Traumas of War Haunt Balkans Long After the Shooting Stopped

Ivo Riter stands in a Sarajevo building where he lives, which has not been restored since being destroyed in the Bosnian war. (CAIN BURDEAU, Courthouse News Service)

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (CN) – Mass graves from the Bosnian war are still being found – two last year. Alleged war criminals remain free. In one city, a monument to children killed in the war hasn’t been built because it would honor both Muslims and Christians.

Twenty-three years after the end of combat in Bosnia, the Balkans remain riddled with unresolved conflicts, crimes, damage and animosities stemming from the war.

“The past is very present,” said Tue Steen Muller, a film expert involved with the recent Sarajevo Film Festival’s series of documentaries dealing with this difficult past. “Stories where perpetrators have not been brought to court, stories of missing people (killed in the war), families don’t know where their loved ones are (buried).”

The Balkans — a multi-ethnic region with Roman Catholics, Muslims and Orthodox Christians — were engulfed in war, ethnic cleansing, bombings, war crimes, rapes and genocide after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991. The armed conflict in Bosnia, where the worst of the atrocities occurred, ended in 1995.

This apartment building in Sarajevo, pockmarked with bullet and shell holes from the Bosnian war, is one of many in Bosnia that still show signs of damage. (CAIN BURDEAU, Courthouse News Service)

The damage caused by those horrific years are still seen and felt here. Numerous buildings are pockmarked with bullet holes, and war ruins, covered now in weeds and graffiti, are found in towns, villages and cities across Bosnia. Memorials to victims are common in Sarajevo, a city once under siege and today a symbol of the horror of war.

More subtle, but equally disquieting, are unresolved questions: What crimes and criminals remain to be prosecuted? Who funded the wars behind the scenes? How can people live peacefully alongside former enemies? When will the war’s victims feel whole?

The war is relived on a daily basis by people like Ivo Riter, a 75-year-old man who resides with his wife Alma in a former Austro-Hungarian mansion bombed during the war that still hasn’t been fixed. They are the only people left in a building that housed 10 families before the war.

Ivo and Alma Riter stand at the window of their Sarajevo apartment in an Austro-Hungarian mansion they live in despite extensive and unfixed damage from the Bosnian war. (CAIN BURDEAU, Courthouse News Service)

He pointed to the obvious signs of damage in the ceiling of their bedroom, then led the way upstairs to the floor above. As he went, he pointed out holes gaping through walls and roof where bombs hit. Windows were smashed and missing, floors were unsteady, and seemingly ready to fall through with a misstep.

“There’s a danger of it collapsing,” he said of the building. “We are afraid to live here, but we don’t have another option.”

The Riters lost a son in the war, and their neighborhood, Grbavica, was devastated. It was the site of horrors, including rapes, killings and torture, after it was occupied by Serbian forces.

“I can’t sleep at night because of what has happened,” he said.

Amir Sultan stands outside a tent where homeless Bosnian war veterans, like him, sleep in a protest to demand help from the government. (CAIN BURDEAU, Courthouse News Service)

And there are people like Amir Sultan, one of about two dozen homeless Bosnian army veterans who call a makeshift, muddy military-style camp on a main boulevard in Sarajevo home. They want help from the government.

“This is a protest,” Sultan said. “We have no money, no help. We have nothing. No houses.” He was 15 years old when he joined the Bosnian army, he said, and he was shot in the head, suffering permanent damage to his left eye.

There are people like Amir Secić, a 23-year-old law student from Tuzla whose father, Ibrahim Secić, was killed in the Srebrenica genocide. His mother, who was pregnant with him during the war, left him an orphan.

Amir Secic stands at an event of the Sarajevo Film Festival, where his story was presented. He was orphaned when his father was killed in the Srebrenica genocide. (CAIN BURDEAU, Courthouse News Service)

In 2013, he was able to identify his father’s remains and bury them at a memorial in Srebrenica. He’s written a recent book about his life and believes there’s still much to learn about what happened, with many stories like his still to be told.

“People in the world need to know,” he said.

Like many family members of Srebrenica victims, he said he is haunted by his father’s killing. His father’s remains were scattered and his skeleton was buried incomplete, he said.

“It pains me greatly that when he was alive he was complete and now in death he is incomplete,” he said.

There are people like Adi Muhic, a 33-year-old dental representative. He was 6 years old when his family left Sarajevo during the war. His grandmother stayed behind and was shot and killed by Serbian soldiers, he said, and hanged from a building to make it look like she killed herself.

“The people who were here during the war don’t speak,” he said during a tour of Grbavica, the neighborhood across the Miljacka River from central Sarajevo that occupied by Serbian forces during the siege of Sarajevo. “They have traumas.

Serbian forces tortured and killed people in these garages under an apartment complex in the Grbavica neighborhood of Sarajevo. (CAIN BURDEAU, Courthouse News Service)

“This was where there were prison cells, where people were killed and tortured,” Muhic said, pointing to a warren of graffiti-sprayed garages under apartment buildings in Grbavica. A stone monument also marked the spot. “This is not nice for me to be here.”

His family rebuilt a house and dental practice that were destroyed in the war. Serbian soldiers, he said, stole everything in the house, even the plumbing pipes and a dental chair.

Not all is fixed, though. The building attached to his family’s is empty and broken. It hasn’t been restored since the war.

In Prijedor, a northern Bosnia city, residents have sought to erect a monument to the 102 children from the city killed in the war. But local Bosnian-Muslim politicians have blocked the monument’s construction because it would honor victims regardless of nationality.

“We think that we should remember these kids as the most innocent victims,” said Goran Zorić, a Prijedor resident and a leader in efforts to build the monument.

And there are people like Nermin Karagić, a Bosnian Muslim from Prijedor who testified in the war crimes trial in The Hague against Ratko Mladic, a Bosnian Serb general. Karagić witnessed mass killings by Serbian forces. His story of tragedy was one of several presented at the Sarajevo Film Festival this month.

Adi Muhic stands by a monument dedicated to people tortured and killed during the war by Serbian forces after they occupied the neighborhood of Grbavica in Sarajevo. (CAIN BURDEAU, Courthouse News Service)

A friend, Edin Ramulić, said Karagić and he live in a neighborhood of Prijedor where people often run into neighbors who committed crimes against them. In the same neighborhood, he said, there are people seeking to find missing loved ones and others “who are silent” about where the dead were buried.

“And every day he (Karagić) passes by a monument to the army that tried to kill him,” Ramulić said.

Just last year, two mass graves were discovered in the area of Prijedor. During the war, the area was the site of mass killings and ethnic cleansing.

Augustina Rahmanović-Koning, who helps run Vive Žene, a group that brings Muslim and Orthodox Christian women together in eastern Bosnian towns, said there are deep rifts still.

She was not optimistic that Bosnia will be able to claim that Muslims and Christians have reconciled their differences any time soon. Reconciliation involves creating a society where discrimination is gone, where people feel that justice has been served and where they feel they have equal status, she said.

“People are not ready for it,” she said of reconciliation. “We like talking about peaceful co-existence.”

Life and reconciliation in this war-scarred country are not made easier by the nation’s many other problems: Corruption, political instability and lack of jobs.

“Sometimes we feel that we are in a boat with many holes,” Rahmanović-Koning said, “and we have to pump out the boat not to sink.”

This fountain and monument in a Sarajevo park is dedicated to the memory of children killed in the Bosnian war between 1992 and 1995. (CAIN BURDEAU, Courthouse News Service)
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