The village of Sevarlije, which lies just beyond the outskirts of Doboj town, is another example of a surprising local post-war success story. In 1997 it was still an abandoned wilderness. Houses had been looted and burned down in 1992. The whole area of the village along the River Bosna, including the primary school, was mined. Weeds and bushes had overgrown gardens, houses and roads after the village was abandoned.
In 1992, the villagers living in Sevarlije, and in neighbouring villages, were told to hand over their weapons by the hard-line Bosnian Serb authorities in Doboj. The villagers, as elsewhere in Bosnia, believed, at first, that if they co-operated they might be left alone. They were wrong.
On 17 June 1992 they were shocked to find themselves under artillery shelling. Nusret Delic remembers the very moment it started:
"It was the European Soccer Championship. The final in which the Danes won. We were watching the game in my room, when we heard the first shot."
Panicked villagers tried to escape across the river. But the water-level was running high after heavy rainfall. Three people drowned. Two more were killed and six were wounded by the shelling. The next day, paramilitaries wearing masks to hide their identities, entered the villages. They demolished the mosque and blew up its minaret. They looted and burnt all of the houses. They killed 30 men that they came across in Sevarlije. A woman remembers those terrible days:
"When those three came, they put us all down here against the wall of the barn and then they told us: "Now we are going to kill you all!"
Some 300 people, mostly women, children and the elderly, were detained and taken to the Yugoslav Army barracks in Sevarlije. The village was abandoned.
Sevarlije's former village leader, Aziz Ibrakovic, co-ordinated the return of his citizens to their home village with great determination. Firstly, he collected applications, which he handed over to UNHCR (the UN Refugee Agency), and to the Doboj municipality.
First 50 applications for return were registered with the Municipality. Then 100. In the end there were 400.
Only in 1998 – two-and-a-half years after the Dayton Agreement had come into effect – did these efforts begin to pay off. In May 1998, the local head of the UNHCR office in Doboj, Oliver Birch, took Aziz Ibrakovic aside and asked him to "set a date for return" to Sevarlije. Aziz says:
"I decided on the 1st of June 1998. We were told to make a list of 100 families – but I put in all the 113 that wanted to go first. In the morning we took off. When we reached the heights of our village above the River Bosna, we sat down together and just wept!"
For the return to succeed, huge support from foreign donors was essential. Most of Sevarlije's citizens were destitute and had no savings. Many of them lived from casual labour. So, ultimately the speed of return became dependent on the flow of donor aid to support reconstruction.
Since their first day of return, the community maintained a list of all returnees. Before the war, the village had some 450 houses. In 1998, the European Commission financed the reconstruction of the first 100 homes. Another 289 houses were re-built with aid from other donors. Electricity was restored by the local provider with the support of USAID. A further 93 houses were reconstructed by their owners, mostly people who had lived and earned money abroad. By 2007, only 69 houses had not been rebuilt. In most cases their owners had started a new life in the Federation or abroad. 1,600 people now live again in the village.
The first neighbours to help the Bosniak returnees were displaced Serbs living in neighbouring villages. Until the first grocery store opened in Sevarilje, the returnees bought their daily necessities in a Serb-owned shop in the next village. Not one single incident has impeded the return. RS police patrolled the village every day. SFOR (NATO forces) was never far away, providing essential reassurance.
The village kindergarten
The village has returned to an astonishingly normal and intact social life – considering the enormous destruction and suffering of the war. In the centre of the village stands the well-restored mosque. The village community has rebuilt its cultural centre with a small Kindergarten, and rooms for cultural activities. The women are using the community centre to meet and for activities like sewing workshops.
The local agricultural association has recently built their own collection centre for agricultural products like milk, cucumbers and other products. The agricultural association has over 200 members and has recently been joined by 18 Serb farmers. Half of the members collect milk every day and sell it to a Serb-owned dairy in Teslic. Although the milk price is higher in some dairies in the Federation, the villagers trust this particular RS-based company and prefer to sell their milk there.
Next year Nusret Delic, the head of the agricultural association, plans to sell his apples to a supermarket chain in Tesanj, in the Federation. Nusret, a former worker in a fruit processing company in Doboj explains:
"We have returned to the countryside, because it represents at the time being the only source of income. The work with the milk does not bring us any prosperity, but it helps us to survive."
The new primary school in Sevarlije is a branch school of the Sveti Sava Primary School in Doboj. All 175 pupils in the branch school are Bosniaks. Five Bosniak teachers teach exclusively in Sevarlije. Another ten teachers work both in Sevarlije and in the main school, five are Bosniaks, and the other five are Serbs. The branch school teaches under the RS curriculum, but for 'national' subjects (language, history, and geography) it uses curricula and books from the Federation.
A Serb teacher points out:
"In the Republika Srpska the children go together into the school, attend one joint class, Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. And they learn one language.
In Sevarlije the language spoken in school is called Bosnian. Both the Latin and the Cyrillic script are used since children are supposed to learn both, but Latin prevails in most subjects.
Nevertheless, a boy explains: "I don't care if it is Latin or Cyrillic writing."
Today it is hard to imagine that this village was completely razed to the ground in 1992. But Sevarlije is not an exception. Bosniaks have returned to all the villages in the Doboj region where they had lived before the war. Across Doboj municipality, more than half the pre-war Bosniak population has returned.
Mejra Fehric told us it is time to move on despite what happened in 1992 when a Serb paramilitary soldier who put her against the wall and forced her from her home:
"To say, that I hate him, I can't. If the same man, who was here, would come tomorrow, I could not kill him in cold blood, or even hurt him, because I am not like that. My soul is not like that."