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21 years after Srebrenica, is the Balkans war really over?

Twenty-one years ago, the Balkans experienced the most recent genocide perpetrated on European soil

Francesca Astorri

Published: Updated:

Twenty-one years ago, the Balkans experienced the most recent genocide perpetrated on European soil.

On July 12, 1995, Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic was filmed assuring people in the Muslim-majority city of Srebrenica that no one would be hurt.

However, more than 8,000 Muslim Bosnians were killed in Srebrenica, in what the U.N.’s then- Secretary General Kofi Annan said was the worst massacre in Europe since World War II. Today, those living in the Balkans still fear a return to war.

Elvir and I are driving in the Serb Republic that occupies 49 percent of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There are no official borders or checkpoints, but “Serbia” is spray-painted in Cyrillic on the side of a building.

A Bosnian Muslim kneels near the coffin of a relative before a mass funeral for bodies found in a mass grave, in Kozarac, near Prijedor, July 19, 2014. (Reuters)
A Bosnian Muslim kneels near the coffin of a relative before a mass funeral for bodies found in a mass grave, in Kozarac, near Prijedor, July 19, 2014. (Reuters)

Elvir, a Bosnian, will not get out of the car. “We’re surrounded by nationalist Serbs that hate us,” he says. “We’re surrounded by those who were shooting at us 20 years ago.”

He was a Bosnian soldier in the 1990s. When Serb snipers started shooting at crowds in Sarajevo, he decided to leave.

At night, he crossed the 800-meter tunnel built under the airport in 1993, and ran into the woods on Mount Igman. He survived by following deer tracks so as not to step on a mine.

Sarajevo was under siege for 1,400 days, during which 13,000 people were killed. Former Bosnian Serb commander Stanislav Galić told the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia: “For a citizen of Sarajevo there was no place to hide from the attacks. He wasn’t safe at home, in schools or in hospitals.”

Walking through Sarajevo, there are huge holes in buildings from grenades and mortar rounds. Cemeteries are everywhere. They were bombed during the war, so the dead were buried at night in parks, football stadiums and gardens. Survivors of the war live surrounded by the dead.

People look at pictures of before and after the war in the Memorial Room Museum in Potocari, near Srebrenica July 3, 2011. (Reuters)
People look at pictures of before and after the war in the Memorial Room Museum in Potocari, near Srebrenica July 3, 2011. (Reuters)

Elvir returned to Sarajevo after the war, and believes the war is not over. “If you go to the outskirts of Sarajevo and ask a child from the Serb Republic what he thinks of Bosnians, Muslims, Catholics, he’ll reply by insulting all of them. Children grow up with this hatred,” he says.

“There are constant provocations. The Serbs in Bosnia want to take over Bosnia and reunite with Serbia. I don’t know who will protect us,” he adds, recalling that U.N. forces on the ground did not prevent the massacres in Srebrenica and Sarajevo.

The Bosnian Serb President of the Republika Srpska - one of two constitutional and legal entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina – recently said in an interview for a local media outlet: "Serbs would not have stayed here for more than 20 years without the Republika Srpska because the majority of them would not have accepted Bosnia-Herzegovina,”

“The fight for the Republika Srpska is the basic interest of all of us who live here," President Milorad Dodik added.

A Bosnian Muslim woman looks through the window of a bus as she arrives at Potocari in the wartime U.N. protected enclave of Srebrenica July 11, 2001. (Reuters)
A Bosnian Muslim woman looks through the window of a bus as she arrives at Potocari in the wartime U.N. protected enclave of Srebrenica July 11, 2001. (Reuters)

Earlier this year, Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić discussed what he described as “a time machine,” expressing his concerns over Bosnia.

"My biggest worry is the situation in Bosnia...everything that is in and around Bosnia. Who knows what spark might ignite Bosnia," Vučić said. "Since March, it seems like - from time to time - as though we were back in the 1990s," he added.

According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), “the country remains divided and beset by political sclerosis.”

Sarajevo airport is empty, and finding a direct flight is a challenge even from Italy, which is just across the Adriatic Sea.

The most common souvenir at the souq is a keychain with a bullet. Elvir fears he may have to use a bullet again, but not as a keychain.