Fate of Bosnian refugees offers bitter lessons for Ukraine – POLITICO

Bosnian Muslim girls go to one of many websites of the 1995 mass execution of their family members, on July 13, 2020 in Potočari close to Srebrenica | Damir Sagolj/Getty Images

Even for individuals who can return residence after conflict, life can’t be the identical once more.

By Richard Meares

Richard Meares is a London-based journalist and editor.

Thirty years in the past immediately, Mirsad fled to the woods and have become a refugee when Europe’s worst conflict since 1945 got here to his village in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today, he watches with a sickening sense of déjà vu as Europe once more faces its worst battle and refugee disaster since World War II.

“It’s horrible, horrible what’s going on in Ukraine. An absolute mess. It brings back all the memories for me,” he mentioned.

Mirsad finally returned residence some years after the conflict, to stay in an space seized and nonetheless managed by the identical “side” that had killed his brother, terrorized his dad and mom and burnt his village. But solely as a result of he was pressured to.

His story reveals how laborious any return may be, even when backed by broad worldwide assist and a peacekeeping pressure to make it protected.

On May 3, 1992, within the early days of the now infamous “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnia, Serb paramilitaries descended on the village of Hranča, beat to dying three males who had not managed to flee, shot lifeless a younger lady, Selma Hodžić, and set properties on fireplace.

Soon, the Serbs managed this entire space of jap Bosnia — not removed from Srebrenica, the place Serb forces later dedicated the worst bloodbath in Europe since World War II — as they tried to drive out all of the Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, who had made up most of its inhabitants.

A girl cries in Hranča, Bosnia-Herzegovina on May 4, 1992, the day after Serb paramilitaries beat three males to dying, shot lifeless a younger lady and set fireplace to properties within the village | Richard Meares

With nowhere left to go, Mirsad, then aged 31, and different villagers who had additionally fled to the woods, got here again down 10 days later and gave themselves up. Serb forces detained and beat them for days in a faculty health club in a close-by city, the place the guards shot different males in entrance of them. Mirsad overheard them bragging that they’d overwhelmed a person to dying there days earlier, and realized they have been speaking about his personal brother.

He was later a part of a gaggle expelled to Visoko, in Bosnian authorities territory.

“When I got to Visoko I fell ill with fever. I just couldn’t get rid of the fear,” he mentioned.

From there, utilizing individuals smugglers and even crossing mountain borders on foot, Mirsad made his approach to his sister in Germany.

There, he met his now-wife Azemina — one other refugee who got here from Glogova, just some kilometers from Hranča, the place 64 villagers have been massacred on May 9. She had fled over the hills to Srebrenica.

Frozen battle

In 1995, a world peace deal largely froze the battle, leaving Bosnia nominally entire however politically break up in two. One half of the nation — together with Mirsad’s village — was the brand new Bosnian Serb Republic, the opposite half was named the Federation, made up primarily of Bosniaks and Croats.

Eager to eliminate tens of 1000’s of refugees, the European Union quickly declared that Bosnians ought to go residence. And to attempt to not reward ethnic cleaning, peacekeepers have been despatched to make sure the security of returnees to areas the place they’d now be a minority.

Crucially, the deal was backed by each the West and Russia.

But whereas the lure of residence may be robust, who needs to go and stay in an space managed by the individuals who drove you out? What Ukrainian will need to return to a Russian-run Mariupol?

Mirsad definitely didn’t need to go residence. When Germany informed him time was up, he slipped into Sweden and utilized for asylum, however that failed too. In 2003, he lastly went residence with his spouse and fellow refugee Azemina, and their two younger daughters.

Mirsad’s dad and mom had returned earlier than him, bored with being refugees in one other a part of Bosnia. Often, when conflict approaches, the aged least need to depart ; however when masked gunmen doused the couple with petrol and threatened to set them alight, they fled, their home going up in flames behind them.

With international support, they rebuilt their residence from scratch.

An deserted home within the village of Hranča | Richard Meares

“The local Serb builders came to work on our house — and greeted us cheerily as if nothing had ever happened,” his late mom informed me angrily some years in the past.

Half of Bosnia’s greater than 2 million displaced individuals finally returned to their properties, U.N. figures present. But not like Mirsad, many refused to ever return to their former properties in areas the place they feared persecution.

Life amongst ghosts

I first met Mirsad’s household just a few years after the conflict, after I went to see what had grow to be of the village that, as a Reuters correspondent, I had chanced upon the morning after it was torched — a scene that has stayed vivid in my reminiscence ever since.

Fellow journalist Tim Judah and I have been driving to Sarajevo, noticed the palls of smoke from the highway and went to research. We got here throughout wailing, traumatized girls and youngsters wandering the paths between their smoldering properties.

Bodies of the three overwhelmed males have been lined up on the bottom. In her residence, Ramiza Hodžić sat on the couch, the physique of her 7-year-old daughter Selma, wrapped like a mummy, subsequent to her.

Although I didn’t comprehend it then, Mirsad was hiding up within the woods just some hundred meters away.

Since we met in 2006, I’ve been again to see the household a number of occasions over time. One day, Mirsad confirmed me the tree behind which, “that day,” as he at all times refers to it, he had hidden in worry, and watched because the village’s cattle burned to dying of their sheds.

Mirsad mentioned that since coming again, he nonetheless feels surrounded by the ghosts of the previous, which may loom up at any second.

“This area was so lovely, and it’s still like that in my memory,” he mentioned. “That day, it was the start of May. Everything was turning green, it was so, so beautiful.”

After his return, he did odd jobs, tending raspberries and different crops within the fields of neighbors who had by no means returned, and protecting his head down in order to not appeal to consideration. Outdoors, he’ll solely focus on the previous in a whisper for worry of being overheard.

When he visited his daughters’ college within the close by city of Bratunac, he would shudder.

“Imagine how hard it was for me when I took my children to school and I realized that they were going to that gym hall where I was held captive, and where my brother and other people were killed. It’s inhumane,” Mirsad mentioned. “It’s impossible not to feel fear there.”

Some of Hranča’s attackers have been from Serbia. Others have been native, neighbors even, he mentioned. Eventually, one of many latter was convicted for his function within the assault — however just for burning homes.

“They wanted me to be a witness. But I have to live here, and no one will guarantee my security,” Mirsad mentioned.

Serb neighbors would cross the highway on the town to keep away from dealing with Mirsad after the conflict, leaving him questioning in the event that they felt disgrace.

But he nonetheless doesn’t go into city in Bratunac usually. His sort — Bosniaks — are positively not welcome in a lot of its outlets and cafes.

In Hranča, the ruins of destroyed properties can nonetheless be seen immediately among the many weeds and bushes which might be reclaiming them. Only a fraction of the pre-war inhabitants of round 300 ever got here again, and about 50 individuals stay right here now, down by the primary highway within the valley.

The grave of Selma Hodžić, who was shot whereas tending a lamb | Richard Meares

On the largely abandoned hillside above, as soon as the beating coronary heart of the village, are the graves of these killed that day 30 years in the past, together with that of Selma Hodžić, shot whereas she was tending a lamb. Her mom fled and by no means got here again to stay right here.

There are greater than 90 names on a village memorial to “victims of the aggression against Bosnia” — which dares not say who killed them. Most died in 1992, however some have been villagers who fled throughout the valley and thru woods to Srebrenica, solely to be killed within the 1995 genocide by Bosnian Serb forces — together with Azemina’s brother and a few 8,000 different Bosniaks.

Trying to look ahead

In Hranča, it will possibly really feel eerie and lonely, particularly in winter, Mirsad mentioned.

“We’re afraid of being left alone. There is so much space for life, but all these empty houses.”

On one go to again to Hranča, I keep in mind considering what a depressing life it gave the impression to be, dwelling within the shadow of the individuals who had killed your brother and ruined your life.

But Mirsad and his household have tried to make one of the best of issues, decided to not let resentment fester and poison their lives, and to provide individuals the advantage of the doubt.

He and Azemina have two shiny and cheerful daughters who bought a good schooling, first on the native college after which in Srebrenica, amongst primarily Serb schoolmates they managed to get alongside effectively with.

“You have to think positively,” Đenita, the older daughter, informed me whereas on the college there. “If they tell me I am different, I find it sad, I feel sorry for them. We must not hate each other.”

Mirsad complains, nonetheless, that his daughters realized solely the Serbian model of historical past, Serbian language and Serbian literature — nearly as in the event that they weren’t in Bosnia in any respect.

Substitute Russian for Serbian and the identical factor awaits Ukrainian youngsters now at school in Russian-controlled areas.

Mirsad’s ladies have gone on to check and work in Tuzla, throughout the inner border within the Bosniak-controlled a part of the nation.

It’s laborious to see them ever coming again. The capital, Sarajevo, and even emigration might beckon, because it does for a lot of Bosnians who suppose their divided nation — now not at conflict however removed from having discovered true peace — has little future to supply.

Its unity is extra at stake now than it has been because the conflict, and the battle in Ukraine gained’t assist.

The leaders of the Bosnian Serb Republic, staunch cheerleaders for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his conflict, are threatening to secede.

The EU-led peacekeeping pressure which nonetheless retains a lid on potential violence, has been nearly doubled in measurement because the conflict started in Ukraine, amid fears that the geopolitical instability may have a knock-on impact in Bosnia.

Mirsad watches Ukraine with disappointment, anger and revulsion. He mentioned all of it feels very acquainted however added: “The bombing and shelling and flattening of cities, it’s far worse than it was here. What’s it all for?”

As a pretext for conflict within the Nineteen Nineties, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević cited a have to defend Serbs left outdoors his borders when Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia fell aside — first in Croatia after which in Bosnia, the place an estimated 100,000 individuals died.

Putin, who laments the tip of the Soviet Union, makes a lot the identical argument about Russians, together with these in Ukraine, in addition to in Georgia and Moldova, two different former Soviet republics that now have frozen conflicts and breakaway Russian-backed areas.

If Putin fails to defeat Ukraine, he has each curiosity in leaving it a weak and divided nation on life assist. Bosnians know what that appears like.

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