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Fate of Bosnian refugees offers bitter lessons for Ukraine

Bosnian Muslim women visit one of the sites of the 1995 mass execution of their loved ones, on July 13, 2020 in Potočari near Srebrenica | Damir Sagolj/Getty Images

Even for those who can return home after war, life cannot be the same again.


By Richard Meares

Richard Meares is a London-based journalist and editor.

Thirty years ago today, Mirsad fled to the woods and became a refugee when Europe’s worst war since 1945 came to his village in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today, he watches with a sickening sense of déjà vu as Europe again faces its worst conflict and refugee crisis since World War II.

“It’s horrible, horrible what’s going on in Ukraine. An absolute mess. It brings back all the memories for me,” he said.

Mirsad eventually returned home some years after the war, to live in an area seized and still controlled by the same “side” that had killed his brother, terrorized his parents and burnt his village. But only because he was forced to.

His story shows how hard any return can be, even when backed by broad international support and a peacekeeping force to make it safe.

On May 3, 1992, in the early days of the now notorious “ethnic cleansing” of Bosnia, Serb paramilitaries descended on the village of Hranča, beat to death three men who had not managed to flee, shot dead a young girl, Selma Hodžić, and set homes on fire.

Soon, the Serbs controlled this whole area of eastern Bosnia — not far from Srebrenica, where Serb forces later committed the worst massacre in Europe since World War II — as they tried to drive out all the Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks, who had made up most of its population.

A woman cries in Hranča, Bosnia-Herzegovina on May 4, 1992, the day after Serb paramilitaries beat three men to death, shot dead a young girl and set fire to homes in the village | Richard Meares

With nowhere left to go, Mirsad, then aged 31, and other villagers who had also fled to the woods, came back down 10 days later and gave themselves up. Serb forces detained and beat them for days in a school gym in a nearby town, where the guards shot other men in front of them. Mirsad overheard them bragging that they had beaten a man to death there days earlier, and realized they were talking about his own brother.

He was later part of a group expelled to Visoko, in Bosnian government territory.

“When I got to Visoko I fell ill with fever. I just couldn’t get rid of the fear,” he said.

From there, using people smugglers and even crossing mountain borders on foot, Mirsad made his way to his sister in Germany.

There, he met his now-wife Azemina — another refugee who came from Glogova, just a few kilometers from Hranča, where 64 villagers were massacred on May 9. She had fled over the hills to Srebrenica.

Frozen conflict

In 1995, an international peace deal largely froze the conflict, leaving Bosnia nominally whole but politically split in two. One half of the country — including Mirsad’s village — was the new Bosnian Serb Republic, the other half was named the Federation, made up mainly of Bosniaks and Croats.

Eager to get rid of tens of thousands of refugees, the European Union soon declared that Bosnians should go home. And to try not to reward ethnic cleansing, peacekeepers were sent to ensure the safety of returnees to areas where they would now be a minority.

Crucially, the deal was backed by both the West and Russia.

But while the lure of home can be strong, who wants to go and live in an area controlled by the people who drove you out? What Ukrainian will want to go back to a Russian-run Mariupol?

Mirsad certainly didn’t want to go home. When Germany told him time was up, he slipped into Sweden and applied for asylum, but that failed too. In 2003, he finally went home with his wife and fellow refugee Azemina, and their two young daughters.

Mirsad’s parents had returned before him, tired of being refugees in another part of Bosnia. Often, when war approaches, the elderly least want to leave ; but when masked gunmen doused the couple with petrol and threatened to set them alight, they fled, their house going up in flames behind them.

With foreign aid, they rebuilt their home from scratch.

An abandoned house in the village of Hranča | Richard Meares

“The local Serb builders came to work on our house — and greeted us cheerily as if nothing had ever happened,” his late mother told me angrily some years ago.

Half of Bosnia’s more than 2 million displaced people eventually returned to their homes, U.N. figures show. But unlike Mirsad, many refused to ever go back to their former homes in areas where they feared persecution.

Life among ghosts

I first met Mirsad’s family a few years after the war, when I went to see what had become of the village that, as a Reuters correspondent, I had chanced upon the morning after it was torched — a scene that has stayed vivid in my memory ever since.

Fellow journalist Tim Judah and I were driving to Sarajevo, saw the palls of smoke from the road and went to investigate. We came across wailing, traumatized women and children wandering the paths between their smoldering homes.

Bodies of the three beaten men were lined up on the ground. In her home, Ramiza Hodžić sat on the sofa, the body of her 7-year-old daughter Selma, wrapped like a mummy, next to her.

Although I didn’t know it then, Mirsad was hiding up in the woods just a few hundred meters away.

Since we met in 2006, I have been back to see the family multiple times over the years. One day, Mirsad showed me the tree behind which, “that day,” as he always refers to it, he had hidden in fear, and watched as the village’s cattle burned to death in their sheds.

Mirsad said that since coming back, he still feels surrounded by the ghosts of the past, which can loom up at any moment.

“This area was so lovely, and it’s still like that in my memory,” he said. “That day, it was the start of May. Everything was turning green, it was so, so beautiful.”

After his return, he did odd jobs, tending raspberries and other crops in the fields of neighbors who had never returned, and keeping his head down so as not to attract attention. Outdoors, he will only discuss the past in a whisper for fear of being overheard.

When he visited his daughters’ school in the nearby town of Bratunac, he would shudder.

“Imagine how hard it was for me when I took my children to school and I realized that they were going to that gym hall where I was held captive, and where my brother and other people were killed. It’s inhumane,” Mirsad said. “It’s impossible not to feel fear there.”

Some of Hranča’s attackers were from Serbia. Others were local, neighbors even, he said. Eventually, one of the latter was convicted for his role in the attack — but only for burning houses.

“They wanted me to be a witness. But I have to live here, and no one will guarantee my security,” Mirsad said.

Serb neighbors would cross the road in town to avoid facing Mirsad after the war, leaving him wondering if they felt shame.

But he still doesn’t go into town in Bratunac often. His kind — Bosniaks — are definitely not welcome in many of its shops and cafes.

In Hranča, the ruins of destroyed homes can still be seen today among the weeds and bushes that are reclaiming them. Only a fraction of the pre-war population of around 300 ever came back, and about 50 people live here now, down by the main road in the valley.

The grave of Selma Hodžić, who was shot while tending a lamb | Richard Meares

On the largely deserted hillside above, once the beating heart of the village, are the graves of those killed that day 30 years ago, including that of Selma Hodžić, shot while she was tending a lamb. Her mother fled and never came back to live here.

There are more than 90 names on a village memorial to “victims of the aggression against Bosnia” — which dares not say who killed them. Most died in 1992, but some were villagers who fled across the valley and through woods to Srebrenica, only to be killed in the 1995 genocide by Bosnian Serb forces — along with Azemina’s brother and some 8,000 other Bosniaks.

Trying to look forward

In Hranča, it can feel eerie and lonely, especially in winter, Mirsad said.

“We’re afraid of being left alone. There is so much space for life, but all these empty houses.”

On one visit back to Hranča, I remember thinking what a miserable life it seemed to be, living in the shadow of the people who had killed your brother and ruined your life.

But Mirsad and his family have tried to make the best of things, determined not to let resentment fester and poison their lives, and to give people the benefit of the doubt.

He and Azemina have two bright and cheerful daughters who got a decent education, first at the local school and then in Srebrenica, among mainly Serb schoolmates they managed to get along well with.

“You have to think positively,” Đenita, the older daughter, told me while at the school there. “If they tell me I am different, I find it sad, I feel sorry for them. We must not hate each other.”

Mirsad complains, however, that his daughters learned only the Serbian version of history, Serbian language and Serbian literature — almost as if they were not in Bosnia at all.

Substitute Russian for Serbian and the same thing awaits Ukrainian children now in school in Russian-controlled areas.

Mirsad’s girls have gone on to study and work in Tuzla, across the internal border in the Bosniak-controlled part of the country.

It’s hard to see them ever coming back. The capital, Sarajevo, or even emigration may beckon, as it does for many Bosnians who think their divided country — no longer at war but far from having found true peace — has little future to offer.

Its unity is more at stake now than it has been since the war, and the conflict in Ukraine won’t help.

The leaders of the Bosnian Serb Republic, staunch cheerleaders for Russian President Vladimir Putin and his war, are threatening to secede.

The EU-led peacekeeping force which still keeps a lid on potential violence, has been almost doubled in size since the war began in Ukraine, amid fears that the geopolitical instability could have a knock-on effect in Bosnia.

Mirsad watches Ukraine with sadness, anger and revulsion. He said it all feels very familiar but added: “The bombing and shelling and flattening of cities, it’s far worse than it was here. What’s it all for?”

As a pretext for war in the 1990s, Serbian President Slobodan Milošević cited a need to defend Serbs left outside his borders when Serbian-dominated Yugoslavia fell apart — first in Croatia and then in Bosnia, where an estimated 100,000 people died.

Putin, who laments the end of the Soviet Union, makes much the same argument about Russians, including those in Ukraine, as well as in Georgia and Moldova, two other former Soviet republics that now have frozen conflicts and breakaway Russian-backed regions.

If Putin fails to defeat Ukraine, he has every interest in leaving it a weak and divided nation on life support. Bosnians know what that feels like.

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