Bosnia’s valley of death still seeking answers two decades later

Balkan state still divided 20 years after Bosnian Serb massacre of Muslims at Srebrenica

SREBRENICA, Bosnia and Herzegovina — The recording is two decades old and crackles with static, but the desperation in Nino Catic’s voice could not be clearer.

In the last broadcast the young reporter and radio enthusiast would make, Nino implores anyone who is listening to do something to save his hometown, Srebrenica, from an onslaught by Bosnian Serb forces that surrounded it.

“Will anyone in the world come and see the tragedy that is befalling Srebrenica and its residents?” Nino, then 25, shouts into the microphone.

He sent out his cry for help on July 10, 1995. No one answered, and no one came.

In the house where Nino grew up, beside a stream that rushes down from the green hills that almost encircle Srebrenica, his mother often listens to his voice as she still waits for news of him.

Hajra Catic knows that her only son is dead — one of more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys who were murdered by Ratko Mladic’s Bosnian Serb troops in the days following Nino’s final broadcast.

But 20 years after Nino was killed, his remains have yet to be identified, and Hajra has not been able to bury him beside her husband, who was also executed in Europe’s worst massacre since World War II.

“Every year more victims of the genocide are identified, and we bury them on July 11. And every year I think I will bury Nino,” Hajra said in the living room of her home, where photographs of her husband, Junuz, and her son hang on the wall.

“I worry that if Nino’s remains are not found, and it’s not proved that he was killed, then in a few years someone could try to deny that he was murdered, and deny what happened here. It would be as if they murdered him a second time.”

The long shadow cast over Bosnia by a war that killed 100,000 people is at its darkest each July.

That is when Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, recall how Mladic’s men disarmed vastly outnumbered Dutch peacekeepers tasked with protecting Srebrenica, which the United Nations had declared a “safe haven.”

“Don’t be afraid, no one will harm you,” Mladic told thousands of terrified Bosniaks, who had sought safety at the Dutch base in a former battery factory in Potocari, 3 miles along the valley from Srebrenica.

But after sending away the women and youngest children on buses, Mladic’s soldiers executed the men and boys, including Junuz Catic. Nino was among those who fled through the hills rather than going to Potocari; some made it safely to Bosniak-held territory, but many were shot dead or killed by land mines. Nino was never heard from again.

The rusting hulk of the battery factory still stands by the road from Potocari to Srebrenica, but now it faces a forest of more than 6,200 white marble steles, each marking the resting place of a massacre victim whose remains have been identified.

More than 7,000 people are still missing from Bosnia’s 1992-5 war, however, and its legacy not only continues to divide the country’s Bosniak, Serb and Croat communities, but stymies efforts to improve life for the country’s 3.8 million people.

A U.S.-brokered deal peace deal, signed in Dayton, Ohio, in late 1995, imposed a tortuous political system on Bosnia.

The Dayton accords split the country into a Muslim-Croat Federation and a Serb-run Republika Srpska, autonomous “entities” linked by state institutions in the national capital, Sarajevo.

Each region has its own parliament, government, prime minister and president, and each of the three main ethnic groups also provides a representative to a tri-partite national presidency, and they take turns as its chairman. There is also a national parliament with two houses and a national government in Sarajevo.

To complicate matters further, the Muslim-Croat Federation is subdivided into 10 “cantons” with significant autonomy, there are 22 police agencies around the country, and local elections in 2012 saw 190 political parties compete for posts.

The system breeds suffocating bureaucracy, corruption and cronyism, paralyzes decision-making and perpetuates the power of veteran politicians who have based their careers on defending only the interests of their ethnic kin.

The European Union’s drive to foster reform in Bosnia and bring it closer to the bloc is broadly supported by Bosniaks, who comprise about 40 percent of the population, and by the 15 percent Catholic Croat community, but opposed by the leaders of Orthodox Christian Serbs who make up about 31 percent of the country.

The EU’s fiercest critic in Bosnia is Milorad Dodik, the current president of Republika Srpska and the dominant figure in the region’s politics since the war.

Dodik says that efforts to strengthen Bosnia’s state authorities are a danger to its Serb community, and he has repeatedly threatened to call a referendum on independence for Republika Srpska rather than see any of its powers transferred to Sarajevo.

Last month, after the EU activated a landmark trade and political pact with Bosnia to reinvigorate its faltering accession process, Dodik torpedoed Bosnia’s side of the deal by rejecting a reform plan that Brussels thought was cut-and-dried.

Now, his assertion that the crimes committed at Srebrenica did not constitute genocide is clouding preparations for the 20th anniversary of the atrocity.

“Everything is done to promote a non-truth — namely, that there was a genocide there — while ignoring Serb victims,” Dodik said last month, while urging Russia to block a proposed U.N. Security Council resolution to mark the anniversary.

In a letter this week to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, Mladen Ivanic, the Serb chairman of Bosnia’s national presidency, said the “anti-Serb” resolution “would only divide Bosnian society further.”

“I must warn you that the current (inter-ethnic) situation is bad, and I call on you to recognize that adoption of this resolution would not be a good thing for the stability of Bosnia,” Ivanic wrote.

A chance to soothe strained relations in the Balkans was lost last month, when Serbian President Tomislav Nikolic cancelled what would have been his first official visit to Bosnia, due to Bosniak fury at the arrest of one of its wartime commanders.

Naser Oric, whom Belgrade accuses of committing atrocities against Serbs in the Srebrenica area, was traveling to an event in Switzerland to commemorate the massacre when he was detained on a Serbian arrest warrant.

Oric was subsequently deported back to Bosnia rather than to Serbia, but rancor lingers on both sides: Bosniaks are angry that Belgrade would seek the arrest of a widely lionized defender of Srebrenica at this sensitive time; and many Serbs are furious that a man whom they regard as a war criminal is still at large.

The dispute highlights the inability of Bosnia — a poor, dysfunctional state with the highest youth unemployment in the world — to shift focus from the horrific events of the 1990s onto building a peaceful and prosperous future.

Nowhere does history lay heavier than Srebrenica, a bustling, ethnically harmonious town in Yugoslav days, now transformed into a byword for genocide.

Srebrenica mayor Camil Durakovic in his office.

“Before the war, we had mines, factories, agriculture, the timber industry and tourism here,” said Srebrenica mayor Camil Durakovic.

“Now, we have to play the victim, crying every July to bring in investors. The ones who come here want emotionally to help Srebrenica. But we want to be proper partners, to give investors opportunities that are economically sustainable. Unfortunately, that’s still not possible right now.”

By a perverse twist of geography — and the Dayton accords — Srebrenica is in Republika Srpska, and ultimately controlled by Dodik and allies in the regional capital of Banja Luka who deny that genocide occurred.

“I’m the only Muslim mayor in Republika Srpska,” said Durakovic, who was elected in 2012 thanks to absentee votes from former Srebrenica residents.

“They don’t like us much in Banja Luka, and they control what resources we have… and can overrule all decisions we make. We have the economic potential here to develop the town, but that would bring more Bosniaks back to Srebrenica, and the people who run Republika Srpska want to limit that,” the mayor added.

“The right to return home after the war was one of Dayton’s criteria, but these guys won’t give back easily what they gained through bad crimes.”

Mladic and his wartime political ally Radovan Karadzic are being tried for war crimes at the U.N. court in The Hague, but a deep sense of injustice continues to gnaw at Durakovic and many fellow Bosniaks.

Before the war, Bosniaks formed a majority of Srebrenica’s 35,000 residents; now the population is a quarter of that size, and Serbs are easily the largest group.

Muslims don’t feel threatened here anymore, but resent constant reminders that Bosnian Serbs still run the region they ethnically cleansed 20 years ago: schools are named after Serbian military heroes and do not teach what happened at Srebrenica, and there is no official memorial day to commemorate the genocide.

“Everything here carries the name of Republika Srpska,” said Durakovic.

“It feels like Serbs are even claiming to own the air and the water — everything is theirs, except the crimes.”

Bosniaks and Serbs mostly get along now in Srebrenica, but talk of the war is taboo.

For Muslims across Bosnia, the hardest part of this silence is the suspicion that their Serb neighbors may know where missing Bosniaks are buried.

Bosnian Serb forces used bulldozers and trucks to move Bosniak bodies between mass graves in an attempt to hide their crimes. These burial sites are still being discovered, and it is common for the remains of one victim to be found in several graves, often dozens of miles apart.

Junuz Catic was found in 2005 in one such pit, some 30 miles from Srebrenica.

Next Saturday, more than 100 recently identified Srebrenica victims will be buried at the cemetery in Potocari, but Nino Catic’s remains will not be among them.

Three years ago, desperate for some trace of her son, Hajra travelled to the remote creek where Nino was last seen on his escape from Srebrenica.

In an area that was still mined, she found human bones lying on the ground.

“I brought back a skull with me. I know I shouldn’t have moved it, but I couldn’t stop myself. I reported it immediately,” Hajra said.

The remains of five people were found in that spot; only three have been identified so far using DNA analysis.

For Hajra, the wait and the uncertainty over Nino are agonizing, but she has never considered leaving Srebrenica.

“I have to stay and keep busy, to show that not all of us have gone,” she said.

“And we must keep talking about this, so the world doesn’t forget.”

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