Michael Dobbs

Srebrenica survivor is ready for a fight

I just completed a weeklong trip to Bosnia, including a day in Srebrenica and a fascinating visit to the birthplace of Ratko Mladic in the inhospitable mountains south of Sarajevo. I am planning a series of blog posts describing my impressions, but let me begin by introducing you to Emir Suljagic, one of the survivors ...

Michael Dobbs
Michael Dobbs

I just completed a weeklong trip to Bosnia, including a day in Srebrenica and a fascinating visit to the birthplace of Ratko Mladic in the inhospitable mountains south of Sarajevo. I am planning a series of blog posts describing my impressions, but let me begin by introducing you to Emir Suljagic, one of the survivors of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, who has just launched an American-style political campaign to reelect the only Muslim mayor in Republika Srpska.

The author of one of the best books on the Bosnia war, Postcards from the Grave, Suljagic worked as an interpreter for the United Nations in the "safe area" of Srebrenica when it fell to the Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995. At the time, he was just 20 years old. He would almost certainly have been killed along with 8,000 or so other Muslim men and boys — had he not been provided safe passage out of the enclave with other U.N. employees.

One of the reasons I liked Suljagic’s book, apart from the fact that it was very well-written, was its tone of restraint and balance. In the case of Srebrenica, he acknowledges that crimes were also committed by Bosniak government forces, although nothing to compare with the mass executions of Muslim prisoners by Mladic’s men. These days, however, Suljagic is not at all restrained. Alarmed by the prospect that Serb nationalists might gain political control over the Srebrenica municipality in elections scheduled for October, he is spoiling for a fight.

"Bring it on," says the former basketball player, referring to the possibility of a new Muslim-Serb military confrontation. "Genocide denial is simply not acceptable. There will come a day when we will just say enough is enough. [The Bosnian Serb leadership] cannot keep on offending people and getting away with it."

New election rules ratified by the international community have put an end to the so-called "Srebrenica exception" that allowed former Srebrenica residents, including survivors of the 1995 massacre, to vote in local elections even if they were not registered as voters in the town. The special status provisions resulted in the election of a Muslim mayor for Srebrenica — which is part of the Bosnian Serb statelet known as Republika Srpska — even though Muslims are now in a minority in the town.

In theory at least, the next mayor could use his position to control access to the memorial complex adjoining the former headquarters of the Dutch peacekeeping battalion at Potocari where many Srebrenica victims are buried. Fear of offending Bosnian Serb sensibilities has made it difficult to erect and maintain memorials to Muslim victims in other parts of Republika Srpska, including the infamous Omarska concentration camp, now an ore mine run by a British company.

Determined to maintain a Muslim political foothold in Republika Srpska, Suljagic is attempting to register at least another 3,000 Muslim voters in Srebrenica. Such registrations are possible under the 1995 Dayton peace agreement, which permits Bosnians to live, and register to vote, wherever they please. Provided that a voter provides a Srebrenica address — even an abandoned house, or some kind of tenancy agreement with an existing Srebrenica resident — it is difficult for the Bosnian Serb authorities to refuse registration.

In order to prevent the election of a Serb mayor of Srebrenica, the Muslim parties have agreed on a joint candidate, Camil Durakovic, who previously served as deputy mayor, and then acting mayor, following the death of his predecessor. As a 16-year-old boy, Durakovic escaped through the woods in July 1995 and immigrated to the United States with his family, living and getting a law degree in New Hampshire before returning to Srebrenica in 2005.

The Durakovic campaign is being run out of a "war room" in the center of Srebrenica. Young volunteers sit in front of computer terminals combing through lists of potential voters who can be persuaded to visit Srebrenica at least twice over the next four months — once to register and once to vote. As Durakovic’s campaign manager, Suljagic is organizing fleets of buses to bring the voters to Srebrenica and is also promising to pay resident re-registration fees.

Needless to say, all of this costs money. According to Suljagic, both the U.S. Embassy and the government of the Muslim-Croat Bosnian federation are supporting the re-registration effort, together with companies and private individuals. For American diplomats in Sarajevo, this has meant swallowing earlier reservations about Durakovic, who was depicted as a politically divisive figure in this 2008 WikiLeaks cable.

"They called me a notorious separatist," laughed Durakovic, who called for the separation of Srebrenica from Bosnian Serb control after the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in The Hague ruled that "genocide" had been committed in the town in 1995 by Mladic’s forces. "I was persona non grata with the international community.… But now I have good relations with the U.S. Embassy."

The Srebrenica election is shaping up as a test case for similar campaigns elsewhere in the Serbian-controlled part of the country. A Durakovic victory is likely to embolden Muslim activists who would like to establish a political beachhead in other parts of Republika Srpska.

If all goes well in Srebrenica, says Suljagic, "We can vote Republika Srpska out of existence."

 Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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