Sunday, April 21, 2013

A Tale of Two Cities

 On November 9, 1993, the Stari Most (“Old Bridge”) crumbled into the Neretva River.  Commissioned by Suleiman the Magnificent, it had been standing for over four centuries and had become a well-known symbol of the Ottoman Empire.

The bridge, which has since been reconstructed, is located in Mostar, a city in the southern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.  Like most regions in Bosnia, the history of the violence in Mostar is far too detailed for a short blog post, so please forgive me for the quick summary that is necessarily brief and simplified.

Violence in Mostar began with shelling from the Yugoslav army (controlled by Serbia) in April 1992.  The army managed to take over much of the city, and Bosnian armed forces as well as the Croatian forces joined together to defend the city.  While it was once ethnically integrated, Mostar was quickly divided into a western part dominated by Croat forces and an eastern part dominated by Bosnian forces.

Though Croats and Bosniaks initially worked together to defend Mostar against Yugoslav forces, in May 1993, Croat forces abandoned their earlier bilateral cooperation and attacked the city.   In essence, Mostar was part of a plan for a Greater Croatia (much like Greater Serbia).  “Ethnic cleansing” of Bosniaks began, including concentration camps similar to the ones in Prijedor.  And, many cultural monuments, including the bridge, were destroyed. 

Today, several Croat leaders are on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia for their actions in Mostar and the surrounding region.  The remnants of the violence remain strong, however.  While the bridge has been rebuilt, many areas of the city are riddled with bullet holes or completely in ruins. 

Beyond the buildings, Mostar also remains a divided city.  Even today, there is clearly a Bosniak side and a Croatian side.  As a resident of Mostar told me, there are two of everything—two universities, two school systems, two bus systems, etc.  In short, Mostar remains ethnically divided, and, in a sense, is a manifestation of successful ethnic cleansing.

           A government building in Mostar.  The signs are listed in both Bosnian and Croatian, which are essentially the same language.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

Travels to Prijedor

On a small road near the city of Prijedor stands an old, white building.   It looks no different than many of the other buildings that surround it—dilapidated and empty.  Behind it, children have set up nets on a basketball court in order to play soccer, and a few small shops can be found close by.  It’s hard to imagine that, twenty years ago, this building was a concentration camp.

The building—Trnopolje Camp— was a transit camp.  Bosnian Serb military and police authorities in Prijedor, a municipality in northwestern Bosnia, established it during the summer of 1992 as a place to intern Bosniak and Croat civilians.  While there, detainees underwent harsh beatings, torture, and rape (among many other forms of violence) and were often then transported to other camps in the region.

Trnopolje was not an isolated camp.  Instead, it was part of a larger campaign of genocide that was mainly aimed to eliminate Bosniak residents from the region.   There were multiple other camps where civilians were forcibly detained.  Many died in transport, and some never even began the journey—they were killed in their homes or right outside their houses on the street.

The Serb military, police officers, paramilitaries, and other forces used these camps as part of their plan to create an “ethnically clean” region for Serbs.  Notably, many other types of violence were prevalent in the region.  For example, in June 1992, all non-Serbs were required to wear white armbands and hang white flags on the windows of their homes.  Cultural monuments, such as mosques, were also destroyed throughout the municipality.

During my time in Prijedor, I was able to visit several of the former camps. Almost all of them are unmarked.  In fact, the only sign at Trnopolje is on a statue dedicated to fallen Serb soldiers.  There are many reasons behind such genocide denial, but one key reason is that this region is actually a separate political entity that was created largely through ethnic cleansing and reinforced by the peace process after the violence.  It’s called Republika Srbka—the Serb Republic.

As the genocide is not acknowledged, there are not memorials at the camps.  In fact, Omarska, one of the most notorious camps, is currently owned by a steel company.  Rather than a place of remembrance, it is a place where iron ore is mined.  Pictures of this camp are not allowed (check it out on google, though), but I was able to visit it with a survivor who painted a vivid picture in my mind by pointing out where torturing took place, where bodies were piled for morning pick-ups, and where he was beaten.  

Today, many human rights groups are fighting to stop genocide denial, and several associations of former detainees are working to create memorials at the camps.  I'll write more on this soon!

Monday, April 8, 2013

Sarajevo Roses

On April 6, 1992, Sarajevo fell under siege.  Troops from the Yugoslav People’s Army (which was controlled by Serbia) and Republika Srpska (which was essentially an area of Bosnia that had declared itself an autonomous region) surrounded the city’s hills and pelted it with mortar shells, sniper fire, and multiple other weapons.  Over the course of the next 44 months, more than 11,000 people were killed, and many others were wounded.  By some accounts, over 300 grenades fell on the city each day.

During the siege, communication, along with water lines and electricity, was often blocked.  People lived in constant fear of death, and many people and children were killed as they went about daily activities, like waiting in line for bread or playing in a park.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been learning about the ever-present fear people felt throughout these months.  I have also heard many stories of resilience, such as stories about plays that were put on to keep morale high or schools that were created in stairways so children could continue learning.

On this 21st anniversary, I was able to participate in an act of commemoration with a group of young human rights activists.  The Youth Initiative for Human Rights has, for the last few years, been painting Sarajevo Roses to commemorate the victims killed during the siege.  

When a mortar shell hit the sidewalk, it essentially left a scar in the concrete.  These holes were later filled in with red resin, making them almost look like flowers--Sarajevo Roses.  These small memorials have been fading, however, so on Saturday we traveled to some of the areas where mortar shells killed civilians and repainted the roses.  The youth also laid fresh roses on top of the concrete scars, something I will never forget.