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.