We welcome testimonies from those involved in the returns process in Bosnia-Herzegovina, to further the conversation on Bosnia Remade and help current and future researchers address the multiple transitions experienced by BiH over the last two decades.

Oliver Burch is a British citizen who worked for NGOs, UNHCR and Office of the High Representative in Bosnia-Herzegovina from 1992 to 2000, initially on emergency relief projects, and later on military liaison to ensure the safe return of IDPs and refugees. His liaison work included US, Russian, Polish and Scandinavian contingents within the SFOR operation. From 2001 onwards he worked for Christian Aid as emergency programme manager for Afghanistan and later Iraq. He retired in December 2008. His testimony was very helpful in the writing of Bosnia Remade. On 29th of December 2012 he wrote to us after having read the book.

Dear Gerard and Carl,

First, may I congratulate you on Bosnia Remade, which I have just finished reading.  I think you have produced a really valuable piece of work there, and certainly the best I have seen which has been written about post-Dayton events in Bosnia and Herzegovina. As somebody who lived through those years, it’s rather a relief to know that somebody got fairly close to the truth.  So many personal accounts end up, whether intentionally or not, as self-justifying, often involving missions which most would regard as failures. It’s rather comforting to think that future historians will at least have the chance to refer to your research.

What is particularly important, I think, about the book, is the prominence you give to the issue of corruption at the municipal level – “corrupt ethnocracies,” I think you called them. This factor really did need to be emphasized, as it was the main driver of so much that happened. Internationals in the field got to realise this fairly quickly, but we always had an impression there was rather a reluctance in Sarajevo to be quite objective about the extent of the problem. I suppose too much emphasis on the existence of corruption and “mafia” doesn’t look good in progress reports to donors.   But in the field the “who’s in bed with whom and why” issue took up most of our time. I remember a conversation I had with the Brcko Supervisor, Ambassador Farrand, who said: “Oliver, if there is something you don’t understand in this country – just look for the money, always follow the money.”

There is one small but significant mistake in the book, if I may point it out. The Svjetlica incident of 1998 (p273) was not deadly – although it certainly might have been, and a grenade was thrown which injured a man slightly. I have poignant memories of Svjetlica, which involved a “forced” return sponsored by Banjanovic which was repulsed by Serb IDPs living lower down the hill. I spent 48 hours awake and dealing with the picket line demonstrations, Bosniak and Serb, which blocked both sides of the IEBL afterwards. Eventually we negotiated away the road blocks of both sides – which was a great relief to UNHCR, because we had a dead-line from SFOR headquarters to open the main road through Doboj and a Danish Leopard tank with bulldozer blade attached was already waiting in the tunnel behind us as we talked to demonstrators. This was an SFOR decision based on their need for use of the road, and we wanted to wait longer – you can imagine we were not relishing the idea of confronting sit-down demonstrators, mostly women, with a bulldozer/tank.

The small village Svjetlica in the ZOS was always considered a hotspot, partly because of its “strategic” location overlooking Doboj town, the narrow part of the Ozren neck and a major road junction. We had a long period where Bosniaks and Serbs were watching each other from behind trees, painting death-heads on ruined buildings to intimidate each other etc. We could make no progress during face to face meetings, although with other locations, we did. We had a couple of SFOR generals, one American, one British, come and look at it all with binoculars and shake their heads at the situation without any very practical suggestions. Looking back now, I think the main reason for the special resistance to Svjetlica was personal vindictiveness from those ruling Doboj. The Bosniaks of Svjetlica had initially in 1992 sworn loyalty to the VRS, but later changed sides and fought for the Government, at one point using their village as a mortaring platform to shell the town before they were pushed back a few hundred yards, where the line solidified for the rest of the war. When I had my introductory meeting with Boro Paravac when I opened the UNHCR office in spring 2007, he came up the usual platitudes about co-operation with the international community and some obviously insincere remarks about standing ready to implement the Dayton Agreement. So far, so much as usual. But then he suddenly made a speech about Svjetlica and how return would not be practical there, it was such a poor place, the former inhabitants would not be able to make a living there, etc. He was clearly trying to warn me off. At that time, I didn’t even know where Svjetlica was and I had to look it up on the map when I got back to the office.

The end of the story after all that excitement was that eventually people on both sides,  Bosniaks from upper Svjetlica and Serb IDPs living in lower Svjetlica, calmed down and began to talk more reasonably, as usually happens given enough time, and the Svjetlica people did get their village back a few months later.

The Kapetanovici incident of 1996, however, was lethal and did involve deaths of Bosniaks chased into a mine-field. This was before I worked in Doboj, but my understanding from UNHCR colleagues was that this was another Banjanovic sponsored “forced” return. In those days we used the term “forced” to indicate a return enacted as a “fait accompli” without any prior negotiation on the ground. Such a return was, of course, perfectly legal and absolutely sanctioned by the DA. And in fact, all our later Zvornik returns were “forced” in that sense, although they were pre-announced to the local police. In the circumstances of 1996, though, given SFOR’s mandate and the mood of the population, this was a very dangerous game to play with the safety of displaced people, however brave. The SDS reaction to the Kapetanovici return was to send a whole bus-load of Serbs to repulse it, many armed with long-barrelled weapons and even carrying a light mortar in the bus. People were chased into a mine-field and several died.

Kapetanovici was in the AOR of SFOR’s Norwegian Battalion, and some of their officers who had experienced the incident were still in Doboj when I arrived the following year. They were deeply marked by the experience and initially very unwilling to co-operate with UNHCR’s attempts to negotiate safe return anywhere they had responsibilities for security. At that time, near Kapetanovici, there was still a Norwegian-manned checkpoint on the IEBL. We had to work very hard indeed to build bridges to these officers and to convince them that return could be achieved responsibly and safely. The colonel by then commanding Norwegian Battalion was personally very supportive in these efforts.

And I’m pleased to record that in the end the Norwegians did play a part in the successful return to Kapetanovici. Two teachers, one Bosniak and one Serb, former colleagues in the Stanic Rijeka school nearby, got to meeting in a café near the IEBL and talking the situation over. A young Norwegian lieutenant responsible for patrolling the area realised the value of this and introduced the pair to us in UNHCR so that we help progress this into a practical agreement – without any input from the hardliners in Doboj. By then, we were starting to realise that 90% of the battle was to convince the people who were actually going to live next to each other. At the same time, we had some private contacts among the hard-liners (regional police chief Vlado Djurdevic was one) so that we could take the temperature of likely reactions. We often got useful tip-offs in that way from people who were, in any case, starting to look at the situation in a new way. We did eventually get Kapetanovici without problems, and shortly afterwards (1998 I think) Stanic Rijeka, which was a much larger settlement.

Thank you for reading through all that, if you have come so far with me, and thank you once again for the invaluable work you have done.

Best wishes and Happy New Year,

Oliver Burch

Oliver Burch
Angling Trust licensed game angling coach
Wye & Usk Foundation recommended guide
Tel: 07825 410800

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