...are the ones that make the biggest difference


Bosnia II

Another one of those days - feeling a need to write, but not really having anything significant to say. So what the heck, another Bosnia story. I do have to note on the last one, I talked about a city called Srpski Brod. A pre-war inhabitant of that same city reminded me that its proper name is actually Bosanski Brod. It was unofficially renamed after the war and most people in our area referred to it by its new name.

A few miles outside the city where we were stationed was a small town called Kotorsko. Pre-war it had been a predominantly Muslim town of well-to-do professionals with a population of a few thousand. The town sits on the side & top of a flat hill, overlooking the "highway" and a furniture factory on one side and farmland and more hills on the other. The town was devastated during the war; most of the homes had been hit with heavy weapons or burned and the centrally located mosque, not surprisingly given the nature of the conflict, was in total ruins. The only way you could tell the structure's former purpose was from the toppled minaret that lay in a grassy lawn next to the rubble. When we first got in-country - August 2000 - there were only a few pre-war residents living in Kotorsko, and they had only recently returned. During the war people fled into the zones controlled by their respective ethnic groups, leaving many, many homes empty. These empty homes, if they were still in relatively decent repair, were promptly inhabited by folks who had had to flee their own. The issue of returnees - people returning to their original homes and seeking to repossess them - is one of the hardest issues in post-war Bosnia. It requires the squatters to be removed from the house they have lived in for years and the process moves forward regardless of whether or not the squatters have a place to go. I understand the reason for this policy, but it does nothing to remove the tension.

Kotorsko was no different. Many Serb families had taken up residence in the (forcibly) abandoned homes, making Kotorsko their new home. Most held little hope of returning to their original properties - there are many parts of Bosnia that are still unsafe for returnees, but Kotorsko was not one of them. Thanks to a large grant from international agencies, large numbers of Muslims started returning to reclaim & rebuild their property in the spring. This pushed many of the Serb squatters out and left quite a few with nowhere to go. These Serbs were homeless, that is, until the city donated land adjacent to the furniture factory to those families who could not return to their pre-war homes. This land had originally belonged to the town of Kotorsko, but had been purchased by the city in 60's for a possible expansion of the factory. This seriously angered the returning Muslim families, even though the Serbs couldn't afford any building materials. The situation was made worse when the donated supplies started coming in; truckload after truckload of brick, cement, wood, shingles, wiring, pipes - everything necessary to build a home. While the Serb families were barely scraping enough together to buy a single course of cement blocks to build a single wall, the Muslim families were awash in materials.

Due to the escalating tensions, we made frequent stops in Kotorsko, talking to whomever we could and the security forces made almost daily patrols in the area as a show of force. One day, things came to a head. We were talking to a guy who had been one of the first returnees, whom we had met a few months back. We were at a in-the-process-of-being-refurbished restaurant, which was mostly just a grill and some plastic tables & chairs. A crowd started to slowly gather around us. We were aware of it, but the crowd appeared calm and was only listening to the conversation. After a while, though, an old, short, portly man approached us and asked to speak with us. We said yes, which was a mistake. This man was influential among the returnees, he was pissed and wasted no time launching into a tirade about the Serbs across the road. The crowd grew and became somewhat restive. We walked away from the restaurant moved into a square across the street. The crowd increased in size and volume as this man listed off the reasons the Serbs should not be there, why they should not be allowed to build their homes, how the land donation was illegal, how the land belonged to them, etc, etc. He produced documents, as did several other men in the crowd. It was at this point the full gravity of what was happening around me became apparent. Me and my unarmed interpreter had our back against a wall and were surrounded by 30 or so men, all very upset and wanting me to do something about it. After a few minutes, I realized I wasn't in any danger but the sheer hatred & animosity coming from this crowd was sobering. They were inventing reasons to stop the building - they had rifles, they had assault rifles, they had heavy weapons, they had a whole weapons cache in a small shack, the shack actually masked the entrance to an underground cache, and finally, the underground cache was actually a series of tunnels that ran under the town. We promised we would investigate this Viet-Cong-like series of tunnels, which seemed to satisfy them, and quickly exited stage right.

We did go talk to the Serb families and did poke around looking for this treasure trove of hardware, but found nothing. Nothing but poor families who would likely not be able to complete their new homes for several years. For the most part they did not begrudge the returnees the right to their homes or the donations that benefited them. They simply wanted to get on with their lives. The problem was with those who did not want the same - and I met people like that from every side; Croat, Muslim & Serb, who were not willing to let the past lay buried, to forgive the old hurts and move on. They held onto it and thrived off their hurt even as it poisoned them and robbed them of life & hope. As we move into Lent, I hope and pray that all of us will be able to bury the past and leave it dead, unable to corrupt & control our hearts and our future.

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