Greater Surbiton

The perfect is the enemy of the good

Re-making Kozarac: Agency, reconciliation and contested return in post-war Bosnia

Kozarac

Review of Sebina Sivac-Bryant, Re-making Kozarac: Agency, reconciliation and contested return in post-war Bosnia, Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2016, 214 + xviii pp.

Since the war broke out in Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1992, its people have suffered many afflictions. One of those that is not acknowledged as often as it should be is the patronising attitude with which many outsiders view them. Very often, foreign politicians, diplomats, NGO staff, activists, journalists and others view them in terms of a dichotomy of irrational nationalists and passive victims, discounting the possibility of positive agency on their part – outside the narrow framework of the agenda that the outsiders themselves impose. A large part of agenda revolves around the fetish of ‘reconciliation’, which often seems to be more about the outsiders’ own ideological shibboleths than the Bosnians’ needs and aspirations.

Sebina Sivac-Bryant’s book provides an extremely welcome alternative perspective. It is a study of the experiences of Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) who were driven from their homes by the rebel-Serb campaign of genocidal mass violence in the 1990s, but have since returned. It focuses on the town of Kozarac, near the city of Prijedor – a region that formed one of the epicentres of the violence, and spawned the infamous concentration camps of Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm. Sivac-Bryant is herself a native of the village of Kevljani, near Kozarac, and her family was among the victims; her eldest brother was tortured and executed at Omarska, and she and her mother were driven into exile in Zagreb, where her mother died after being denied adequate medical care. Despite this tragedy, this is a dispassionate and sharply analytical study, but it benefits from the native’s awareness and insights of themes and nuances that a foreign observer might have missed. Basing her research on extensive fieldwork, interviews with returnees and personal observation, Sivac-Bryant has crafted a multifaceted little gem of a local study.

RemakingKozarac

Although Kozarac was emptied of its Bosniak inhabitants and destroyed, it has become a notable success story with regard to refugee returns to Bosnia’s Serb entity, Republika Srpska (RS), and the restored town today thrives – a stark rebuke to the genocidal goals of the Serb extremists. As Sivac-Bryant explains, this success was due precisely to the fact that so many of Kozarac’s Bosniaks refused from the start to be passive victims. It had its roots in the 17th Krajina Brigade of the Bosnian army; a unit that originated with Bosniak refugees expelled from their homes in 1992, who had taken refuge in Croatia and organised themselves for military resistance. Receiving training from the Croatian Army but unwilling to let themselves become tools of Croatian official policy, they made their own way back to the war-zone and operated as a mobile military unit capable of operating across the country – something that it did very effectively, reminiscent of the legendary Proletarian Brigades with which Josip Broz Tito and the Communists spearheaded the Partisan resistance movement of World War II. This contrasted with local units of the Bosnian army whose soldiers were often unwilling to fight outside their own areas. The 17th Krajina Brigade became one of the most militarily successful units in the Bosnian army.

The Bosnian war ended in October 1995, just when the 17th Krajina Brigade was on the verge of liberating not only their homes in Kozarac, but Omarska and other sites of concentration camps where so many of their soldiers and their friends, family members and neighbours had been persecuted. This was a great disappointment, but not the end of the struggle; rather, the struggle took a new form, as with the momentum of their military effort behind them, they now campaigned to be allowed home in the newly recognised RS. As Sivac-Bryant shows, the obstacles they faced included not only the expected obstruction from the RS authorities, but also the passivity of and lack of support from the international community. The latter eventually adopted stronger action in response to the efforts of significant numbers of refugees to return home unilaterally. This culminated in the shooting dead of Simo Drljaca, the hardline Prijedor police chief, by British Stabilisation Force (SFOR) troops in 1997, marking a turning-point in the history of refugee returns and political reform in that part of the RS. In 2000, the first mosque in the whole of the RS was rebuilt at Kozarac.

SebinaSivacBryant

Sebina Sivac-Bryant

Kozarac was consequently restored and repopulated thanks to its inhabitants’ own effort. But as Sivac-Bryant shows, the success remains ambiguous and bittersweet. The RS authorities went from threatening and harassing the returnees to treating them as second-class citizens, who for example might receive only an hour a day of drinking water during summer, but still be charged for using a reservoir they had built themselves. Moreover, refugees suffer from their own internal divisions as well. By basing her research on extensive fieldwork, interviews with returnees and personal observations, Sivac-Bryant is able to bring these to light. She cites, for example, the case of a Serb woman who was persecuted by the Serb extremists because she had been married to a man of mixed Croat-Muslim background; now back in Kozarac, and despite both her husband and son having been killed in the genocide, she remains estranged from her former Bosniak friends and neighbours. In general, many returnees continue to suffer from loneliness and isolation, with many of their loved ones dead and friendships broken. Their dilemmas are very real; between focusing on the past and the need for justice and for recognition of their losses on the one hand, and for economic improvement and cohabitation with RS authorities on the other. The portrayal of the complexity of the returnees’ emotions is one of the great strengths of this book.

Over and above the divisions at the grass roots, Sivac-Bryant argues that a small clique of Bosniak insiders has monopolised both leadership positions in the community and relations with the RS authorities, marginalising other Bosniaks from Kozarac. Such fissures are too often brushed over by foreign observers who often tend to essentialise Bosnians along ethnic lines, even though they may be as significant as those between the different ethno-national groups, if not more so. It is this unflinching scrutiny of the internal politics of the Kozarac Bosniak community, and of the relations between it and the internationals, that is likely to make this a controversial book in some quarters.

The author is merciless in her critique of the model of ‘reconciliation’ attempted by some foreign activists and NGOs, albeit often well-meaning. She recalls attending a conference on reconciliation organised in Malta by a British charity (which she does not name), in which ‘we, the Bosniaks, were supposed to play the role of survivors’; assigned a psychologist, ‘we could not even go to the bathroom alone without the psychologist accompanying us’. Sivac-Bryant describes her experience as follows:

‘Another way of emphasising our status as “victims of trauma” was in the way we were coached to enter the conference room. We were asked to wait for all participants to take their seats and then our psychologist would invite us in. A back corner of the room was allocated for us, and upon entering the room, the participants’ gaze turned towards us. It felt as though they knew something we did not. The conference was organised by a British woman, the organiser, and her daughter, who talked about their own life tragedies, and how they learned to overcome them, which was why they founded a charity that helps others work through their trauma. While the atmosphere was high on a note of self-healing, our group was struggling to remain quiet as our conversation was mostly humorous. Meanwhile, a famous American psychologist began a ‘puppet-show’ in which he described how to regain self-worth. Although we were entertained, we could not fathom what all this had to do with us. Mirza was listening to the psychologist, trying to take on board his advice for personal growth, but the rest of us either did not understand English, or were too bored to listen.’ (pp. 141-142)

The message of the book is that victimhood is not a permanent or unchanging status, and that return to a form of normal life for victims works best when they themselves work towards it on their own initiative. In particular, Sivac-Bryant describes the efforts of two Bosniak entrepreneurs, Jusuf Arifagic and Enes Kahrimanovic, to bring economic activity and jobs to the locality in the face of official obstruction or indifference, as having been particularly valuable for the wellbeing of the community. For all the physical and emotional suffering, and conflict and animosity that Sivac-Bryant describes, hers is ultimately an extraordinary study of human perseverence in the face of adversity:

‘Having witnessed the resourcefulness of returnees to Kozarac over a decade or more, I am optimistic about the potential for returnees to have a positive effect on their home regions, even where return is contested and highly contentious. Learning the lessons from such case studies, I belive can help us design better, more imaginative and more effective policy for similarly affected communities around the world.’ (p. 205)

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Monday, 17 July 2017 - Posted by | Balkans, Bosnia, Former Yugoslavia, Genocide | , , , , , ,

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