Foca, Bosnia – Once a Haven for War Criminals, Now for Tourists?

October 10, 2011 | Jessie Beauchaine

Not long ago, the Foca river valley in eastern Bosnia was known by another name because of its reputation for harboring war criminals: “the black hole of Bosnia,” accessible only by winding roads through dense forests, was the backdrop of some of the worst ethnic cleansing committed against non-Serbs during the country’s war in the mid-1990s.

But in recent years, fed up with economic isolation and disrepute, Foca’s Serb residents have sought help from one of their own. Elected in 2004, and again in 2008, Foca mayor Zdravko Krsmanovic has been waging a full-scale community makeover. His mission is to re-brand the region as a tourist destination and international sports center. He has already seen a measure of success: thrill seekers come from all over the world to raft the nearby Tara river, and Foca has played host to countless youth soccer tournaments in recent years. But Krsmanovic’s greater goal— healing the wounds of the past and encouraging former Muslim residents to return—has proved a far greater challenge.

For generations, Foca was a harmonious multi-ethnic community – half Orthodox Christian, half Muslim. But in the spring of 1992, Serb military, police and paramilitary forces unleashed a reign of terror on the civilian population in Eastern Bosnia. Sweeping through Foca, they systematically attacked the municipality’s 20,000 Muslims — burning homes, destroying all 14 of the area’s mosques, and corralling into detention camps those who hadn’t been able to flee. Many were tortured and executed, their bodies thrown into the fabled Drina River that flows through town.

But it was Foca’s rape camps that made it notorious. Local homes, motels, a high school, and a gymnasium in the center of town called Partizan Hall became places where many of Foca’s Muslim women and girls were detained as sex slaves, some for as long as eight months.

Foca’s purge was thorough. By the end of the war, all but a handful of the area’s Muslim population had fled. The local authorities made the ethnic transformation of Foca official: they changed all the street signs to Cyrillic (the Serbian alphabet) and renamed the town “Srbinje,” meaning “place of the Serbs.”

After the war’s end in 1995, Foca plunged into economic decline. Slapped with international sanctions for failing to turn over indicted war criminals believed to be living there, and facing a future as a pariah, the community of Foca elected Zdravko Krsmanovic, native son and “change” candidate, in hopes he would turn Foca’s economic prospects around. But Krsmanovic is taking Foca’s renewal a step further – he is calling for ethnic tolerance and unity.

In an effort to attract Muslim “returnees,” one of Krsmanovic’s first efforts as mayor was to change the town’s name back and pull many of the Cyrillic signs down. He spearheaded a successful campaign to convince Foca’s indicted war criminals to turn themselves over to legal authorities. As a result, the international sanctions that had hampered the town’s economic growth were lifted. Recently, Krsmanovic made an unusual gesture of religious unity by hosting a Ramadan reception at the city hall, which was attended by local Muslims and members of the Serb Orthodox Church. And, he has also made a point of attending the inaugurations of eight mosques that have been rebuilt throughout Foca municipality. In 2009, Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. singled Krsmanovic out for praise while speaking in the Bosnian Parliament against the country’s entrenched ethnic intolerance.

Not everyone is as keen as the mayor to see more Muslims return, however. Last year, vandals desecrated a local Muslim cemetery. Though Krsmanovic and the town’s security council swiftly condemned the act and tracked down the criminals, it is incidents like this that keep many of Foca’s Muslims away.

Not long ago, the windows of Foca’s rebuilt downtown mosque were smashed and its walls spray-painted with anti-Muslim graffiti. The mosque’s twenty-something imam, Faruk Dzankic, who shares the mosque’s adjoining home with his wife and baby son, was away when it happened.

Dzankic, who is as eager as the mayor to see more Muslims return, claims that the returnees he knows have not had any problems with their Serb neighbors (how many have returned is unclear; estimates range from 60 to 3,500). He makes regular trips to Sarajevo, where many of Foca’s Muslims have resettled. Over cups of Turkish coffee, he tries to persuade them to come back. Few want to. The problem, he suggests, is as much Foca’s past as its present.

“I understand,” he says. “It’s very, very difficult to come back here because of the traumas.”

Across the street from Mayor Krsmanovic’s office, at the entrance to town, a towering concrete monument honors Serb victims of the war. Just beyond it, girls compete in ping-pong tournaments in Partizan Hall, site of so many horrors. The hall bears no such monument.


  1. Eldin Basic says:

    Why are you talking about Serbs as a nation and moslems as a religious group ?
    Bosnians can be both moslems as well as orthodox christians, catholics and jews and roma.
    Bosnian muslims or Bosnian orthodox christians is a proper term to be used. Using a term Serb is accepting Serbian imperialism which brought war, systematic rape and genocide to this area.

    • Lauren Feeney says:

      This is a good point Eldin; I’ve edited to reflect this concern. Many thanks!

      • Eldin Basic says:

        Lauren … much appreciated.
        Everyone else…
        The facts about Bosnia are:
        1. Serbia as a nation and coutnry was created by forcible conversion, deporation or killings of most of those who were not Orthodox Christians
        2. Croatia as a nation and a country was also to some extent created by forcible conversion, deportation or killings of most of those who were not Catholic Christians.
        3. Bosnia was a major victim of mainly Serbian Imperialism and to a large extent Croatian Imperialism too
        If Bosnia was a fundamentalist, or Islamic country and if it applied the same ruthless politics of expulsion of all non moslems, as Serbia and Croatia, did, there would not be a single Christian in Bosnia …

        Thus, the problems in Bosnia dont’ run deep. They are importaned mainly from Serbia and also Croatia. By organising Bosnian Catholic Church and Bosnian Orthodox Church, numbers of so called Croats and Serbs would considerably reduce in Bosnia, creating a room for one people, Bosnians, with a number of religions as it was always the case prior to Nationalist Movements at the end of XIX and beginning of XX century, that brought all the Balkan wars and genocide commited by both Serbs and to some extent Croats (but never Bosnians !!!)

    • Zach says:

      Although I understand your pain and understand that a lot of wrongs were brought to you and other Bosniaks (of all ethnicities) unless you are from Srebrenica there was no genocide in your area. I do not know what your government tells you, but according to the ICC there was no genocide. I find it disturbing that you are throwing words around like that and are propagating and exploiting your own pain in order to teach hate about all Serbs and about “Serbian imperialism”…
      PS I am not a Serb, I am an Irish (from a very long time ago) American…

  2. Carol Long says:

    It’s hard to believe–though I want to believe it–that Mayor Krsmanovic is sincerely trying to bring the war criminals to justice. In the documentary one of the witnesses said that the rapist she named in the early 2000′s is still walking free in Foca, 10 years later–long after he was elected. Someone should ask the mayor about this, and tell him that the world knows about it now, and about the plaque for the women war victims still not being up.

  3. Marina Cop says:

    Djokovic is a great tennis player but when I see him hold up the 3 fingered serbian salute, I want to throw up. I feel that is disrespectful and insensitive to human suffering no matter what your nationality.

    • Dragan says:

      I’m Serbian and I’m not offended at all by his three fingered salute.You see it represents the father ,son and holy ghost and are the three fingers with which we cross ouselves when we pray .The only peopel offended by this might be croat ustashe who committed genocide against the Serbs in WW2 specifically because we are Serbian orthodox.So to the Serbian people This is our strength through faith.I hope this enlightens you however I have a feeling you know all this.

      • Renko says:

        I also read about 1,000 Serbs being murdered in Foca by the Ustase in 1941. Unsurprisingly, you neglect to mention another event a year or so later – the slaughter of 1,000 or so Muslims at the hands of the Cetniks.
        What is sad is that so few of the people from the area have the guts to admit their side’s crimes.

  4. James J. Braddock says:


    Did Angelina Jolie use (steal) this book (The Soul Shattering in English) written by the Bosnian-Croatian author James J. Braddock a.k.a Josip J. Knežević, as the story platform for her movie In The Land of Blood and Honey?

    Did she totally miss the truth and core of that genocidal war against Bosnia and her people?

    Why was she banned from filming in Bosnia by the most influental organization of women – victims of the war?

    Did she rewrite history and offended thousands of women and other innocent victims of the Serbian aggression on Bosnia & Herzegovina?

    Should American women and human rights organizations get involved?

  5. Maida says:

    do you know how many children from rape is now 15, 16 years old? Do you know how hard is to sleep after all what they did to us? He want us to came back so they can have new women to rape new people to rob. It wasn’t in of, they want more. I wish justice can be done, but that is dream for most of us. Our life is destroyed and wound can’t heal to end of our life. They sleep well, we suffer all this years. We just pray to forget; I am sorry it can’t be erased.

    • Dragan says:

      I also like you feel pain for the Serbian people who have been greatly wronged by the bosnian muslims and croat ustashe.Even now muslims attack the US embassy in sarajevo when will they stop there jihad against Christians.God bless

  6. Starina Foco says:

    As former resident of Foca, I cannot reckognize it today. The city and most of it’s residents have completely changed. My old friends and teachers were war criminals, raping our cousins and killing my brothers. Many of war criminals are still live in Foca under police protection and enjoying full freedom of Bosnia. But, they are killing themselves today in Mafia style trying to steal each-other bloody money or Bosniaks gold which was stolen from my family and my people.

  7. Bok says:

    While I admire the fact the international community is finally taking an interest in what happened in Bosnia, the truth is that it cannot be understood by someone who grew up in the US or elsewhere. The problems in Bosnia run so deep and cannot be explained simplistically.

    I can say I lived in Foca between 1992 -1995. I was 7-10 years old so obviously was very, very sheltered by what was going on around me. However, what I do remember is being petrified about being captured by Bosniaks and tortured. The reason is that this is the story that was fed my the media. Bosniaks were seen as evil and the enemy and all the TV showed was atrocities committed against Serbs. Every single day. I have no doubt the exact opposite was taking place in Bosniak territory and it is what feeds hatred and fear. The scary thing is that both sides believe they are right and I probably would have been the same if I had not left and moved to Australia where I grew up in a multicultural environment. Only because of this have I been able to view the war in a more objective light without the ideologies that the people over there have. I sincerely hope that in a generation or two people will move on but at the moment it’s a long way away. Every time I watch a music clip from the Balkans on Youtube I read the comments and they are disgraceful. Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks hating each other. And what none of them want to admit is that they are the same people. Different religions but the same people if you trace back far enough. Anyone who pretends otherwise is fooling themselves

    • SFK says:

      So you are writing that you are not bias and you are saying that if people will not believe they are the same people, they are fooling themselves… Where is your logic?

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