Srebrenica’s citizens: home and abroad

Lara J. Nettelfield
Sarah Wagner
Digging new graves in Srebrenica

We often think of citizenship in terms of passports and polling stations, but the rights and responsibilities inherent in belonging to a nation-state often take on more mundane, at times unexpected, forms. This is especially true in post-conflict nations, where citizens shoulder much of the burden of rebuilding society in the context of their everyday lives. The aftermath of the Srebrenica genocide provides a compelling example of this work. Citizens both at home and abroad struggle to reconstitute their families, homes, and communities. Some do this by returning to their pre-war residences. Often dependent on bureaucratic, state-controlled mechanisms, refugee return is as much about reclaiming social space as it is about re-asserting a political presence. At the other end of the spectrum of forced migration, Srebrenica’s diaspora sheds light on engagement from afar. For them, the mass graves of Srebrenica have given rise to a unique form of remittance: DNA samples sent back to help identify the missing. Finally, with the case of former members of the Army of Republika Srpska, the past travels with them beyond Bosnia’s borders, inhibiting their ability to become citizens in their new countries.  At the prompting of the ICTY, federal prosecutors and immigration officials have used courts to punish those who denied their role in the armed forces, leading to the removal and repatriation of a handful of individuals.

Bringing citizens back: the mixed results of refugee return

Nura entered the yard of her former house, a three-story white-stucco building with the quaint Swiss-chalet wooden detailing so popular before the war, especially in the mountain setting of Srebrenica.  She walked up to the front door and inspected the piece of paper stuck to its glass pane, a notice indicating that the house was the property of her husband (named) and, therefore, unlawful for anyone to break the seal and enter.  The “seal” (pečat) itself was a sorry looking blue, red, and white thread attached to the doorframe and door by two wads of putty.  Such was the inviolable safeguard of Bosnia’s postwar property laws. Trying the door handle, Nura found to her disappointment that it was locked; it meant that she would have to walk up the hill to the local office of the Ministry of Refugees and Displaced Persons to reclaim a key.

This encounter in the fall of 2003 was not her first time visiting the property.  She and her husband had already returned on several occasions to inspect the residence and talk with its occupants, the two Bosnian Serb families who lived separately on different floors of the large house. They had taken up residence after the fall of the enclave, having been either forcibly displaced themselves, or in search of better housing in the city proper. One family had recently moved to Bijeljina where they had built a house for themselves. The other family still occupied the second floor.

Just as Nura was about to leave in search of the key, a young woman appeared, walking up the driveway. They recognized each other immediately and began to talk.  She was from the second-floor family, the same person who had called out to Nura from the balcony the first time she had come to visit her former home, “Dođi, dođi, ova je tvoja kuća!” (“Come, come, this is your house!”).  Once again, they stood face-to-face, with arms folded tightly across their chests, their eyes flickering nervously toward each other only to drop away in search of something safe on which to rest their gaze.  Nura lit a cigarette.  Her hand trembled slightly as she held it.

Though strained, the conversation covered important ground: when the other family had left; whether the Serb woman and her family had plans to return to their pre-war residence; if so, whether they too had sought a donation for reconstruction.  Easing the discussion toward the business at hand, Nura explained that she and her husband would like to rebuild the house and return.  This might mean she would have to seek a deložacija, the formal eviction of the woman and her family from the property.  Most humanitarian aid organizations offering reconstruction packages stipulate that the applicant individual or family take up permanent residence in the property immediately following its reconstruction; to do so, temporary inhabitants, such as displaced persons who had occupied the residence either during or after the war, are required to leave before the agency will award a donation.

Hearing the news, the Serb woman grew visibly tenser.  She asked Nura not to seek her eviction, as her daughter had been sick and was struggling in school.  She did not want to uproot the child in the middle of year; at least let them stay through the winter.  Writ large, it was an ironic reversal of wartime dynamics within the region: the formerly dispossessed now controlled the fate of the dispossessors.

Coming “home” to Srebrenica for Bosniak returnees like Nura and her family entails much more than the physical task of reconstruction, of clearing away brush and debris and the material vestiges of former occupants. Theirs is also a story of social maneuvering and negotiation, a process littered with obstacles. Indeed, what was “guaranteed” Bosnia’s displaced persons as a right set forth in the Dayton Peace Agreement, the right of return, turned out to be much more difficult in reality than on paper. Returnee populations, regardless of their ethnonational background, throughout the country faced varying degrees of hostility, obstructionism, and dim economic prospects during the immediate postwar years, especially if they were returning to the territory under the control of the “other side”.  In the case of Srebrenica, nor was it a clear and uncomplicated choice for survivors, as memories of past atrocities and differing expectations for future courses colored the politics and experiences of “homecoming”.

In this light, an eviction notice was not just a signal to vacate, but also a call to reinsert and renew meaning and, by extension, control over that meaning. That this transfer of proprietorship was controlled by strict bureaucratic mechanisms and legal proofs of identity underscores how highly institutionalized and laborious the process was.

Annual commemoration of the genocide in Srebrenica.jpgIn many ways, return to Srebrenica reflected the tensions of the region. Whereas minority returns were already well underway in other parts of the country by the late 1990s, the Podrinje valley and Srebrenica in particular remained forbidding territory for permanent return throughout the early and mid-2000s. Much of the municipality’s housing had been partially or completely destroyed during the war, leaving individuals and families without reliable shelter, let alone electricity and running water to which they could return. When signs eventually appeared that individuals and groups of people were contemplating permanent relocation to pre-war homes, the humanitarian organizations tasked with rebuilding residences, roads, schools, and hospitals eagerly accepted applications for reconstruction “packages”— that is, for the whole or partial reconstruction of a pre-war residence. By 2004, at the height of the return process to Srebrenica, the municipality’s Commission for Reconstruction and Return had received a total of 2,838 requests for the reconstructed houses or apartments, 2,318 of which came from Bosniak returnees and 520 from internally displaced Bosnian Serbs. At the same time, the commission reported that some 250 Bosniak families had returned to villages and were living in tents and other temporary structures, awaiting the reconstruction of their former homes. By 2009, of the estimated 11,000 residents in the municipality, some 4,000 to 5,000 were Bosniak and Bosnian Croat returnees. According to data compiled by the municipality’s Commission on Reconstruction and Return that same year, some 2,700 families were still intending to return but were awaiting financial aid to reconstruct their homes. Almost a decade and a half after the genocide, aid for return had dwindled and the political momentum to sustain that return had begun to wane.

Diasporic connections

Leaning over a coffee table in his newspaper’s office in the heart of St. Louis’s Bosnian neighborhood, editor-in-chief, Šukrija Džidžović, sketched a rudimentary family tree: mother, father, three children. Just above the parents, he drew a series of blocks to represent male relatives, brothers and uncles, who were missing after the fall of the enclave: Oni koji nisu došli (“They who didn’t make it”). Then, adding cartography to his genealogy, with a stroke of the pen, he transported the nuclear family to a village outside of Srebrenica, to the pre-war, now rebuilt and re-occupied residence of relatives who had permanently returned. He posed the question, tapping the pen emphatically from the children below to the missing above: What do those children know, how do they feel about Srebrenica when they visit Bosnia with their parents during the summer?

It comes as no surprise that refugee populations, children and adults among them, such as the Bosnians who resettled in cities like St. Louis, Missouri or Grand Rapids, Michigan feel a sense of disjuncture: although in many cases they are proud to have created new homes and communities in their state of asylum, the often grueling pace of life in the United States, coupled with the distance, wears away at their capacity to remained connected to their homeland. Thus, like many immigrants, they embrace their new country and the opportunities it extends them, but metaphors of division prevail. These refugees speak of two lives (of their former life in Bosnia and their new life in the US); or of a split between their physical and spiritual presence whereby their mind and body are in the US but their hearts, their souls, remain back in Bosnia. Echoing the concerns heard by Džidžović, parents among this diaspora describe their position as a bridge between the culture of their homeland and the place that their children consider home- the United States.

Despite the material and social pressures to integrate into their host society, Bosnian refugees and, in particular, refugees from the Srebrenica enclave who have taken up permanent residence in foreign countries nevertheless have been engaged in myriad forms of activism, of connectivity, with their homeland. One of the most unique examples of this civic engagement has taken place in relation to the on-going efforts to identify the over 8,000 men and boys missing as a result of the Srebrenica genocide. In the summer months of 2004, an advertisement displaying stark and grainy images from exhumation sites and abandoned streets aired throughout Europe and the countries of former Yugoslavia on a satellite television station, HAYAT TV.  The spot urged viewers among the diaspora to provide DNA reference samples to help identify their missing relatives. Billboards posing the same question, “Da li ste s njim nestali i vi?” (translated into English as the phrase “missing you”) greeted members of the diaspora returning on holiday at Bosnia and Herzegovina’s border crossings with Croatia and Serbia.

These advertisements were a part of the media campaign for a special outreach project run by the International Commission on Missing Persons (ICMP).  ICMP is the primary international organization dedicated to assisting governments with the identification of the estimated 40,000 individuals missing after the wars that plagued the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s.  The television spot highlighted the complex task ICMP set out to accomplish with its 2004-2005 “Outreach Campaign to Families of Missing Persons.”  Using images from a well-known photographer, Tarik Samarah, they aimed to create an emotionally evocative advertisement that could resonate with all members of the diaspora who had a missing relative but had not yet provided a blood sample. They were designed to stir the viewers into action— to dial the telephone number and find out when and where they could give their blood sample.

Through its outreach program, ICMP was forging a transnational connection that centered on a specifically individual act— that is, the diaspora’s participation in the identification process.  In highlighting the personal value of this activity, ICMP urged an unusual form of social remittance —four droplets of blood, collected in a third country and transported back to Bosnia and Herzegovina for DNA testing.  As a collective contribution, these remittances represented a step toward the broader political goal of overcoming the effects of ethnic violence within the region of former Yugoslavia, yet ironically among the European states visited, ethnicity itself was the major factor in facilitating this transnational activity. In mosques, diaspora community centers, cafes, and restaurants, different ethnonational groups from the broader population of displaced persons from former Yugoslavia assembled to press their fingers onto bloodstain cards. Having been deemed a success, in 2005 ICMP sent its mobile blood collection teams to the United States, and has since developed an online inquiry system by which citizens within and outside the countries of former Yugoslavia can monitor the progress of their missing relative’s case, DNA reference samples included.


Tenuous Citizenship: Removals of former Bosnian Serb Soldiers

While the members of the Bosniak diaspora of St. Louis and other American cities struggled to balance the demands of their new country in addition to their loyalties to Bosnia, other members of the Bosnian diaspora found themselves under scrutiny in their adopted home.  Former soldiers of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS) who withheld information about their participation in the military force responsible for the genocide became a subject of interest for US immigration officials and, in some cases, US Federal prosecutors. Resettled en masse with other Bosnian citizens who arrived after the war, veterans of General Ratko Mladić’s army had started new lives in the US thinking that their small omission on a form, and in an interview at an embassy years before, would never catch up with them. Some even claimed their roles did not constitute real military service. That minor administrative issue would later form the basis for revoking the rights of a handful of American citizens and residents and led to their repatriation to Bosnia and Herzegovina. In some cases, war crimes trials awaited them.

Looking for the names of victims_1.jpgCuriously, it was another international organization dedicated to promoting accountability, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY), that brought to light the fact that the United States could be home to hundreds of former VRS soldiers. In 1998, ICTY officials secured access to army archives in Zvornik, and took the wartime paperwork back to The Hague for analysis. Researchers eventually compiled a list of 17,000 VRS members in an effort to understand the structure of the forces and lines of command necessary for their ongoing prosecutions.  Their work was of interest to the embassies in The Hague processing Bosnian refugees seeking resettlement. Countries such as the United Kingdom, Australia, Germany and Canada occasionally submitted names to the court to be checked against lists of suspects. The United States was not initially among those seeking the Tribunal’s expertise, but its resources would later be the initial source for dozens of investigations. It happened almost by accident. An Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS)official came across the case of Marko Boškić in journalist Elizabeth Neuffer’s book, The Key to My Neighbor’s House: Seeking Justice in Bosnia and Rwanda, first published in 2001. Although an ethnic Croat, Boškić was a member of the 10th Sabotage Department of the Bosnian Serb army’s Main Staff present at the Branjevo Farm massacres in July 1995. Neuffer interviewed him in Bijeljina in 1996, asking about his involvement in Srebrenica’s atrocities, which became the subject of a front page Boston Globe story that year. Boškić later resettled in the Massachusetts town of Peabody in 2000 where he worked as a construction worker. His suspected involvement in the massacres had eluded the immigration officials who initially processed his application.

The Boškić case prompted a request by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for the ICTY’s list, which was hand-delivered to its Boston office in June 2003. ICE officials later cross-indexed that document with the applications from the region, giving the government an inkling that there could be hundreds of Marko Boškić’s living freely in the country. Once they had the name matches, ICE would order the alien file and look at the history the family provided. These cases were the subject of both criminal prosecutions and administrative proceedings in immigration courts. Whether a criminal trial occurred often depended on ICE identifying a prosecutor interested in visa fraud issues which, for obvious reasons, were not the most attention-grabbing and therefore not as desirable from some prosecutors’ perspective: such cases typically carry a sentence between zero and six months, bringing little or no glory to those who work on them.

The chance, however, to work on such cases and delve into the complicated issues of mass atrocities in foreign lands was a draw for a few federal attorneys. In the end, two states dealt with Boškić: he was a defendant in two criminal trials in the US and in Bosnia. He was sentenced to sixty-three months imprisonment for violating US immigration law in 2004. Extradited to Bosnia in 2010, he pleaded guilty to the crimes against humanity and sentenced to ten years in prison.

The government’s rationale for these cases was that because the applicant lied on the form, he or she inhibited the government’s ability to make an informed decision about the application. For Federal prosecutors, this small technical issue had implications for the larger issue of to whom the country should be offering refuge. “There are probably [more suitable candidates] who want to come to the US. Why should these people be privileged?” one prosecutor asked.  Further, those who lied did not fit the definition of a refugee outlined in federal law, derived from international conventions, namely a person who faces a well-founded fear of persecution in his or her home country. There was a certain irony in the fact that the persecutors in this case claimed a well-founded fear for which they were, allegedly, responsible. 

The ICTY list prompted similar cases in North Carolina, Oregon, Arizona, and Wisconsin. ICE officials went city by city, reviewing the files of those who had immigrated since the war’s end. The largest single operation involved sixteen former soldiers in Phoenix, five of whom were extradited and brought before the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Seen side by side, these disparate examples of activism among Srebrenica’s returnees and its diaspora illustrate how the struggle to reconstitute rights and re-establish political identity depends as much on individual choices by individual citizens as on the structural apparatuses of post-conflict national (re)building. Whether choosing to reclaim and reoccupy pre-war property or gathering in a cafe to provide a DNA reference sample, through courageous acts and unconventional means, Srebrenica’s citizens have taken the responsibility of repairing their lives into their own hands. For Marko Boškić, it was the opposite: attempting to cover up his involvement in the genocide, he sought a new life in the United States. In an ironic though fitting twist of fate, the promise of citizenship in a different state was forgone as the country of his birth held him accountable for the crimes he committed against his fellow citizens.


Lara J. Nettelfield is a visiting associate research scholar at Columbia University's Harriman Institute. She is author of Courting Democracy in Bosnia and Herzegovina: The Hague Tribunal’s Impact in a Postwar State (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Sarah Wagner is an assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology at University of North Carolina, Greensboro. She is author of To Know Where He Lies: DNA Technology and the Search for Srebrenica’s Missing (University of California Press, 2008)

This essay contains excerpts from their forthcoming book Srebrenica in the Aftermath of Genocide(Cambridge University Press, 2012).

* Photos by the authors.