The best way to reach the Banja Luka region of northwestern Bosnia—the heart of Serb nationalist darkness—is to drive through Serb-held areas of Croatia. The route is not the fastest way to get there, but it is breathtakingly beautiful. The wooded mountains of northern Bosnia twist and fold in on themselves in such a way as to make the land itself seem in turmoil. Sheer rock faces drop precipitously into sinuous blue-green rivers. Then, suddenly, the geological chaos stops and the land relaxes, flattening out into the Banja Luka region.
The scenery, however, is not the chief reason for choosing this itinerary. With access to northwest Bosnia restricted from Belgrade and denied at checkpoints throughout eastern Bosnia, the route through Croatia, through the back door so to speak, is the only way to be sure of reaching your destination. Another attraction for the journalistic traveler is that the route passes through Kozarac, a small village just outside the town of Prijedor, east of the city of Banja Luka.
Kozarac was a thriving village of well-to-do Slavic Muslims. Today it is a collection of burned-out and dynamited houses straddling the highway; a kind of roadside attraction from hell. It is here in this little corner of Bosnia that some of the greatest horrors of the war have taken place. The Serbian “concentration camps” made infamous by television pictures of appallingly thin men shuffling behind barbed wire come from Prijedor. So did the first stories of organized rapes and the tales of the castration of prisoners.
Bosko Mandic is the president of the municipality of Prijedor, and Dusan Kurnoga is the town’s mayor. They are educated, young, in their early thirties. Both wear sharp, broad-shouldered Italian suits with bright ties that seem more appropriate for the trading rooms of New York or London than the provincial northern Bosnian backwater of Prijedor. But that is exactly the image they want to project.
During a recent visit these men did not want to talk with their foreign guest about any “so-called abuses” of the past. That was another time, another administration. The local Serbs who set up the Bosnian Serb detention camps of Omarska, Trnopolje, and Manjaca were pushed aside by the community elders in favor of these young blades. The threat to Serbian harmony and life had been neutralized. (The details of the neutralization are, of course, not a proper topic of discussion with outsiders. It sufficed to say, “The Muslims started this war and we had to protect ourselves.”) The town’s assembly decided that the patriots who had crushed the resistance to Serbian destiny had done their job, and the time had arrived for more pragmatic men—men of peace—to take over local government. Prijedor had to think of economic development, not martial law, and Mandic and Kurnoga, young technocrats with degrees in economics, were chosen. Under their guidance electricity has been re-established and other basic services restored. They even have bright ideas for the future.