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Overcoming poverty and divisions in Bosnia and Herzegovina

In July this year, a special ceremony was held at Srebrenica in Bosnia and Herzegovina to mark the 15th anniversary of the massacre which took place there. During the ceremony, coffins were interred which contained the newly identified remains of 775 men and boys from among the 7,000 Muslims who were killed in Srebrenica. One mother, Ramiza Gurdic, buried her son Mehrudin, alongside another son and husband already in the cemetery. “I think about them every day. I go to bed with the pain and I wake up with the sadness,” she said. In a statement read out during the ceremony, Barack Obama recognised “there can be no lasting peace without justice.

But fifteen years after the war, many victims feel there can be no justice without official recognition of their loss and the ability to claim compensation. An estimated 30,000 people went missing during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995, but only in 2004 was a missing persons law introduced which entitles relatives to property rights and compensation. So far, nothing has been paid out to victims because there is no agreement who should fund the compensation. Both the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serb Republic feel that financing claims would be an admission of guilt.

Kada Hotic, who lost five relatives, including her husband and son, survives only because she is able to claim her dead husband’s pension. Kada believes the law is unlikely to provide compensation. 15 other families have now taken their cases to the European Court of Human Rights.

Srebenica, with a current population of under 10,000, is still segregated. 60 percent of its inhabitants are Serb and some of these residents feel more concern is shown for the dead than the living. Many Serb families, who lost their homes elsewhere in Bosnia during the war, still live in the run-down hotels and hostels where they were installed as refugees. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, estimates that of the 113,000 Internally Displaced People (IDPs) in the country, around 7,000 are still living in collective housing which was intended as temporary accommodation fifteen years ago. The UNHCR provides food parcels and hygiene products to these desperately poor families, many of whom can barely afford the basics of bread and milk.

Last month, Angelina Jolie, the UNHCR’s Goodwill Ambassador made her second trip of the year to Bosnia and Herzegovina and met the country’s politicians to discuss the plight of IDPs. Ms Jolie urged the politicians to take “practical steps to improve these people’s lives.

Whilst debate continues about how families are compensated for their dead, the visit of the Goodwill Ambassador was designed to draw attention to the needs of the living. Because helping poor families, on either ethnic side, is an important way to overcome divisions and build a better future for the people of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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