Srebrenica: Playing football on the ruins of genocide

Where more than 8,000 men were killed, a new generation is trying to overcome the past on the local football pitch.

Srebrenica football
The football team FK Guber and their coach, Emir Bektic, after training [Johannes De Bruycker/ The Caravan's Journal]

Srebrenica, Bosnia and Herzegovina – Happy, the cheerful song by Pharell Williams, blares over the football pitch of FK Guber in Srebrenica.

White marble tombstones look down at the arena from the forested hills, at a new generation of Bosniaks and Serbs standing side by side in the valley.

Bullet holes mark the buildings and walls around the pitch, as the footballers take beautiful shots on the pitch. 

In the 30th minute of the game, the striker Sadik Hasanovic scores for Guber. Just before the break, he dribbles past two FK Birac defenders and doubles the score. In the second half, one of his teammates seals the deal, bringing the score to 3-0.

The game nearly won them the league title last year. On June 2 of this year, FK Guber went top of their league.

They will be promoted to the first league in Republika Srpska, the autonomous Serb enclave in Bosnia, which is the equivalent of the second league in all of Bosnia and Herzegovina. It is a great success for a multi-ethnic football club that managed to overcome mutual suspicion rooted in a history of war and genocide.

FK Guber Srebrenica, founded by a Bosnian and a Serb, had existed for 68 years when war swept through Bosnia in 1992. There was no more room for a peaceful game of football when the fighting reached Srebrenica. The United Nations declared a “safe zone” around the city of Srebrenica and the pitch became overgrown with weeds.

‘Had to pass the ball to each other’

Three months before the end of the war, on July 11, 1995, more than 8,000 Muslim men were separated from the women and children in Srebrenica and murdered by the Bosnian Serb army in nearby factories and forests in the biggest massacre on European soil since World War II.

The city was in ruins and there were only Orthodox-Christian Serbs left. FK Guber no longer existed.

When Muslims began to return to Srebrenica in 2002, the scars of genocide were far too fresh to play football together.

“The Serb boys played on one side of the pitch, the Bosniaks played on the other half. The centre line was the symbol of division and mistrust in the city,” remembers the head imam of Srebrenica, Damir Bektic. 

“But if you play next to each other long enough, you start to pay less attention to small differences.”

In 2004, the club was rebuilt by a non-governmental organisation, Workgroup Netherlands-Srebrenica, funded by the Dutch government.

The stadium was slowly revived. The broken walls were painted with messages of hope and colourful pictures of famous footballers.

‘FK Guber is a model for Srebrenica and gives hope for the future’ [Johannes De Bruycker/The Caravan’s Journal] 

Many still remembered the club from before the war. This small team from eastern Bosnia had made an impression, making it all the way to the top 32 national teams in the Yugoslavian Cup of 1989-1990. 

At that time, about three quarters of the population was Muslim, in 2004 only about one quarter was, but everyone wore the same jersey again. In order to win, they had to pass the ball to each other.

“The last one is a donkey!” Coach Emir Bektic shouts with a straight face, urging his players to step it up, but they can tell from his joyful eyes that they shouldn’t worry too much.

“Sometimes you have to push your players to the limits, but sometimes you just have to give them rest. Most of these boys have a full-time job or they are still in school,” Bektic says. “It is sometimes better to send them home to catch some sleep, than to let them train.”

The coach points to the defender Njegos Ilic, 23, one of Guber’s best players, explaining, “Njegos works in the mines of Srebrenica, he gets up every morning at 5am. He would play in the Bosnian Premier League, but he is often already knackered when training starts.”

‘A model for Srebrenica’

Ilic is a Muslim, his talented teammate Hasanovic is a Christian. “Their parents are happy with them and their friends think it is cool. They are popular in the region, everybody knows them,” says Bektic. “If they enter the stadium, they leave their differences behind the gate and when they leave, they are friends.”

On the weekends, when there’s no match to play, the boys hang out in the local betting office. They wager money on their favourite clubs from all over former Yugoslavia. Most of the Bosniaks prefer teams from Sarajevo, although some share the preference of their Bosnian Serb mates for Red Star Belgrade or FK Partizan from Serbia.

“Secretly,” says Bektic with a smile, “they are way more open than other people in town, but you won’t see them brag about it either.”

Ilic and Hasanovic have seen many of their friends leave Srebrenica.

“There are just not enough jobs,” they say. “Young people go to bigger cities like Banja Luka or Sarajevo, in search for a better future.”

But Bektic insists football can lead them there. “My players attend summer camps and see a lot of cities in the country when they play away games. Some make it far in the football industry, but the others also find jobs.”

The morning after the game, a couple of them want to drive to Bratunac, a predominantly Serb city, 11km down the road. Bratunac is richer and has more young people, so there are more opportunities to have fun.

The boys chat and joke around as their car passes a large graveyard and memorial site, the Srebrenica-Potocari Memorial Centre, where more than 6,000 victims of the genocide are buried. The boys don’t look up and continue their conversations as the car races past the endless rows of white marble grave stones.

“Some boys have family members that were killed, others may have fathers that fought on the other side. That no longer divides them, they have truly become friends,” says Bektic.

The imam thinks football could make a real difference in the town of 7,000 inhabitants.

“There are 50 youngsters in the youth divisions, they all have friends, family and neighbours that attend the games regularly,” says Bektic 

“The youngest don’t remember the war, they only see teammates that play with them,” says Bektic. “FK Guber is a model for Srebrenica and gives hope for the future.”

'If they enter the stadium, they leave their differences behind at the gate and when they leave, they are friends,' says coach Emir Bektic [Johannes De Bruycker/The Caravan's Journal]
‘If they enter the stadium, they leave their differences behind at the gate and when they leave, they are friends,’ says coach Emir Bektic [Johannes De Bruycker/The Caravan’s Journal]
Source: Al Jazeera