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Push for national census reveals scars of Bosnia’s painful past

October 10, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
The last official census in Bosnia was in 1991, when 4.4 million people lived there. But then a brutal war broke out, killing 100,000 people and driving away 2 million. Special correspondent Kira Kay reports on the need for and concerns over a new effort to take a national census.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: We turn now to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where a nationwide survey is forcing the country to revisit its difficult history.

Special correspondent Kira Kay reports.

KIRA KAY: On the eve of Bosnia’s nationwide census, the municipal hall of the town of Srebrenica was humming with census takers collecting their materials.

Rada Jeremic is supervising.

RADA JEREMIC, Census supervisor (through interpreter): From 9:00 in the morning until 9:00 at night, they will all deploy to the houses they have been assigned. The main form includes questions like place and date of birth, profession, education. This census is historic, and we are taking this assignment very seriously.

KIRA KAY: Twenty-year-old law student Ismeta Begic was eager to learn more about her country.

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ISMETA BEGIC, law student (through interpreter): Through the census, we will answer our pressing questions. Bosnia has lost a lot of people. Now we will be able to see how many of us there are, how many are missing, how many families have gained new members.

KIRA KAY: The last official count in Bosnia was in 1991, when 4.4 million people lived here; 44 percent of them were Muslim Bosniaks, 31 percent Orthodox Serbs, and 17 percent Catholic Croats.

But then brutal ethnic war broke out between them. That conflict killed 100,000 people, drove two million from their homes, and taught the world the term ethnic cleansing. Today, mass graves are still being discovered. A 1995 peace deal carved autonomous ethnic entities out of this once intermingled region.

Political analyst Srecko Latal says the census provides an opportunity for Bosnia to accept its starkly divided reality and finally move on.

SRECKO LATAL, political analyst: However, I’m concerned that it may be used and misused by various political players to seal, cement the ethnic cleansing or even deepen the ethnic divisions within the country.

KIRA KAY: A new census was required by the European Union before Bosnia could qualify to join its ranks. The process was delayed a year because of technical concerns and political wrangling over the scope of the questions. The final survey includes 77 items, but all focus is on the three that ask citizens their ethnicity, religion and language.

SRECKO LATAL: International officials from the very beginning made it very clear that this is least important question for them. However, for this country, this was the number one, if not the only question.

And losing numbers is perceived as a threat and a possibility for being dominated by other ethnic groups.

KIRA KAY: As part of the 1995 peace agreement, key government positions and civil service jobs were apportioned between ethnic groups based on the 1991 census.

And so now leaders of all three of the country’s majority ethnic groups are campaigning to ensure people declare who they are loud and clear. The race for numbers can be heard in church, where Catholic priests motivate their largely Croat flock.

PRIEST (through interpreter): The results could determine the future, not just for society in Bosnia, but also for the Croats and the Catholic Church.

KIRA KAY: The same rallying call can be heard during Friday prayers at mosques across the country, from Sarajevo to Srebrenica.

IMAM DAMIR PESTALIC, Bosnia (through interpreter): We are Bosniaks; we speak the Bosnian language; our religion is Islam. There’s no dilemma about that.

KIRA KAY: Srebrenica Imam Damir Pestalic says it’s vital for Bosniak Muslims here to declare their identity, given the reality that, today, the town sits within Serb territory and has become Serb majority.

IMAM DAMIR PESTALIC (through interpreter): In normal countries, a census is a technical thing, but to talk about it in Srebrenica is very painful. Srebrenica went through a genocide. More than 8,000 people were killed. Some 20,000 were expelled. Today, we have only 4,000 or 5,000

Bosniaks who have returned to Srebrenica. If people don’t manage to get properly counted, the numbers, God forbid, could be politically misused later.

ISMETA BEGIC (through interpreter): I said, Ismeta, should you do this? Maybe you will uncover something that will hurt you. But I’m just that type of person. I want to know everything about what’s going on with my Srebrenica.

KIRA KAY: Census taker Ismeta Begic’s personal story illustrates these sensitivities. She was only 2 years old in 1995, when she, her mother and siblings were expelled from Srebrenica by Serb troops.

Ismeta’s father tried to flee by foot, but was caught and massacred, along with 8,000 other mostly men and boys. Ismeta and her family returned in 2002 to stake a claim to this town for Bosniak Muslims who so far been unable or unwilling to move back.

CAMIL DURAKOVIC, mayor of Srebrenica: New census will bring realistic situation on the ground. But that realistic situation wasn’t natural migration. It was migration due to war.

KIRA KAY: Camil Durakovic was born in Srebrenica, but fled to the United States during the war. He has returned and last year was elected mayor. Today, he keeps an uneasy peace with his Serb politician counterparts.

Because of its history, Srebrenica observes a mandated balance of half-Bosniak, half-Serb leadership. But Durakovic worries there will be pressure to change, once new numbers are formalized.

CAMIL DURAKOVIC: If somebody says that aggression, genocide and ethnic cleansing is a legal way of changing demographic picture, then I am afraid where do I live. So, we need information. But if somebody thinks that new information will be accepted as newly established legal numbers, then we are in trouble.

ISMETA BEGIC (through interpreter): The digits and numbers will never be put aside, especially because they’re pulling toward their side and we’re pulling toward our side. That’s clear. We have to work together. We have to sit at the same table. But it will always be, “I’m this and you’re that.”

KIRA KAY: Ismeta’s census colleague, Rada Jeremic, who is ethnically Serb and whose family was also displaced, says working on the census is offering a first small opening.

RADA JEREMIC (through interpreter): I have met at least 15 people who are Bosniaks. And I can say they are great people, just like ours. I look at them based on who they are, not on the basis of some stories or myths.

KIRA KAY: In the midst of the census numbers race, there is a small but vocal fourth constituency, led by activist Darko Brkan. Brkan and his team are taking to Bosnia’s streets, calling for people to defy the three main identity choices and instead answer “other,” “undeclared,” even “nonsense,” anything but ethnicity.

DARKO BRKAN, Jednakost Coalition: Orangina (ph) before everything, citizen before everything. So it’s like different ways of showing protest against the current constitutional model of three ethnicities, and then everybody else.

KIRA KAY: Brkan hopes as many as 20 percent of Bosnian citizens will join his protest. But he admits he’s facing an uphill battle.

DARKO BRKAN: If you want to rise above ethnicity in Bosnia, then usually you would get into a discourse that is actually like proclaiming you to be either a traitor or a — or somebody who is breaking up the country.

On the other side, also, people are starting to understand what we are fighting against here, and, actually, there has been a lot of more eager support.

KIRA KAY: Alma Hamza is joining the movement.

ALMA HAMZA, activist: Hard-core. Yes, I want to be hard-core. It’s the type of music that I really like. What am I going to do with ethnicity at the end of the day? Nothing. I need a job.

KIRA KAY: On October 1, 19,000 census takers indeed fanned out across the country. But allegations of fraud and mishandling of forms quickly emerged.

For now, the count goes on, and initial answers to questions about Bosnia’s painful past and uncertain future are expected in January.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Kira Kay’s story is part of our partnership with the Bureau for International Reporting and its series “Fault Lines of Faith.”