Sabri Ben-Achour (Bosnia & Herzegovina)

Sabri Ben-Achour (Forum of Srebrenica NGOs, Bosnia): Sabri was born in France to parents from Tunisia and New Zealand. He has lived in Tunisia, grew up in the United States, and holds British citizenship. In 2002, Sabri graduated with distinction from the University of Virginia. He lived in France and Jordan, studying French and Arabic. Sabri has also worked as a political intern with the Human Rights Campaign, the Arab American Institute, and the National Coalition to Protect Political Freedom. At the time of his fellowship, Sabri was pursuing his Master's student at Georgetown University where he was studying foreign policy and international development.



So how DO people get along there?

09 Aug

Since last Wednesday, I have conducted a series of interviews designed to explore, 10 years after an interethnic war, what are the attitudes of individuals towards other individuals of different ethnic groups? How are peoples’ lives affected by ethnic divisions? How well do institutions act as integrators? How do residents view their own process of reconciliation and their political futures? I interviewed both Serbs and Muslims, residents of the area and people who were displaced. My friend Terry Mceneny, an American lecturer at Tuzla University, accompanied me and translated.
So, how well do Serbs and Muslims get along in Srebrenica?

In general, not too badly, according to almost everyone I spoke to. “It depends on the individual,” explained Bootsa, a secretary at Drina’s Srebrenica office and a Serb. “Some get along very well, some greet each other in the street and that’s it. Its not as bad as people think. They go to the same cafes, kids play together, go to the same discos.”

It wasn’t always like that however. “5, 6 years ago, people did separate. Muslim owned restaurants only saw Muslims visiting,” said several participants. Discos were frequented only by Serbs, and Muslims “made their own fun,” as a Muslim woman explained with an unexpected chuckle.

I asked specifically about segregation and whether, when people need to get work done on their house or repair their car, they take into account the ethnicity of the business owner. “If your car is broken, you take it to the nearest place. If you are shopping, you go to the cheapest place. It’s natural.”

There are separate neighborhoods in some areas, “but you had that before the war, just so you know. And the majority of people live in mixed neighborhoods now.” In these mixed neighborhoods, “everyone comes out to help if, you know, trees need to be cut down for example. It’s a small place, everyone has to help each other out.”

Their kids go to the same schools and universities. I thought perhaps that as far as university goes, young people might go to Belgrade to study if they were Serb, or Sarajevo if they were Muslim. “You go wherever you get in, and wherever’s cheapest. It’s something already to get in, people are happy to get in anywhere. Plus its very expensive to study outside Bosnia, anyway.”

I wondered if things were different when it came to food products, since Muslims have certain religious dietary restrictions like not eating pork. “They go to the same butcher. There’s only one in Srebrenica, anyway. And sometimes they even go to the Serb butcher in [nearby] Bratunac because of the high quality,” explained Valentina, a co-founder of the youth-oriented NGO ‘Sara.’

I got the sense that some of the participants found the interview slightly irritating. Though happy to indulge me, they seemed not quite defensive, but there was a tiredness and a tension about them. “You aren’t the first” to ask these questions, and “you won’t be the last.” Valentina complained of journalists who swept through town only to add color to a dismal picture of inter-ethnic relations that they had written or at least conceived long before they actually spoke with any residents, and who ignored what was actually going on.

“My children, for example, go to joint camps, play with other kids; among people who live here, you’re not going to find that problem [of segregation],” Valentina said. And going to the doctor? “If you’re sick, you go to the doctor,” explained another participant matter of factly, “The doctors are all Serb, in Srebrenica. It doesn’t make a difference.”

Teufik, a Muslim who lost his father and many other relatives in 1995, explained that even in Dzvinice, a refugee settlement of Srebrenicans – mostly orphans and widows – there are not intense feelings of hatred for Serbs. When asked why not, Teufik offered the mosque as one reason. “Muslims are different. I don’t go to the mosque very often, but when I do, I’ve heard the imams always saying ‘no revenge, revenge is not our way.’ So there is not that sort of feeling there.” Elvis, also a Muslim, from a village near Srebrenica, shrugged off any suggestion that the Muslims and Serbs in his village didn’t get along.

What about people who live in other people’s houses? Do they fear the day when the erstwhile inhabitants return to claim their home? “Nobody likes to live in someone else’s house, if you think about it. They are there because they have nowhere else to go. But people are reasonable, if someone comes back, they make an accommodation, they come to an agreement.” Dina, a Muslim, has a house not 25 feet from the house formerly occupied by her cousins who now live in St. Louis. Now, the house is occupied by Serbs. “Do you ever talk to them?” I asked. “Yeah we say hi.. sometimes.” Not a warm relationship, but not an icy one either. Resigned.

Yet, everything isn’t entirely perfect. One Muslim man asked me what I had found so far in my discussions with people. After I told him, he said “Are you going to believe what you hear or what you see?” When I was walking past one café with two friends from Drina, one young man commented in a voice just loud enough for us to hear “gee, I wish I were Muslim, then I could have two beautiful girls.”

Even some of the positive comments I had received belied a certain tension. Bootsa, for example, in explaining how people didn’t care what ethnicity their doctor was, mentioned that all the Doctors in Srebrenica were Serb. This was, she said, because Muslims could find better paying jobs elsewhere in Federation Bosnia. It may be that it is simply a case of one ethnic group dominating a particular profession in an area, but if Bootsa is correct it implies that something keeps Serb doctors from moving elsewhere. It may also be that the Serb doctors weren’t ethnically cleansed, or simply survived to return to the region whereas so many Muslims did not.

“And people who lost someone behave a bit differently” was a comment I heard more than once. Indeed, they do. When I suggested to one young woman, Paula we’ll call her, that she contact an NGO director for help regarding a particular issue, she pursed her lips and said “Yeah I know her.” After pausing to ash her cigarette, she looked at me and said simply but emphatically “I don’t like Serbs.” I mentioned that the woman I had spoken to seemed very tolerant and generally nice and they might be able to work well together. “Yeah, all the Serbs were nice in 1992 [before the war] and they either left or came back to kill us. My cousin was six years old. They killed him. My grandfather, he was 70. and they killed him. And 35 of my cousins. Why?” When I pointed out that she was often in the company of one man here in Tuzla who was Serb she said “Yeah, he was in Tuzla for the war, he stayed. He didn’t pick up a gun and kill anyone.” Paula knows who owns which businesses in Srebrenica, and she avoids Serb businesses. Likewise for her grandmother, the only member of her family who remains in the Srebrenica region. In Tuzla, however, Paula makes no distinctions. “The Serbs here didn’t kill anyone, and there are so many mixed couples that it’s not important who’s who.”

In Srebrenica there are, also, “provocations” by “outsiders, mostly.” On the 11th of July, for example, there was a group of teenagers sporting Naser Oric tshirts. Naser Oric was a Bosnian fighter who is now in the Hague for suspected war crimes against Serbs. On the 12th of July there were rallies for fallen Serbs (the date had been purposefully changed to that day in protest of the memorial on the 11th) that saw some young people wearing tshirts and shouting praise of Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, two particularly notorious Serb war criminals who are still at large and one small band of out-of-towner Serbs marched through the center of town “making trouble.”

But these incitements did not rock the small town as they might have once before. “These are just provocations by extremists, people don’t make a big deal out of them.” “Then again,” as Valentina said somewhat sadly, “I didn’t think people would make a big deal of things before the war, I thought normal people would prevail… and you see what happened.” Several people I spoke to characterized the exhaustion of the population as the best buffer against extremism; “We know now what war is, we lived it. We don’t need to live it again.”

In my questioning, I also tried to locate political issues that had the potential to divide people and flare up into larger problems. In studying the war and discussing with individuals, it became clear that the cause of this war was, to mince no words, a bloodthirsty irredentist nationalism sponsored by Slobodon Milosevic that spread to Serb populated areas of Bosnia and Croatia. The messages calling Bosnia the Serbian homeland came from outside, from nationalist television stations and opportunistic politicians. It was not the response of some oppressed minority trying to throw off the shackles of second class citizenship or exploitation. It was rather the absorption of ordinary people into an entrancing ideology at a time when major military forces were available to turn nationalist fantasy into reality.

The one potential issue I found was that of voting. In Srebrenica – and everywhere in Bosnia, apparently – you can retain the right to vote in your home town even if you move from there. As a result, the thousands of Bosnian Muslims displaced from Srebrenica in the first half of the 90’s can and still do vote in its mayoral elections. It is for that reason that the mayor is a Muslim despite the fact that the population of Srebrenica is now majority Serb. It is, currently, an irritant to Srebrenican residents, Serb and Muslim alike as it was told to me. “Why should people who don’t even live here any more have a say on how we conduct ourselves here?” one asked. For now, however, it seems that people are resigned to the fact. The law is an old one, and when I asked if people ever talked about organizing to change the law, I was told “I don’t even think people here know how to change the law or even that they can.”

Moreover, for now, the municipal government is mixed. The mayor is Muslim, the chief of the city council is Serb. They seem to work well together, and for each of the major holidays both Muslim and Orthodox Christian, the major organizes multi-ethnic dinners or celebrations designed to bring people together. “For now, it works out because we have a nice guy as mayor. I don’t know what would happen if we didn’t, but the next election is several years down the road and it would be silly to try and predict.”

In many ways, Srebrenica, as a mixed community, is no different from mixed communities elsewhere. People deal with their neighbors. In many ways, mixed communities deal better with tensions than separate and isolated homogenous communities. Even in mixed Israeli cities like Haifa, different ethnic groups will mingle in neighborhoods and generally cooperate better than in other areas that are cordoned off from one another. Of key importance is that there is little ideological component to settlement in Srebrenica. Most Muslims and Serbs do not see themselves or their settlement as physical manifestations or placeholders in a battle between larger homelands. During the war, when toxic nationalist rhetoric spewed forth from Belgrade and some other capitals, it was possible for people to abstract their personal lives into a larger context of supra-individual identities that did not follow the humane conventions of inter-mingled day-to-day lives. This contrasts to the ethnic divisions that arise naturally from communities where different groups occupy different economic or political positions and one dominates or represses the other. This was an irredentist nationalism spread mostly from the top.

It is likely for this reason that media in Bosnia and Herzegovina is so tightly monitored by the E.U. for hate-speech and tendentiousness; it is not an entirely free media. International donors also try to fund new media outlets to add balance to the national discourse.

In my opinion, the clues to Srebrenica’s future are tied up with politics at higher levels. The municipal government, for now, is functional and nimbly navigates the region’s ethnic map. People are concerned about economic growth more than anything else. The sparks will not come from below. They will come from the political progress at the level of the entire Republika Srpska and Federation Bosnia, which for now comprise a lumbering ravel of bureaucratic layers and delicate maneuvering between nationalist political parties, EU officials, and the E.U. High Representative Paddy Ashdown who supervises Bosnian politics and intervenes when he feels it appropriate. Nor is the groundwork of individuals, at least in Srebrenica, by any measure a dessicated bed of tinder just waiting to explode. It is a community mostly of pragmatic human beings trying to put the horrors they all shared behind them.

Posted By Sabri Ben-Achour (Bosnia & Herzegovina)

Posted Aug 9th, 2005

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