Michael Dobbs

Wary relations between Srebrenica’s Muslims and Serbs

I apologize for my amateurish video-making efforts above, but I wanted to give you a sense of what it is like to stroll the streets of Srebrenica. Today, of course, Srebrenica is almost synonymous with pain and horror, but it was once one of the most prosperous towns in Bosnia. Located in a mountain valley ...

I apologize for my amateurish video-making efforts above, but I wanted to give you a sense of what it is like to stroll the streets of Srebrenica. Today, of course, Srebrenica is almost synonymous with pain and horror, but it was once one of the most prosperous towns in Bosnia. Located in a mountain valley close to the Drina river border with Serbia, it resembled an alpine resort in better days. The town boasted a silver mine and a mineral spa that attracted patients from all over the former Yugoslavia. Work was easy to obtain in the industrial zone of Potocari, including a sprawling battery factory that became the headquarters of the Dutch peacekeeping battalion.

Before the war, Serbs and Muslims lived amicably in Srebrenica, alongside a small community of Catholic Croats. When the war started in 1992, the Muslims fled the Serb advance, terrified by reports of arbitrary killings and detentions. But they soon recaptured the town, which became a Muslim-controlled enclave in the middle of the self-proclaimed "Republika Srpska." Mladic's forces occupied the town on July 11, 1995, executing around 8,000 Muslim males who had been under United Nations "protection."

Remarkably, several thousand Muslims have returned to Srebrenica since the war, and now live alongside the victorious Serbs, at least some of whom participated in the 1995 massacre. Even though the Muslims are in minority, the town has a Muslim mayor, thanks to the absentee votes of former Muslim residents. Srebrenica is one of the few towns in Bosnia where Muslim and Serb children attend the same schools, and interact together on a daily basis.

I apologize for my amateurish video-making efforts above, but I wanted to give you a sense of what it is like to stroll the streets of Srebrenica. Today, of course, Srebrenica is almost synonymous with pain and horror, but it was once one of the most prosperous towns in Bosnia. Located in a mountain valley close to the Drina river border with Serbia, it resembled an alpine resort in better days. The town boasted a silver mine and a mineral spa that attracted patients from all over the former Yugoslavia. Work was easy to obtain in the industrial zone of Potocari, including a sprawling battery factory that became the headquarters of the Dutch peacekeeping battalion.

Before the war, Serbs and Muslims lived amicably in Srebrenica, alongside a small community of Catholic Croats. When the war started in 1992, the Muslims fled the Serb advance, terrified by reports of arbitrary killings and detentions. But they soon recaptured the town, which became a Muslim-controlled enclave in the middle of the self-proclaimed "Republika Srpska." Mladic’s forces occupied the town on July 11, 1995, executing around 8,000 Muslim males who had been under United Nations "protection."

Remarkably, several thousand Muslims have returned to Srebrenica since the war, and now live alongside the victorious Serbs, at least some of whom participated in the 1995 massacre. Even though the Muslims are in minority, the town has a Muslim mayor, thanks to the absentee votes of former Muslim residents. Srebrenica is one of the few towns in Bosnia where Muslim and Serb children attend the same schools, and interact together on a daily basis.

Even though they live together as neighbors, the two communities view each other warily, haunted by the memories of the war. "I greet my Serb neighbors when I see them in the street, but we don’t talk about anything serious," said Samedin Malkic, who lost his father in the massacre. "We nod at each other, but we don’t drink coffee together."

There is a painful sense on both sides of the ethnic divide that Srebrenica will never be reborn as before. "It was like a little America here before the war," said Zejneba Ustic, an early Muslim returnee. "We had everything we needed. Today, there is no work, the factories are nearly all closed, the economy has collapsed."

Like many other Bosnians, Ustic regards the era of the former Communist dictator, Marshal Tito, with nostalgia. This part of eastern Bosnia witnessed massive ethnic killings during World War II, but was experiencing an economic revival by the early Sixties. One party rule, and the Titoist ideology of "brotherhood and unity," provided the political underpinning for more than four decades of peace and relative prosperity.

In the end, of course, Tito failed to leave behind a political and economic system stable enough to outlive him. Within a decade of his death in 1980, Yugoslavia was on the brink of a bloody break-up. But there is no denying that the Srebrenica of 1961 — sixteen years after the end of World War II — was a happier, more optimistic place than the Srebrenica of 2011, sixteen years after the end of the most recent war in Bosnia.

It is sobering to think that a Communist dictator did a better job (at least in the short term) at healing ethnic divisions, and creating conditions of economic prosperity, than free market democracies. Anybody like to take a stab at explaining that one?

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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