Today we went out to visit a collective center in Jablanica (pronounced “yablahNEETZah”. Collective centers are the Bosnian version of refugee camps, and internally displaced people have been living in these places for ten to fourteen years. During the war, people being persecuted from all ethnic groups fled their hometowns to places where they were relatively safe. The towns they arrived at allowed them to occupy abandoned factories or schools or other types of buildings, temporarily. After the war ended, aid agencies provided more adequate temporary shelter and some services to the people who were in these places, and they became collective centers or refugee camps.
Supposedly, the people living in these places were eventually supposed to go home, and the governments of the two autonomous entities, the Serb Republic and the Federation of Herzegovina, tried to close them. The Serb Republic claims to have closed all of them, but really they just changed the name to Transition Centers. Until our organization began its project in these centers two years ago, very few people had gone home, in spite of having been offered reconstruction and other assistance through ours and other international development groups.
There are many reasons that people are reluctant to leave. First and foremost, they are scared. They have lived in these camps with these people for a very long time now. They have gotten jobs, maybe, or at least gotten accustomed to receiving assistance. Their children may be in schools near the centers. It is hard to get up the courage to make a change again at this point, even if they could count on their place of return being safe and secure for them, but many don’t.
It is nearly impossible for me to imagine what it would be like to face a return like this. Almost all of the people in the centers lost members of their families, many in their very homes, were the opposing army broke in and killed men, women, or children in front of other family members. Some women were raped in their own homes. Many were persecuted by the neighbors they had known and drank coffee with for years. Those homes must seem almost haunted now with the hellish memories; going there must violently tear any scars right open again. I can’t even believe that anyone would go back. Add that to the uncertainty that they will have any services in their old town or a job, and you can easily imagine why they would prefer to stay.
On the way drive to and from the center, the woman who took us, who manages the program for the returnees, told us her experience of the war. She is the daughter of a Muslim (Bosniak) and an Orthodox (Serb). Her father had spent much of his life as a career soldier in Yugoslavia, and ended up in Sarajevo. They grew up with friends from all of the religious groups, and such differences were barely worth mentioning. Then one day, they started to hear reports of Muslims murdering Serbs. It wasn’t easily believable for them, and they later found out that these first reports weren’t actually true. At some point, and I’m not sure where, because the story came out of chronological order, her Serbian extended family in Serbia called them to let them know that they had sent their sons to be soldiers with the Serbian army “to save them” from the Muslim atrocities. Her father tried to explain that that wasn’t what was happening, and that the Serb army was committing the atrocities and blaming them on the Muslims to create unrest. No one in Serbia believed him because they were getting fake information from the government.
Her father and brothers left to defend Bosnia as soldiers. She felt useless at home, so she ran away and also joined the army without telling them. She had no formal training, so they trained her as a nurse. She was seventeen (one year older than I). For several years during the conflict, I think that she said five years, she worked on the front lines in Sarajevo. She showed us the building where she lived, and the building where she worked. They were right across the street from the Serb army, and remain scarred with bullet holes today. To get from her apartment to the hospital (which they had set up in an abandoned grocery store), she had to run a gauntlet of five Serb snipers.
When the war was over, she made a decision to leave the army and the conflict behind. She says that she still hasn’t been able to really forgive her neighbors and other Serbs she knew for turning against Bosnia like that, for falling prey to paranoia and propaganda. She said that she tries not to hate, and recognizes that there are good and bad people in every group, but that she still has a hard time trusting. All of this is inside of her every day, when she helps both Serbs and Bosnians resettle. She helps them all equally, but says that the hardest thing about her job is going to Srebrenica, where Serbs massacred Bosnians during the war, and the grief remains fresh in the minds of the minority Bosnians she takes back to their homes there. She feels culpable for renewing their pain when they walk the haunted and reconstructed halls of their old homes or old land.
I nearly broke down in tears listening to her. There we were, two women, driving a car along a highway surrounded with some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen, talking about the sheer horror and inhumanity that she witnessed. The hardest thing I have ever dealt with was the death of one person in my life. I can’t even imagine watching death the way she did every day for five years. She seems old, and I seem naïve. She is married now, to a Macedonian, and has a four-year-old daughter.
Walking around Sarajevo, the leftovers from the war are everywhere. On the path along the river, you can see where people were shot to death. A line of bullet holes leads to a small, person-sized spot where all the shots converge. From the angle of the shots, you can look up and see which window in the building across the street they came from. The spots became like vacuums for me, spaces where a person should be.