e-mail us

Cover story

A tenuous, dramatic homecoming

Special to the National Catholic Reporter
Kozarac, Bosnia

Emsuda Mujagic points to a spot near where her father’s house once stood. The house had been blown up. The spot, she notes, is marked by a patch of tall grass. “The cherry tree I planted when I was 6 years old used to be here,” she said.

Mujagic was one of the refugees I met recently who had returned to Kozarac, a small town within the municipality of Prijedor, one of the epicenters for brutal ethnic expulsion during the 1992-1995 war in Bosnia. The town is now a place of reconstruction and homecoming.

While the war in Kosovo grinds on and the number of the expelled rises to nearly a million, next door Bosnia’s refugees and internally displaced persons are engaged in a tenuous but dramatic process of return. Their stories provide some idea of what awaits those from Kosovo who take the path back home.

On April 30, 1992, a bloodless coup led by Serb ultra-nationalists initiated Prijedor’s campaign of killing and forced removal of non-Serbs. In their study of war crimes committed in the municipality, the United Nations Commission of Experts placed the total number of killed and deported persons at 52,811. The tactics of the expulsion included destruction of homes, separation of families, incarceration of thousands in concentration camps where many were tortured and executed, and forcible deportation of tens of thousands.

The choice to return is a fascinating testament to human resilience and perhaps a particularly Balkan skill for resuming life among neighbors who once burned your home or remained silent while you suffered.

Brutal attack on Kozarac

Walking down the main street of Kozarac, Nerma Fazlic passes the man who is rumored to have burned her former home. In a hushed voice, she says he was her former student and her husband’s employee. I ask if she is afraid to live near him. “I do not know where my courage is coming from,” she replies, “but somebody has to return.” She expects the town to start a multiethnic police force this month, because that provision was “one of the conditions” for the refugees’ return. Meanwhile, a Czech unit that is part of the U.N. Stabilization Force remains stationed in the town.

Among those I met here were three mothers who have returned home without their sons, all of whom died either in a Serb-run concentration camp or in the first assault.

Minka Cehajic, a physician and a displaced person from Prijedor, smiles as she describes her three “special albums.” She had one for her wedding photos, one for her medical accomplishments and one for her daughter’s academic achievements. All were taken.

It is the particular and personal acts of destruction that many here find hardest to comprehend. They repeat their losses in a mantra-like manner as if the recalling of what used to be will momentarily ground them. Their sense of internal displacement is one of the unseen ravages of this war.

As with the crisis in Kosovo, understanding the exodus from this region is a prerequisite for understanding what people face upon return.

Located in the northwestern corner of Bosnia, Prijedor lies just above the fork in the Sana River in a fertile valley surrounded by the Kozara Mountains. Its municipality encompasses at least 71 towns and villages. The prewar population of 112,470 was 44 percent Bosniac (Muslim) and 42.5 percent Serbian.

Kozarac’s demise was particularly brutal. On May 24, 1992, Yugoslav forces in the surrounding hills began a three-day assault on the town. The once-affluent community of 10,000 with an ethnic composition comparable to Kosovo -- 90 percent Muslim -- had refused to sign a loyalty oath to the newly imposed Bosnian Serb republic and had organized a paltry defense force.

According to one former resident, the town’s Crisis Committee was in negotiations with Prijedor authorities on the day of the assault. Between 2,500 and 3,000 people were killed during the three-day siege.

Goran Borovice, a Serb resident acting in conjunction with Serb police and Yugoslav forces, identified the town’s elite during the forced exodus. Those identified were summarily executed or taken to concentration camps. In her article on the town’s destruction, Washington Post journalist Mary Battiata notes “that in Kozarac, the Muslims were driven out by a carefully planned and coordinated attack designed not only to remove the population but to liquidate its leaders and destroy its homes so that the ‘cleansing’ would be irreversible.”

The campaign of irreversible cleansing did not fully succeed. On May 24, the seventh anniversary of the assault of Kozarac, I sat with returnees who were attending the annual Through Hearts to Peace (“Srcem Do Mira”) Conference. The rubble of bombed-out buildings on either side framed the courtyard setting where the conference was held, but across the street the freshly painted walls of the newly constructed youth center glistened in the sun.

Conference speakers had to compete with the din of trucks transporting construction materials along nearby roads. Although presented as a women’s peace initiative committed to “building bridges of trust” and reconciliation, this year’s conference was ultimately a celebration of Muslim return to Kozarac. Spontaneous singing and dancing were very much a part of the agenda.

One bright spot

According to Massimo Moratti, a human rights officer for the Prijedor office of the Organization for Security and Control in Europe, 83 houses in Kozarac are currently occupied by returnees. Eva Klouman, also with the security and control organization, described Kozarac as the region’s one “bright spot.”

International relief agencies are funding housing reconstruction in Kozarac. The Norwegian Refugee Council rebuilt 50 houses, and Lutheran World Federation reconstructed 16 flats. THW, a German reconstruction firm, and Dorcas Aid International, a Dutch organization, will provide an additional 135 houses.

If the reconstructed homes provide visible evidence of progress, there are hidden undercurrents that illustrate how difficult the return may be and how combatants sometimes acted courageously against the prevailing political wisdom.

Muharmet Murselovic, the current deputy mayor of Prijedor, took office unwillingly when new election laws enfranchised the Muslim displaced persons of Prijedor and after two other members of his political coalition refused the post.

In his new position, he works side by side with municipal employees who participated in the systematic expulsion, torture and death of their fellow Muslims. I asked him how he refrains from physically attacking colleagues he knows have a bloody history.

He sees himself as a living witness to past crimes. “They [the war criminals] cannot pass without being punished. Everything else is unproductive. The truth has to be published.”

As we leave our interview, Murselovic stops in front of a vacant lot. A truck leveling the gravel makes spiral patterns as it circles the property. Murselovic tells me that a historic building stood here and he had always thought it would make a lovely setting for a restaurant. He looks at the gravel a long time as if by staring he can invoke the outlines of the building.

Before I leave the region, he gives me a list of historic sites in Prijedor. He has neatly penned the date of destruction beside each Muslim landmark. He has returned to record what was destroyed.

Kemal Fazlic, the former director of the town’s sawmill, said he and other members of the town’s Crisis Committee were negotiating with Prijedor authorities just two hours before the first Serb mortars slammed Kozarac.

His eldest son’s girlfriend, who had a Serb father, warned the family to flee.

Nerma, Kemal’s wife, could not comprehend the warning. “ ‘Are you crazy?’ ” Nerma asked the girlfriend. “But then from Monday to Friday it [Kozarac] was like a ghetto. No Muslims could get out,” Nerma said.

Saved by Serb friends

A Serb friend, who must remain anonymous for reasons of safety, procured the Fazlics release from an internment camp. I heard similar stories from other displaced persons: “A Serb friend drove my children and me out of Prijedor at night;” “A Serb friend pleaded with her cousin, who was a soldier, to save me from Omarska, the local death camp;” “My cousin’s husband, a Serb soldier, pretended to take my brother and me out on a ‘work detail’ [an execution] but actually accompanied us to a nearby convoy.” These unidentified friends quietly undermined the ultra-nationalism preached by the Serb authorities and provided essential stepping stones along the path back home.

Today Kemal comes into Kozarac daily to supervise and assist the crew of local Serbs who are rebuilding his home. Other residents do the same, fearing intentional sabotage if they do not monitor the Serb construction workers. According to Peter Lippman, a representative of the Advocacy Project, which is researching the return process in Bosnia, the concerns have some merit.

Lippman said contractors cut corners, due, in part, to inadequate funding. Current policy requirements for a reconstructed home are minimal.

While the rebuilding goes on, there are constant reminders that this war has destroyed much that can never be reconstructed.

For Osman Mujagic, a former schoolteacher in Kozarac’s prestigious elementary school, coming home means encountering his Serb colleague Misho Radulovic. “Misho shook my hand the other day, but I want nothing to do with him,” he said. Their relationship is just one of the many surreal scenarios that played out all over Bosnia during the war. According to Osman Mujagic, the two teachers who had been on friendly terms became prisoner and guard within a matter of days. “On our last day of work before the assault, Misho hugged me and shook my hand, but when he became the head guard at Trnopolje, he refused to buy me a pack of cigarettes.”

On a drive out of Kozarac, Emsuda Mujagic points to a woman sitting in front of a greenhouse. “She helped burn the homes.” When asked about her relationship with that neighbor, she replies, “It is finished.”

She has also closed the door on friendship with the shopkeeper up the road, a former close friend who “did not even bring [Emsuda] a piece of bread” when she was imprisoned in the camp across the highway.

A hungry child

In our last conversation, Emsuda talks about a Serb child who hovered on the outskirts of the Through Hearts to Peace Conference. Emsuda speculated that his parents were victims of ethnic expulsion from Croatia. She could see the child was hungry, so she gave him a piece of bread. “There were tears in his eyes,” she said.

Pick another place or time in Bosnia and you can find the Kozarac story again. The tactics of cruelty remain constant, but the ethnicity of the victims changes. Serbs living in the Krajina region east of Prijedor faced job loss, death and violent expulsion after Croatian ultra-nationalists rose to power in 1990.

Across the Kozara Mountains that border Prijedor is the Croat town of Jasenovac. During World War II it was the site of the most notorious Ustashe (Croat Fascist) concentration camp where reportedly 200,000 Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and members of the Croat opposition were killed.

For Bosnian refugees, the path of return is slow and tedious. It requires negotiating the politics of reconstruction and the interior work of restoring one’s identity and sense of compassion. Many take on these obstacles, however, for refugees all yearn to be at home.

During my last afternoon in Kozarac, I stopped at the home of Cima Softic. She has been back four months and today is enjoying a cup of coffee with her children and grandchildren on a porch bedecked with petunias in full bloom. On the first night of the conference, Cima described her unmitigated joy at being back home. “I feel as if I have been born again. I wake up at night and just smell the fresh air and the beauty. ... I do not sleep in the afternoon as I used to. ... It is so beautiful I am afraid I shall die in this state of happiness.”

National Catholic Reporter, June 18, 1999