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.



Zravo Bosna!

10 Jun

So i’m in Bosnia. Tuzla, to be precise. Arriving in Sarajevo touched off memories of the nightly news I’d seen back in the mid-nineties. I recognized some of the tall apartment buildings, still pock-marked with bullet holes and scabs of naked rebar and concrete where walls had been blasted by shells. There were still even a few bombed out buildings that were now inhabited only by poplar trees. Sarajevo, like pretty much every major Bosnian town I’ve visited, is located in a low-lying valley ringed by rolling mountains. Sprawling below, the cities and their inhabitants offered easy targets for the snipers on the mountainsides. The mountains form the horizon in all directions, and as my taxi drove to the bus station from the airport, I asked myself how anyone could possibly have hidden and felt safe, the horizon seemed to signify terror.

Once in Tuzla I received a warm welcome from Zulfo, Vildana, Edisa, and Edina, some of the staff at Drina, the organization I would be working with. The next day they took me to Srebrenica, where Drina has another office and the site of the worst massacres in Europe since WWII. During the three-hour drive, we passed two recently discovered mass grave sites. One was on a wooded hilltop, the other in a flood plain near a creek. We also passed a battery factory where Bosnian Serb militiamen had rounded up Bosnian Muslims and shot them en masse. That same day, we saw on the news recently released footage of Serb soldiers rounding up Bosnian Muslims. In one brief clip played on the news, a group of Bosnians was ordered to lie face down in a gully on the side of the road. A soldier fired an automatic weapon just above their heads, causing clods of dirt to fall from the hillside onto the men’s heads. The soldiers ordered the men up and continued to walk. The tape picked up later, when several were executed one by one as the others watched, and then dragged off into the woods.. You can see a different part of the same video here: republikabih.net click on the link ‘snimku’ to the upper right hand side of the photo.

In the car with me was Edisa, Vildana, and Almir. Almir is 20 years old and he volunteers at Drina. In 1995, he and his father fled Srebrenica. They traveled six days, moving only at night, through wooded mountains and crevices. They avoided roads where they might be spotted by Serbian militiamen or ‘Chetniks,’ the worst and most extremist of the Bosnian Serb nationalists. As they hid in the woods, Almir, his father and others heard calls over loudspeakers to come forward to ‘the U.N. peacekeepers.’ Serb militiamen had painted a truck with U.N. peacekeeper logos to entice fleeing Bosnians to come to them. To be exterminated.

As the car wound through valleys and hillsides, I was shocked that Almir had made the trip by foot in only six days. Zulfo, the director of Drina, was one of the last to flee Srebrenica and it took him 32 days.

Once in Srebrenica I was shown around Drina’s office there, and met the town’s mayor who happened to be strolling by the coffee shop we were at and stopped in to say hello to Vildana. There was also a biker party/rock concert going on there. Apparently some one was returning from the United States and decided to celebrate by inviting every biker in the Bosnia Hercegovina (a couple hundred) to rock out. On Wednesday I helped write a project proposal for the Srebrenica NGO network. This is a group of NGOs in Srebrenica who work on a variety of different issues – aid to handicapped children, youth services – but for whom resettlement, reconciliation and building of civil society is a primary issue.

Drina is trying to organize them into a network to work together on resettlement issues, though it is slow going. Politics in Srebrenica was slow to return to normal after the war. Given its intense experiences, and its mixed population of both Bosnian Serbs and Muslims deep within the Serb areas of Bosnia, it was the seat of some of the most radicalized politics in the region. Some extremist politicians remained prominent for several years after the war. Even now, things are cordial but cool between the Serb and Muslim populations in Srebrenica. There is, for example, a discotheque on the main strip that is frequented only by Serbs. Muslims don’t go there because they “don’t want any trouble” so they “make their own fun”.

Beyond the delicate politics, there is a host of other problems. Economically Srebrenica is sluggish. Employment is a problem throughout Bosnia, but in smaller towns like Srebrenica it’s particularly acute. Before the war Srebrenica’s population was almost 40,000. Now it’s less than a quarter of that. Young returnees in search of employment become discouraged and end up leaving the town once again. Tourism used to be an important part of Srebrenica’s economy; the area is rich in springs that are advertised as providing a number of health benefits, and there is a lake, a river, and scenic mountainsides. Srebrenica also has mines. Though several heavily mined areas have been demined for industry, the natural settings are not all clear. An aerial map of minefields in Srebrenica shows the town was at one time entirely ringed by mines, sealing its inhabitants inside. Bosnia has the highest percentage of its land mass mined (a little over 4% according to the ITF) than anywhere in the Balkans. It is estimated that it will take twenty years for all the mines to be eliminated. Srebrenica also has mining. There are heavy bauxite and iron ore deposits. Concession laws give mining companies free reign for a distinct period of time, and so these companies have gouged the land for bauxite so intensively that some of the natural springs have been damaged. There are no tax laws in place to allow tax-deductible donations to non-profits, and so fundraising from businesses is difficult, though individual refugees in Sarajevo have been generous in their support of their former hometown. Drina has succeeded in getting a position created in the Srebrenica municipality for working specifically with non-governmental organizations, but the officer is somewhat inexperienced.

These are all problems that Srebrenica and its network of NGOs face, and which Drina is trying to address. Its work is cut out for it!!

Posted By Sabri Ben-Achour (Bosnia & Herzegovina)

Posted Jun 10th, 2005

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