The Women of Podrinje

Photos: Top Left: John, Lidija, Kadefa and Suhra. Top Right: An ICMP poster that reads: Where is my father? Bottom Left: Picture drawn by one of the children of the women of Podrinje

When we returned to Sarajevo, we visited the women of Podrinje, one of over 100 family associations in the former Yugoslavia. A key function of the associations is to raise public awareness. The longer the search for the missing continues, the less interest there is in it. The family associations take meals to the people exhuming the mass graves to show their appreciation for their work.  They also take part in all local commemorations. Family associations also travel with witnesses to give them moral support in Belgrade. Most importantly, the associations work on paths to reconciliation. Some communities do not want a truth and reconciliation committee. The initiative was stopped in 2004.  It restarted this year, but there still a debate whether a commission in Bosnia Herzegovina should be established. The issue of amnesty is the sticking point.

The ICMP in coordination with the associations has worked to change legislation in Bosnia-Herzegovina. A law about missing persons was promulgated in 2004.  It has two major strands: the right to know and social benefits for civilians who have missing family members. Previous to this law, benefits were exclusively for families of dead soldiers. Of the 30,000 missing, 95% were civilian. The compensation is 75 euros a month for one missing person – with a maximum of 15% more for all other missing family members combined. It is also only available if you have no other income! The average salary in Sarajevo is currently about 500 KM – or 300 USD. In spite of its inadequacies, the law has still not been implemented. One good outcome is that prior to the law, you had to register missing in the place where they went missing.  This would often mean having to return to rather hostile territory. Now they can register anywhere in the country.

We spent a good part of the afternoon talking with Suhra Sinanovic and Kadefa Rizavanovic. They are from the town of Bratunac, where there are 603 missing. 75 missing have been exhumed and identified from four mass graves. Suhra and Kadefa were forced out of Bratunac and relocated to Srebrenica where they stayed for two-and-a-half years.   Prior to the war, 67% of Bratunac’s residents were Muslim.  After the takeover in Srebrenica and the subsequent events, 2081 (in addition to the 603) of the Bratunac residents went missing.

In 1996 – 97 they were moved from Tuzla to Sarajevo. After Dayton, Serb controlled parts of Sarajevo were returned to the federation; Many houses were abandoned; Suhra and Kadefa were moved from collective centers to empty properties. 80% of Bratunac’s population was relocated to Sarajevo.  Some of the survivors, after Dayton, found themselves in territories under Serb control and some were in BiH. 

In 1999, families from Bratunac expressed the desire to go to the town in significant numbers.  They had meetings in advance with Serb representatives in the town and in 2000 they were granted permission to visit Bratunac on four busses filled with family members.  They wanted to visit three particular sites: the river where bodies were thrown from the bridge; the football stadium which was both a detention/torture and execution site; and the elementary school “Vuk Karadzic”, which was a torture center. They were accompanied by police and guarded by S-For forces.  There was even helicopter support. 500 meters before town, they saw about 5000 demonstrators protesting against their visit. Radio Bratunac had invited Serbs from the surrounding area to take part in the protest.  Locals threw bricks and stones at the busses. Suhra saw police giving the “three fingers” sign to the crowd – and this was the cue to attack the busses. Neither UN or SFOR busses were damaged – only those containing the family members. All windows were broken. The UN and SFOR forces only watched.  Helicopters hovered above, but they could do nothing.  The UN rep, Silvia, had gotten on the busses prior to entering the town and assured them that they would be under UN protection. She said that as a mother, she understood their needs, and guaranteed their safety. Thirty women were wounded. When asked how they could have trusted the UN again, Kadefa said that the UN reps had been present at family association meetings – so they trusted them as human beings. We trusted people, and we didn't change this after the war – it is the greatest problem for Bosnians.

In 2002, they did manage to go to these sites in Bratunac, although they were not granted permission to visit the school.  When they arrived, the sports hall was being used again, but the door was locked, and they were told that it was impossible to open it. 402 detainees survived this camp at the primary school and 400  went missing. In 2005 they were still denied access to the sports hall and the school. Jovan Nikolic, a war criminal, is now the director of the school.  When they were denied access, Suhra said to Nikolic:  We don’t need to read the names of the victims (in the stadium) because the four walls know what happened.

In 2006 they visited the bridge, but neither the stadium nor the school, which continue to be locked. they went to the city stadium, the bridge and walked 100 meters to the primary school, where they tried to enter.  Both the school and the gym/stadium were locked.  The electricity was cut as well, so they could not use microphones to read the names of the victims. A memorial has been opened across from the school which honors the Serb defenders of Bratunac.

6000 Bosnians have returned to Bratunac.  The family association insists that they be allowed to bury their dead there as proof of the genocide.  They are proceeding with the memorial that they have planned. They have received permission to fence in the plot of the Islamic Society, 100 meters away from the elementary school. All support for the commemorations and the memorial – both financial and moral – has come from the ICMP.

The women acknowledged that the family associations have a difficult and sometimes dangerous task.  Every time after an identification is completed in Tuzla, the family association has taken it upon itself to inform the survivors and pay for their travel costs to see the remains.  They try to do this in person if the family is in or near Sarajevo.  Unfortunately, no donors are willing to pay the costs for extended travel.  Every time they get a question from a family member once a body has been identified, they ask, “Will you go with us?”  Obviously this indicates that they are needed and have a role to play.

Kadefa lives with two children - a 15 year old girl and  a 13 year old boy.  Her daughter was two months old when she was forced to leave Bratunac and walk through the forest for 20 days to Srebrenica.  Her father, (Alic) Ibrahim Vardet, was killed in the fall of Srebrenica.  His body was found in Zvornik, 20 km from Bratunac, and was identified in 2000.  He was buried in Potocari.  Her brother was killed as well. 

Suhra lost her husband, (Rahman) Muriz Sinanovic, as well as (Safet) Sead Sinanovic.  He was killed in 1995.  She lives with her daughter, age 17.   Her son is 20 and is in his first year of university studies.  Her husband’s body was exhumed in 2000, identified in 2001, and was buried in 2002 in Potocari.

In their view, despite the Dayton accords, BiH is still bleeding.  Some mothers lost 4-5 children and died before the identification of their sons occurred.  Many never were able to give their sons a proper burial.