20 years on, Bosnia returnee villages die slow second death
The gleaming white minaret dwarfs Divic’s scattering of houses, an increasing number of which are empty most of the year
REFUGEE return to ‘cleansed’ Muslim villages in the Bosnian Serb area of Zvornik was once hailed as a post-war success story but, twenty years on, life is petering out. Many of the returnees have left again for lack of work and use their rebuilt houses as holiday homes, leaving only the elderly to sit out their old age on their native land. Amir Kapidzic was one of the thousands of Muslims who returned to the area, which was the scene of brutal ethnic cleansing at the start of Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, 20 years ago this week.
In 2002, he followed his grandparents back to his native village of Divic, which is now part of Bosnian Serbs’ Republika Srpska, but he does not believe his three children will stay and his prognosis for the village is grim. “In ten years there will be nobody left, the elderly will die and the young will leave. We will come to Divic only for the holidays,” the 31-year-old said. In the early months of the war, Serb paramilitaries chased the Muslims – who made up 60 percent of the population – from the Zvornik area. Over 1,800 people were killed and entire Muslim villages were razed to the ground.
In Divic, the militias came in June 1992 and bussed the women and children to Muslim-controlled areas. The men where taken to detention camps where around one hundred of them were killed. Among the dead was Kapidzic’s father. The pull of the homeland was strong when Kapidzic returned as a young man but relations with the majority Serbs surrounding his community remain strained. “I grew up in Divic and returning here after the war was a given for me. But nothing will ever be like it was before after what the Serbs did to us,” he said.
During the war, the area’s abandoned Muslim villages in the area were inhabited by Bosnian Serbs who fled Sarajevo and its surroundings. In Divic, they tore down the old mosque and built an Orthodox church. When Muslims started to return, the Serbs moved out. The church was taken down and reconstructed in a neighbouring village and a new mosque was erected.
The gleaming white minaret dwarfs Divic’s scattering of houses, an increasing number of which are empty most of the year. Husejn Tuscic was one of a dozen elderly residents gathered in the imposing new mosque for afternoon prayers. Like many here he has no desire to interact with Serbs. “I have no contact whatsoever with Serbs. It is not worth the trouble,” said the 60-year-old, who is still haunted by the year he spent in a Serb detention camp. But what is killing the village this time is unemployment.
Kapidzic is one of the few inhabitants who has a job — in a small workshop manufacturing aluminium frames — but he said several of his friends had already left Divic to seek employment in the Muslim Croat Federation or abroad. The village’s young imam Mehmed Tuhcic said he hoped when the mosque was rebuilt in 2011 it would draw new returnees. “In the two years since I have been here only one new family returned,” he sighed.
In 2007 over 30,000 Muslims out of the pre-war population of 48,100 had returned to Zvornik municipality but in the last five years 13,500 of those returnees have left again, according to Mirhunisa Zukic, who heads a refugee organisation. “People come back, but find themselves unemployed, and for administrative reasons have no access to social security or healthcare in Republika Srpska,” Zukic said.
During the war, some 2.2 million people fled their homes. Now a little over a million of them have returned, according to the Bosnian ministry for refugees. Around 117,000 people are still registered as internally displaced. “Ethnic cleansing has been very successful,” Zukic said.