Eastern Bosnia looks almost idyllic in late spring, with green meadows and wild river valleys stretching as far as the eye can see. I say “almost” because the wounds of war are also visible, the remains of destroyed houses and villages resembling scars on the landscape.
In some rural areas, it seems as if the ethnic cleansing campaign led by the Bosnian Serb commander, Ratko Mladic, has finally achieved its objective.
The only inhabitants here are refugees who have given up any hope of a better life elsewhere. Many of the families lost male relatives in the conflict in the 1990s. Some are unable to return to homes that were destroyed by the Bosnian Serb army. Amid stunning natural beauty, they struggle to survive.
On the outskirts of Gorazde, 18 families inhabit two small, ruined buildings. Among them is Zehra*, a single mother of three. Like her neighbours, she grows vegetables to get by.
In 2001, her abusive, alcoholic ex-husband was removed from the family and sent to a treatment centre. At roughly the same time, her children were moved to an orphanage-type facility.
Two years ago, Zehra’s eldest son, Alen, fled the institution with his sister. He says he could no longer bear living there. “Two of my friends also ran away, but they ended up in jail because they were caught selling drugs,” he says.
His teenage sister recently got married and moved to Sarajevo. “It was her second marriage,” says Zehra. “I hope this one lasts.”
Alen is now 17, and lives with his mother. But as he sits on a pile of bricks that used to be a house, he says he would like complete his schooling. And he misses the younger brother, aged 12, who is still at the orphanage.
“There,” he says, pointing towards the misty horizon, in the direction of the institution he fled. “There was my home. I can’t wait to see my brother again.”
*The real names of Zehra and Alen have been withheld to protect their identities.
Eldin Hadzovic reports on post-war Bosnia for the domestic and international press.