Re-Making Kozarac
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Re-Making Kozarac

Agency, Reconciliation and Contested Return in Post-War Bosnia

Sebina Sivac-Bryant

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eBook - ePub

Re-Making Kozarac

Agency, Reconciliation and Contested Return in Post-War Bosnia

Sebina Sivac-Bryant

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This book explores agency, reconciliation and minority return within the context of ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. It focuses on a community in North-West Bosnia, which successfully reversed the worst episode of ethnic cleansing prior toSrebrenica by fighting for return, and then establishing one of the only successful examples of contested minority return in the town of Kozarac. The book is a result of a longitudinal, decade-long study of a group of people who discovered a remarkable level of agency and resilience, largely without external support, and despite many of the people and institutions who were responsible for their violent expulsion remaining in place.
Re-Making Kozarac considers how a community's traumatic experiences were utilised as a motivational vehicle for return, and contrasts their pragmatic approach to local compromise with the ill-informed and largely unsuccessful international projects that try to cast them as powerless victims. Importantly, the book offers critical reflections on the interventions of the trauma and reconciliation industries, which can be more harmful than is currently realised. It will be of great interest to scholars of criminology, anthropology and international relations.

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© The Author(s) 2016
Sebina Sivac-BryantRe-Making KozaracPalgrave Studies in Compromise after Conflict10.1057/978-1-137-58838-8_1
Begin Abstract

1. Introduction

Sebina Sivac-Bryant1
Independent scholar, London, UK
We cannot deny the overwhelming sense of victimhood that continues to pervade every fibre of our life, but we have another story to tell and that is one of our fights.
End Abstract
This book is about the repatriation of a displaced people back to their homeland after conflict. It is primarily a story about despair and then hope for one community in Bosnia-Herzegovina. But it also captures the lived experience of returnees and assesses the value of repatriation as a post-conflict reconstruction strategy. It uses one case study to explore the difficulties, risks and potential of repatriation. However, in setting out on a journey to understand the destruction and re-establishment of the town of Kozarac1 in Bosnia-Herzegovina, I need to begin by declaring my own interest in the story. This study is about people and a town that I was born in, and later expelled from as part of the wave of ethnic cleansing that took place in 1992. To describe the remarkable trajectory of the community who suffered a similar fate, I have relied on a privileged level of access to the personal stories that people have shared with me, and I am mindful of the potential (mis)use and multiple readings of these stories in the public domain. Therefore, in addition to the demands of anthropological reflexivity, I feel a duty to be part of this process of the textualisation of fieldwork. But also, by briefly describing my own experience of sudden loss and exile, I hope to illuminate the main thrust of the study, which is that it is impossible to understand social healing and reconstruction, without understanding what made it necessary in the first place. These days, international agencies working in the field call for ‘empowerment’ and more ‘participation’ of refugees/victims in developing strategies for sustainable return, but as this study will demonstrate, we are still at a stage where the work of international humanitarian interventions often neither builds nor encourages agency, capacity or ingenuity among the people they want to help. In fact, I will argue, they can actively undermine refugees by treating them as passive recipients of action, largely based on preconceived notions of helplessness as passive victims whose needs are defined by others. The tyranny of labelling is one of the most damaging aspects of post-conflict reconstruction, as it not only enacts rigid and performative roles such as victims, perpetrators or rescuers (usually outsiders), but it also limits our understanding of complex social realities regarding the people we work with and purport to learn from.
In the summer of 1992, I was seventeen years old. I hated rural Bosnia and buried myself in books, dreaming of leaving to attend university in Zagreb; but this was not how I imagined it might happen. We had been hiding in a cellar since the bombardment began two days previously, and as we left the house and were rounded up on the street, with homes around us already on fire, I realised the Serb soldier in front of us who was about to burn the house was actually a friend of my best friend, and we had met in a bar just a few weeks ago. He looked embarrassed, but did his job, which was to forcibly remove the population of the village of Kamicani and send them to the nearby town of Kozarac, from where the women and children would be put in buses to a camp at Trnopolje. I had only been in Kamicani for a week. I lived in Kevljani, a nearby village sandwiched between the Serb villages of Omarska and Radivojci. People in Kevljani were more likely to shop and intermingle with Omarska residents than with those in the predominantly Bosniak town of Kozarac, and several Omarska villagers who were friends of my father would later turn up on the Hague Tribunal’s list of war criminals; but we were not to know that at the time. The women of my family had left Kevljani a week previously as it became clear that the village would be one of the first places to be attacked as part of the ethnic cleansing operation launched by the local Serb authorities in the wake of their takeover of the city of Prijedor on 29 April. On 22 May, the village of Hambarine was attacked and, because its inhabitants tried to resist, dozens of men were massacred and women raped. Two days later, the expected attack on Kozarac began and what had been a majority-Bosniak town of around 20,000 people was emptied into the camp system, while a few brave souls took to Kozara mountain in a futile attempt to resist, including one of my brothers. My eldest brother and the other men of Kevljani who had stayed behind were quickly overcome, and he was one of the first to be incarcerated in the camp at Omarska. As we would learn years later, however, he was singled out as a respected figure in the village, removed from the camp, tortured and executed before most inmates had even arrived. It took sixteen years before we found his remains in one of the 70 mass graves that have so far been identified in the Prijedor region (Begic 2015).
When we arrived in Kozarac, people were put on the bus to Trnopolje, but I was able to get off and stay nearby with relatives for a week, and then I walked with my two-year-old nephew to what had become a small Bosniak ghetto in the Puharska neighbourhood within the city of Prijedor, where we were relatively safe for a further month. Still keen to get to university in Zagreb, I visited my old school to ask for a copy of my end of year certificate, but was confronted by one of my former teachers in uniform holding a belt-fed machine gun in the empty school building; luckily his shock at meeting me overcame his aggressive hostility and I was able to leave. I would also visit my mother and sister in the camp at Trnopolje to take them food, but this became increasingly dangerous, especially with a hyperactive toddler. Eventually, Serb buses arrived to remove the community of Puharska and transport them across Mount Vlasic to Bosnian-held territory in Travnik. The journey was terrifying, but arriving in Travnik was also bewildering. In contrast to the modern, flat lands of the Krajina2 region where I had come from, the Ottoman-style central Bosnian town of Travnik, overlooked by the towering Mount Vlasic, was very different indeed. Luckily, there were already other refugees from the Kozarac region in Travnik and they helped me survive until I could find the money for a bus to Zenica, where I had heard my mother and sister were now staying in a refugee centre after a long and arduous train journey in sealed cattle wagons that took them from Trnopolje to Maglaj and then on to Zenica. Later, one of my brothers who lived in Zagreb came to pick us up, and after a long and difficult journey, we ended up in the Croatian capital at a time when Bosniak refugees were regarded with contempt. I handed over my little nephew to his mother, who was still waiting in vain for news of his father, my brother, who had taken to Kozara mountain to resist the Serb assault. By the time we found his remains (he had been burnt to death in a house near Kozarac) and buried him seventeen years later, his son (my nephew) was a grown man who travelled from the USA to attend the funeral.
Our time in Zagreb was the hardest I had experienced. I remember registering for the library in Zagreb a few days after arriving, just to have a safe place to escape from my thoughts, and the shocked reaction of the librarian brought home to me the reality of my position in the country. I also had to watch my mother get sick and die suddenly at the age of forty-nine, denied not only adequate medical treatment but even a grave, despite her status as a Croatian pensioner. I ended up in a refugee centre where I could see that my life chances were ebbing away. Later, I met some aid workers from Ireland and they helped me get to the UK, but even upon arrival in London I realised that the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) wanted to herd me towards a refugee centre in Newcastle, while I was still naively asking how to gain admission to a university, so I left the airport on my own and found Bosnian friends who could give me a place to stay. After that, I moved to Ireland and finally found a place at university, and later went back to the UK to continue my education and continue the search for my missing brothers.
At the time, the reason why my home was destroyed and I ended up in Ireland was hard to fathom, and it all happened so fast that it seemed like a natural disaster. But in fact, it was planned and had a logical purpose. The military operation that began in the spring of 1992 across northern and eastern Bosnia was part of a Serbian nationalist project to create a ‘Greater Serbia’ incorporating parts of Bosnia and Croatia into a single Serbian state, after the dissolution of Yugoslavia. In the aftermath of the withdrawal of the former Yugoslav Army (JNA) from Slovenia and Croatia in 1991, when those republics became independent, most of its heavy weaponry was relocated to Bosnia. The Serbian government of Slobodan Milosevic used the Army to provide military assistance and training to Bosnian Serbs and assist in building up a local Bosnian Serb Army (VRS) to execute the plan. The pattern was similar in areas the Serb forces intended to cleanse. First there were massacres committed by shock troops from Serbia, such as White Eagles and Arkan’s infamous Tigers (Ron 2003), or sometimes by drunk and violent local militia; then came the expulsions, and finally the regular army would step in to secure the ethnically cleansed towns and villages.
When the war began, the Bosnian Army (ARBiH) did not exist. There were units of the Territorial Defence (TO) that consisted largely of regular police forces under the Ministry of Interior, and the Bosnian presidency ordered that these units were to be consolidated into a Bosnian Army on 15 April 1992, but it took a couple of months before the Army started to function in any meaningful sense (Pejanovic 2004). In his memoirs, Mirko Pejanovic, a Sarajevo Serb member of the Bosnian collective presidency recalls the early days of creating Bosnian state institutions including the formation of the Bosnian Army, which recruited based on the principle of patriotism of all its ‘citizens and peoples, for the sake of defending Bosnia as an internationally recognised state’ (Ibid : 85). According to former Bosnian General, Jovan Divjak’s assessment of Bosnian forces in 1992, Sarajevo had only one tank at the beginning of the siege, while the JNA numbered over 180 tanks, and even by the end of the war, the Bosnian Army only had 80 (Magas and Zanic 1999a). But in the Serb stronghold of Prijedor, despite Bosniaks making up around half the population of the city, there was no chance to form a defence force and so the Bosnian declaration of independence from Yugoslavia after the referendum in March 1992 left Bosniaks there in a very vulnerable position.
After the initial ethnic cleansing campaign, the war went on for a further three and a half years, with around 100,000 dead and over half of the country’s population (2 million people) becoming refugees or being internally displaced. European countries could not agree on a coherent response to the conflict, and came to see it as a civil war among three warring parties, despite the Serb Army having the legacy of the fifth largest standing army in Europe, while the newly formed Bosnian Army suffered an international arms embargo. As the war worsened in 1994, the USA began to take the lead diplomatically and militarily, and this process eventually led to the so-called Contact Group plan of 1994 becoming a negotiated settlement in Dayton, Ohio, that ended the war but divided the country into two ethnically based entities in 1995.
Kozarac, although completely destroyed in 1992, played a key role in forming one of the most effective fighting forces in the Bosnian Army—the 17th Brigade, dubbed the ‘army of the dispossessed’—and later, one of the only successful example of contested minority refugee return in Bosnia. Today, the town is known as ‘the biggest little city in the world’ due to the size of its diaspora community around the world, who return every summer to help boost the town’s rebuilding, and because of the courageous returnees who have worked hard since 1998 to re-establish the town despite being surrounded by hostile Serb authorities, for whom the existence of Kozarac as a majority-Bosniak town goes against all of their war aims. The story of how a town, whose houses were not just burnt but often dynamited to their foundations to prevent return, located in the ‘heart of darkness’ of the Serb-run Prijedor region, became a rare example of successful minority refugee return offers, I believe, some important lessons for how we deal with the challenges of post-conflict situations and minority return, with clear implications for refugee repatriation policy and methods (Fig. 1.1).
Fig. 1.1
Prijedor region map(Source: Original map from

Refugee Repatriation and Social Repair

Since the 1990s, the international community and UNHCR have focused on the repatriation of refugees to their original country as the preferred ‘durable solution’ to the various crises of displacement faced by people around the world who have been forced to move due to war, persecution or natural disasters (Harrell-Bond 1989; Black and Koser 1999). In cases such as Cambodia, Eritrea and Mozambique, millions of refugees were able to return to their country of origin after a prolonged period of life as refugees in collective centres and camps in host countries. In such cases, the build-up of semi-permanent camps outside the mainstream life of host countries can produce a range of negative outcomes: camps are vulnerable to attacks by armed insurgents and other military forces, and they can act as a recruitment pool for extremists; they are often overcrowded and suffer public health problems; and, due to maldistribution of aid, they can be vulnerable to hunger. Arguably, host countries sometimes deliberately concentrate refugees in camps on or close to state borders to keep refugees contained and away from their towns and cities, but also to encourage international assistance (Allen and Turton 1996: 15). A more robust policy of refugee repatriation was, therefore, a logical response to the build-up of these camps around the world. Repatriation projects have tended to result from a tripartite agreement between the UNHCR, a host country and a home country, after evaluating safety risks and devising strategies for return, but often without consulting the refugees themselves or indeed factoring their own capabilities and networks into the solution. Some argue that this top-down approach to repatriation has sometimes pressurised refugees to return en masse (McDowell 1996), rather than working with refugees to assist with voluntary return, and that these efforts often reflect policy makers’ concerns with the impact upon a host country’s resources in accommodating a substantial amount of refugees (Rogge 1994), rat...

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