Spectre of war in the Balkans

Published by The Mail on Sunday (28th November, 2021)

Munira Subasic lost her husband and teenage son in the darkest chapter of European history since the Second World War – the 1995 genocide of Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, when more than 8,300 people were massacred in a few days of horror.

She was also, like thousands more women, assaulted by rampaging Serb forces who hunted down men to murder and women to rape in Bosnia’s woods and destroyed villages after the post-Communist implosion of Yugoslavia.

Munira turned her agony into leading a campaign by women to find the remains of their menfolk. It was in that capacity that, a few days ago, she went to meet some other bereaved mothers of Srebrenica – and they greeted her with tears running down their faces. 

One woman, who never found the bodies of her three sons, had returned to live peacefully in the place where she had given birth to those children and where she hoped to end her years. But now she has packed her bags, ready to flee again.

For in a chilling echo of the blood-drenched past, Milorad Dodik, the leader of Bosnia’s Serbs, is pushing for a breakaway republic and even planning to revive the army responsible for that genocide.

‘Hitler pushed the whole of Europe into chaos in the middle of the 20th Century. So will Dodik do the same in the 21st Century?’ asked Munira.

Her fears are widely shared.

One analyst branded Dodik – a nationalist puppet for Russian president Vladimir Putin’s efforts to destabilise the Continent – ‘the most dangerous man in Europe’.

Even Sefik Dzaferovic, joint president of the country under its power-sharing system, called his fellow president’s actions ‘very, very dangerous’ as he admitted to me that he might need to order the nation’s armed forces to stop a Serb insurgency.

‘If Dodik carries on and nothing is done by the international community, it will most certainly result in conflict breaking out again,’ said Dzaferovic.

So once again, the Balkans are a tinderbox on the brink of explosion – and once again, the impact could be felt far more widely than in just this tormented corner of the European continent.

Winston Churchill famously said that the Balkans produce more history than they can consume – and the Bosnian capital Sarajevo was, of course, the place where a local radical shot the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, sparking the First World War.

As in previous centuries, rival foreign powers are struggling for influence. Yet now the weakness of the West has let Russia slide into a diplomatic void to embolden extremists. 

And these forces threaten the delicate Dayton peace accord that has held this region together for 26 years with Bosnia-Herzegovina governed on tri-partite ethnic lines between the Muslim Bosniaks, Orthodox Serbs and Catholic Croats. 

That deal followed three-and-a-half years of civil war, which led to Nato air attacks in 1995, followed by more strikes in Serbia and Kosovo four years later. Thousands of Nato troops were despatched to the region; now 600 EU peacekeepers remain.

Once seen as a moderate hailed in Washington as ‘a breath of fresh air’, Dodik turned into a hardline nationalist after losing an election as prime minister of Republika Srpska, one of two administrative units established in post-war Bosnia. 

When he returned to power, he started speaking of separation for his Serb-dominated entity and harshened his rhetoric. 

He dismissed the genocide as ‘a staged tragedy with an aim to satanise the Serbs’ and recently branded Bosniaks ‘poor-quality’ people.

All three of the country’s governing groups must back any reforms – and this allows Dodik to paralyse the state while hypocritically arguing that his region must leave such a dysfunctional system.

The trigger for this turmoil was a law passed in July to criminalise denial or glorification of genocide.  After years of debate, it was imposed finally by the Office of the High Representative, an international body set up to implement the peace agreement.

This sparked fury among Serb nationalists, who still glorify some of the worst war criminals seen on European soil since the Nazi era and talk of a Greater Serbia to unite their tribe of Orthodox Christians across the region.

Last month, Dodik declared that they were starting secession moves for Republika Srpska, including setting up its own tax administration, army and security forces. Little wonder diplomats and citizens on all sides fear fresh bloodshed.

Srebrenica was the best-documented genocide in history and an international court declared the army of Republika Srpska to be the key group inflicting mass atrocities in its bid to create an ethnically pure state. 

These included ethnic cleansing of towns and villages, systematic murder, rape camps and digging up mass graves to hide evidence – although other forces also carried out gross war crimes amid fighting that left 100,000 dead.

‘The situation is very disturbing – it feels like it did before the war,’ said Kada Hotic, 76, who lost her husband, son and two brothers among 56 slain relatives. ‘We are all frightened but don’t know what to do.’

Kada was working as a seamstress in Srebrenica when, one day in April 1992, she heard the terrifying thunder of war as Serb forces attacked her town, swollen with refugees in a United Nations supposed safe zone.

‘When they cleared the city, they raped every woman they caught,’ she said. ‘I spent the next 11 nights sleeping in the woods although it was snowing, then rain fell.’

Serbs seized the town, burning and looting homes of the mostly Muslim residents, before a volunteer force including her husband Sead and son Samir beat back the troops. Then Srebrenica was besieged, its food ran out and the Serbs returned.

Kada joined 6,000 people who thought they had found sanctuary in a UN base situated in a disused car battery plant in nearby Potocari. Outside the gates, more than twice as many people were kept at bay by overwhelmed Dutch peacekeepers.

An estimated 15,000 men, from teenagers to pensioners, set out through woods and mountains to find safety – but only about a third survived the barrage of Serb ambushes on a 70-mile trek that became known as The Death March.

The Dutch officers, in one of the most shameful episodes of UN history, first agreed to let Serbian troops search the base and film propaganda videos of them doling out bread to the starving people crammed inside – then handed over everyone in the plant. 

Serb troops separated men from the women and children, before herding them on to a fleet of buses. Hundreds of the men were never seen alive again, butchered in nearby schools, factories and fields. Smaller massacres took place elsewhere.

‘I saw one woman holding on to her 12-year-old boy so they cut his neck on her lap,’ said Kada. ‘A pregnant woman was cut open before my eyes and two babies fell out. Another was delivering a baby – a soldier went over and stood on it.’

Now this elegant old woman fears history may repeat itself. ‘It does not matter what happens to me but I am scared for my grandchildren,’ she said. ‘Dodik says he does not want war but he wants his own army and state for himself.

‘This must be stopped. If you wait for the shooting to start, it will be too late,’ she said. ‘We are just collateral damage for Russia in its fight against Europe.’

Some survivors of the 1990s carnage have returned to rebuild their homes and lives in shattered Srebrenica – yet in one more grotesque twist, the elected mayor of this once-prosperous little town is a genocide denier and devoted follower of Dodik.

Mladen Grujicic, a former teacher, has claimed the massacres were not genocide – despite the rulings of two international courts. He has ties also to a group that celebrates war criminals.

When I met him in his mayoral office, the 39-year-old – whose father died in the war and who ran a group for families of slain soldiers – was friendly and responsive until I asked his views on the genocide. ‘The interview is over,’ he said sharply.

Yet he had talked freely about his admiration for his party leader, saying Dodik ‘is not a nationalist, he is not crude, he is just defending his people’, and insisting that their anger over the genocide law was due to its imposition by a foreigner.

Grujicic claimed that talk about the threat of war was due to ‘Bosniak politicians who want to get the international community on their side’, before saying that the country resembled ‘an unhappy marriage and maybe it would be better to divorce’.

The wounds in this society still fester. One study found half the population suffering post-traumatic stress, easily understandable when you visit Sarajevo and see the nearby hills from which it was besieged and pounded for three years.

A survey of 5,000 young people this month found almost half are thinking of emigrating.

They are frustrated by lack of jobs, low wages, poor public services and corruption that shackles growth despite receipt of more aid per capita than given to Germany under the post-war Marshall Plan.

Bosniak leaders such as Dzaferovic are pleading for the West to impose sanctions on Dodik and despatch a few thousand Nato troops to Bosnia-Herzegovina in order to send him a clear signal not to secede.

Yet Jasmin Mujanovic, a California-based expert on the Balkans, argues that the Dayton peace deal – with power-sharing based on ethnic divisions – has ended up fostering extremists who inflame tensions rather than politicians who might seek consensus.

Mujanovic fears a bubbling struggle similar to Northern Ireland’s Troubles rather than full-scale return to civil war. ‘Dodik is an agent of chaos who’s trying to see how far he can take this – and the fear is that he could go very far,’ he said.

Others believe the Bosnian Serb leader is playing games to shore up support ahead of elections next year, but will not do anything concrete to separate.

Yet he is also a pawn for Putin as the Kremlin seeks to restrain Nato and divide the EU – which must contend with its own nationalist leaders such as Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who visited Dodik three weeks ago.

There are rumours that Dodik has been in Moscow and Belgrade, the Serbian capital, seeking supplies of weapons. ‘If anybody tries to stop us, we have friends who will defend us,’ he warned last month.

Before visiting the Srebrenica mayor, I was struck by a powerful photograph in the Genocide Memorial Centre set up in the former UN base. 

It showed a frightened woman clutching her infant while confronted by the notorious Serbian general Ratko Mladic, later convicted of genocide and war crimes, as a UN soldier looks on.

Then the first man I met after leaving Grujicic’s office turned out to be the husband of that same woman and father of the boy in her arms – who both survived the war.

But the man, Mevludin Hafizovic, lost his father in the conflict. ‘How can anyone say my father did not exist or that house over the street was not destroyed?’ he said as we discussed genocide deniers.

The unemployed miner, a father-of-three, was with a friend who lost 70 relatives in the fighting. ‘It is so easy to raise tensions but no ordinary person wants war. We all suffered so much with no food, no fuel, no electricity for four years.’

Next, I walked down the street and started talking to another man in his mid-50s: Radojica Milinikovic, a municipal plumber who dismissed talk of renewed conflict. ‘We have no problems,’ he said.

This affable man told me of his own wartime torment, serving in the Serb forces and seeing his brother’s body – naked after being stripped of all his clothes – trapped on the front line for two months before it could be retrieved.

He said that terrible deeds had been carried out on both sides. ‘They cut the heads off Serbs and played football with them,’ he claimed.

Then he revealed something astonishing: he had served at Potocari as all those men, women and children were separated before that orgy of genocidal evil. Yet he insisted nothing terrible occurred in that infamous place.

‘They said men were killed there and women were raped but it is all lies. I saw neighbours whom I had not seen for a while and after we talked, we waved them goodbye on the buses.’

He did not deny that people were murdered elsewhere. Yet that disturbing phrase about waving his neighbours goodbye on their way to death will stick in my mind for ever.

For it shows the interwoven nature of Bosnia’s communities, symbolises the lethal legacy of the past that remains so resonant in the blighted Balkans – and sums up the dangers of Dodik, backed by his manipulative ally in Moscow, hurtling along a path that risks igniting another inflammatory conflict.

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