By Dražen Huterer, Nejra Suljovic
“I said I’d never go back to Rizvanovici, and now I’m wondering why I did,” Adila Aliskovic said with a slight shrug of her shoulders. “I guess I was driven by the simple desire to be in my own home.”
Aliskovic, 48, lives in the village of Rizvanovici in Republika Srpska, one of Bosnia’s two administrative entities. She was driven from her home in 1992, during the Bosnian war, and returned there in 2001 after nine years living as a refugee.
Once a vibrant community of 4,000, Rizvanovici is a shadow of its former self. Many of the houses lie empty, and only 263 people live there.
Rizvanovici is one of six Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) villages ranged along the right bank of the river Sana, looking onto the predominantly Serb town of Prijedor in northwestern Bosnia. Only 4,000 of the original 16,000 inhabitants of these settlements came back after the end of the 1992-95 war.
Aliskovic still has painful memories of events 21 years ago. On July 20, 1992, the Bosnian Serb army launched an attack on Rizvanovici and overran it. The men, including Aliskovic’s husband and two brothers, were rounded up and taken to prison camps around Prijedor.
Three days later, women in Rizvanovici started falling victim to rape and other forms of persecution. Aliskovic spent two nights hiding out in the woods with her daughters, then aged two and four. When she returned home, she was detained and taken to a Serb-run prison camp, where she and her daughters spent a month and a half. When she was released, Aliskovic left for Croatia.
Now she lives alone in Rizvanovici. Her husband and two brothers never returned. Their remains were found in a mass grave near Prijedor after the war. Her two daughters have grown up and are away studying in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo. They rarely come to visit her.
“They tell me, ‘If it hadn’t been for you, we would never have come to Prijedor. There’s nothing going on here, no places to go out, and all our friends have left. They will all try to stay away from Rizvanovici’,” Aliskovic said. “Then I ask myself whether I did the right thing by returning.”
Saha Karagic, an elderly woman who returned to Rizvanovici after the conflict, says very few things can make her happy these days. She lost her husband and two of her sons during the war, as well as 40 other relatives all from Rizvanovici.
“There isn’t a single house in this village that hasn’t lost someone,” she said.
Karagic has never found the remains of her husband and sons.
Her third son, Sead, survived only because he was in Croatia when the Bosnian war began, and managed to get away to Germany. He too has returned to Rizvanovici, and now struggles to make a living by raising cattle, growing wheat and selling milk and cheese.
Sead Karagic says things are tough in Rizvanovici and there is little chance of finding work in the Prijedor municipality, since most of the factories have closed down and only a school, municipal offices, police station and a few shops are functioning.
An organised return to the Bosniak villages around Prijedor began in 1998. Despite problems including intimidation by local Serbs, the villagers were determined to make it, and slept in tents and trucks while their homes, destroyed during the war, were repaired.
Even though the houses have been rebuilt, the villages have mains water and electricity, and the roads repaired, most homeowners live abroad. They come back and stay for a few weeks during the summer months.
“Why would anybody come back when they’re better off somewhere else? They have jobs there, whereas here they’d struggle to survive,” Sead said. “These people usually return from abroad only when they reach pensionable age.”
Aliskovic recalls the optimism that lasted for a few years after the return, fading when the realities struck home – high unemployment, poor economic conditions, and a lack of good schools.
Most of the younger people went off to find work in other Bosnian towns, to study at universities, or to other countries where they often married and settled down. Aliskovic doubts that many of them will come and live back in the village.
Of Rizvanovici’s 263 residents, only four are in employment. They farm the land, but that is not enough to support them, as there is no market for their produce.
Most of the villagers are older people who live on their pensions or on money sent by relatives abroad. With an aging demographic mix, children are rarely born in the village.
“There is no life here,” Aliskovic said. “Everything is shutting down.”
Aliskovic, who is unemployed, is trying to make herself useful as a member of an association called Mostovi Prijateljstva or “Bridges of Friendship”. With about 30 members, all of them women, the association serves as a focal point and support group for the community.
“We have a kitchen and a living room where we meet and where the elderly people come and visit us. We help out by cooking and organising parties from time to time. We mostly cook when someone has a birthday, a wedding or a funeral,” Aliskovic said.
When former residents come back for the summer, the association is at its busiest, arranging parties for children’s birthdays and other occasions.
When the Bosniaks started returning to villages near Prijedor, there were some tensions between them and the local Serbs, but things have eased as time has gone by.
Nevertheless, Sead Karagic believes there will always be a distance between Bosniaks and Serbs in the area.
“It’s hard to forget the recent history and act as if nothing happened,” he said.
Aliskovic says the uneasy relationship makes itself felt when it comes to public remembrance of wartime events. When her association launched a proposal last year to put up a monument to Bosniak victims in the Prijedor area, the Serb-run local authorities blocked it.
The same applies when the association tries to hold events to commemorate the anniversary of the killings of Bosniaks.
“No one attacks or insults us, but we are unable to mark the anniversaries of murders committed during the war. We are not allowed to do so. Members of our association have been detained a few times for marking these anniversaries,” she said. “That is really a shame”.
Looking back, Aliskovic says she still finds it difficult to comprehend how people could change so much, almost overnight.
“We [Bosniaks and Serbs] went to school together and worked together. We were always together, so I don’t know how all this happened. We used to celebrate Christmas and ‘eids’ [Muslim festivals] together,” she said. “Nevertheless, I do believe ordinary people can find ways of getting along. It’s the politicians who sow hatred among people.”
This article was produced as part of Tales of Transition project funded by the Norwegian Embassy in Sarajevo. SCCA/pro.ba is carrying out this project in co-operation with the IWPR and EFM Student Radio.