Bosnia: Return to Sevarlije

The smells coming from Ramiz Sinanovic's homemade distillery weren't so appetizing, but the promise of the fruit brandy it would eventually yield overrode the immediate discomfort. As Ramiz cranked the handle of the elaborate contraption, the call to Friday midday prayer echoed through the hilltops around us – Ramiz didn't seem to mind that he was making booze at the time of worship. It is his only way of earning money, he explained to me – as a Muslim returning to the Serbian part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, there are not a lot of other economic opportunities around.

Ramiz is one of 1800 Muslim ethnicity Bosnian citizens – Bosniaks, they are called – who were once forced from their homes in this lovely little town of Sevarlije; all victims of the brutal ethnic cleansing that the 1990s war here is so infamous for. Some were immediately killed, some managed to flee to somewhat safer areas, and others, like Ramiz, spent many months in nearby detention camps. The war was brought to an end in 1995, with the signing of the US-brokered Dayton Peace Agreement.


It took a few years after that, but starting in the late 1990s, many war survivors began to make tentative returns to their original homes: Muslims returning to villages that are now officially in the Serbian entity of Bosnia, Republika Srpska, and also Serbs returning to their pre-war homes on land now officially within the Muslim and Croat Federation entity. According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, close to a million refugees and internally displaced people have returned to their villages; though local NGO workers point out that many of these people may only return long enough to sell their houses, and others are forced to leave because of lack of employment.

But the town of Sevarlije seems to be having better results with its resettlement process, and the town is alive again. There are 1600 people living here, most of them returnees or the children of returnees who are now having families of their own. The village had to be rebuilt from scratch; all 495 homes had been destroyed during the war. Residents say there was trouble getting construction materials and the proper permits from Republika Srpska authorities, but the international community of donors, primarily the Swedes and USAID, helped put Sevarlije back together. And in many ways, except for the lack of work, the town is a success story: there have been no threats against the inhabitants – in fact, the local mayor told me they feel welcome here. The new houses dotting the hillside looked comfortable and well made. Children seemed happy.

One thing working in Sevarlije's favor, according to the local imam, is that it sits very close to the border with the Muslim-Croat Federation – the Bosniak community here isn't as isolated as those others further inside Republika Srpska. And the town is also 100% Muslim – though there are Serb towns nearby, this village remains homogeneous. This is, and will likely continue to be, the case throughout both halves of the current country of Bosnia – with many towns and villages living as enclaves rather than as part of a broader, pluralistic society.

For people like Ramiz, though, it is enough - there is nothing like home, he told me. Where else could he be happy but on his own little patch of land? Looking around at the apple and pear trees surrounding us, and the sheep grazing nearby, I could understand what he meant.