NN: Representatives of the two political parties which practically were at war, SDS [the Serb Democratic Party] and SDA [the Party of Democratic Action], recently signed a protocol on cooperation between Prijedor and Sanski Most. Does this mean that cooperation between these two parties is, despite everything, possible?
What does it matter who is in what party? We must work for the benefit of the people who live here. The public over the last few years was always informed that the members of SDS were uncivilized and undemocratically predisposed. Probably we did have individuals with those characteristics in the party. But many changes have occurred in SDS, obviously. The democratic approach was envisioned and conceptualized in SDS even earlier but in the past it was not expressed to the extent that it is today. It is not clear to me why people are amazed that positive notes are coming from Prijedor because I don't consider us to have done anything special except for having squarely faced the truth and caught on in time that the decisions of the High Representative are final and that they must be implemented. We are aware of the situation where the national interest of the Serbian people cannot come after other, personal interests and that is why we did not want to find ourselves in the situation where we are waiting for those decisions to be implemented, and paying later for our tardiness.
NN: There are stories that the protocol on cooperation was supposedly signed only so that you and the head of the municipality of Sanski Most could retain your functions. Was the true motive for the signing of this document to "fool" the High Representative?
That is an excellent question. As far as I know, we were not considered questionable when 22 other public officials in Bosnia-Hercegovina were dismissed. No one so much as mentioned Sanski Most nor Prijedor, and the possibility of replacing the heads of those respective municipalities. However, if there are reasons why this should occur, it doesn't matter, let them dismiss us. We did not do this in order to retain our functions but because it is in everyone's mutual interest. The main reason for signing the protocol was to implement the decisions of the High Representative, which are final. On the one hand, we wanted to make the solving of housing problems as humane as possible. I consider this to be my responsibility because I represent the interests of the city where I was born. Because of this, Prijedor has a much greater chance of being in a better position than it has been to date, as a result of the subjective opinions of people who have put us on the blacklist because of a few individuals who allegedly committed as yet unproven acts against humanity. I think that no one has the right to put more than 100,000 people currently living in Prijedor in a difficult economic position by withholding investments and into a kind of isolation because of a few suspect individuals. That is why our primary interest is to erase the picture of Prijedor as a genocidal city as soon as possible.
NN: Are you satisfied with the implementation of this protocol by the municipality of Sanski Most?
I hope that they will be as honest and correct during this entire process as we are. Perhaps the time frame given in the protocol is a bit ambitious. However, it was agreed that if some of the deadlines need to be extended due to unexpected difficulties, then that will not be a problem. What is important is that we have begun implementing the agreement.
NN: What is the municipality of Prijedor doing with respect to Bosniak returns to this city?
The model example of returns is Kozarac. Bosniaks who returned there have said, when mayor Lemes came to visit them, that they are secure, that no one is bothering them and that everything is good because they are in their own houses. People who have returned and people who are coming to visit their houses think that many things have changed for the better here. However, I always say that nothing has changed, that everything has remained the same and the people from this region have remained as noble-minded as they have always been.
I am certainly not going to cry over the Serbs who sold their property in Sanski Most. They got money for their property and it is only fair that they are the first to move out of Bosniak-owned property. Also, the people who have expressed a desire to return to Sanski Most and who have gotten the keys to their apartments only to subsequently, I am told, rent them out and continue living here in Bosniak-owned houses, have to leave them immediately. With these examples we are beginning to implement the decisions of the High Representative.
NN: At the end of last year an office was opened in Prijedor; its goal is to implement the project "A home for everyone - Prijedor 2000". What exactly is the purpose of this project?
This project was coordinated with Annex 7 of the Dayton Agreement and it represents our wish to help people who, in accordance with their right to select their place of residence, have decided to stay. In Prijedor there are currently more than 30,000 refugees and many of them have no place to return to because their property was left in the Republic of Croatia where, at least for now, it was not possible to return. Through this project we wanted to express our desire to contribute all natural, human and material resources available in Prijedor toward assisting these people. We decided to parcel out what there was of communally owned land. Thanks to God, Prijedor is a municipality with 832 square kilometers of land and with a great deal of fertile land which is communally owned; I don't know for whom we were saving it. We have already given out approximately 800 plots on the basis of the decree of the RS government, which defines the manner in which this land is to be given out. In Prijedor we have not given out a single inch of anyone's land, unlike Sanski Most, where mayor Lemes himself admitted that Serb-owned land had been confiscated. In addition to this, we will build new apartments on all buildings which have flat rooftops. We don't believe that we will solve all of our problems but we will certainly move forward in this way.
NN: Many officials from the Federation Bosnia-Hercegovina, especially those with whom we spoke in Sanski Most, criticized Serbian politicians for promising refugees everything and anything only to prevent returns. Is this the case with Prijedor?
I think that if someone desires to return, then no one has the right to hold it against him. However, there is also a great number of people who do not want to return and the signatories of the Dayton Agreement gave them the right to remain. Are Serbs not allowed to exercise this right? Do we as a municipality not have the right and the responsibility to help people who wish to remain in Prijedor? If some individuals in the Federation consider this to be the obstruction of returns, then that is only their opinion. We simply respect what is written in the Dayton Agreement. It is our responsibility to make it possible for people to return to their pre-war homes but no one has the right to force them to do so.