SREBRENICA, Bosnia and Herzegovina — When Almir Salihović was 10, he hiked for six days through the forest with his eight-year-old brother to escape an unfolding massacre that would ultimately claim the lives of thousands of people.
Almost 20 years later, Salihović returned to his home of
Srebrenica, wanting to be close to loved ones buried at the Potočari cemetery just outside the town. But the past still haunts him and many other residents and the recent mayoral elections exposed the rift that still exists between Serbs and Bosnian Muslims, known as Bosniaks.
Mladen Grujičić, a 34-year-old Serb, won against the incumbent Ćamil Duraković, 37, a Bosniak survivor of the 1995 massacre, after an election that was contested for almost a week. Ballots eventually had to be taken to Sarajevo for a final count before Grujičić was declared the winner on Tuesday, by some 2,000 votes. For the first time since the Bosnian war, a Serb was elected mayor of Srebrenica.
“I accepted this candidacy because I want to help Srebrenica move forward,” said Grujičić in his acceptance speech. Grujičić, whose father was killed in 1992 at the beginning of the war, previously led an association for families of Serb war victims. “I respect all victims and sympathize with them. In Srebrenica, almost every family lost someone, including me. I know what families lived through during — and after — the war.”
But many Bosniaks see his election as an insult and an unwelcome reminder of the area’s bloody past.
“This is the greatest loss for me, greater than when I had to flee the first time,” said Salihović, who runs a small transport company. “I feel helpless. We lost Srebrenica for the second time in 20 years.”
A mayor for all
In July 1995, Bosnian Serb soldiers
killed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslims in Srebrenica, expelling women and children and executing men and boys in what was only nominally a U.N.-protected area. It was the worst atrocity in Europe since World War II.
Today, the once-booming industrial town of almost 40,000 people has shrunk to 15,000. The economy is stagnant and the mineral spa that drew visitors from all around Yugoslavia has closed.
During an interview with POLITICO, Grujičić said he would revive the town and pledged to be a mayor for all of Srebrenica. He also said that he is prepared to visit the memorial site in Potočari, on the edge of town, where remains of the victims of the massacre are buried.
But Grujičić refuses to acknowledge that the massacre was an act of genocide. To counter previous rulings by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the International Court of Justice that the killings constituted an act of genocide, Grujičić wants an “unbiased panel including China and Russia to determine what happened there for once and for all.”
And while Grujičić promised not to get in the way of commemorations of the massacre, victims’ families worry that the mayor-elect will obstruct the annual memorial service that brings survivors, relatives and heads of state to the Potočari cemetery to remember the horror of 1995.
“For most people, changing governments is a normal thing, but when someone comes into office who negates genocide, minimizes victims and glorifies war criminals, how can we accept that?” —
“For most people, changing governments is a normal thing,” said Salihović, the survivor. “But when someone comes into office who negates genocide, minimizes victims and glorifies war criminals, how can we accept that?”
Emir Suljagić was working for Dutch U.N. peacekeepers supposed to protect the area when Serb general Ratko Mladić’s forces overran Srebrenica in 1995. He lost many of his family members in the massacre.
Suljagić, an author and politician, intends to stay on in Srebrenica, despite its bloody past and its uncertain future. But he is concerned that other Bosniaks will start to leave the town following the election of the new mayor.
“I think we’re going to see people trickling out of that area back to the Federation, to cities like Tuzla and Sarajevo,” said Suljagić, a writer. “Srebrenica is the cornerstone of our identity.” It is “the heart of our national and ethnic narrative,” he said, and “now it is not in our hands.”
Dayton Peace Agreement, Srebrenica became part of the Serb entity within Bosnia known as Republika Srpska after the war.
Because of the high level of internal displacement, those who lived in Srebrenica in 1991 but now live in other parts of Bosnia, or abroad, still have the right to vote in the town — something Grujičić took advantage of during his mayoral campaign when he held
rallies across Republika Srpska and in Serbia to mobilize Serbian voters.
Supporters of Grujičić also reached out to Serbs who no longer live in Srebrenica, asking them to vote and offering them transport to polling stations in Srebrenica.
Grujičić himself campaigned with many nationalists, including the president of Republica Srpska,
Milorad Dodik, and the ultranationalist Serbian politician Vojislav Šešelj, the former deputy prime minister of Serbia, who was prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia but eventually acquitted of war crimes and crimes against humanity, although he’s banned from entering Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo for life.
Grujičić argues that he will be able to leverage his ties to top Serbian leaders to help revitalize the town. He acknowledged that Serbian leaders have been blocking a municipal budget rebalance but said that would not happen under his leadership. He also pointed to a 2007 law declaring the city a special economic zone — something, he said, has not been fully exploited.
“I have better connections to the president of the Republika Srpska and the mayors of the surrounding cities,” he said, adding that he ran for office because of the “incompetence of the current government, and the lack of responsibility towards everything that is Serb and towards the citizens.”
Dragic Glišić, who was re-elected for a third term on Srebrenica’s municipal council, agreed that the current administration is inefficient and too focused on the commemoration every July.
“Currently, we only have a mayor nine months of the year,” said Glišić. “The other three months are only focused on the commemoration in July.” Glišić said he plans to work with Grujičić on a proposal to add Srebrenica to a tourist route that includes other municipalities in Republika Srpska and Serbia.
A contested map
the 2013 census, which the leadership of Republica Srpska refuses to recognize, Srebrenica today has an almost equal number of Bosniaks and Serbs — about 54 percent Bosniak and 45 percent Serb.
Children, for the most part, attend integrated schools. But adults seem to vote along ethnic lines, though the problem may be less the voters than the system itself. Everything is built on power-sharing, a system that favors ethnic-based parties.
Chris Bennett, the author of “Bosnia’s Paralyzed Peace,” said the election in Srebrenica is emblematic of Bosnia’s wider malaise.
“Bosnia needs a system whereby whoever is elected is answerable to the entire constituency” —
“We don’t have a democracy — we have an ethnocracy,” said Bennett. “Bosnia needs a system whereby whoever is elected is answerable to the entire constituency.”
In late September, voters in Republika Srpska voted on a referendum that confirmed a controversial national holiday — a vote that was widely seen as a major challenge to the post-war Dayton accord and a rehearsal vote on the entity’s independence expected in 2018.
The international community strongly condemned the vote and Bosniaks said it was an illegitimate attack on Bosnia’s fragile institutions. Some feared the nationalist rhetoric on display during the referendum campaign could
In Srebrenica, when Grujičić declared victory on the night of the October 2 election, revelers sang nationalist World War II-era songs. The following night, vandals attacked a cafe owned by a Bosniak returnee. Many Bosniaks, meanwhile, changed their Facebook profile photos to images of the Potočari cemetery, in a campaign, supporters said, to remember those who couldn’t vote in the election.
Given the disputed vote, many residents now have wary eyes on the future.
“I am worried that the relationships between people have already changed from the moment Grujičić was elected,” said Salihović, the survivor.