Ghosts of a Genocide: The Contentious Ethnic Politics of Today's Bosnia

A mayoral election in Srebrenica, the site of a horrific 1995 massacre, is reopening scars from one of Europe's worst conflicts since World War Two.

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Serbian police officers watch protestors marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the Bosnian war. Reuters

SREBRENICA, BOSNIA -- Six months from now, a municipal election will be held in this isolated mining town, the scene of the largest massacre in Europe since World War Two.

The town's current mayor, a 33 year-old Bosnian Muslim, says the election will hand Bosnian Serbs control of the town and complete the "ethnic cleansing," or removal, of all Muslims from eastern Bosnia. Serbs say it is democracy, plain and simple.

Seventeen years ago, Serb forces executed 8,100 Muslim men and boys here in the largest single mass killing of the war in Bosnia. The U.S. and its European allies - who had declared the town a U.N. protected "safe area" - stood by as the Serbs rampaged for days in the summer of 1995.

In local elections since then, a special exemption has been granted that allows Muslims who lived here before the war to vote in Srebrenica - even if they no longer reside here. This year, the country's High Representative - a foreign overseer with sweeping powers - plans to issue no such exemption. In a visit to the town this week, he called for Serb and Muslim politicians to compromise.

"The challenge in Srebrenica goes far beyond the elections," said Valentin Inzko, an Austrian diplomat who has pressed local officials to take more responsibility since becoming high representative in 2009. "People want a better life, and the key to that is constructive politics and economic development."

Under the exemption, Muslims have controlled the municipal government, interned the bodies of 5,137 of the victims in a sprawling memorial here and tried to reverse some of the impact of the killings by slowly moving back. Today Srebrenica's population, which was 75 percent Muslim before the war, is evenly split between Serbs and Muslims.

And that is where the good news ends. Already a glaring symbol of international fecklessness, the town's sorry state today sets a new standard for Western half-measures gone astonishingly wrong.

The 17-year effort to move Muslims back to this town began with a whimper. Clinton administration officials, eager to avoid American casualties, made little effort in the late 1990s to arrest the Serb nationalists who carried out the executions. Fears of violent clashes blocked large-scale efforts to return Muslims to Srebrenica.

Frustrated, the roughly 30,000 Muslims who had survived the town's fall scattered across Bosnia and the world. Roughly 20,000 resettled in Muslim-controlled parts of Bosnia. An additional 15,000 fled abroad; an estimated 7,000 arrived in the United States.

Many of them eventually settled in St. Louis, Missouri, a city with a Bosnian community already 80,000 strong, the largest in the United States. Today, roughly 5,000 refugees from Srebrenica live in St. Louis. The Midwestern American city is home to more Bosnian Muslim survivors of the massacre than Srebrenica itself.

One of the Srebrenica refugees who arrived in the U. S. was Camil Durakovic, the town's current Muslim mayor. After he survived the fall of Srebrenica at the age of 16, his family resettled in Manchester, New Hampshire. After attending a local high school, he graduated from Notre Dame in 2003 and planned to attend graduate school in the U.S.

A 2005 summer trip to Srebrenica convinced him that his home was here. He started working for the town's mayor. When the mayor passed away earlier this year, Durakovic, a burly man with a boyish face who wore a pin-striped suit and pink shirt in the town hall today, took over.

Presented by

David Rohde is an investigative reporter for Reuters and a contributing editor for The Atlantic. A two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize, he is a former foreign correspondent for The New York Times and The Christian Science Monitor. His latest book, Beyond War: Reimagining American Influence in a New Middle East, was published in 2013. More

He is also the author of Endgame and, with Kristen Mulvihill, A Rope and a Prayer. He lives in New York City.

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