After Genocide

On a quiet Sunday last March, the Bosnian town of Brcko prepared to meet its fate. Its politicians and leading citizens gathered with international diplomats to await a lawyer's word from Washington. American troops stationed in Brcko stood ready to quell any violence. And the town held its breath.

Two years earlier, because of its strategic significance in the Bosnian war, Brcko had almost derailed the Dayton Accords. Since then, the town has become the focus of an intense international effort to ensure that it will not threaten Bosnia's fragile peace again. On a March visit to Washington designed expressly to lobby the United States government about the town, Ejup Ganic, the president of Bosnia's Muslim-Croat Federation, called Brcko "an American experiment." At issue is whether a town torn apart by atrocity and segregated into virtual ethnic apartheid can be peacefully reunited. Carl Bildt, the former Swedish prime minister and the international community's first high representative in Bosnia, once described the Dayton Accords as the "most ambitious peace agreement ever." And the reintegration effort in Brcko is likely Dayton's greatest challenge. If reintegration can succeed in Brcko, it can succeed anywhere in Bosnia.

Viewed in the warped context of the Bosnian war, what happened in Brcko in late April 1992 was not unusual. Serb militias swept through the river port town and in several weeks of violence harassed, evicted, and murdered non-Serb residents. Hundreds of Muslims and Croats were herded into the offices of a local bus company. It was there, according to a United Nations indictment, that the prisoners met 23-year-old Goran Jelisic. He introduced himself as "the Serb Adolf" and, to remove any lingering doubt about his intentions, told the prisoners that he had come to Brcko to kill Muslims. Over the next several weeks, he allegedly did just that-supervising the torture, beatings, and executions of dozens of Brcko residents. The indictment charges Jelisic with "intending to destroy a substantial or significant part of the Bosnian Muslim people as a national, ethnic, or religious group." In short, genocide.


I have to lean forward in my seat to hear Adela Bozic as she recounts in a near whisper how her life crumbled during those spring days. A Bosnian Croat, she had lived in Brcko for 20 years, raising a family and rising to the position of judge in the town's court. When the chaos began, Serb paramilitaries demanded that her husband, a Serb, join them. By that point, Bozic said, "my husband would have had to kill me to prove he was a good Serb."

He refused, and on May 5, 1992, the Bozic home was burned to the ground. With her husband and children, Bozic fled a Brcko she no longer knew. When the war began, almost two-thirds of Brcko's population was Muslim or Croat. A few weeks at the hands of Jelisic and his colleagues changed everything. Non-Serbs who were lucky enough to make it out alive fled to Croatia or to areas of Bosnia still under the control of the Sarajevo government-areas often only a few kilometers away.

More than three years after the town was cleansed, a combination of NATO air strikes and Muslim and Croat ad vances on the ground forced the Bosnian Serbs to the negotiating table. At a U.S. airbase in Dayton, Ohio, the outlines of a settlement finally emerged. The country would be divided into two entities: the Republika Srpska (RS) and a Federation comprising Muslim- and Bosnian Croat-held territory. Each entity would have significant autonomy but would be part of a sovereign and unitary Bosnian state. The dispute over Brcko, however, remained intractable. Its location astride a corridor connecting two swaths of Serb territory left little room for compromise. As the peace conference teetered on the brink of collapse, mediators at Dayton hatched a desperate compromise: Brcko would remain under Serb control pending the outcome of an international legal arbitration. The Bosnian peace would be left hanging on the outcome.

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American lawyer Roberts Owen, appointed as the principal arbitrator, has twice held hearings on the town's future. Each time, luminaries from the Federation and the Republika Srpska jetted to Vienna to plead their cases. The rhetoric has been extreme. Before the most recent decision, the Bosnian Serb prime minister threatened to resign if the town was given to the Federation. In front of the arbitrator, the words have been more considered but no less urgent. The Federation's argument is clear: Brcko should be returned to its original inhabitants, most of whom were Muslim or Croat. The results of genocide and ethnic cleansing cannot be allowed to stand. Federation officials cite the Dayton Accords, which grant every refugee and displaced person in Bosnia the right to return home. The Serb argument is more legalistic. The foundation of Dayton, according to the Bosnian Serb leadership, was the creation of two autonomous entities. If Brcko is handed to the Federation, the Serb republic will be split in half and effectively destroyed. Bosnian Serb President Biljana Plavsic employed an anatomical argument: "Brcko is an artery through which air passes; it is well known what happens when the body loses air."

Twice, the decision on Brcko has been delayed, most recently in March of this year. The town has remained under the control of Serb authorities and is populated almost entirely by Serbs. Mirsad Dzapo, an elected representative of Brcko's displaced population, called the most recent delay "the prolongation of a six-year nightmare." But for the arbitrator and for the international community, the decision on Brcko is about much more than just this one town's future. It is an explosive element in an exceptionally complex and costly peace effort. Brcko is also a prize that the Americans are dangling before the competing parties. Bosnian journalist Mirko Sagolj accused the international community of "using Brcko as blackmail against both sides."

In diplomatic circles, blackmail is more politely termed leverage, and there is no doubt that Brcko provides it in abundance. Each side knows that its actions may affect the eventual decision in Brcko.

Meanwhile, each delay has brought with it stricter international control of the town. In February 1997, the arbitrator called for the appointment of an international supervisor and a new batch of UN police officers to monitor Dayton's implementation. In March 1998, the supervisor was granted the power to dismiss obstructionist local officials. The town has effectively become a ward of the international community, with the United States as its most active guardian. Don Grady, a former Sante Fe police chief and until recently the head of the town's UN police force, argued that, in Brcko, "multi-ethnicity is something done by decree." And decrees have been issuing from the supervisor's office at an increasing rate as the reintegration effort has progressed. The arbitration has bought the international community time to push Brcko toward reintegration-and time, most importantly, for people to care less about the town. Brcko matters most if Bosnia remains divided.


Human beings are the currency of power in postwar Brcko. And when the war ended, Bosnian Serb leaders knew the town was dangerously short of funds. Fortunately for them, the territorial exchanges called for by Dayton provided a ready source of human capital. In February 1996, the suburbs of Sarajevo switched from Serb to Federation control, and the Serb authorities there ensured that Serb residents did not linger. Extremists burned homes and dismantled entire factories. Little was left to the incoming authorities-or to any Serb brave enough to stay. Buses took many of the desperate people streaming from Sarajevo and carried them to Brcko. Karen Decker, chief of staff in the Brcko supervisor's office, calls the international passivity in the face of the forced exodus, "the most shameful episode in our postwar involvement."

Almost 10,000 Serbs from the Sarajevo suburbs are now living in Brcko, according to the UN refugee agency. Another 5,000 had earlier come from the central Bosnian town of Jajce when it fell to Croat forces in 1995. In all, more than two-thirds of Brcko's current Serb population is displaced from elsewhere in Bosnia.

Having acquired a surrogate population for Brcko, hard-line Serbs are loathe to let it slip away. Since every Serb who decides to return to a home in the Federation weakens the Serb grip on the town, the hard-liners have put in place an informal system to discourage return. Decker explained to me that Serbs contemplating return are told in no uncertain terms that if they leave there is no coming back. Meanwhile, local Serb leaders ensure that events in the Federation are portrayed in the most menacing possible light.

I witnessed the system in action during a visit to the town. A few days before my arrival there had been a successful visit by some 50 Serbs to their home town of Jajce. They had visited family grave sites without incident and had returned to Brcko excited by the possibility of return. Yet when I spoke to several Serbs who had not gone on the trip, they said there had been "problems" on the visit. What kind of problems? They didn't know. Somebody had spread the word.

One of the people behind the whispering campaign is Milorad Zivlak. He is a former delegate in the Serb Democratic Party (SDS), the party of indicted war criminal Radovan Karadzic and the group in no small part responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia. Zivlak now heads the association of displaced Serbs in Brcko. When I spoke to him, he quite openly said that the association is against any return by Serbs until "authorities in the Federation are able to guarantee the safety and economic security of every returnee." In the vocabulary of Bosnian politicians, this means never. Guarantees are rare in postwar Bosnia, and return is a particularly uncertain business. But despite Zivlak's best efforts, Brcko is beginning to change.


The displaced Serbs in Brcko that Zivlak tries so hard to keep in place represent only half the equation. On the other side are the thousands of Muslims and Croats hoping to return to their homes, and a Federation government eager to see them do so. Beginning in the spring and summer of 1997, the Brcko supervisor's office initiated an intense effort to allow a return to the suburbs around the town. During the war, the suburbs marked the front line, and in early 1997 there was little there but destroyed homes and mine-laden fields. But today new houses are springing up with astonishing frequency. More than 7,000 Muslim families have returned. In the neighborhood of Stari Rasadnik, a ten-minute drive from Brcko town, the work of reintegration goes on every day. Serb settlers and Muslim returnees live together in the neighborhood under the watchful eye of international monitors.

In Stari Rasadnik, I spoke with a Serb woman (she asked me not to use her name) who had fled her home in western Bosnia in 1995. Like most Serbs in Brcko, she arrived desperate and confused. Gesturing decisively with a weathered hand, she told me that she has no intention of re turning to her home in the Federation. Glancing across at some new Muslim neighbors, she said, "You can see how hard the Muslims are fighting to get Brcko back." Yet for someone with no interest in returning, she keeps remarkably well informed about the goings-on in the Federation. She recounted in detail what she has heard about her home and the accounts of relatives who have returned to the Federation to look at their homes.

Just across the road lives Fadil Halilovic, who worked his entire career at Brcko's rail station. With most of his Muslim neighbors, he fled the town in April 1992. Then in February of this year, the Brcko supervisor's office gave him what he had been seeking for almost four years: a chance to come home. "I got permission in the afternoon and returned that same night." Retired now, he spends his time turning his reconstructed house back into a home. In the evenings, he often visits with an old Serb neighbor. As they drink, they complain about their pensions.

The return of Muslims and Croats to Brcko's suburbs has been a success. Indeed, the Brcko suburbs are one of the few areas in the Republika Srpska where large numbers of non-Serbs have returned. And Stari Rasadnik is one of the few areas where Serbs and Muslims are living as neighbors. There have been the inevitable incidents. Many Muslim returnees complain that the building supplies stacked in most yards are pillaged at night. But the relative normality of life here is again demonstrating an essential truth about the war: it began not because of smoldering tensions between Bosnia's peoples but because a few people started throwing bombs. Still, it is a coexistence guaranteed by ubiquitous international force. As I spoke with residents, two UN jeeps rumbled by and an armed U.S. Army helicopter wheeled overhead.

Everyone in Brcko admits that the hardest part lies ahead. For it is not the suburbs but the town of Brcko-now almost entirely Serb-that is the crux of the issue. When American diplomat Robert Farrand be came Brcko's first supervisor in April 1997, he promised the Serb settlers that no one would be evicted. More than a year later, it is becoming apparent that this promise may not stand. Thousands of non-Serbs have registered to return, while few Serbs seem willing to leave. This uncomfortable reality keeps the town in a state of permanent agitation. In late February, someone fired a rocket-propelled grenade at the suburban home of a Bosnian Muslim. The targeted home was as close to the town as a returnee had dared venture. The message was clear: this close and no closer. Whether Brcko's population knot can be untangled peacefully will depend in large part on the Serb politicians who still run the town and on those who give them orders.


In June 1997, as the first returns were beginning, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright visited Brcko to reopen the bridge that leads across the Sava River to Croatia. Standing at the bridge's entrance, she spoke with emotion. She had just visited the buildings where some of the torture and executions were carried out in 1992. In a clear message to the hard-liners still in control of the town, Albright warned that "a price will be paid for the atrocities that were committed here. Until it is paid by those who have perpetrated the crimes, it will be paid by those who protect them." It was not clear at the time, but behind the scenes NATO was laying plans to exact just such a price from the Serb hard-liners still in control of half of Bosnia and obstructing the Dayton agreement at every turn.

That same month, the president of the Republika Srpska, Biljana Plavsic, was detained by police at the Belgrade airport. Western diplomats quickly protested, and she was released. From then on, what had been a quiet dispute between her and officials loyal to Radovan Karadzic became public. Plavsic soon established herself in Banja Luka, spurning the wartime capital of Pale. And in what will likely be seen as a key moment in the peace process, NATO troops began to support her. International troops helped install police forces loyal to her in several northern towns. Meanwhile, NATO seized television transmitters that were whipping up resentment against the international community. The Serb republic was bitterly divided, and Brcko was on the front line. Towns to its west were loyal to Plavsic. To the east, the Karadzic clique was still in control. Brcko, long a flashpoint between the Federation and the Republika Srpska, was now caught between two Serb factions.

In the pre-dawn hours of August 28, the air raid siren in Brcko began to wail. Soon church bells joined in, generating a cacophony that quickly roused the town's slumbering population. Brcko residents who stumbled out of their houses were told that NATO forces had occupied the police station. The crowd that gathered at the station in the darkness found heavily armed American troops. The situation quickly spiraled out of control. The crowds vented their fury on UN vehicles and offices. Dozens of vehicles were destroyed and looters sacked the UN office, carting off radios, flak jackets, and assorted other equipment. By midmorning, Radio Brcko went on the air and added its vitriol to an already fiery atmosphere. Martial music played in the background as announcers called on citizens to evict the "occupying force."

Riots continued for most of the day. UN police officers were left stranded in their offices, unable to move and constantly threatened. A crowd surrounded the supervisor's office and pelted the building with stones.

In the afternoon, American troops released tear gas from helicopters in an effort to regain control. By evening, the atmosphere had calmed a bit. But the day had clearly been a fiasco. "Nobody had anything to be proud of," said one European official in Brcko. Though it is not yet admitted at the official level, it is widely assumed that the American troops botched an attempt to install pro-Plavsic police. The effort clearly failed; her allies fled, and Karadzic's cronies tightened their control of the town.

One evening almost ten months after that day's violence, I traveled with an American officer to Camp McGovern, the sprawling base on the outskirts of Brcko, to talk about the role of the American troops. The camp can be reached only by passing over a treacherous road that taxed even the sturdy suspension of the four-wheel-drive vehicle that carried us. In the darkness we passed a seemingly unending convoy of ghostly American humvees, each with a machine gunner vigilantly rotating on top. As my guide and I hopped out to walk toward the gate, a heavily armed guard stepped forward to challenge us, and I quickly glanced to see that my pass was prominently displayed. The American troops in Brcko are, understandably, on high alert.

Inside the camp's mess hall, the atmosphere was more relaxed. But when I asked the commander, Colonel Corda, about what the troops were doing at the police station, the air suddenly became frosty. He would speak to me about it later, he said under his breath. But later he claimed to have no information and said that the units involved in the action had already left Bosnia. The real story in Brcko is not, he said, the violence of that day in August, "it is the daily success of American troops in keeping the peace."

And, in a sense, he is right. The violence that day was exceptional, and the mission has been remarkable for its freedom from casualties. Yet it would be quite wrong to discount the importance of the actions taken by NATO during the summer of 1997. By intervening in an essentially political dispute within the Serb republic, NATO cleared the way for a far more cooperative Bosnian Serb government.

That promise was realized in January of this year, when a divided Bosnian Serb parliament elected Milorad Dodik as the Republika Srpska's prime minister. Young and moderate, Dodik had been a businessman and opposition figure during the war. Before his election, he told the Bosnian Serb magazine Reporter that nonimplementation of Dayton "threatened to isolate the Republika Srpska" and called for a policy that "would not be just a reflection of the will of either Belgrade or Pale." Once in office, he quickly made reforms that Bosnian Serb politicians had been delaying for months. The August events in Brcko were clearly a tactical disaster; but the policy of assisting Serb moderates has been an unqualified strategic victory for the peace process. Rather than an opening salvo in a fight to the finish, the violence in Brcko appears to have been one of the last gasps of the hard-liners.

On a warm Friday evening in March, Prime Minister Dodik came to town. In front of more than 500 Brcko residents and city officials, he did what only a few months ago would have been unthinkable. With the SDS mayor of Brcko sitting on the podium just yards away, he lashed out against the hard-liners. "One of the main problems in the Republika Srpska is this very town," he charged. Then the hulking Dodik, who dwarfs his many bodyguards, turned caustic. "Without the SDS," he said, "we would have nothing to remind us of the mistakes of the past." Dodik's harsh words are precious hope for a Bosnia still in search of enlightened leadership.


As the extremists crawled back into their shells, reintegration in Brcko got a fighting chance. The supervisor's office pushed forward doggedly with the creation of a multiethnic administration, police, and judiciary. The supervisor had imposed a deadline of December 31, 1997, for these steps, and hours before the new year, the authorities complied. Their eyes were on the upcoming arbitration decision and the threat that Brcko would be taken from them. Brcko's streets, once roamed by Serb paramilitaries, are now patrolled by a force that mixes 100 Serbs with 90 Muslims and 18 Croats. The deputy chief of police is a Muslim, and there are Croat and Muslim deputy mayors. By diktat the international community has generated a small group of pioneers in Brcko-pioneers who achieve the status not by heading into the wilderness, but by coming home.

Adela Bozic is one of them. After her home was burned, she and her husband split ways. She went to Croatia, he to Serbia. It was, she explained, the only way they could both find work in a region drunk with nationalism. In December 1997, her phone rang in Zagreb. It was the Brcko supervisor's office. Would she be interested in returning as a judge? The international staff had her file and were seeking qualified Muslims and Croats to join the new multiethnic judiciary. She jumped at the chance. "I never thought I would live long enough to come home," she said.

At about the same time as Bozic got her chance to come home, Zijad Kadric was given the opportunity to work with his old friend Slobodan Zobenica. Childhood friends, the men had both been judges in prewar Brcko. When the war came, Kadric, a Muslim, was obliged to flee and later became a judge in what he calls "free Brcko," the portion of the prewar municipality that lies across the boundary line and is now part of the Federation. Zobenica stayed in the Serb-controlled town. I spoke with the men in the sparsely furnished room that poorly imitated an office. Together again, they can scarcely look at each other without breaking into grins. When I asked Kadric whether he had misgivings about returning, he smiled and joked, dismissing the issue. But his calm extends only so far. He still lives in the Federation and commutes to the town every day. At the border between the Federation and Serb territory each morning he switches to a friend's car-one that carries Serb license plates. There is no sense tempting fate. "It takes only one crazy person," he told me.

The multi-ethnicity that exists now in Brcko is entirely a product of international pressure, and it is superficial. Nearly all non-Serbs in the multiethnic police and administration live in Federation territory and commute to the town. But for all its current artificiality, it can draw on real reservoirs of tolerance. In Brcko, as all across Bosnia, regular people are coming out of the woodwork, encouraged by the apparent determination of the international community to see its project in Bosnia through to the end. The extremists, war criminals, and petty thugs who have run much of the country since 1992 no longer have free reign. Some even have been brought to justice. In January, in a town not far from Brcko, U.S. soldiers stepped out of an unmarked van and arrested Goran Jelisic. The Serb Adolf now sits in a cell at the Hague. Adela Bozic's home, burned when Jelisic was a master of Brcko, has been reconstructed. Slowly, Bosnia is turning right side up.

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