Bosnia and Herzegovina

Srebrenica: seeds of hope after ten years of struggle

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Ten years after the massacre of over 7,000 Bosniak men and boys in 1995, the town of Srebrenica is struggling to survive. Unemployment is a crippling 80 per cent and there is a pervasive lack of faith in the political process.

But beneath the desolate atmosphere that permeates the streets of this small mountain town lie the seeds of a democratic society determined to recover from the war and the crimes that were committed against its people ten years ago.

With help from the OSCE Mission to Bosnia and Herzegovina, a number of improvements have been made: civic participation has been strengthened, the municipal government is more transparent and successful reconstruction efforts have supported returnees.

The OSCE field office in the region (located in Bratunac, north of Srebrenica) is working constantly with the local authorities to promote transparency and persuade citizens to help make a direct impact on the governance of their community.

"We are trying to inform people that they have the right to get information, to consult with the local officials and to participate in the decision-making and implementation process," says Natasa Budisa, Assistant and Interpreter in the Democratisation Department at the Srebrenica field office.

Greater transparency, but more work needed

Budisa, however, admits that while transparency in government has improved, more efforts need to be made to ensure ethical governance.

"The OSCE has supported municipal parliamentary procedures, transparency and accountability. It's still not enough, but it is an improvement compared to the situation before the organization started with the democratisation project."

The field office has worked with Srebrenica municipal officials to implement the Freedom of Information Act programme, part of the Mission's efforts to boost transparency through the UGOVOR project to promote local democracy. Thanks to the Act, citizens have the right to information that can often be used to solve many of their grievances.

The field office also helped provide the municipal government of Srebrenica with a full-time information officer to supply citizens with the information they need. The most common requests are for information relating to selection procedures for the reconstruction of houses.

"The municipalities have so far provided all the information requested by the citizens. The officials have been very compliant," adds Budisa.

Despite the municipality's willingness to work with its constituents, the atmosphere of indifference that pervades the town is stifling the field office's democratisation efforts. This can be attributed to the fact that most of the town's aging population grew up in an era when citizens' initiatives, and civil society in general, were frowned upon.

"Not much can be changed without the citizens' participation. People lack trust in progress, but without their involvement, no progress can be achieved," says Borislava Ilic, Rule of Law Monitor at the Srebrenica field office. To help tackle this problem, the Mission will continue to promote the Freedom of Information Act after the current series of workshops has ended.

Exodus of young people

Nenad Medic, Manager of the Srebrenica field office, identifies another issue: "It's difficult to teach the people of Srebrenica, because most of them are of retirement age. This will only work if the young people stay in this area, but the problem is that they are leaving."

The severity of the problem is underscored by the fact that only 24 students plan to enrol at the Srebrenica primary school. The exodus of young people is primarily a result of the 80 per cent unemployment rate.

"It is very sad because before the war there were a lot of different companies located here with a large capacity to employ the people of Srebrenica, but now there are no companies here to provide work for the people," says Damir Pestalic, the chief Imam of Srebrenica's Islamic community.

Although the OSCE Mission is struggling to engage the citizens of Srebrenica, the emergence of 20 active non-governmental organizations (NGOs) is considered a major achievement and great asset by the field office.

Partnerships between NGOs and municipalities

"In the beginning when we worked in Srebrenica, we did not have NGOs or organized groups of people to address the concerns of citizens. Now we have lots of NGOs that are active and work in partnership with municipalities; together they identify the problems and try to find solutions," says Natasa Budisa.

One of the NGOs that the OSCE Mission helped to establish is the Nova Nade (Democratization Reading Room) in Srebrenica. This NGO provides the public with books, newspapers, and Internet access, as well as holding meetings and open forums where the public can discuss such topics as religion, education, and gender issues.

Nova Nade is also involved in training recently-elected officials on how to improve the lives of the people in their local communities. The NGO's manager, Slavica Leka, is promoting the idea of further projects as one way to address the communities' problems.

Most Srebrenicans praise the OSCE for its work in elections, property law implementation and helping returnees receive reconstruction assistance - efforts that have resulted in substantial returns to the area, something no one would have thought possible in 1995.

After the OSCE opened its Srebrenica field office in 1998, numerous steps were taken to reduce tensions and promote reconciliation. Concerted efforts were made to ensure that the election results reflected the will of the people. The result was the formation of the first multi-ethnic municipal assembly in Srebrenica in 1999, giving people the confidence to return.

There is, of course, a long way still to go, but the OSCE, as Damir Pestalic says, "is working as hard as it can to return Srebrenica to its pre-war occupancy level."

Written by Jeanne Berger and Edib Jahic