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Bosnia: A Fractured Country

October 2, 2003

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    Mercy Corps' work in Bosnia has gone on for years and has focused on repatriating refugees and rebuilding their houses. Photo: Laura Guimond/Mercy Corps Photo:

Bosnia is not a country - it is a buffer zone between Serbia and the rest of the Balkans. Before the war, the majority of the population was Muslim, which, in this part of the world, is somehow perversely considered a nationality or an ethnic group. In fact, the Muslims here are either Croats or Serbs, but by being Muslim they lose that identity.

Mercy Corps' work here has gone on for years and has focused on repatriating refugees and rebuilding their houses. Identifying those who are likely to return and to succeed is a lengthy and detailed process. Imagine being driven from your home under threat of death and coming back to live with those who issued the threats.

We met a woman named Stana who is a Bosnian Serb living in a village called Bratovac. A friend of hers, Zahneba, was a Muslim living in the same village. Zahneba's husband was taken away by Serbs in the village and never returned. Zahneba's response was to call Stana and form a women's association to begin the process of reconciliation. The two worked together on all sorts of projects and ultimately won an award for courage from a UN agency. Zahneba even insisted on including in one economic development project the man who took her husband away.

In the next village, Srebrenica, we stopped at the memorial that President Clinton dedicated about a week ago. Mass graves have been found all over this area and they are at work now trying to identify the thousands of bodies that have been exhumed. There was no one at the memorial except for two gravediggers. After staring at row after row of relatively new graves, I spoke to one of the men to ask if he knew any of the dead. He paused, looked over his shoulder to survey the scene and slowly turned and said "90 percent." How does one bear that kind of pain without hatred?

The Serbs laid siege to Srebrenica, which sits at the bottom of a narrow mountain valley, and eventually drove the Muslim inhabitants out. They rounded up most of the men and boys and killed them. The women went to concentration camps where they were tortured and raped. The aim was to so humiliate and frighten the Muslims that they would never return. The Serbs also went to each and every Muslim house, not just in the village, but throughout the surrounding mountains, and burned them so that they would be uninhabitable.

Although the Dayton Accords put an end to this part of the war, there has been no acceptance of responsibility or apology by Serbia. Indeed, the boundary established in Dayton is not recognized by most Serbs, though it is for the time being by Serbia the country. Instead, there is an area along the northern and eastern borders of Bosnia which is called Republica Serbska and is announced as such by prominent signs throughout the area.

There is no sense of nationhood in Bosnia. Before the war, people considered themselves Yugoslavians. Now, they are a population that appears to be clinically depressed. The economy is in terrible shape with few prospects of improvement. Mercy Corps is doing small-scale economic development projects, but it will take more than that to get this "country" moving again.