Journalists have a tendency to go to “bad places” where “bad news” is made. When two journalists in Bosnia team up, guess what’s happening. They hire a car, a driver, and a translator, and go to Srebrenica, the former U.N. safe haven that was – in 1995 – the most unsafe place on the face of the earth. Around 8’000 Muslim men were killed in the biggest single war crime since World War II.
Joop is a Dutch journalist writing for the biggest Amsterdam daily. He started as a sport reporter for that very same newspaper, and he has covered the 1984 Sarajevo Winter games, at a time when I didn’t even know what “Bosnia” or “Yugoslavia” means.
We are not stopped at the “border” between the Bosnian-Croat Federation and the Republika Srpska. Edin (the translator) and Jasmin (the driver) are Muslims. But they can change accents because they used to live in the mixed town of Foça, a town I am told to absolutely avoid.
When, after a three hours drive, we pass the Cyril sign “Srebrenica”, Edin says: “We should stay no more than one hour in Srebrenica. It’s for your own security”. In reality, he was talking not about our security, but about his understandable fear in the village that is now populated by 100.0% Serbs.
The “black market” is the center of things in Srebrenica, and probably the nicest building is an Orthodox church… In a restaurant, a bored drunken policeman asks us to drink with him. He doesn’t care what we do here when he learns that we are neither journalists nor working for “Haag”, as the international war crimes tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is called. When I take – under a pretext – a photo of two men (further down on this page), I ask if I can take two. “Make three”, the man in front jokes, “one for you, one for me, and one for ‘Haag'”.
We are clearly being observed.
Outside, next to Srebrenica’s disco, I start playing with small children. Finally, I take some photos of them.
When the policeman wants us to continue to drink with him (and we don’t), we say maybe later, go to the car and discuss the situation. Our two Bosniak friends clearly feel bad. A red Golf passes our car very closely and very slowly, with people looking out of the windows. “I think it’s time to go to Sarajevo”, Edin says. Jasmin agrees. Joop – the Dutch journalist – wants to follow our plan and interview some people. I am also afraid, because I had bad experiences with drunken policemen in the past (not in Bosnia). I suggest we ask some American SFOR troops and rely on their judgment.
Around 25 Marines sleep on the grass a little bit outside of town, waiting for a helicopter. The young lieutenant has no reservations about us going back. “Wanna go to Sreb? No problem!”. Today it’s talk, not shoot, he gives us to understand. Americans are known to be oversensitive about security, so we are heading back into “Sreb”.
Right next to the “black market”, an old woman attacks me physically. All I understand from her war of words is: “Propaganda! Propaganda!”. She saw me taking pictures of the children, Edin translates, and she thinks we are doing propaganda against the Serb people. Joop and me make the sign of the Cross the Orthodox way (first right, then left) and explain that we are friends of the Serbs. She finally calms down.
In a cafe, Joop interviews a resident of Srebrenica who is still looking for his family since the war (in front of the picture). Every now and then, another man, sitting behind his beer (left on the picture), interrupts the translation. “Once, a Muslim woman came here”, the man in his forties says, “She must be happy that I was not there. If ever I see a Muslim in Srebrenica, I will take his kidneys out of his body with my own hands!”. Jasmin has a nervous twitching when he hears that remark, and also Edin is extremely uncomfortable. “Are you Muslims?” the Serb asks. “No, I would do exactly the same if I would see a Muslim here”, Edin responds. Somehow, we all feel it’s time to go back to Sarajevo.
After we pass the sign “Srebrenica” again, Jasmin asks me if I can imagine how he felt. No, I can’t. When we drive through another village, Edin – who will leave Bosnia forever in two weeks – says sarcastically: “This village used to be 100% Muslim. It’s now 100% Serb. That is Dayton”.
The international community has brought its absurdities to Srebrenica even after it has watched the massacre. First, the Muslims are forced out of Srebrenica or are killed while U.N. peacekeepers stand by. With Dayton, everyone has the right to return to his/her home and can vote for his/her town/village, no matter where he/she has sought refuge. 600’000 people still live in another house than their own in Bosnia. So a Muslim local council is elected for Srebrenica, because most residents live there illegally. The elected representatives of the local council can, for the sake for their security, not live in Srebrenica. So they have to be brought in by busses to hold their meetings. Probably SFOR makes sure they arrive safely. They debate, they decide, in the full knowledge that none of their decisions will be implemented. When they have to stay overnight, Serb policemen protect them. After the session, they go back to the Federation – either to the houses they occupy, or to refugee centers.
As Joop often said during our day in Srebrenica: “Bosnia is Kafka”.