Conflict & Justice

In Srebrenica Election, a Horrific Past Looms Large in Vision for Future

In the center of town, Alic Restaurant is hopping by Srebrenica standards. Elvis Spilic is chowing down on the Bosnian staple of cevapcici: grilled links of minced meat. Spilic, a Bosniak, lived through the massacre in 1995, and spent two months in a Serb prison. He returned here six years ago.

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"Mostly, I came back because I lost everything here," he says.

The upcoming mayoral election on October 7th, Spilic says, is about sending a message to those who killed and drove out thousands of his fellow Bosniaks 17 years ago, when Bosnian Serb forces under the command of Ratko Mladic massacred some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys.

"We want to show them that they have not accomplished their goal of ethnic cleansing here," Spilic says.

Srebrenica lies deep inside Bosnia's Serb-controlled entity, Republika Srpska. But Bosniaks – who are also known as Bosnian Muslims – have controlled local politics here since after the war largely because people who lived in Srebrenica before the war were, up until this election, able to continue voting easily without living in the town. But changes in election rules have made that more difficult, and because Srebrenica is now around 70 percent Serb, there's a good chance the next mayor will be Serb.

"To Muslims, it'd be so, so so hard to live here, to stay in your own house," says Sale Salihovic, a town sanitation worker, drinking beer with friends in an alley. "I'm really really worried."

Salihovic was born in a nearby village. He says he escaped execution three times during the war. Then someone tried to kill him when he returned 10 years ago.

Despite the painful history and divisive election, he says relations between Bosniaks and Serbs are relatively good these days. But the economy is a big problem.

"The situation is not good about the business and work," he says. "It is so difficult, like anywhere in the world."

Just walking through this tiny town of 7,000, the divisions between Serbs and Bosniaks seem subtle. It's difficult to tell who's a Bosniak and who's a Serb. They speak the same language – among many other indistinguishable characteristics. What is clear is that Srebrenica has seen better days.

Many shops are boarded up or vacant. Before the war, Srebrenica was a prosperous mining town with more than 30,000 people. Despite millions of dollars in aid after Bosnia's civil war, industry is a fraction of what it once was, and jobs are scarce.

Chatting a small betting shop, Dragan Cvetinovic says times are tough.

"This is the only place you can get money – but I just don't have luck," Cvetinovic says, after losing another bet.

Cvetinovic used to be a mechanic, but he hasn't had a job in six years. He's a Serb, but he isn't sure a Serb mayor would be best for Srebrenica's economy.

"Even though I'm a Serb and would like a Serb to be elected, I know it means that instantly there would be fewer donations for Srebrenica," Cvetinovic says, speculating that a Serbian mayor might have a harder time continuing to attract the millions of dollars in aid that's come in from West over the years.

If a Serb is elected, it would likely be Vesna Kocevic, a soft-spoken accountant, and a newcomer to politics. She's campaigning on an economic platform, calling for more investment and job creation. She says Srebrenica's past has held it prisoner.

"I always say, it's bad what happened. It's pitiful. But we can't do anything about it anymore. Don't we have a right to create a new life?" Kocevic asks.

That new life, Kocevic says, should reflect the will of the people who currently live in Srebrenica, most of whom are Serbs.

"It's a big punishment for those of who stayed here, that Srebrenica is always mentioned in this wartime context," Kocevic says. "It's hard to live with this burden. We're always supposed to bear the guilt."

Other Bosnian Serb leaders – including members of her own party – have made statements denying or minimizing the killings at Srebrenica. But Kocevic insists that she wants to represent all residents of Srebrenica, just not that ones who haven't lived in Srebrenica since the war. She says that Bosniaks who do live in the town should have nothing to fear if she's elected because Srebrenica's has changed and is now a place where everyone's rights are respected.

Her main opponent, acting mayor Camil Durakovic, doesn't buy it.

"It's all fake and fiction," Durakovic says, adding that even if Kocevic means what she says, political bosses aren't looking out for Bosniaks.

Durakovic survived the killings in Srebrenica and says the election of a Serb mayor would be an extension of the ethnic cleansing of the 1990s.

"We are not accepting that somebody can destroy our country, kill people, commit genocide, and legalize that. It's not acceptable concept," he says.

He says that an election based on Srebrenica's current population of 70-percent Serbs wouldn't be legitimate because thousands of Bosniaks left the town against their will. Durakovic's supporters spent much of the summer re-registering Bosniak voters, including those who no longer live here. "You cannot forbid a victim of genocide who survived here who now lives in Sarajevo due to Genocide, coming here to be part of a political life," he says.

  • srebrenica05.jpg

    Camil Durakovic, seen in a poster from an earlier campaign, is Srebrenica's acting mayor. (Photo: Nate Tabak)
  • srebrenica01.jpg

    Srebrenica has languished since the Bosnian war ended in 1995. (Photo: Nate Tabak)

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