In 1991 and 1992, the democratic secession of the Republics of Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina from the Yugoslav socialist federation was met with military action by the Yugoslav National Army (JNA) in conjunction with local Serb forces. The JNA and Serb authorities set up concentration camps for thousands of Bosniak and Croat civilians, the most infamous ones being Omarska, Trnopolje, and Manjača. These camps played a major role in the Bosnian genocide (known as ethnic cleansing) in which civilians were the deliberate targets of systematic military action, forcible removal, and mass murder. In 1995, the armed conflict ended with the Dayton peace agreement, which divided Bosnia into a Bosniak-Croat Federation and a Serb Republic.
Almost two decades after the end of the war in Bosnia, a few courageous souls are battling against denial to remember the victims of war crimes. Armed conflict may have ceased with the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, but the fight for a Bosnia free of discrimination, segregation, and war crimes denial continues.
Under the cover of darkness early last Saturday, three ‘guerrilla memorials’ to the dead were erected in the towns of Foča, Bugojno, and Konjic. Unlike in Trnopolje, for example, where there is a monument to Serb soldiers but none to the civilians whom they rounded up into concentration camps and slaughtered, these monuments were not partisan. They were for all the victims of war crimes, regardless of ethnicity, and the three towns chosen were symbolic of the three constituent peoples of Bosnia. However, the next day, all the memorials were gone, the one in Foča removed by police.
In the Serb Republic, where the right of refugees to return to their homes is actively hampered by the local authorities, most of the population live in denial about the war. The Prijedor area was (and remains) particularly infamous for the most notable concentration camps as well as various massacres. These genocidal acts were supplemented by mass rape and summary execution of Bosniaks, Croats, and dissenting Serbs. In the Prijedor region alone, approximately 14,000 were killed or went missing during the war.
Returnees, however, are chipping away at the façade of denial. The United Nations calls them returnees, but I think of them as revenants, those who have ‘come back’, as if from the dead. They have survived ethnic cleansing to return to haunt those who tried to wipe them out. Their existence and their presence in the Serb Republic is a challenge to the perpetrators who remain at large. They are ghosts of the past who will not go away until the truth is acknowledged and attempts made to achieve at least a semblance of justice.
It isn’t just the survivors who keep turning up either. In the last three weeks, the remains of 268 people have been exhumed (so far) after a tip-off from a former Bosnian Serb soldier. According to witness statements, the grave at Tomašica probably once held around 1,000 bodies, but the relocation of remains from mass graves all over Bosnia (by perpetrators to conceal evidence) has frustrated the work of the International Commission on Missing Persons. This latest grave will slowly but surely augment the 17,000 DNA identifications that constitute roughly half of those missing. It is a painstaking process, but a necessary one for the sake of war crimes investigations and closure for the families of those killed.
This campaign for justice is personified by Kemal Pervanić who travelled back to his former home in Bosnia to witness the exhumations. He wants to know where all the bodies of the missing are, and he wants his old neighbours to face the truth. The likelihood of this happening seems remote, however, as the people in the area remain in denial and refuse to allow a memorial, even after the discovery of several hundred bodies buried near their homes in 2004. It is always traumatic for Kemal and his fellow survivors to return, but this newest grave nevertheless gives them hope that the “forgotten people” of the village may be laid to rest.
At the nearby Omarska concentration camp, which he visits every year, Kemal said “I spent two and a half months in here which was like 250 years, and people are trying to deny that part of my past.” He echoed others who spoke of the sense of dispossession, their thirst for justice, and the need for some sort of recognition of the truth to be able to move on. One survivor, speaking of the ‘White House’ where most of those who were killed were first tortured, said “it hurt then… when they were torturing us, but somehow it now hurts more when they say it didn’t happen.”
“There’s been no remorse,” said Kemal. “No one has ever apologised. They deny the existence of camps.”
Satko Mujagić, another survivor of Omarska who is campaigning for a memorial there, has been hindered by the passive resistance of local authorities and the mining company ArcelorMittal which now owns the property. “In this situation,” he said, “being neutral is choosing a side.”
“We are begging for a piece of land [for a memorial],” said Satko. “You can’t bring back the dead but you can show them respect.” Kemal added that this resistance to a memorial “is creating a new conflict”.
Even the gentlest reminders of the past elicit rejection. Last year, Kemal and Satko joined others – such as the reporter Ed Vulliamy who broke the story of the Bosnian concentration camps in 1992 – in a demonstration in Prijedor. It commemorated the 102 children from Prijedor murdered during the war. People holding schoolbags labelled with the children’s names and ages walked to the main square and used the bags to form the word genocide on the ground. “This is one of the worst places when it comes to genocide denial,” Kemal said. As if to prove his point, the campaign office was damaged in an attack that morning and, despite the demonstration being without incident, one of the organisers was detained by police for questioning.
The experiences of Kemal and Satko are among thousands that beg for recognition. As they struggle to understand what happened 21 years ago, there are others who try to pretend it never happened, making reconciliation impossible. However, to quote William Faulkner, the past is never dead, it is not even past. For those who are still waiting to lay their dead to rest, they remain in limbo and there is no closure… but there is always tomorrow.
Mishka Gora is a writer and photographer based in Tasmania. She has worked as a humanitarian aid worker, resettlement assistant, and English tutor with refugees and displaced persons in the former Yugoslavia, the United States, and Australia.