can go there without fearing for snakes”, says the hotel-owner.
The organisation Care International had the plan to make Srebrenica more attractive to tourists. They got 1,5 million Euros from the Netherlands to open a tourist office. Today there are two offices in the same building providing the same service. 18 meters from each other, with the same opening hours, they distribute the same folders. Half of the time there is nobody there during opening hours and when they are asked to advice a tourist, it turns out they don’t speak English. One of them points at a map of the area hanging on the wall. “Lake! Lake”, he yells, pointing at a blue spot, 40 kilometres from the city.
When the owner of Pansion Misirlije hears about the offices, he bursts into laughter. “I know those guys, those tourist offices are a good joke!” The owner of the hotel says there are no ethnical reason for the two offices, “they are both Muslim, they are only there because they are members of the right party.” On the head office of Care International they confirm, “according to our information both offices are open.” For more information they point at the municipality.
The Mayor brushes off questions about it. The city hall lies at a hundred meters from the offices, “two tourist offices? No I don’t know anything about that”, he says. The municipality pays the two men.
“This city wouldn’t survive a day without money from outside, it will work eventually, but it will be difficult”, says the head of the local TV-station.
For Adim all hope seems long gone, “all my friends have left one by one”, he says, looking at the flats where they once lived. “We used to sit here with twenty of us in the lodge. As soon as I can I will also leave, when I get the chance I’m out of here.”
It has gotten late and Adim gets quieter. The joyful laughter from his friends in the background goes on, looking at the empty beer bottles from different brands a moment of melancholy overtakes him. “We don’t think in differences any more, my generation hasn’t been through the war. We just want to get on with our lives.”
In the background the sun rises again over Srebrenica. Adim calls his friends. It’s time to go home, drunk-happy they stumble in different directions, up and down the hill.