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Srebrenica's Scars May Never Fade

Bosnia's religious and ethnic divisions appear as deep as at the time of the 1995 massacre.

July 11, 2005|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

OSMACE, Bosnia-Herzegovina — In late afternoon, the three women rest on a tattered blanket, tired from chores that are now theirs alone to bear in this village without men.

They are survivors of the Srebrenica massacre that began July 11, 1995, when Bosnian Serb troops stormed the U.N.-declared "safe haven" and took away their husbands and fathers, brothers and sons. Over the next eight days in the nearby hills, the Serbs killed as many as 8,000 Muslim men and boys, the worst massacre in Europe since World War II.

"We could forgive them taking our property, if they didn't also take our youth, our men, our lives," said Hasrija Krdzic, 66, who lost her husband, two brothers and several nephews in the massacre and other wartime violence. She returned two years ago to Osmace, her native village, about a half-hour drive from Srebrenica.

Today, the only males in the village are a handful of teenagers and a couple of twentysomethings who were children when the carnage occurred. So it is mostly women who haul wood and cut it for kindling, hoe the subsistence gardens and herd cattle.

Only a few Muslims have moved back to the town of Srebrenica itself, even though many of those Serbs who had taken over Muslim homes have been forced by the government to vacate them. The two communities have separate bakeries, separate cafes; the Serbs still run most grocery stores. All in all it is a blighted place where the few people move like shadows, and Muslims and Serbs lead separate lives.

Nearly 10 years after the end of the war, Bosnia-Herzegovina remains a deeply troubled place: divided ethnically, dependent on international aid for its economic survival and ruled by a European viceroy who can impose legislation and fire Bosnian officials if they fail to integrate the Serb, Croat and Muslim populations.

The challenges facing the international community here carry important lessons for U.S. and British diplomats in Iraq who now confront a similar task of patching together a civil society and overcoming ethnic and religious fissures. The key lesson from Bosnia, a decade after the bloody conflict epitomized by Srebrenica, is that ethnic and religious hatreds, once violently unleashed, are difficult to bury.

There are similarities in the circumstances of the two countries. Both must find a way to share power among three ethnic and religious groups. In Bosnia, Muslims, Serbs and Croats contend for power; in Iraq, the struggle is among Kurds, Arab Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims.

In both, ethnic and religious animosities had been kept in check by a strongman, although former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein was far more brutal than his Yugoslav counterpart, Josip Broz Tito. Both countries have had foreign military intervention, and in both, Western powers have undertaken to rebuild the country and keep the peace.

But there are differences as well. In Bosnia, by the time the North Atlantic Treaty Organization sent troops, nearly 200,000 people had been killed in a three-way civil war. In Iraq, ethnic and religious conflict broke out after the U.S.-led invasion.

Another striking difference is the absence of violence in Bosnia after the end of the war in December 1995. Since then, not a single international peacekeeper has died as a result of hostile action, and ethnically motivated killings gradually have stopped.

The international military commanders in Bosnia went in "with literally overwhelming force," High Representative Paddy Ashdown said, and the result is that "security matters rarely cross my desk.... We're into the state-building phase."

NATO commanders fielded 60,000 troops in Bosnia, a country with a population of barely more than 3.5 million people. For a comparable force in Iraq, more than 360,000 troops would had to have been deployed in May 2003, when President Bush declared that major combat had ended. Instead, little more than a third of that number was in the country. And although the U.S. has added troops, the numbers still fall well below the proportion in Bosnia.

Bosnia's greatest achievement, on the surface at least, has been the effort to undo the displacement of nearly 2 million people in "ethnic cleansing." Getting them to come home would have been impossible without security, which for most people meant the assurance that there would be no more killing.

In dozens of interviews with Serbs and Muslims, no one said they feared violence from their neighbors, but a closer look revealed a less sanguine picture.

It is mostly the elderly who have returned to their homes; younger people came only to rebuild their houses and sell them to whichever ethnic group is the local majority. The paucity of young people in the villages of Bosnia means that when the older generation of minority residents dies, the ethnic diversity of the area will die with them.

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