Ordinary people living nearby often decide the line that divides victims from survivors of genocide. While neighbors often are complicit in genocide, or are even active perpetrators, sometimes they instead become rescuers.
After years of ethnic violence in the former Yugoslavia, it is difficult to gaze back on the pre-war years without anticipating threads of resentment, which could hint at deeply held prejudice between the ethnic groups. However, individuals, such as Jusuf Trbic, remember the city of Bijeljina before the war as more cosmopolitan than parochial. “In Bijelina, you could find people from different parts of the world,” said Jusuf, “like Egyptians, Jews, Hungarians, Germans, Czechoslovakians, and some others. Bijelina was a small world which functioned very well.” Jusuf, a Bosnian Muslim, was one of the city’s better-known voices: a journalist, editor, and radio director. He recalls mixed marriages, international travel, and friendly neighbors. People often identified first as Yugoslavs; as a student, he says, “we had such a relationship that we didn’t even know who was what nationality, especially because the names of Serbs and Croats don’t have huge differences. I didn’t know what kind of nationalities most of my schoolmates were, and I didn’t care.”
The dissolution of Yugoslavia, however, brought the issue of ethnicity abruptly to the forefront. The mood in places like Bijeljina shifted, and pressure grew for ordinary people to declare their allegiances. In September 1991, Bosnian Serbs claimed Bijeljina as part of a “Serbian Autonomous Oblast,” in solidarity with other claims of autonomy by Serbs in different regions. In January of 1992, the majority of Serbs boycotted a referendum on Bosnian independence, in which the overwhelming majority of Muslims and Croats voted in favor of independence. The Serbian Democratic Party then seized control of Bijeljina and the surrounding region. Non-Serbs began to lose their jobs; Jusuf Trbic was forced from his office by a dozen police officers.
About 100,000 people were killed during the Bosnian War. According to the Research and Documentation Center in Sarajevo, sixty-five percent of the dead were Bosnian Muslims. When Serbian paramilitary troops took control of an area, their primary method of establishing sovereignty was terror. They detained Croatian and Muslim Bosnians, beating and imprisoning them; they raped women, and destroyed and looted non-Serbs’ property. Many non-Serbs were deported or massacred. It is unknown exactly how many civilians were killed in Bijeljina. After the days of the April 1992 massacre, the surviving Muslims were driven from the city, their mosques demolished.
Željko Ražnatović, known as Arkan and the leader of the Serbian paramilitary troops, is iconic of Serbian war crimes during this period. One of the keys to the pursuit of charges against him by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is a single photograph of the Bijeljina massacre, captured by the photographer Ron Haviv. In this image, a Serbian soldier, bearing a rifle, pulls back his foot to kick a dying Bosnian woman in the face.
Despite these crimes, Dzajo Krstić, a Serb, remembers the way different peoples formerly coexisted in Bijeljina. For generations, his family had lived beside and befriended families of other ethnicities. Dzajo and Jusuf had never been close friends, but remained friendly neighbors. A Bosnian Serb, born in the nearby village of Velika Obarska, he lived with his wife and three children in a mixed Muslim and Serb neighborhood. Despite growing foreboding, neighbors of varying ethnicities continued to come together to share food and drink. Dzajo remembers drinking rakija with a Muslim friend, and asking “Cazim, what if my people were to attack? You would have protection in my house. And is it opposite? Would I have it in your house, if yours attack?” The neighbor rejoined: “For you Gijo, the best way to protect yourself is to hide yourself under the skirt of your wife.”
Jusuf Trbic remembers a strange mixture of normalcy and apprehension of the days leading up to the massacre. As longtime Bosnian Muslim and Serb neighbors retreated behind the walls of their homes, they confided to each other their uncertainty. Muslims and Serbs together agreed that if there was an emergency, they would gather together in a neighbor’s basement. On the day one of Arkan’s soldiers was photographed kicking a Bosnian woman, and Arkan’s troops attacked Bjeljina, 40 to 50 people, both Muslims and Serbs, hid together in a neighbor’s basement.
A Chetnik Duke named Mirko Blagojevic seized Jusuf. The troops beat him, and forced him to use the radio to call upon other Muslim Bosnians to lay down their arms. The troops’ superiors were aware of Jusuf’s local fame, and ordered their men to spare his life. Jusuf managed to walk to the basement where his neighbors were hiding. Dzajo saw him there. He says that Trbic’s injuries looked like “blue plums.” “I am ashamed to be a Serbian,” said Mara, Dzajo’s wife, weeping. Jusuf says that he does not blame all Serbs for what happened, but says, “It was done by criminals.”
Dzajo transported Jusuf and eleven other men to his brother’s house to hide. Jusuf offered to move somewhere else, in order to avoid putting them in danger, but Dzajo insisted: “Jusuf, if someone has to die, first my brother and I will die and then you. You are our guest now and you are safe here.” Dzajo and his family helped treat Jusuf’s injuries. Dzajo says that he was willing to provide aid to anyone in need; besides his neighbors, he helped shelter two strangers. Dzajo and his family also stored away Muslims’ belongings: agricultural machinery, livestock, jewelry, paintings.
A few years later, Dzajo’s twenty-year-old son was badly wounded on Mount Majavica. Troops almost left the young man behind, but an elderly man spoke up, insisting that someone so young should be saved. The son was transferred to a hospital in Tulza where a friend of Jusuf’s happened to be the surgeon. Word spread in Bijeljina of the actions of Dzajo and his wife. Women from Bijeljina visited the young man in the hospital, and brought him food. “His son is fine, and today he is living in Bijelina and has his own family,” says Jusuf, “So practically his case shows that good is returned with good.”