My book launch talk in Kozarac


Good evening. Thank you for coming. It is great to see so many friends and Kozarcani here.

My name is Sebina and I am an anthropologist originally from Kevljani.

I am here to talk about my new book Remaking Kozarac, which is the result of over ten years’ research into the remarkable story of how you and your friends and families have returned and rebuilt this wonderful little town.

An unexpected success 

I don’t think even many people involved in this story understand quite what an amazing thing it is that you have achieved here.

Serb nationalists made such a huge effort to ensure that they killed anybody who could organise this community – from ordinary people like my brother Nijaz to well-known figures like Dr. Eso – that is all the more remarkable; but just in case, they also destroyed homes and buildings so thoroughly that they did not believe anybody would want to come back.

But also this is what I call contested return. The authorities who did this were still in place, and refusing to acknowledge the reality of their crimes, when the first people bravely crossed from Lusci Palanka and slept under tents.

There are very few places in Bosnia, perhaps even the world, where ordinary people have managed to achieve this with so little governmental or external support.

Phases of return 

For me, the story begins with the legendary 17kb that is such a source of pride for this town. This town made its own army before it could return and remake its town. No Sarajevo, no SDA, no nationalist or religious organisations deserve credit for ensuring Bosnia survived at the end of the war. For that we thank Dudak, Alagic, General Cuskic and all those men I watched move north from Babanovac on Vlasic in 1995.

The fact that men from Kozarac started as displaced persons after the camps, fought so heroically in the war, getting so close to this place, only to end up as displaced persons once again in Sanski Most was a tragedy. But the fact that they kept their discipline and used their skills and strength to negotiate and support the early stage of return was crucial to this story, and people like Sead Cirkin and others went on to return when it became possible.

But then came the brilliant, brave women who joined with my friends in Hazelwood in the UK and others to cross the line and insist on their right to visit despite the violence and hatred they faced. But people like Emsuda, Seida and all other colleagues in Srcem do Mira and Izvor didn’t stop there – they have continued as a spine of the returnee community ever since and we owe them a lot.

Having braved the stones, the next task was finding the bones, and Izvor, Edin Ramulic and others did so much to make this happen so that we could eventually find, bury and honour our missing.

Next was building homes and other infrastructure for the community to begin to exist again so that it could provide a life for young people as well as memories for old people.

In the middle phase of return, another fascinating aspect of your story is the relationship between locals and the diaspora. People like Svabo worked so hard to give us a forum to stay connected even if only a small number of people were living in the town. And people like Satko used this to find out what was needed – from basketball courts and the school to the famous fire service – and raise funds outside to make it happen. When real-world networks have so many structural holes thanks to all those people who were missing, virtual networks become a way to bridge the gap, and and other networks that emerged is a wonderful case study of how diaspora communities can support return.

This phase also saw a growing commitment to memorialisation, and this was a very interesting (if sometimes difficult) debate. In my book I write about the campaign for the Omarska memorial and show how well-intentioned but amateurs arriving with a neo-colonial attitude to local actors, actually did more harm than good, and created divisions. Everything you yourselves have done is worth more than any NGO-funded peacemaking or reconciliation effort.

Later, as the bars and cafes filled the main street and part-time returnees from the diaspora filled the streets in the summer times, it looked like Kozarac was back and would be here forever, but in fact many challenges remain for the full-time inhabitants who have remade the town.

It seems every art therapist, spiritual healer, peacemaker and NGO has passed through the town at some point, and all brought their ideas and showed their ignorance of what you have done. They might think of you as victims, perhaps traumatised or needing mediation to talk to each other. In my visits to the peace house I have seen Emsuda and others treat these people with kindness, listen to their ideas and sometimes play the role they want to see, but in reality it was always for their benefit, not for yours.

Kozarac has engaged in various ways with the wider political system around us, from the early election of MPs sitting with Serbs to creating new parties and voting blocs. Politics will always divide communities, and it involves so much compromise, but as long as we all have the interests of the town and its community in mind, we need to always be open to those who we don’t completely agree with.

The last phase of return that I studied was the emergence of businesses like Austronet and Arifagic farms. I write about them in my book because they seem like something new, not just for Kozarac but for Bosnia. Despite their own experiences, and the terrible levels of corruption and incompetence in Bosnian business today, these firms are focused on creating such high standards in every aspect of their work that they exist on their own level, connected to international markets. They are not here for cheap labour, nor freedom from taxes. They are here to create an example of real sustainability and real progress, and I think we need them if Kozarac is to have a sustainable future and jobs for young people.

The innovation, bravery and self-reliance that you have all shown as a community throughout this story is truly remarkable, and I am grateful you gave me the chance to study it and to learn from it. There is nothing you cannot do, in the field of politics or business, if you aim high enough.

The story continues of course, and I only know a tiny part of it, so please forgive me for all the people and things I have missed. But in writing this book, I hope to recognise the amazing achievement of this small town with a big heart, and when every tax-funded NGO expert flies in to each you new made up words like transitional justice, peacebuilding or sustainable development, please just smile and remember that you have done more in practice to achieve these things than they will ever know in theory.

Themes of the book 

I am delighted to have Satko here with me today, and also the wonderful Mirsad Tokaca, who is another example of somebody who patiently worked away throughout the war on an impossible task that he pioneered almost alone, to record and count the dead.

But before we move on to questions or discussion, I want to share a few themes that your story taught me and can I think teach the world.

A community that has agency, self-reliance and determination is needed before return is possible. UN agencies and others in bigger, more complex post-war refugee return situations could do a lot more to support and resource communities, including building strong diaspora connections both before and after return begins, rather than treat people as a mass of individuals. As I learned from Kozarac, giving former soldiers a role in this is very important, rather than treating them as hostile elements to be de-mobilised and forgotten.

Return is how you reverse ethnic cleansing. Not reconciliation, truth commissions or agreements between political parties. If you can walk the streets of Prijedor, however difficult that might sometimes be, then anything is possible, and the very presence of this community is a defeat for ultra-nationalism, especially if it can continue with an open spirit and culture.

Related to this, the study taught me the power of ‘presence’ to create real reconciliation rather than reconciliation as a performance. If you sit people with different experiences and narratives around a table and say “you are a victim” and “you are a perpetrator” then they will perform their roles and become further apart, not closer together. The incredibly brave Nusreta Sivac makes Serb denial impossible every day she lives among them, and her presence is more powerful than any number of round-table discussions where people are asked to acknowledge crimes. Top-down reconciliation is hard to achieve, but bottom-up reconciliation by people being present, shopping in the same stores, gradually re-connecting as neighbours is exactly what rebuilds social connections, and creates an opportunity for conversation and learning. I understand we want Serbs to acknowledge, publicly, what happened. But instead of spending our time “asking” them for this, which gives them power and makes us look weak, an increasingly visible presence forces them to see and to learn, even if they will not admit it. I am not a big fan of the activist performance art trend of recent years, but they deserve credit for doing this.

The internet and virtual networks are vital when real world networks have been so damaged. How do you find each other and organise after eliticide? How can you bridge the gaps in social networks left by leaders, politicians and key figures? Online communities are an important part of the solution, plus they can create a shared presence and ambient intimacy (Svabo’s Jutarnji Trac was a perfect example of this) between diaspora communities and returnees that benefits both and creates a support system for the town. This is something that can and should be in the toolkit of any agency trying to help return processes.

What is the right balance between memory and moving on? There are no easy answers to this question. It is not about memory versus forgetting, but a question of where to spend time and resources. Funeral practices and the cemeteries were vitally important parts of the return process and important for re-establishing a visible presence again. There can and should be visible memorials to commemorate what happened in 1992, and the campaign for these will no doubt continue. But the town cannot be a museum. It needs to develop, grow and sustain itself, which means at some point more focus has to be put on questions of the future and less on the past. I do not know what the right balance is, and I am not critical in any way of the balance that has been achieved so far, but it will be a question that needs addressing.

Economic development and sustainability also achieve social goals. It is obvious that the town needs economic sustainability if it is to attract young people, create jobs and promote education. This town is one of the most internationally-connected towns in the region and that is a huge advantage that we need to exploit. What Arifagic has created is not really about personal profit, but creating social outcomes, and if innovative firms like this succeed then it will improve jobs, education and most importantly cultural and business standards. A Kozarac economy that can attract workers from across the region will achieve something far more than acknowledgement. This is not an alternative to NGO or activist work, but complementary. We might create a crowd-funded global Kozarac investment fund that invests in small firms here and helps them find markets all over the world. We might also learn from Austronet and attract major partnerships or joint ventures. However, you do it, the same spirit that funded and created the brigade when it was needed is capable of showing this entire region that Kozarac is more than just a street of cafes.

I hope you enjoy the book. Although it is an academic work, I hope it is also a readable story that you will enjoy. I am sorry it is expensive, but I will gladly provide my own author discount to anyone here tonight who would like to buy it. As I am sure you realise, I didn’t write it to get paid.

Most of all, this is your story, so I would love to hear your views and your questions this evening.

Thank you.



Yes, ethnography matters … but what kind?

As ethnographic research and methods have spread outside academia and more people claim to use them, I have noticed that whilst there is greater awareness of ethnography entails, there seems to be a lack of awareness about how it actually works. This is especially true in corporate ethnography, which is a growing and valuable area of enquiry, but one where rigour and depth are no less important.

So here are some snippets of my own experience doing traditional long-term ethnographic research.

As a so-called ‘native anthropologist’ conducting an ethnographic study in Bosnia, I had some obvious advantages such as language, familiarity with culture, landscape and so on, but also a major disadvantage: being treated as “one of us” can impact on what kind of data one collects and make a researcher invisible. In my particular case, I have no family in Bosnia nor a home there, which at times, made my interlocutors perceive me as a somewhat “enigmatic creature”. By contrast, foreign scholars and media are often perceived as “naši prijatelji” (our friends): those who will tell the world of our plight, which means they are given the conventional, oft-repeated version of the story.

Invisibility suited me perfectly for two reasons: first, on a personal level I don’t feel comfortable being the centre of attention; second, I do not claim expertise or special status on the basis of my personal experiences in Bosnia. More importantly, this opened up a space for my observation of all kinds of interactions among local NGO campaigners, foreign scholars and human rights practitioners, which provided much needed nuance, and at times a testing ground for identifying my own biases during the fieldwork.

We are taught that participant observation is at the core of ethnographic methods, and although the two terms are arguably contradictory, we need to navigate these different roles in the real world. But what does this mean in practice when we know human interactions are never straight forward?

Doing ethnography has its fair share of challenges: ethical, in some cases emotional for the native researcher but also for those who “go native,” and also a series of practical challenges. As an ethnographer, navigating a complex social web and managing your own emotional overload can be quite hard, not to mention the influences that your own emotional responses to people might have on the writing process.

In any case, in my experience, key insights are achievable through observation and interaction, but not all of us possess the right level of observational skills, nor ethics for that matter. It might come naturally to some, whilst others might need to work at it. Empathy is important, but also personal maturity.

Another challenge is how a researcher can immerse herself within everyday life without interfering in the social or personal experience of the community or group that she is trying to understand. In Physics, the Observer Effect is well understood – in other words, the act of measuring something also changes it – and in ethnography we must always be aware of this. To observe human behaviour and social life as it unfurls means to look at what people do, not just what they say they do. In my case, one very useful way of being present and involved whilst observing from the sidelines was through online communities. Because the community had a high degree of intimacy and trust in their own online community, for certain topics or debates, online discussion was more honest and fruitful than physical meetings, which gave me great insights into the dynamics of the group and how they think and talk to each other. So, listening skills are also very important, but traditional interviews can be much less valuable than ‘being present’ – both physically and online – as people go about their daily life.

But is listening and observing enough to understand deeper dynamics?

What we observe has to be understood within a particular context, and more often than not we need to be aware of the historical trajectory behind beliefs and actions, whether personal or communal, as well as diverse individual and groups goals or interests. How can this be understood?

Let me illustrate this question with an example from my own experience. In 2007, I attended a workshop in Malta where a group of Bosnians were invited to participate in a discussion about building a memorial to the victims of the Omarska camp. To cut a long story short, the organiser treated all Bosnian participants as survivors of the camp, although there were in fact just two Omarska survivors, along with NGO representatives from different ethnic backgrounds and myself. We were treated as though we just walked out of the camp, despite the fact the workshop was happening 15 years later. The setup of the event and the way we were treated were all clearly intended to portray us as a deeply traumatised victim group that needed a mediator (the conference organiser) to help us express our desire for a memorial to the present owner of the Omarska mine site, the multi-national corporation Mittal Steel.

Some of our group acted as they were expected to, partly out of politeness or a sense of obligation. Others did not, but kept their concerns to themselves, not wanting to seem ungrateful that the organiser had paid for the trip and had good intentions. Even our accommodation – a modest house away from the other participants’ luxury hotel – and our allocated corner of the conference room seemed designed to separate us as performers rather than participants. It was a hugely valuable experience for me to see the performative role expected of survivors, and provided a useful insight into how mediators, facilitators and interviewers can subconsciously shape the story being told by participants, and subtly guide them towards a role that is expected of them, rather than just treat them as equals and listen to what they have to say.

Changing Mindsets in Post-war Bosnia Through Economic Development


I recently returned from a trip to Bosnia to research successful examples of sustainable economic development for my forthcoming book, provisionally titled: “Remaking Kozarac: agency, reconciliation and contested return in postwar Bosnia.”

After so much time focusing on the challenges of postwar contested return, it was quite uplifting to learn more about how ambitious and innovative some returnee-led businesses have become. But most of all, it demonstrated the importance of promjena svijesti (changing mindsets) as a vehicle for the kind of social and political transformation that is needed to create modern institutions and a functioning state in the long-term.

In Bosnia, systemic corruption is the norm, which is not surprising given centuries of colonial Ottoman rule followed by communism, war and then a post-war dependence on aid and international institutions. The old communist nomenclatura system of party patronage and state monopolies has passed into the hands of agents of a modern form of corruption: nationalist political elites, their family relatives and war comrades. Both systems tend to put state resources in the hands of political elites that see themselves as the embodiment of national destiny, resulting in a blurring of lines between personal and official interests, and supported by reference to the perceived dangers posed by internal and external enemies, which is reinforced by control of the media and education system.

Curbing corruption that is deeply ingrained in all aspects of social structures rather than just being an exception (individual cases) is a slow and challenging process. As North points out in his Nobel Prize talk, rules may be changed overnight, but the informal norms usually only change gradually – and thee, not rules, are what governs behaviour. There is also the classic game theory problem – if everyone assumes others are corrupt, they are less likely to behave correctly themselves, as to do so would be to lose out without any prospect of changing the norm.

Two decades of a postwar “transition” in which billions of dollars were poured in to build democratic, liberal governing institutions have not contributed much to social and political transformation. One of the reasons is that international donors have helped to keep the predatory elite in power by cooperating with them even in instances where they are attempting to fight widespread corruption, oblivious to the fact that the state’s politicians are in fact the crux of the matter. As Mungiu-Pippidi notes, the problem is that international organisations fail to take into consideration a particularist political culture and underestimate the extent to which corruption, in post communist countries at least, is inherently political:

corruption actually means “particularism”—a mode of social organization characterized by the regular distribution of public goods on a nonuniversalistic basis that mirrors the vicious distribution of power within such societies.

…their [people’s] treatment depends on their status or position in society, and people do not even expect to be treated fairly by the state; what they expect is similar treatment to everybody with the same status.

This phenomenon is problematic, but in a situation of contested return such as Kozarac, its impact can be even greater because the authorities are broadly hostile to the returnee minority and ready to use official Republic Srpska institutions against them. Therefore joining in with local corruption presents risks, but so too can any attempt to resist it and refuse to ‘play along’.

One of the defining characteristics of the Kozarac return story has been the need for self-reliance. In the early years, this was played out in fighting for return, re-establishing the local community and standing up for political rights and memorialisation. Increasingly today, the priority is economic self-reliance if the community is to reverse the slow drift of young people away from the area in pursuit of a future for themselves and their families.

On my recent trip, I visited two local businesses that are remarkable both for their ambition to create internationally-competitive products, but also for the way that they handle the ever-present challenge of corruption, quality standards and other aspects of the prevailing ‘mindset’ that they believe needs to change.

These two firms, Arifagic Investment and Austronet, are both led by members of the returnee community who are motivated to create a sustainable local legacy, rather than just to create short-term profits. Their work employs a curious mix of path dependence – knowledge of how and why things are the way they are – and also new thinking in the Bosnian context. They are aware that history matters, and here I do not mean only recent war losses and terrible experiences, but a long intergenerational heritage of economic models that created the country’s political culture. And yet, their life experiences and exile exposed them to new forms of learning and knowledge necessary to combat a “stuck” society such as Bosnia. They also draw upon their experience of doing business in Norway and Austria respectively to inform their belief that only by upholding the highest standards of quality and ethics can they avoid being dragged down by local norms. They not only refuse to take part in customary corrupt practices, they also understand that to do so requires them to be scrupulously ‘clean’ as any compromise on this point would leave them vulnerable. Therefore, although it is not perhaps their primary goal, both firms are pioneers that are changing the local mindset and demonstrating that even in Bosnia, and specifically in Republika Srspka, it is possible to create internationally-successful businesses.

In some way, these firms represent a much needed philosophy of abandoning what we know and embracing new learning practices and behaviours in the pursuit of radical change of a value system that influences both formal and informal institutions. The cornerstone of this is building a culture that goes beyond the self-interest of a leader. But how to articulate let alone achieve this in a community that often sees personal success as a threat or assumes it derives from some form of corrupt behaviour? Social trust is in short supply regardless which ethnic or social group one may belong to.

Jusuf Arifagic returned to Bosnia from Norway a few years ago with a significant personal investment and several hundred Norwegian cows of a special breed. He bought a plot of land in Trnopolje not far from the site of the camp where he and his family were interned during the war, and established Arifagic Investment as an agricultural business with visionary and innovative strategies for the future of Bosnian farming, meat production and biogas generation. He also planned to improve the education and training of young people through plans to build a secondary school with Norwegian standards of education, which could also provide additional training in Norway.

I met Jusuf last week and was impressed by his humility and vision, and his realisation that he needs to lead by example as a way to influence his workers and the local community. He employs young professionals who despite being smart are not above working in the stables, and needless to say, ethnicity doesn’t count here – just a willingness to work hard, an eagerness to learn and strong personal ethics. For example, one young returnee, a law graduate, could not find a job despite being a star pupil in RS, so he became a shepherd to support his old parents. Upon reading about him in the newspaper, Jusuf called him and after a ten minute interview, gave him a job.

During myDSC_0131 visit, I observed a young team of Vets enthusiastically getting on with their daily work, and it all seemed rather too professional and organised to be found in the middle of the Bosnian countryside. The cows enjoy the most up-to-date luxury accommodation, air quality is digitally controlled, and they are massaged and entertained with music to keep them relaxed. Jusuf is well aware that building an organisation so alien to local practice will take time to be accepted, but he is clear about the long-term benefits:

I returned to create something larger than my life, to leave it behind for my children and the coming generations to work on. I can only create the right conditions for the new ways of thinking to emerge, and work ethics, so that the society may focus on a better future devoid of corruption and wars.

While I was at the farm, an inspector arrived. He instructed his young lawyer to show him around, explaining to me that he receives many visits by various inspectors but does not want to deal with them personally, as many expect a bribe. He mentions in passing that regional politicians have tried to lure him into politics to bring him ‘on side’, but he is adamant he will not be joining them.

DSC_0147The other business I visited, Austronet, is a subsidiary of an Austrian company that manufactures modern, versatile fabrics that can be used in various ways including marketing banners, nets and wraps. It’s CEO, Enes Kahrimanovic, returned from Austria to set up the factory in 2007, and like Arifagic, has a very clear focus on bringing a more reliable and ethical way of working to the Kozarac region, explaining that this is the only way to respond to the apparatchiks of old and new corruption. To illustrate his point, he told me the story of a recent fire inspection:

He asked me if I have installed the fire sprinkler system with pipes’ at least 8mm in diameter around my warehouses. I said, if the regulations require it, then, yes. He then said: “oh don’t worry most people install pipes of 6mm, because the 8mm versions are very expensive. So I am sure you have not installed the 8mm one…but do not worry.“ I assured him that if the law requires 8mm pipes, then that is what we have, and told him he can view our technical drawings.

Kahrimanovic then remembered that there was a place in the building where the pipes are visible, so he measured them. They turned out to be 10mm wide. The point of this story was to illustrate how inspections are often performed informally, as though an inspector is doing you a favour and you ought to compensate him because it is expected behaviour to bend the rules.

The entrenched belief system that “everybody is corrupt, so why shouldn’t I or you be” is difficult to change in a political culture that has no incentive to tackle it. Mutual expectations that everyone is going to cheat eventually are particularly hard to grapple with in a postwar context. But as part of building a better future for the re-established community in Kozarac, these two businesses are examples of why it matters to do things differently.

Informal, personal modes of exchange that grant access to familial, socially or politically related individuals rather than universal, impersonal access based on merit is the dominant approach in Bosnia today. But to create sustainable businesses and institutions requires a more impersonal approach based on equality under the law, and in the absence of a healthy state that can create such an environment, perhaps it comes down to determined individuals such as Arifagic and Kahrimanovic to show another way is possible. A society and a state based only on small group trust (rather than wider social trust) and the Bosnian notion of who is and who is not naš (ours) cannot produce the kinds of modern institutions needed to thrive in the Twenty-First Century.

Memorialisation important but the best response to genocide is not to disappear

Photo by @HJS_org
Photo by @HJS_org

Earlier this week, I spoke at a Henry Jackson Society event in the House of Commons commemorating the 20th anniversary of Srebrenica and the Bosnian war, alongside James Gow and Brendan Simms.

Here are my rough notes of that talk.

The Bosnian war, and what many of us regard as the Bosnian genocide, was bookended by two of its worst atrocities: Prijedor and Srebrenica.

In the summer of 1992, Prijedor’s non-Serb potential leaders, intellectuals and organisers were tortured and killed and the rest of the community went through the camps whose names came to symbolise ethnic cleansing: Omarska, Keraterm, Trnopolje and Manjaca. Over three thousand were murdered and over a thousand are still missing. Then, in the summer of 1995, the Srebrenica massacre saw 8,000 men and boys brutally slaughtered and their devastated communities forced to leave their homes.

In 1992, there was no external help and the plight of Prijedor was relatively unknown until August when the first journalists arrived, whilst in 1995, Srebrenica was a UN safe area watched over by the world. It made no difference.

Victimhood and self-reliance

As an anthropologist, I have studied the impact of such events on a returnee community near Prijedor as they tried to re-establish their town in Republika Srpska.

The key thing I have learned is the importance of agency and self-reliance in overcoming trauma, and I think this all holds a lesson for how to respond to major international events such as the Bosnian war and the Srebrenica massacre.

The fieldwork also taught me that in our desire to listen to victims of violence, we can sometimes perpetuate their victimhood and their dependency on external helpers, when in fact the best we can do is support them in re-establishing an independent life and building a future, if not for them then for the next generation.

Too much memorialisation and ritual?

In the Bosnian context, stories of suffering have become practices of affectual memory. In other words, recreating the experiences of suffering for public consumption and for the benefit of NGOs, researchers and peace building actors. But because the Bosnian war never really ended, political control has remained in the hands of nationalists, and they sometimes use the voices of survivors to reinforce their attempts to represent the manifest destiny of “their” people.

Emir Suljagic, himself a Srebrenica survivor and author of Postcard from The Grave, has written of his lack of satisfaction deriving from ritualistic memorialisation and commemoration, in relation to burying his father in 2010 :

When it was over, I only felt cheated….victimised, as I did not get a chance to say anything, at the grave and the funeral of my own father, to say at least something, not to others and not aloud, but to him and to myself.

But many Bosniaks remain preoccupied with victimhood and righting historical wrongs, which is understandable, through symbolic rituals and remembering, whilst Republika Srpska – formed through ethnic cleansing – focuses on building a state and a future.

A story of return and self-reliance

The community I have studied is one of the only successful examples of contested return in Republika Srpska, which in itself is a testament to the failure of the Dayton peace process.

How and why did they succeed?

First, they were lucky to have a very organised, professional and determined fighting force in the shape of the 17th Krajina Brigade of the Bosnian Army. These were men and women who had been through ethnic cleansing and the camps, and often into exile as refugees, but who decided the best way to cope with trauma was to fight back. Together with their family members that, prior to the war, had worked in Western Europe, they formed themselves in Croatia in the summer of 1992 and marched into Bosnia to become one of the most successful mobile units of the Bosnian Army. They opened the road to Gorazde, protected Travnik, which was their base throughout the war, and participated in an attempt to break the siege of Sarajevo. But their main objective was to fight their way home to recover evidence of the camps, and to give their communities a chance to return.

At the end of the war, after taking Mount Vlasic against all the odds, they fought their way back into the Krajina region before the Americans decided they had achieved their neat division of Bosnia, and they were stood down despite being just 2 days from Banja Luka – if they have achieved their goal, Bosnia would not be divided as it is today. Above all, what the brigade gave their community was bravery, self-respect and a belief in their own ability to change their own situation.

Combat experience and skills acquired in the war were used by the leaders of the brigade to organise themselves and negotiate their return to Prijedor. It began with former soldiers living with their young families under tents on the grounds where their homes once stood, followed by womens’ organisations such as Srcem do Mira and Izvor, who played a crucial role in assuaging the returnees’ psychosocial anxieties in relation to homecoming in a hostile environment. Eventually, when the town looked like it might survive, the diaspora and their families began returning to stay during the summer, establish businesses and re-establishing some kind of normal life.

Help people to help themselves rather than intervene from above

International actors, NGOs, peaceniks, etc come and go, but none can claim credit for what the returnees themselves achieved, in spite of, not because of, the UN and its agencies in the region, the Serb authorities and the Bosnian government. In studying this community over the past decade, I have come to understand the value of self-reliance, and its key role in mitigating trauma. There are still those well-meaning souls who discover the community and want them to ‘tell their story’ and parade their victimhood, and the locals humour them politely. But they are of little or no help to them.

And here I think is a parallel between the personal world of recovering from trauma and the political world of how to respond in situations like this.

At the start of the war, many argued for international intervention in Bosnia, whilst others argued for simply lifting the arms embargo that prevented the newly formed Bosnian Army from defending itself. In fact, intervention did happen, but too little, too late and with the wrong goals – containment and feeding those under fire rather than protecting Bosnia from external aggression.

The fact that the 17th Brigade could fight back, and the fact that the eastern enclaves held out for so long, suggest that supporting Bosnians to help themselves would have been a better option than assuming responsibility for the safe areas only to lack the political will to act in the face of aggression.

Yes, memorialisation is important, but the best response to genocide is not to disappear.

Postwar Bosnia has received a lot of international funds and attention. But too much of this has propped up corrupt and incompetent government structures or provided employment and excitement to well-meaning foreigners. The best partners in my experience, and those who really understand trauma and what reconciliation means, are those communities like Srebrenica and Prijedor returnees who are fighting to rebuild and to create a sustainable future in the face of nationalist hostility. Helping them to help themselves means more businesses and organisational capacity in civil society, rather than just memorials.

The Omarska Memorial Project as an Example of How Transitional Justice Interventions Can Produce Hidden Harms

This article uses the example of a failed project, whose aim was to achieve consensus around constructing a memorial at the former Omarska camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to illustrate some of the dangers of transitional justice interventions involving victims of dislocation and violence, as well as the potential for hidden harms. It is based on nine years of ethnographic research into a small returnee community in Kozarac, in the municipality of Prijedor. Well-intentioned as the project undoubtedly was, it had unintended consequences for the social relations of the local community. Like other internationally led initiatives, it can be argued that it helped reinforce a victim-perpetrator dynamic that prevented rather than assisted progress. Although we cannot draw too many conclusions from one project, the issues highlighted by this initiative have been echoed on a smaller scale in much of the international involvement of transitional justice scholars and activists in the town since then.

Free access: