Sunday, June 06, 2010

Journalist Peter Lippman Bosnia Journal #1

[Peter Lippman has returned to Bosnia, and once again he is passing along his travel journal for wider distribution. Here is part 1. ED NOTE: This is a revised edition from the one originally posted.]

Bosnia Journal #1
June 2, 2010
Kozarac and Prijedor

I arrived in Sarajevo and quickly started seeing old friends, making new acquaintances, and setting up a couple of meetings. One worthwhile meeting was with Kurt Bassuener of the Democratization Policy Council, which perhaps could be described as being on the fringe of the international community. Kurt was friendly and forthcoming, and I consider his organization’s analysis to provide a helpful insight to the workings of the i.c. with regard to Bosnia-Herzegovina. (See

The international community has been struggling, long-term, to pressure the Bosnian politicians into creating a more practical and reasonable constitutional structure that can do away with ongoing political obstruction. Kurt says, “The three sides, if they are to negotiate, have three things in common: they want to keep what they’ve stolen, keep stealing, and maintain their lack of accountability.”

This is a good portrayal of the mechanics of Bosnian politics. On the other hand, adding some perspective, here’s what my friend Gordan, a local grassroots activist in Tuzla, said to me last night about the international community: “I want to stress that the officials of the international community are not innocent in all this. They speak as if they expect change, but they mainly support the members of the government, which works against the interests of the citizens; they never punish the politicians. They are responsible for what is going on here, because they created the Dayton constitutional system. It is a great hypocrisy!...if you had a population of Swedes, or anyone from any other well-organized society, living under the present Bosnian system, even they would not be able to solve our problems, because there are too many possibilities to obstruct good governance. I don’t mean to exonerate the Bosnian politicians, but the i.c. collaborates, morally and legally, with their operations.”

In Sarajevo I was brought up to date with the sad situation of Bosnians living in economic stagnation compounded by the worldwide economic crisis, in an atmosphere of increasing political tension that is customary in this year of national elections. But the tension is not new; Serb prime minister of the Republika Srpska (RS) entity, Milorad Dodik, has cranked up the tension through an ongoing series of clever, well-focused maneuvers designed to heighten inter-ethnic fear and suspicion. Bassuener says, “Dodik is the logical outcome of Dayton. We have a situation of deterrent failure, because no rules apply here.”

Meanwhile, pensions are low, unemployment is high, and prices are skyrocketing. My friend “Amira” in Tuzla says, “For three years my pension has remained at around 300 KM. But three years ago, a kilo of meat cost 7 KM, and now it is 15 KM.”

I have been hearing of people borrowing money from banks just to pay for food.


I hurried up to Kozarac for the May 24 observance of the anniversary of the first Serb attack on that town, when hundreds of people were killed, thousands driven into concentration camps (Omarska, Keraterm, Trnopolje), and the rest -- a total of around 25,000 -- expelled. Five thousand homes in the area of Kozarac were destroyed. I have been following return to Kozarac since 1998, when the town was a dismal and foreboding place. Now Kozarac is a relatively pleasant place, where some 20% of the former (mainly Bosniak) population has returned. There has been return to nearby Prijedor, the municipal seat, as well. The 80% of people from Kozarac who now live abroad constitute a strong and supportive diaspora. I was told that return to the Prijedor municipality peaked in 2003, and since then, people have been leaving.

Participating in the commemoration activities, I had the chance for the first time to visit Omarska and Trnopolje. At Omarska, I was rather surprised to see that the notorious “white house,” where many prisoners were tortured and killed, stands untouched. The international steel company Mittal bought the Omarska mining complex several years ago and operates it today, but has obstructed the placement of any kind of memorial to the victims of the camp (notwithstanding a Dec./2005 announcement of intent to construct a memorial). They allow people to come look at the white house, but the local authorities throw up roadblocks to visits to the rest of the complex. Sadly, some local (Bosniak) and international figures have -- to their own profit -- participated in confounding attempts to create a memorial, and the project has been at a standstill for several years. (If you are interested in signing a petition to support the memorial project, it is available at

Satko, a survivor from Omarska, says, “I live to tell.”

Satko took me and a group of German visitors to Omarska and told us his story. Upon the fall of Kozarac, he was taken to the camp with his father. Pointing to the biggest building of the complex, he said, “We were in rooms in that building. From the windows, in the morning we could see the bodies of people who had been killed that night… There is a certain way that people scream when they know they are going to die.

“There was no way to know how to survive...There, in the room called the “garage,” they crammed many people into a small room. No one could sit down. It became so hot that the paint melted. On night, a man died standing up. When people were allowed to move out of the room, they noticed that he had died. And in the ‘white house, people were tortured and killed nearly every night of that summer of 1992.”

“We had to run along this building to the restaurant there, for food. We only received one meal a day, but since there were thousands of us here, they were pretty much feeding people all the time. Sometimes they put benches that we had to jump over or oil for us to slip on. The walkways were often covered in blood that we had to clean up.”

At one point Satko was so weak that he could not move or talk. He noticed that his father was crying. His father had not even cried when his best friend was killed. Satko understood that his father thought Satko was dying. He whispered to his father, “Dad, don’t cry. This is your and my film. In a movie, the heroes always survive.”

One man, a local Serb named Mirko Amidzic, was also taken to Omarska because he refused to cooperate with the new regime, saying, “These are my people.” His father managed to get him out of the camp. Later he was ordered to join the Bosnian Serb army, but he refused. Subsequently both he and his parents were tortured, and Mirko died in 1995. His death was called a suicide.

After foreign journalists including the valiant Ed Vulliamy discovered the camps and informed the world, the camps were closed and some of the prisoners were released and expelled from the Republika Srpska. Satko was transferred to Manjaca camp, where he was held together with thousands of other civilians. That camp was finally closed in December of 1992, and Satko ended up in Western Europe.

Few of the perpetrators have been punished. Satko said, “Tadic, the first person convicted for crimes here, killed some of his own friends. He was sentenced to 20 years and served 15.” Meanwhile, 63 mass graves of camp victims have been unearthed. About 20,000 people passed through Trnopolje, and 3-4,000 through Omarska. It is estimated that between 900 and 1,000 people were killed in three months in 1992. Mass graves have been found in Kevljani (456 people) and in Ljubija (around 370). At Kevljani, the victims were interred six meters below the ground.

Satko recalls that a friend, commenting on his activism, once told him that he has “survivor’s guilt.” He comments, “I do not have survivor’s guilt. I have survivor’s responsibility.” He took us to visit the school at Trnopolje, in a village on the outskirts of Omarska. Memorial designations have been obstructed at that location as well; however, Serb authorities constructed a large cross and memorial to fallen Serb soldiers -- right in front of the school where so many Bosniak prisoners had been abused.

Returning to Kozarac, we visited the “mezarje,” the local cemetery of reburied Bosniak war victims. Satko said, “I am talking because I could be lying here under the ground, and these people cannot talk anymore.” Hundreds of posts mark the graves; one bore the name of a woman with the dates: “1892-1992.”

By way of remarking on the lunacy of the whole war, Satko recounted, “There was a UN soldier from Kenya who served with the NATO troops in Croatia. He said, ‘I don’t understand what it was all about. They are all white, and they all have water.’

That evening Satko and I had a drink together, and Satko was in a mood to sing. I thought of my own occasional remark: "It's good to be alive." I think that thought must have a very special meaning to Satko.


Kozarac, mostly Bosniak, feels like an enclave in the RS, an island of Bosniaks in an otherwise ”ethnically-cleansed” area,

One night in Kozarac a waiter serves me a drink. He has a big tattoo in Arabic, the word “Allah,” on his right forearm.

I spent a lot of time with my friend Ervin. Ervin was 18 at the beginning of the war, and spent some time at Trnopolje. Upon his release from Trnopolje he was expelled to central Bosnia, an area controlled by the army of the government of Bosnia. He joined and fought in the 17th Krajisnicka Brigada. This was a brigade of displaced men who fought as a mobile forward operating force, wherever the Bosnian army needed them.

After the war Ervin returned to Kozarac, and since then he has been working to implement very effective civic actions, including setting up the web portal This provides the crucial communication link between the return community and the diaspora. Ervin works with young people, organizing sports and educational activities. In 2004, he and Satko founded the “Optimisti 2004” foundation, which organized several projects in Kozarac (such as the extensive reconstruction of sports fields and a gym hall in the local school). To my mind, he is the best example of a “pozitivac,” someone who thinks positively, does not dwell on his own victimization, and strives to improve the lot of his community. As such, Ervin and other pozitivci are the object of much jealousy. Others in positions of power work to undermine Ervin’s accomplishments, but he keeps going.

Ervin continued, “A person has the sun on one side of him, and his shadow on the other. You can spend your life chasing your shadow, but you will never catch it.”

Sitting at a kafana at the lower end of Kozarac, Ervin gestured up the street to a workman repairing a house. “That man abused me when I was a prisoner in the camp,” he said. Now he’s just a marginal figure. I look at him and I think, ‘God, how the world has turned.’ If I can ignore him, then I come out stronger. I don’t hate people. It’s not because of them, but for my own sake, not to bear that burden.”

“I am for coexistence, but there are limits. One man, Mile Mutic from Prijedor, was a warmonger on the radio in 1992. Recently, he came to Prijedor and read poetry at a festival. It is as if Radovan Karadzic came here to read poetry.”

Like everyone in Kozarac, Ervin is concerned about the search for the remains of the rest of those killed during the war. He says, “We want to know who killed whom, when and where that happened, and what the entire chain of command was. The mass graves were created and the burials organized during the war, when fuel was hard to come by.

“Can you imagine running a bulldozer and burying bodies all day, and then coming home and asking, “What’s for dinner?”

“The investigation for missing people is being conducted in a backwards fashion, without cooperation. The RS investigator looks for missing people in Sarajevo, and the Muslim investigator from the Federation, based in Bihac, looks for people here. They should cooperate; a crime is a crime.”

I attended a meeting where the new DNA identification of 91 exhumed remains of victims was announced. There was a fuss because of the insensitive way that people were being informed, after 18 years, that their loved ones had been found. One woman who heard the name of her son fainted. Ervin criticized the speaker for saying that “bodies” were identified, when in many cases it could just be one bone from someone’s body.

Ervin drove me up to Kozara, another prominent place I had never gotten around to visiting. Kozara is a prominent hill above Kozarac and Prijedor, a memorial to a very significant battle in World War II. There, in 1942, Germans had surrounded a local population, but with the help of the Partisans, many fought their way out. The memorial, a tall stack of concrete, is located at the top of a hill in the woods in a very pleasant place. Around the stack there are slabs of concrete lying down. Ervin told me that those represent defeated Germans. There is a memorial museum there, but it appears to have been re-arranged to portray only Serb defenders.

Driving back to Kozarac, Ervin told me that in the war, when they were in the trenches, fighting, they would wear a scarf with perfume. At night in bed, they would cover their faces with that scarf to feel something gentler than real life.


In Prijedor I visited Edin Ramulic, who works with the organization “Izvor,” women survivors of the war who are seeking the remains of their loved ones and calling for prosecution of the war criminals. Edin is a stalwart activist in the community. He told me that of over three thousand people who were listed as killed or missing in the entire municipality, around two thousand have been exhumed and identified to date.

Edin commented, “The Prijedor police have not helped us at all. They are capable of doing police work; when our office was burglarized they managed to find our computer. Some of them participated in the war crimes. There are Bosniak returnees who are in the police, but they are in the lower ranks. …The municipality has given 687,000 KM to the organizations of demobilized RS soldiers, but nothing to us. They can have a good life, but there is nothing for the children of the disappeared.

“There are monuments or memorials for the Serb soldiers in front of all the public institutions here, but the government obstructs the creation of memorials for the victims on our side.”

I asked Edin how he felt, living among his persecutors. He said, “Every day I pass the Butik, which is owned by a person who led the police and killed people. But I just pass by. People don’t react anymore.” I asked him, “Does that mean things are a little normal than before?” He answered, “Maybe it is too normal for what happened. For example, Branko Topola was a guard in Trnopolje, He became the owner of a company that installed gutters on houses, and he was rebuilding returnees’ houses. Later he died. The father of the owner of the kafana nearby was a member of the wartime ‘crisis staff;’ he killed people.”

Concerning the dilemma of the project for the memorial at Omarska, Edin said, “In the RS, they insist that such a memorial may not be created until there is a state-level law regarding memorials and the language contained. Meanwhile, they have been posting memorials for their soldiers everywhere, even in places where there was no fighting.

“However, for us, it is more of a priority to see the war criminals imprisoned. Memorials are not the priority. That is not where the real message gets through -- it is a message meant only for the victims, and the message from each side just bypasses the other side. So the function of the monument is lost. We need an institution here in the city, where people can study the history and see the evidence.”

I asked Edin if he would call the situation in Prijedor apartheid for the Bosniaks, or something else, something more mild. He answered, “Yes, it is that way it is in employment, and in the treatment of the victims of the war. Returnees who have companies must be much more organized with their books and payment of taxes. The police are much more tolerant towards the Serbs. The only employment for returnees here is in private companies, with relatives.” His colleague commented that her two grown sons were unable to find jobs.

“It is not so bad in the schools, although the education is very nationalist,” he continued. “Slobodan Kuruzovic was the director of the schools until he died. During the war he was the head commander at Trnopolje camp. Returnees are only ten percent minority. So all they can do is stay quiet and put up with the situation.


Prijedor these days feels like a very pleasant place, with its restored central pedestrian walkway adorned with attractive fountains and always populated by people walking, seeing and being seen. Young people are decked out in their finest, enjoying the prime of their life. Mothers show off their babies. (Older people, however, look worn out.) The atmosphere indeed seems more relaxed compared to earlier postwar years. A casual visitor could only be pleased to spend a little time in the town. But my local friends described it all as “shminka” (makeup), in a place where ordinary people concentrate on finding jobs, and disappointment is the most common attitude. But apathy reigns, says my friend “Mirsad.” He is an activist, formerly with “pokret Dosta!” (“Dosta” means “enough,” something like “basta” in Spanish).

Mirsad says, “These days, nationalism is only for the little people. The big politicians are just criminals; corruption is their real work. Dodik is not even a nationalist, but he raises tension along national lines among uneducated people in this election year.”

Mirsad researched the monuments to the dead in every local community in Prijedor municipality. “There were perhaps around 100 Serbs killed, not more. But there is a monument to them in every neighborhood, even to people who were not killed in this municipality. The Serb veterans organizations would not help me; they refused to work with me. One member even threatened to beat me up.”

Mirsad says, “To me Prijedor is the dearest city in the world, but there is discrimination here. There is in Sarajevo as well, but nowhere near what there is here. Tuzla is great. There, people work together and tease each other on the basis of their ethnicity, and everyone understands that it is just a joke. Bihac is good too.

“I have been looking for work. I got indirect invitations to join various political parties, but I wouldn’t do it. I have a friend who went to Banja Luka and applied for work as an English teacher. Her application got to the level where Dodik said she had to join his party -- his control has gotten to such extremes. She joined the party and got the job.

“I finished a degree in sociology; I am a professor of sociology. But I can’t get a job. All the criteria are reversed. Religion should be a personal thing, but now they are teaching it in the kindergartens.”

Friends in Prijedor explained to me the situation of many people who have co-signed on bank loans, after I noticed headlines in the news about this problem. People take out a loan and then default, and the co-signer is stuck with the debt. Bankers have been forging people’s signatures. It happens that someone will take out a loan for 5,000 KM, then someone will add a zero, making it 50,000 KM. There is an organization in Prijedor called the Association of Swindled Co-signers.

So, behind the pleasant atmosphere of “too much normality,” post-war suffering goes on, with some innovations. If all history is local, each locality has its own predominant interpretation. Most people do not see the whole truth. To make matters worse, a few people in the beleaguered minority return communities collaborate with the local powers, retaining their positions and profiting off of the suffering of their constituency by whitewashing it.

1 comment:

Srebrenica Genocide said...

Peter said: "The international steel company Mittal bought the Omarska mining complex several years ago and operates it today, but has obstructed the placement of any kind of memorial to the victims of the camp."

I am disgussted by Mittal and local Serb authorities who committed - nothing short of - genocide in Prijedor. In my opinion - and hopefully we will prove it in the case against Karadzic - Prijedor also qualifies as genocide. It is absolutely offensive, disgusting, and violently provoking that victims of the concentration camps are being deliberately prevented from placing any type of memorial on the site.

PS: Does anybody know who took this photo in one of Prijedor's concentration camps? I found it @ web site, but without the credits. Here is the photo.