‘My Entire Life Has Been Spent in a Refugee Center’

‘My Entire Life Has Been Spent in a Refugee Center’

‘My Entire Life Has Been Spent in a Refugee Center’

In the 25 years since the Bosnian War’s Srebrenica massacre, these people have been left behind.


I’m Hazira. Hazira!” the woman yells at the people who are slowly gathering around her.

“Look at the state of you,” someone says finally.

Hazira Đafič, not even 50 years of age, is a toothless, wrinkled old woman.

“I no longer have a husband, a brother, a father, an uncle…,” she tells them.

“We lost them too, all of us,” says one of the village women callously.

This past December, Hazira returned to her home village, Blječevo, for the first time in 27 years. Situated on a hillside just above Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina, Blječevo was declared a safe area by a United Nations Security Council resolution in 1993, near the beginning of the Bosnian war. In the tumult that followed the dissolution of Yugoslavia, the ethnically diverse Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina was wracked by some of the most brutal conflict and ethnic cleansing seen in Europe since the end of World War II, as Orthodox Christian Serbs fought their former Muslim Bosniak and Catholic Croat neighbors. In 1995, the Bosnian Serb Army under the command of general Ratko Mladić rounded up 8,000 unarmed Bosniak boys and men in Srebrenica and murdered them over the course of two days, while the whole world watched, and drove thousands of wives, daughters, mothers, and grandmothers from their homes.

Blječevo is now located in the Republika Srpska, the Serbian enclave within the country of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and so is the town of Srebrenica itself. In 1992, before the onset of the war, Blječevo was made up of more than 100 houses inhabited by Muslim Bosniak families like Hazira’s. Today, there are only 11 houses left. As Hazira climbs the steep hillside, Mevlo Jarašević, a friend from her youth, explains to her: “Hamed Bešić’s house used to be here, that was Muje Amidž’s house, there was Savra’s house, and there at the back, that was Imre’s house…” Hazira is crying and asking questions, although she’s not listening to the answers.

She understands it all. She survived the war, she survived Srebrenica. And she survived 25 years of living in a refugee camp in Ježevac, near Tuzla in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. When the Dayton agreement was signed in November, 1995, ending the Bosnian war, more than 2 million people had been internally displaced in Bosnia and Herzegovina, amounting to more than half of the population of the republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina. That included the widows of Srebrenica. Most of these displaced people ended up in 23 refugee camps, set up quickly to solve the immediate problem of communities torn from their homes and families ripped apart. But these temporary camps never went away—in fact, many widows, their children, and now even their grandchildren continue to live in these places.

“My life is a total mess.”

For 26 years, since 1994, Hazira has been living in one of these refugee camps with her daughter, son, and her new partner, whom she met in Ježevac. She survived the war and the Srebrenica genocide, but her life has never been the same. Her surviving family members were also displaced during the conflict, but as soon as peace was signed, they wanted to return to their home: In 1995, she set off with her family to Blječevo. As they approached the ruins that used to be their home, her little sister ran towards the house impatiently. Her father tried to stop her, but all he remembers hearing was the land mine exploding. At the doorstep of their house, Hazira’s sister lost both legs. No member of Hazira’s extended family ever returned to their home village again.

With the help of tranquilizers and sleeping pills, like most women in the refugee center, Hazira struggles to make it through the early hours of the morning. Her own therapy is to maniacally tidy up her house, cultivating the garden and gathering firewood.

“I worry so much that I can’t sleep. I get up at 5 am. I think about what I’m going to cook, what we’re going to eat, and then I’m off to get us firewood,” she says.

To survive the winter, Hazira climbs the steep slopes surrounding the camp with her female friends, several times a day, venturing into the dark, gloomy forest surrounding the secluded center to collect firewood. They wear black, non-heeled rubber boots that protect their feet from sharp rocks, but the boots’ hard edges cut wounds into their ankles as they hurry through the thicket. They stop when they come upon a smaller, dying tree. They knock on trunks expertly to establish which ones will bend under their weight. They tie up the fallen trunks with string, which is the only tool they use as they carry out this dangerous task. Then they descend into the valley, dragging behind them the wood which halts at each of the rotting roots, and overtakes them on steep, muddy footpaths, smooth as ice.

Her partner, Zaim Alić, is unable to help her. Actually, he is not allowed to. Forestry inspectors are clear on this: Women are allowed to gather wood, men aren’t.

“I would leave immediately, if I could! But I have nothing. Not in the Federation [of Bosnia and Herzegovina], nor in the Republika Srpska over there.”

For Hazira, every place besides her camp is far away. She cannot remember when she was in Tuzla last.

“I don’t know where Sarajevo is. I have never been to Sarajevo but would like to see what it’s like. I only go as far as the nearest town to see the doctor. I collect my pills and head home straight away. And into the woods.”

Dr. Branka Antić-Štauber, president and founder of the association Snaga žene (Women’s Power), the only organization that still maintains contact with the widows in Ježevac, believes that the situation in the refugee center was completely unacceptable from the very beginning. She has been visiting Ježevac on a regular basis since 1994 when she started working as an infectious disease specialist.

More than a thousand people lived in the camp’s 60 temporary huts when they were built by the Dutch government in 1994. There were up to 24 people sharing a 35-square-meter housing unit consisting of a bathroom and toilet, a living room serving as a kitchen, and two tiny bedrooms. These days, in winter, the weathered wooden walls allow the gusts of icy wind to penetrate the huts. In summer, the heat renders the huts almost uninhabitable. Wooden floors laid straight onto the bare earth fell into disrepair a long time ago. “You have no peace and quiet. It gets really bad when you can’t sleep or finish a single meal without interruption. No one explores in-depth these little things that affect everyone on a personal basis, everyone is keen on solving problems at a political level. ‘Globally’, this is the catch phrase, whereas the refugee trauma is personal, and the refugees’ problems are diverse and complex.”

Antić-Štauber is convinced that there is not a single person in the refugee center who managed to overcome their traumas even after so many years. Some have been able to assimilate them and manage to carry on living, while for many, the traumas have developed into depression and anxiety—indeed, many suffer from the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Dire poverty affects all refugee camps in the Tuzla canton, the rate of unemployment is high, and the women have miserable pensions averaging about 170 euros a month, which they receive only because they lost their sons and husbands. Meanwhile, their children, who survived the worst atrocities and are now adults in their 20s, are largely unemployed. Some have married and have children of their own, but no income. And their children, born two decades after the peace agreement was signed, tell any visitor who will listen that they are refugees.

Adnan Mekić spent his childhood and school years in another camp close to Tuzla, the Mihatovići refugee center, where he met his wife. He has recently built a small house right next to it. Although the house has not been finished yet, the couple lives there with their four children.

“My entire life has been spent in a refugee center. A long time ago, my friends and I decided to go to France. I really wanted to do it. But my mother cried so much and told me that she had lost three sons and a husband. So I stayed here, got married and never tried to move again. My friends managed to sort out the papers and now they work there.”

In the mid-1990s, Mihatovići was the largest refugee center in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina. At some point, it had about 2,000 inhabitants. Many of them managed to escape from its grips, explains Mekić: They emigrated to the USA, Austria, Germany, Sweden, Australia… But 310 people still live here registered as refugees, and the many empty houses have not been demolished. The municipality of Tuzla is slowly filling them up with other people in need of housing, the Roma, former prisoners.

Young people in refugee camps are very well-educated, emphasizes Aiša Halilović, principal of the elementary school which was built at the same time as the Mihatovići camp. Most of them finish high school, and some also go to college, which, unfortunately, does not help them a lot because of the high unemployment rate in the country. Šaha Beganović’s grandson graduated from the Faculty of Health Sciences. Now he unloads trucks at a nearby shopping mall. He would easily get a job abroad but is unable to leave his grandmother, who lost three sons and a husband and looked after him until she fell ill with dementia. Hadila Musić, their neighbor, points out that it was even more difficult a year or two ago when there were absolutely no regular jobs in the camp: “There was nothing for women to do but to work as caretakers for ill and infirm old people in town or to clean houses. There wasn’t a single house in Tuzla that I did not clean. Often, I would leave home at 7 am and return at midnight. This is still the most common employment for our women. They earn 11 euro a day.”

Halida Dudić, at the Oskova refugee center, has decided to take a different course of action. She and her husband have set up a garden right next to the camp to keep goats. They allocated a small section for chickens. Farming earns Halida a modest income and, perhaps more importantly, distracts her from constantly confronting her past. “My family are all dead: all my sons-in-law, brothers-in-law, all my uncles on my mother’s and my father’s side, my brother, my sister…” Her sister Ajka managed to escape with her two children from the deadly Srebrenica enclave at the height of the conflict: A relative spotted her as she sat on a bus that was to take them to liberated territory. And that was the last time anyone saw her alive. Driven by utter despair, she jumped into the gushing Drina river when when the bus stopped nearby, and drowned with her children. The youngest was strapped to her chest, the older was strapped to her back.

“We need to talk about them, so that they are not forgotten,” says Halida Dudić adamantly.

Salčin Isaković, named after his grandfather, who went missing in Srebrenica, has lived in the Karaula refugee center since he was born. He knows a lot about Srebrenica, but he says he’s found most of the information on the Internet. For his father, a survivor of a death march who managed, after days of hunger, unarmed, under constant fire and at the mercy of ambushes set up by Bosnian Serbs, to reach liberated territory in July 1995, this is a forbidden topic. In schools, Srebrenica is only mentioned offhandedly.

Salčin, who is now 19, remembers Karaula as a tidy refugee village during his childhood. “Now it is as if a black cloud has set upon us,” he says. A children’s playground is littered with rubbish; school kids collect scrap iron in their free time, and crush rocks into sand at a construction site adjacent to the village to earn money for schoolbooks.

All in all, the refugee villages in the Tuzla region are gradually emptying out. Some residents used donations to repair the family houses they had been forced out of during the war, and some were assigned flats in housing estates built by the canton of Tuzla and other municipalities. But the trauma caused by the war and living in the refugee centers will not be easily eliminated, nor will the new housing in the blocks of flats make it easier for them to integrate with the local population, as they are being resettled together again. The refugee camp Špijunica near Srebrenik was demolished last year, but on the same site, two buildings are being built to house them together, isolated from the local population. Their closest neighbors are Roma people living in semi-demolished sheds.

Many, however, continue to live in refugee camps, in living quarters in dire need of repair. The federal government, as well as the cantons and municipalities, have been promising for years to take care of their housing problem, so the residents constantly anticipate their relocation. Ježevac was expected to be closed by 2018: The women and their families who have nowhere to resettle were to have been allocated social housing in Tuzla and in the surrounding area. Hazira Đafić no longer believes this story. So she continues to maniacally clean, wash, and tidy up to maintain at least an illusion of a normal life in this stigmatized environment.

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