BALKANS TRAGEDY

Nura Alispahic is a Srebrenica commuter. Twice a month she and her grown daughter Magbula take a bus from their home in Tuzla, three hours away, to the mining town in the Bosnian mountains, scene of Europe's worst massacre since the Nazi death camps. On July 11, 1995, Serb troops led by Gen. Ratko Mladic took prisoner and slaughtered at least 7,800 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica. There are so many women like them--widows, fatherless daughters, brotherless sisters--that the town of only 3,500 residents is served by four daily buses from Tuzla and Sarajevo, two hours away. Nura and her daughter stop at the cemetery in the village of Potocari, where the 1,400 victims recovered so far--including Nura's son Azmir--are buried. Then they visit their empty and half-ruined house, and by evening they're on the bus back. "I couldn't spend a night there," says Magbula. "When I enter the town, I feel the creeps, like watching someone entering a town in a horror movie."

Back in Tuzla, where they live in modest refugee housing, Nura and Magbula have recently been watching another real-life horror movie, a homemade videotape released by the war-crimes tribunal at The Hague on June 1 showing a Serb paramilitary unit, the Scorpions, joyfully executing six Srebrenica captives. Nura remembers the first time she saw the clip, which was aired repeatedly all last month on Bosnian TV networks. "The announcer said, 'Now a mother will see her son and a sister will see her brother,' " Nura says, and that is indeed what happened. Nura immediately recognized Azmir, a 16-year-old who wanted to be a doctor, and watched the last 10 minutes of his life. "My son, they killed you!" she cried the first time she saw a Serb soldier shoot him twice in the back. One of the killers has been identified by Serbian police as Branislav Medic, a car mechanic from Stejanovici in Serbia, the father of four girls. "My child turned back as if looking for help and they killed him twice," she says. (Azmir was still alive after the first shots, so his killer shot him three more times.) "They were chewing gum. It was fun to them," she says. Azmir was barefoot, she couldn't help but noticing with maternal outrage.

Nearly a decade after the Dayton peace accords brought to an end the Bosnian civil war, the wounds of that conflict are still smarting. "This war was finished without a victorious side or a defeated side, so everyone won and everyone lost. There was no accepted version of what happened," says Zdravko Grebo, a prominent law professor at the University of Sarajevo. (He calls Dayton "that Frankenstein document.") While the accords ended the fighting, they also enshrined the country's internal divisions by creating two "entities"--the Republika Srpska and the Muslim-Croat federation, each with its own police and army and bureaucracy--alongside a central government with a three-member presidency, representing Croats, Muslims and Serbs. The result is a country with five presidents, two prime ministers--and a host of international agencies that really run things. In villages and towns across Bosnia, people live more apart than even during the war. There is scarcely a single Serb-owned shop now in Sarajevo, a once proudly multi-ethnic city. Children go to separate schools, live in separate communities, look to ethnically based police forces to protect them. Those in the Serb entity consider themselves part of neighboring Serbia, rather than as Bosnians. Croatians in Herzegovina, the other half of Bosnia and Herzegovina, consider themselves Croats marooned in the wrong nation-state.

The mix is inherently combustible. Paddy Ashdown, the high representative of the international community--and essentially the benevolent dictator of Bosnia--holds the place together largely by fiat. He has sweeping powers to remove officials and enact laws by decree. Two presidents have been forced out by him, and to compel the Serbs to own up to the Srebrenica massacre at long last, he first had to cashier 50 officials. Finally last year, the Bosnian Serb president, Dragan Cavic, conceded that in Srebrenica "several thousand Bosniaks were liquidated in a way that is in severe violation of international humanitarian law," a circumlocution that managed to avoid using words like massacre or genocide. A report released only this March by the Bosnian Serb entity--which encompasses Srebrenica--at last listed the names of many of the 800 perpetrators of the massacres.

Such documents may be too little, too late to promote grass-roots healing. Srebrenica today looks if anything even worse than my last visit there, in 1996 just after the Dayton accords were signed. Many of the buildings have been rebuilt, including the mosque, which had been so thoroughly destroyed that only a single stone remained--now enshrined with a plaque in the wall of the new building funded by Malaysia. But the town still resembles a war zone, dirty and poorly maintained, scarred by bullet holes and weighed down by an air of resignation. In 1996 Srebrenica was crowded with Serbs--both original residents and Serb refugees fleeing parts of Bosnia handed over by Dayton to the Muslim-Croat federation. Now many of those Serbs have been evicted by the original Muslim owners, people like the Alispahics. The Muslims may have reclaimed their homes on paper, but in practice most don't want to live there again. The town is strikingly empty as a result.

Mujo Sirucic was the first Bosnian Muslim to return to Srebrenica, in 1999, and at the time he was escorted everywhere by police, with a police car parked in front of his home, burned down by the Serbs and rebuilt by Catholic Relief Services. "The process of return is already ended or close to the end, but the leaving is not over. Now there are a lot of Serbs who want to leave the town," he says. He and his wife are among the few Muslims of working age, with children in the school--a Serb-dominated school, with crosses and icons in every classroom. On his old street there were once 400 residents; now there are 15. "Sometimes I ask myself, Where am I? What can my children do here? We don't lack anything here, we have everything but people."

Serbs were about a fourth of the population before the war, Muslims most of the rest. Now only 17 percent of the town's 3,500 residents are Muslims; in the surrounding district, 40 percent of 10,000 returnees are Muslim. "This is a ghost town, a town without life, not a drop of blood in it," says Radomir Pavlovic, a medical doctor and one of the Serbs on the municipal council. Pavlovic blames everyone from the Republika Srpska government, which he says ignores the enclave now despite its Serb population, to the Bosnian-Croat federation, which hasn't helped Muslims or Serbs who want to rebuild, to the international community "who have just forgotten about Srebrenica." But he also blames his fellow Serbs. "Many don't believe what happened here, but if we cannot admit the truth about the past, we cannot go into the future."

Srebrenica is in that sense a powerful if extreme symbol for Bosnia as a whole. Efforts to build national institutions have foundered. A unified army exists now on paper, but when Serb recruits were asked to take an oath to it in May, they refused; the head of EUFOR, the European force of 6,000 troops garrisoning the country, ordered the Serb Army chief sacked. Croat recruits took the oath, but only while playing the Croatian national anthem, rather than the Bosnian one.

The divisions keep the threat of violence alive, if subdued. In a recent poll conducted by the United Nations Development Program, a fourth of Bosnians said they thought the war would resume if foreign forces left the country, and nearly two-thirds said they thought the country's situation was worsening. Ashdown disagrees: "I don't accept the argument if troops left today they'd be back to fighting tomorrow." "I think there is no appetite for a resumption of hostilities," says Maj. Gen. David Leakey, the British commander of EUFOR. "People are exhausted, physically and mentally. Ordinary people want no more war." He asked his own interpreter, a Bosnian, what he thought would happen if foreign troops left. The man gave the country 10 days before degenerating into violence again.

While Ashdown says he's looking forward to transferring more of his powers to the Bosnian government this year, he still expects a new high representative to replace him when he leaves at the year-end. Perceptions that the mission is dragging on longer than it should, Ashdown says, are "the fault of politicians. We actually said we'd be in for a year--complete nonsense. It's not about mending the buildings, it's what goes on in people's heads. You're a fool if you believe it can be done in a year or two years and it's about time politicians told the truth about it." But he still insists things are going well. "The miracle in Bosnia is how much has been done in 10 years. A sixteenth of the population was killed, more than in France after World War II, half the population made homeless, 90 percent of the buildings destroyed. We have lost touch with how long it takes; healing is always measured in decades."

To be sure, Bosnia can boast several victories in the last decade. Not a single international peacekeeper has lost his life in hostile actions. No serious fighting has resumed between the ethnic communities. Elections took place peacefully. The first steps have been taken on applying to join the European Union, one of the few things all sides agree on in Bosnia. Yet when the Srebrenica anniversary arrives, it will be a commemoration of failure. Carla del Ponte, the prosecutor for the U.N.'s war-crimes tribunal at The Hague, announced that she would not even attend unless Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the former Bosnian Serb president, have been arrested by then. Del Ponte has criticized NATO and EUFOR, as well as Bosnian authorities, for not trying hard enough to catch them; the last ten war-criminal arrests were negotiated surrenders, and while there are rumors that such negotiations are going on for Mladic, no one expects Karadzic to come in anytime soon. "As long as the two persons primarily responsible for the Srebrenica genocide are at large, I cannot participate. I cannot face the victims," Del Ponte declared last month.

And even as the unresolved Bosnian conflict claims one set of victims, its animosities are creating another. The Scorpions videotape had been available for months at a video-rental store in the Serbian border town of Sid before someone last year turned a copy over to The Hague. While Nura watched her son killed by the man identified as Medic, the accused killer sat in Serbia watching his past unfold before him, with his own daughters sitting at his side. "The police will come," he told his family. "I might not be back." He fled but was arrested a few days later. His teenage daughter, shocked into silence, has been unable to speak since.

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