ICG in Action

A Moment in Bosnia

The following article, by Anna Husarska, a member of ICG's field team in Bosnia, was published in the Washington Post newspaper, 26 November 1997.

The tall Muslim woman inquired about the orchard: "How's the apple tree? Bears you good fruit?" The short stocky Serb man shrugged: "Many froze."

They stood by the side of the road on the way to Srebrenica. Down an alley lined with miniature silver pine trees was a one-story house with a garage and the orchard in the back. This had been her house. She lost it in ethnic cleansing, the same that drove thousands of Srebrenica Muslims out of their homes, the men to their death. Now it was the house of this stocky Serb who had served in the Bosnian Serb army, which conducted the Srebrenica massacre.

But there was something odd about this encounter, some paradox difficult to pin down. The woman was elegant: light makeup, silk scarf, leather jacket. The man had a few days' beard, hand-made woolen cap, mended sweater. He was eating pumpkin seeds, biting on them and spitting the empty shells on the ground. He offered the woman some from the palm of his hand.

She took a few, her long, polished nails deftly opening the seeds. Then she went back to smoking her extra-slim, extra-long cigarettes with a flower design on the filter. She held out the packet; he declined.

The conversation came and went. Both felt uneasy, not least because of the irritating presence of five unsmiling Bosnian Serb police officers whose ostensible role it was to prevent such encounters. The Muslim woman had arrived from Tuzla on one of the three buses that brought voters from the other entity to cast their ballot in the "Republika Srpska" parliamentary elections; a polling station was across the road.

The obvious question is why did they bother to come and vote. It is not their parliament, not their land anymore and the hostility - personified by these five police officers-was stifling. The Bosnian Serb police were annoyed because the 184 Muslims who came to vote in Djugum last weekend did so to state their intention to return one day to their homes.

My presence as a foreigner acted as an ice-breaker in the choppy conversation. I introduced myself to these two. The Muslim woman was Velida, the Serb man was Todor. A dozen pumpkin seeds later, Todor ventured an invitation to come for a coffee to the house. Velida did not dare accept. Both were looking for approval from the Bosnian Serb cops.

Always delighted at the chance to give lessons in the exercise of human rights, I recited the Dayton agreement's provision about freedom of movement, and off we went, the three of us, down the silver-pine lined alley. As we were walking Velida explained that the house was her "veekenditsa,"-secondary residence, where she would come for weekends with her husband, a physician.

Todor spoke about how he fled in March 1996 with what he could fit on a truck from Sarajevo's suburb of Ilidza, which, according to Dayton, passed under Muslim control. This is when I realized what was odd in the situation: the inverted roles. They were defying the standard perception of victim and oppressor. The ethnically cleansed Muslim was obviously well-off; being unable to enjoy her "veekenditsa" was for her a relatively minor drama. The Bosnian Serb, whose megalomaniac president and army commander were later indicted for war crimes was a jobless bricklayer, a refugee squatting in a summer house with a leaking roof.

This strange distribution of roles was a perfect metaphor for the ultimate stupidity of this whole war. We proceeded to the orchard. "Could I have one of your apples; to take, please?" Velida asked. Todor shook the tree, the apples fell: "They are your apples," he corrected her. The whole scene was getting rather difficult to bear with dry eyes.

When we reached upstairs, in the windowless ruin of a first floor where Todor's meager belongings were all hanging on bare nails, Velida asked if he found any medicine books from her late husband's library. The answer was "no." Her mascara started running. Not for those books though; she reached for her purse and put some German banknotes into Todor's hand. He accepted with a natural humility that comes from utter poverty.

As they parted, Todor extended a standing invitation for weekends to Velida. Given the foreign license plates of my car, it befell me to deliver her from Tuzla to Djugum, across the hostility of Bosnian Serb cops. I hope I will be able to drive her in the spring. I only wish I could cram into the car all those who maintain from the other side of the Atlantic that "those folks out there" in the Balkans can never live together, that Dayton should be thrown away and that only permanent division can bring peace to Bosnia.

© Copyright 1997 The Washington Post Company

[Sierra Leone]


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