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.
“Say, have you ever tried our pear brandy? It’s a local specialty,” Mandic said, trying to steer the conversation away from genocide.
“No thanks. It’s too early for me,” I protested. It was barely 10 AM.
“Nonsense,” Mandic insisted. “It’s the best way to start the day. Don’t worry. You’ll never get any headaches. It’s all natural; there are no chemicals or additives.”
A small sip made them more animated.
“You live in London? We can export. Do you think there is a market in London? What about America?”
Obviously, neither had heard of international sanctions.
“Sanctions? They are an unjust mistake imposed on the wrong side. Eventually the world will realize its error and the sanctions will have to be lifted. We have to be ready,” Mandic said.
To this end, Kurnoga said, Prijedor has several iron mines and a pulp factory and, together with Banja Luka, its neighbor down the road, the best industrial base anywhere in Serb-held Bosnia. They both then expounded on the beauty of Prijedor and its natural attractions. They talked about how they were sure that once “this was all over,” tourists with hard cash to spend would flock to Banja Luka, Prijedor, and other nearby villages.
“When this war is over I would also like to travel. I can’t do that if I’ve been proclaimed a war criminal. That’s why I thank you for coming. You can tell the world the truth,” Mandic said.
Kurnoga then asked if I would join him and Mandic for some fishing later that day. They assured me that the pastramka, the trout of the region, were the biggest and best in all of Bosnia.
The talk of trout fishing in Bosnia reminded me of a description of a Bosnian trout in a story by Ivo Andric called “The Story of the Vizier’s Elephant.” The tale is about Bosnian storytelling and the trout is likened to the elusiveness of the meaning of local stories to outsiders.
There is a particular kind of trout in the streams and brooks of Bosnia; not large, dark-backed, with two or three large red spots. It is unusually greedy, but also unusually cunning and quick, and will rush blindly onto a hook in a skillful hand, but cannot be caught or even seen by those not familiar with these waters or this kind of fish.
I wondered if Andric was not secretly referring to the Bosnian people, and the Bosnian Serbs in particular.
Just a few weeks after I met Kurnoga and Mandic, and was assured over countless glasses of brandy that minorities lived happily in Prijedor alongside their Serbian neighbors, Bosnian Serbs went on a rampage, killing nineteen people, seventeen Muslims and two Croats. They were all killed during the last week of March in revenge for six Serbian police who died in fighting elsewhere in Bosnia. According to the United Nations, some of the victims were burned alive in their homes, others were shot; others were killed when hand grenades were thrown at them.
In areas of Bosnia still contested by Serbs, Croats, and Muslims, brutal fighting continues, with all sides accused of having committed atrocities. But there is no war in Banja Luka or Prijedor; the closest front lines are at least fifty kilometers away. The Muslims and Croats here never took up arms against the Serbs. Some even served in the Bosnian Serb army and police. The reward for their loyalty has been persecution. Many live in constant fear of their Serb neighbors, who shun and humiliate them.
Out of an original population of about 100,000 Muslims in Prijedor and Banja Luka—between 30 and 40 percent of the total population—fewer than 20,000 remain. Most have been driven out by threats, attacks, beatings, rapes, and murders. Most of those who chose to remain have been dismissed from their jobs; many are routinely evicted from their houses by drunk and armed Serbian thugs. Most Muslims and Croats barricade themselves in their homes at night, standing guard with pitchforks/and wooden clubs behind reinforced doors and shuttered windows.
“We sleep restlessly, like frightened rabbits,” a weary-looking middle-aged Muslim woman from Banja Luka whispered to me, in her living room where the sofas and other furniture were stacked up against a window. “When the morning comes we thank God we are alive.”
Sometimes threats against Muslims and Croats are direct: a grenade thrown through a window. Often they are more subtle but just as terrifying: Serbian flags planted outside a still occupied Muslim house alongside a notice announcing “new” Serb owners; “requests” for sexual favors from wives or daughters. Failure to take the hint and leave can be fatal. Calling the police to complain can result in beatings.
After the thugs are finished, smooth businessmen with attaché cases arrive with offers of bus tickets and exit visas at an extortionate price, usually quoted in Deutschmarks. The final stages of ethnic cleansing are completed with travel agent etiquette and efficiency.
Although this has been going on for two years and Western leaders have received detailed weekly reports, little has been done or said until recently. Since last August, the International Committee for the Red Cross, in conjunction with the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, has transported between twenty and forty people a week from Banja Luka. Only the most desperate, those in life-threatening situations, have found places on Croatia-bound convoys, since both organizations have been reluctant to ship more people out of Bosnia, saying they are unwilling to act as accomplices to “ethnic cleansing.”
The March killings in Prijedor changed all that. The brutality appears to have finally convinced the international relief agencies working in Bosnia-Herzegovina that at least 10,000 non-Serbs living in the Banja Luka region should be evacuated en masse. Contingency plans were drawn up but there have been problems finding refuge for such a large number of people, as well as bureaucratic obstacles created by the Bosnian Serb leadership. The international condemnation, however, has produced some results. There has been a shakeup of the Prijedor police department and, according to the International Red Cross in Banja Luka, the authorities appear to be taking some steps to patrol minority districts of the town at night, the time most of the horrors take place.
Nonetheless, thousands of non-Serbs—Muslims, Croats, and Gypsies—whose families have lived in and around Banja Luka and Prijedor for centuries continue to lead an terrified existence. They know that—just as Mandic and Kurnoga pointed out—the Serbs are preparing for the future and that there is no place for them in the brave new Serbian world. They want either an international police presence to protect them or they want to leave. Four hundred and twenty-nine people, mainly Muslim families, decided they could take no more and bought their way out of Banja Luka on Tuesday, May 3. It was the largest single exodus of its kind this year. Some families paid as much as $1,385 in Deutschmarks, their life savings, to make the short journey to the Croatian border and safety. But most non-Serbs in northern Bosnia who are unwilling or unable to pay the price of escape can only try to stay off the streets and pray that they can stay out of harm’s way.
International diplomats have shown themselves capable of paroxysms of concern over Gorazde, while barely raising a whimper about the brutal ethnic cleansing around Banja Luka.
The United Nations recently described Banja Luka as the “grimmest place in Bosnia.” But one man’s grim place is another man’s promised land. For minorities Banja Luka may be the headquarters of the evil empire, but for nationalist Bosnian Serbs it is the model city of the future. As Bosnia’s second city before the war and the only real city exclusively in Serb hands now, it is the main contender to become the capital of an ethnic Serb mini-state in Bosnia. Unlike Pale, the sleepy ski resort outside Sarajevo which now serves as the Bosnian Serb political headquarters, Banja Luka is a fairly large town of over 100,000 people. Its streets are filled with traffic, its shops with food, clothes, and children’s toys. There are kiwi fruits, bananas, and oranges for sale at the grocers. New restaurants with mirrored ceilings and pink formica paneling and names like “Restaurant Peace” are opening. The local pulp factory is still working, producing that most necessary of all luxury goods: toilet paper.
Banja Luka benefits from its place along the “corridor” that links mother Serbia to Serbian rebel holdings in Croatia. Black-market fuel and smuggled goods move back and forth on this route constantly, and the city gets its cut. Goods have been so plentiful of late that one Serb commented that there were more gas stations along the corridor than on Germany’s Autobahn.
The city’s apparent prosperity has attracted villagers and Serb refugees from other parts of Bosnia, many of whom were victims of Muslim and Croat nationalist intolerance. Banja Luka’s city fathers welcome the new arrivals because they bring the pioneering spirit the city needs as it marches into the future. But the refugees also bring something else with them, their hatred and desire for revenge.
On the outskirts of Banja Luka, a Serb refugee from Muslim-held central Bosnia who calls himself Speedy openly admits that he is living in a cleansed Muslim house. “The Muslims may have lived here recently, but before the Second World War this was all Serbian land. I am not happy about living in someone else’s home, but I cannot forget about history either.”
Winston Churchill once remarked that the trouble with the Balkans was that the region “produces more history than it can consume.” Banja Luka is no exception. The region is known as the Bosnian Krajina, a Slavic term meaning frontier, a reference to its history as a military buffer zone. This was the border where the Ottoman and Habsburg empires once collided. The Turks conquered the city in 1528, and between 1583 and 1638 it was the main city of the pashas of Bosnia. Between 1878 and 1918 it was part of the Austro-Hungarian empire.
But the event that still haunts the Banja Luka region occurred during the summer of 1942. About sixty thousand Serbs, mostly civilians, were trapped on Kozara Mountain, north of the city, by Nazi German and Croatian Ustasha forces. Thousands died when the Germans launched an all-out offensive. The survivors, including at least 10,000 children, were carted off to the nearby Jasenovac concentration camp or to unknown fates elsewhere in Croatia. The Kozara massacre still burns in the memory of the local people. As a result, Serbs from this region are some of the most insecure, and hence militant, of all.
Perhaps that is why it is so surprising that the city’s main hotel is still called the Bosnia. It is probably the only place left in Serb-conquered Bosnia-Herzegovina named for the country. The Bosnian Serbs have gone to almost as much trouble ridding the language of non-Serbian elements as they have to cleansing the land. Almost everything and every place called Bosnia or Bosna or any derivative has been changed by official decree. Thus the mellifluous village always known as Bosanski Brod has been renamed simply Brod.
Somehow, throughout this frantic and bloody renaming frenzy that has gripped the Bosnian Serbs, the Hotel Bosnia has defied convention. Not that it has gone unnoticed. Colonel Milovan Milutinovic, the spokesman for the Bosnian army’s First Krajina Corps, shook his head when the subject was brought up. “You’ve noticed it too? We’ve talked to the owner about that, but he refuses to change the name. He insists that everyone knows it as the Hotel Bosnia and, as that is what it has been called for generations, he wants to keep it that way.”
Fortunately for the supporters of tradition, the owner of the hotel is a leading member of the hard-line ultranationalist Serbian Radical Party and few would doubt his commitment to the greater Serbian cause. Other landmarks have not been lucky enough to have such an important patron.
There used to be sixteen mosques in Banja Luka, including the Ferhad Pasha. Built in 1579, the Ferhad Pasha mosque was one of the oldest and most beautiful in all of what was multicultural Yugoslavia. It was a UNESCO cultural site of symbolic and cultural significance comparable to the Mostar Bridge. The mosque once dominated Banja Luka’s main square like a giant wedding cake. Across the street stood the sahat kula, the clock tower, the oldest public time piece in Bosnia. In May 1993, “unknown extremists” blew up Ferhad Pasha, provoking a statement of protest even from Dobrica Cosic, the father of modern Serbian nationalism and the then-president of the rump Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.
There were calls for investigations and promises to protect other religious buildings and sites of historical importance. Since then the clock tower and all remaining mosques have been destroyed. I was there in September when other “unknown extremists” burned the very last one, the Tale mosque in the Pobredja district of the city.
I visited Tale just a few hours before someone put a match to its gasoline-soaked floor, because I had heard that a grenade had been tossed at the rustic building, frightening local residents but causing no real damage. Outside a small old raisin of a man dressed in a greasy, worn suit waited quietly for four wizened friends to join him at five o’clock prayers. The men said they did not know about the grenade. They said they didn’t care. The mosque was still standing and that was enough. Theirs were the last prayers ever offered from Tale.
The next day as the embers of what was the roof still glowed red, Serbian children were playing near the smoldering ruins. For them the fire was an event full of fun. “The flames were super huge. It was great,” said one small boy, making big sweeping gestures with his arms. Pointing to a container of diesel fuel in the back seat of my car, another boy asked me: “Are you going to burn up a mosque too?”
To see the ruins of Balkan religion and culture is to understand that the imposition of ethnic purity involves not just the slaying or eviction of the other but also the eradication of all traces of the other’s presence. Only when the last mosque and Muslim cemetery are gone and the last Catholic church leveled can a Serb nationalist be sure that Muslims and Croats will not one day return. Only then can he hope that the lie of ethnic exclusivity will stick.
Thus the Serbs in Banja Luka are building the future by destroying the past. The aim is to eliminate history, then rewrite it. It is ethnic cleansing by gun and bulldozer, as mosques are reduced to shards and Muslim families live in terror on back streets, quite invisible to people in the bustling center of town.
—May 12, 1994