In the Beginning
Bosnia was a beautiful place for Ljubica Hidić. Camél, the great love of her life, worked beside her in the restaurant they built from their savings as workers in Germany. Daughters Ajka and Saša were almost grown and ready for families of their own. Ljubića’s home was as idyllic as the surrounding mountain vistas that greeted the springtime mornings in 1991.
While the rest of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia tottered on the brink of disintegration, Ljubica Hidić and nearly all the people she knew were convinced that whatever happened elsewhere in the country, war would not, could not, come to Bosnia.
It was, after all, the only one of the six Yugoslavian republics that appeared to have successfully reconciled the ethnic disagreements of its Muslim, Serb and Croat minorities.
“No one believed that such a war could come,” said Hidić, an ethnic Serb married to a Muslim in the settlement of Potočari in Eastern Bosnia. “That something could come from such a beautiful ex-Yugoslavia, no one could imagine.”
One had to look no further than the mixed Muslim-Serb Hidić family for a reason why the drumbeat of nationalism sweeping neighboring Serbia threatened Bosnia’s continued existence. The concept of nation, as advanced by Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević, was not defined by the borders of the six individual republics and two autonomous provinces within Yugoslavia, but by concentrations of Serbs. In essence, where significant numbers of Serbs lived, Serbia lived. This was Milošević’s ominous Greater Serbia,12 a concept and a bludgeoning argument that would be used to launch Serbs against Croats and Muslims in Bosnia.
When war came most who thought it couldn’t happen remained in denial. “My husband said it will last only two weeks and then we can come back,” said Suada Sulejmanović, a Muslim who fled with her two sons from Srebrenica in Eastern Bosnia in 1992. Sixteen years later she still lives in Germany, fearful of returning to her home.
The Hidićs and Sulejmanovićs were among the hundreds of thousands of families disrupted by the Bosnian war and stunned by tragedy during the four years of conflict. Altogether, more than 345,000 former Yugoslavians became war refugees living in Germany between 1991-1996. In 2007, nearly a generation after the war, 158,158 Bosnians lived in Germany.15 German government figures show that 80,000 Bosnian refugees remained legally in the country as late as 2002 and that 7,246 had been granted permission to stay indefinitely.
Ljubica Hidić, 60, now lives in Göttingen in Lower Saxony state. Her husband Camél is dead, killed a decade earlier by cancer, and, she adds, by the hardships of war. Her daughters live nearby and are married with children. Suada Sulejmanović, 43, lives in Berlin. One son, Alen, is a student. The other, Almir, is a university graduate pursuing a business career.
Both women clean up after others to support themselves. They are still traumatized by the war. Mere mention of the towns they came from, Potočari and Srebrenica, bring back nightmares. It was in and around these two adjoining towns, in July 1995, that troops led by Bosnian Serb commander Gen. Ratko Mladić massacred an estimated 8,000 Muslim men and boys.
The Bosnian war set off the largest displacement of people in Europe since World War II. “At the time of the Dayton Agreement, UNHCR estimated that there were 1,297,000 displaced persons inside Bosnia-Herzegovina,” said Sadako Ogata, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees from 1991 to 2001. “Another 820,000 displaced persons and refugees were thought to be in the other republics of the former Yugoslavia. Approximately 700,000 people were under temporary protection elsewhere in Europe, half of them in Germany.”17 It was natural that a high percentage of the refugees would make their way to Germany where they had relatives and friends. In 1991, more than 735,000 individuals in Germany listed Yugoslavia as their country of origin.
In total, the fighting displaced half of Bosnia’s pre-war population of four million and the death toll was estimated at 200,000.