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.



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.