Category Archives: Bosnia

Focusing on the present, working for a better future for all in Bosnia-Herzegovina

                  I am posting this today, almost one year later than I promised čika Idris that I would disseminate online the Hujdurović brothers’s Open Letters to the Citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina. Today it’s 21 years since the day that Srebrenica fell, and the day when we commemorate genocide in Srebrenica and in Bosnia. People sometimes speak about lessons from the past, but we don’t learn lessons from the past by merely engaging in commemorative practices, symbolic per nature, and, in the case of Bosnia-Herzegovina, highly politicised and for that reason prone to abuse by nationalists who thrive on keeping people stuck in a past of extreme violence, and here I mean both Serb and Bosniak nationalists.

              I have been to Srebrenica a number of times, including three times for the Annual Commemoration and collective burial in Potočari. Of everything good and bad that I’ve observed there, one image always stands out in my mind: that of a little girl with a  t-shirt saying ‘Lucky Girl’. 

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                   At the time I wrote: “The beautiful girl, and all the other children I got the chance to meet in my trips around former Yugoslavia are what gives my work a purpose. She means that the past is important, but that it is the future that really matters.” Well, the girl is now 14, and her future has been systematically undermined by nationalists, some of whom killed her family, while others thrive on her family’s victimhood.

                  With her in my mind, and many other young people that I met during the last 10 years, I would like to to invite the readers to learn about the case of two brothers who, having repeatedly lived through experiences of extreme violence, never became hostage of the traumatic past, but instead continued to live in the present and work for a better future, not only for themselves, but for all, as the natural way to remain truthful to the legacy of courage and decency of their beloved father.

                  What follows is a short introduction to the lives and work of Idris and Meho Hujdurović, partisan veterans from Bijeljina, and to their present engagement in favour of a better future for the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina. On a separate page, I am also publishing their Open Letters to the Citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina, only in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian.

 

 I met Idris Hujdurović in 2014 when I was living in Bijeljina, a town in the North-East of Bosnia-Herzegovina, now part of Republika Srpska. As part of my fieldwork for the PhD, I was looking for people who would be willing to talk to me about the transformation of Bijeljina through time and how they were personally involved in it. Idris Hujdurović, a civil engineer, founder and director, for almost thirty years, of the construction company GIK-Rad, had, literally, built much of Bijeljina: all of its schools; the tribunal; all the communist era apartment blocks; etc. What immediately fascinated me, was not, however, his professional record, of which he didn’t speak much. It was the compelling, yet tranquil way he spoke about his life, which revealed a man who, having lived through so much, lived in the present, and focused on the future much more than on the past.

After the interview, as we walked home through the neighbourhood of Ledince, where we both lived, he said it would be nice to meet again for a coffee, given that, we had just realised, we happened to be neighbours. One week later, when we met again, čika Idris gave me a letter (link), that he and his brother Meho, who lives in Tuzla, wrote in April/May 2014, and sent to all political institutions in Bosnia/Herzegovina, both at state and entity levels. Directed to the citizens of Bosnia-Herzegovina and to the politicians competing in the upcoming general elections (which took place in October 2014), the significance of this open letter emerges in the context of a life of active engagement for the common good, guided my the example of courage and dignity of their late father.

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Picture by Emir Musli/Deutsche Welle

Born in 1925 in Bijeljina, to a family of land-owners and craftsmen, Idris Hujdurović grew up in a loving environment. While most Muslim families at the time privileged religious education and traditional crafts, the Hujdurović family greatly valued modern education, without disregard for their Islamic practises and traditions. Idris’ father, Mujo, made sure his children received formal, secular education. His sons attended the gymnasium, and were expected to later go to university. He wouldn’t lived to see that, though.

Mujo Hujdurović was killed by the ustasha regime in Brčko in early 1944. Just before Yugoslavia entered the Second World War, Mujo Hujdurović and his sons had built a secret shelter, where an unknown number of people, Serbs, Jews, communists or partisan sympathisers, went into hiding. When ustasha guards found the place, Mujo Hujdurović and Idris, then eighteen years old, were arrested on the spot and taken to a detention site in Brčko. On that night, with the help of other prisoners, Idris managed to escape from a tiny window; his father was executed the next day.

Idris then joined the partisans, and participated in the NOB (narodnaoslobodilačka borba), the national liberation war of Yugoslavia. As a member of the partisans, Idris was initially assigned the function of bombaš (bomber): his task was to run towards enemy positions and throw a grenade. Not many bombaši survived such tasks. In recognition for his courage, he was invited to join the Communist party, regardless of the fact that he was a practicing Muslim. After the war, Idris pursued his studies in Belgrade, and became a civil engineer, as his father wanted; in the meantime, his brother Meho, who had also joined the partisans, studied Agronomy in Zagreb. Both returned to Bijeljina, where their mother and sisters still lived, and became important agents of the post-war development of Semberija.

Idris Hujdurović found a place for himself in the communist regime, through which his energy and creativity was channeled, but he always managed to preserve his own autonomy within it. He did pay, however, a high price for the sincerity of his commitment. In 1952 he was arrested and sent to Goli Otok, where he remained until 1955. He did not side with the stalinists, but was denounced on the basis of a casual conversation in which he questioned the wisdom of entering in conflict with the Soviet Union, by saying that it wasn’t clear to him why such a conflict was necessary. He survived Goli Otok and eventually returned home to Bijeljina, and was reinstated as director of GIK-Rad, the construction company he had founded in 1948. He left his post only in 1976, pushed into early retirement, after he successfully opposed plans to refurbish the town’s centre, which included the demolition of the Atik Mosque. Even as Yugoslavia entered a stage of social and political decline after Tito’s death, until the disintegration of the state that Idris Hujdurović had helped create, despite his own experience of persecution by the regime, he remained committed to the partisan legacy.

As for Meho Hujdurović, he became the director of Semberia’s agronomical station, where he developed new species of vegetables, including a species of cabbage that became one of the main products in the region. He also educated and provided support to local farmers to develop horticulture so as to better explore the potential of the land and diminish the regional dependency on cereal production. His personal contribution to the quality of life of the peasants of Semberija cannot be overstated.

When war returned to Bosnia-Herzegovina in 1992, the Hujdurović family suffered again. Bijeljina became dominated by a climate of terror, where Bosniaks were systematically intimidated. Nationalism and greed went hand in hand, and wealthier, educated individuals were particularly at risk. Both brothers were forced to give up on their homes and other property; Meho was deported to Tuzla, and Idris was briefly arrested, then released thanks to the mobilisation of friends, after which he was forced to flee with his wife across the border to Serbia, and eventually into exile.

Idris Hujdurović returned to Bijeljina in 2004, now a widower. Already in his seventies, he actively engaged in the process of return of Bosniaks, as a member of the local association for sustainable return (Udruzenje povratak i opstanak), then led by the late Salem Čorbo. He is also a renowned bee keeper, who has developed a number of natural remedies based on honey, which he shares at no cost with anyone in need; and a farmer, who, now entering in his nineties, still maintains the large family orchard.

In the aftermath of the popular protests that, if only for a moment, shook Bosnia-Herzegovina in early 2014, Idris and Meho felt compelled to give their contribution to the quest of a a better future for their country. Their principles, life experience and education converged with the particular insights each one of them gained from living, in Meho’s case, in Tuzla, the epicentre of the revolt, part of the Federation (one of Bosnia’s entities); and Bijeljina, the second city of Republika Srpska (the other entity), where a small locally-organised protest was immediately ‘dealt with’ by thugs from the local football club, and later by the police through ‘informative conversations’.

Although they were not directly in touch with participants in the plenum process, they grasped the essential of its dynamics. Their open letter endorsed some of the plenum ideas and demands, but without the elements of populism that did much to alienate potential supporters, such as unrealistic demands with financial (spending) implications (as I witnessed myself in Sarajevo, and which were very likely part of the efforts by infiltrated agents to discredit the plena), nor any hint of the ‘yugonostalgia’ which inspired a number of plenum participants.

Assessing the political and social situation in Bosnia as critical, they called the citizens to involve themselves in the creation of plenum-like local forums, but rather than placing their faith in the mysterious mechanisms of direct democracy, which made the plena prone to infiltration and infighting, they invoked the responsibility of public intellectuals and other educated, respected figures to step up and assume task of organising and leading. Without demonising the political class, they listed a series of concrete, realistic measures, cutting on public administration and political privileges, and set specific goals to their realisation, which would result in financial savings to be reinvested in the productive sectors. Against those goals, the plenum-type assemblies should assess politicians’ work and monitor the (non)implementation of their electoral promises.

Idris and Meho Hujdurović sent this letter to all the media, which ignored them. Lacking the skills necessary to engage with the internet, they were not able to get in touch with the generation of political activists that seemed to be emerging from the ashes of the plenum process.

In May 2015, one year after the initial letter, and five months after the general elections, the Hujdurović brothers wrote a new letter, an exercise that most would consider futile, but which they felt to be both a duty and a right, as citizens, to interpelate power as well as their fellow citizens. Based on a lucid assessment of the post-election situation, the letter expands the set of proposals, to include a number of ideas for social and economic reform, so as to have a fairer distribution of jobs and revenue among the population, incentivise agricultural production and other sustainable activities The letter renews their appeal to the intellectual class to assume the role that should be theirs, but is especially directed at the younger generations, whom it exhorts to take action. Again, they were ignored.

In the meantime, I had moved out of Bijeljina, and when I come back for a visit in the Summer of 2015, čika Idris gave me the second letter, and asked me to post it online. I am sorry that only now I have found the urge to do it, caught as I was with ‘my own stuff’. When I left Bijeljina for the second time in mid-September I was feeling discouraged about the social situation in Bosnia-Herzegovina as I had never felt since I became interested in this country. Without meaning to whine about it, it took me many weeks before I was able to do any work at all for my thesis, because the sense of possibility that the Hujdurović brothers action convey was completely absent from my horizon. All I could see around me during my field visit was people who wanted to leave the country, not only because they lacked economic opportunities, but because they were exhausted of engaging with a system so morally corrupt that leaves (almost) nobody untainted.

In this context, the letters stand out even more, as an example of the future-oriented commitment towards society of two elderly men who, through the good and the bad, have preserved their sense of agency, and mobilised the best of their knowledge and energy whenever they felt they could make a difference, and even when they knew that making a difference was an unlikely outcome.

The value of these documents lies, even more than in their proposals for chance and exhortation for mobilisation, in the sense of temporality they express, which is at odds with the dominant tone of memory politics in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In their first letter, as they briefly describe the tragic legacy of the 1992-1995 war, they state

Ostavimo istoričarima nek daju ocjenu šta se to zbilo na ovim prostorima,

a mi se okrenimo našim današnjim životnim problemima.

We leave it to historians to account for what happened in this region,

and turn ourselves to the problems of our present life.

In the end of the second letter, however, they do turn to the past, to evoke the example of courage and dignity that guided them into such endeavour, as it did throughout their lives, thus showing how from a past of violence it is nevertheless possible to find resources to inspire action towards a better future, in a way that, rather than fracturing society, can work towards its cohesion:

                  Na kraju, osjećamo potrebu da se i predstavimo, kao autori ove analize o situaciji u BiH (…). Sinovi smo oca Muje Hujdurovića kojeg su na najgori način (iako je bio musliman), ubile fašističke vlasti u II svjetskom ratu zato što je, s nama kao djecom, štitio i branio od tadašnjih fašističkih vlasti, komšije iz čitave Semberije, pravoslavce, Jevreje i sve druge ugrožene; što je jedan od organizatora pisanja rezolucije muslimana Bijeljine i Janje i Ugljevika iz decembra 1941. godine gdje su muslimani zahtijevali suživot građana svih vjera i da vlast štiti sve građane itd; što je imao niz ličnih istupa protiv tadašnje fašističke vlasti u učinio niz humanitarnih poteza za spašavanje ugroženih građana svih vjera.

                  Vođeni tim idejama i ljudskim postupcima našeg oca u kritičkim vremenima II svjetskog rata osjećali smo obavezu da ovo napišemo i damo u javnost te uputimo vlastima, bez obzira kako će to ko cijeniti, a u nadi da će sve iznijeto prihvatiti prvenstveno stranake na vlasti, u cilju rješavanja problema gladnih u BiH bez obzira na njihovu vjersku i nacionalnu pripadnost i boju kože.

Translation:

To conclude, we feel the need to present ourselves as authors of these analyses of the situation in BiH (…). We are the sons of our father Mujo Hujdurović, whom during the Second World War the fascist rulers killed in the most horrible way (although he was a muslim) because, with us his children, he protected and defended from the fascist government neighbours from all of Semberia, Orthodox, Jews, and all others in danger; because he was one of the initiators of the Resolution of the Muslims of Bijeljina, Janja and Uglevik in December 1941, in which Muslims demanded the preservation of common life of citizens, and that the government (the croatian ustasha regime, which ruled over Semberia) protects all citizens; because he personally confronted the fascist government and performed a series of humanitarian gesture to rescue vulnerable citizens of all faiths.

Guided by our father’s ideals and personal actions in the critical times of the second World War, we felt it was our duty to write this and give to the public and instruct the authorities, regardless of how they will appreciate it, in the hope that the parties in power will accept it, with the goal of responding to the problems of the poor in BiH, regardless of their religion and nationality and skin colour.

I would like now to go back to the little girl, whose name I wrote on my notebook and then forgot. In my 2008 post, I concluded by saying that:

“On the children will one day rely the double responsibility to both honor the dead by protecting them from oblivion and to overcome the legacy that burdens their families.

This will not be an easy task. To be able to cope with such responsibility in the future they need to be nurtured now. It is up to today’s adults to provide them with an environment that allows them to grow into self-confident decent adults. If we achieve, these children will represesent the genociders ultimate failure.”

It has been precisely that which the Hujdurovic brothers dedicated their lives to and continue to work towards, a better future for all.

 

Notes: This text was prepared with full knowledge and in collaboration with Idris Hujdurović; back in 2008 the picture of the little girl was taken with full consent from her family; I sent the family paper copies of that and other pictures I took of them.

 

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Filed under Bijeljina, Bosnia, Duty of memory, Genocide, Plenum, Srebrenica, Violence, War

THE SARAJEVO PROTESTS: my eyewitness account.

This text was originally posted on Greater Surbiton, on 12 February 2014, and subsequently reproduced on Novinar.me.

Sarajevo protest, 07/02/14

When I returned to Sarajevo in the end of January, after two years away, very little seemed to have changed, and I was struck by a dominant feeling of disenchantment, which became more clear when I asked people about the Bebolucija. Nobody wasted much time on their replies, merely expressing their disappointment. Thus, when, last Wednesday, 5 February, a friend in Tuzla posted on Facebook a few pictures she took of a protest, it looked just like another protest, as so many that have been staged over the years, of workers who lost their jobs or haven’t received their salaries, or farmers, pensioners, veterans… But this turned out not to be yet another protest, but that one moment when too much becomes too much. The police charged at the protesters, who were throwing eggs and stones against the building of the government of Tuzla Canton. My friend’s status on Facebook was “ja i moj narod vicemo…. Kijev u TZ” (“I and my people are shouting… Kiev in Tuzla”), translated very well the mood there, and people joined the protests the following days in growing numbers, defiant despite the use of force by the police; arrests; tear gas. The protests had turned violent, culminating on Friday 7 February in a local government building being set on fire, and prompting the resignation of the Prime-minister of Tuzla Canton.

The situation is Tuzla immediately gave rise to protests in other Bosnian towns. I will now present my own eyewitness account of the protests in Sarajevo, which have been the focus of much anxiety, speculation, and manipulation.

On Thursday 6 February, I found myself in a small protest in Skenderija, in front of the building of the government of Sarajevo Canton. I had been visiting the Ars Aevi collection depot, which had re-opened to the public that same day, and when I left and crossed the bridge towards the right bank of the Miljacka river, there they were, the protesters. The street (Obala Kulina Bana) was blocked, and riot police were standing in front of the government building, as well as the Dom Sindikata. Someone had used a banner saying ‘Niko ne sme da vas bije’ (‘No one is allowed to beat you’ -the phrase proffered by Slobodan Milosevic in 1987 in a meeting in Kosovo that marked the beginning of his ascent to power). The protesters were mostly youngsters as well as pensioners, and there were very few women, one of whom was standing on the road in front of the police cordon. It was objectively speaking a very small protest, maybe 200 people or slightly more, held in solidarity with Tuzla, as a protester informed me, but another protest was scheduled for the following day.

When I left my home on Friday, 7 February to see the protest, I expected it to be more of the same as the day before – a few hundred people, kids and pensioners. And despite the example set by a much bigger mobilisation in Tuzla, when I got to Skenderija around 12 noon, I counted no more than a hundred people. There were a lot of police in riot gear, though, and there were obviously a number of them in civilian clothes as well. I went for a walk, and noticed that in the surrounding streets there were vans with more riot policemen, and quite a number outside the MUP (Ministry of the Interior) of Sarajevo Canton, including also vans typically used to arrest people.

When I returned a few minutes past 1pm there were a lot more people, and within half an hour many more arrived, but still it was very far from a massive demonstration. The protest spread through the square in front on the building of Sarajevo Canton and the riverbank ahead, between the two bridges, with some people also watching on the two nearby bridges and from a safe distance on the other side of the river in Skenderija, and something like 50-100 people more spread through no more than 100 metres on the Obala Kulina Bana towards the centre. I cannot say how many people were there in total, but it was not a dense crowd, and there were lots of empty spaces, the crowd compact only in front of the building.

The building was not protected by metal barriers as is usually seen elsewhere in Europe when protests occur, but merely by yellow tape with ‘Stop Police ‘ written on it. The police barrier was not compact either, merely a row of men, although there were more on the side streets. Traffic was diverted from that area, with the police blocking traffic in Marijin dvor towards the riverbank and in front of the Alipasina mosque.

As for the protesters, there was an almost complete absence of flags and banners – only one older man with a big Bosnian flag and a few women with small banners, who soon left the protest. There were no chants either. Only ever now and then a few would should Tuzla Tuzla or lopovi (thieves). A man had a megaphone but the quality of the sound was so poor that 10 metres away as I was I could not hear any distinct words. Suddenly around 1.30-1.40pm a core of young protesters wearing hoods started throwing objects against the building, over the police, including stones and bricks. Cameramen and photographers ran for a safer position, but it took some minutes for the police to react, by advancing the barrier towards Kulina Bana (the riverside street). A middle-aged man started chanting the Internationale, but nobody followed him.

At that moment I moved from the centre of the protest to the river bank (Obala Kulina Bana). That was when I could take a closer look at the hooded youths, who had also withdrawn from the garden to this area after the first wave of stone-throwing and the initial police reaction of advancing the cord some 10 metres. I could see how some of them communicated with small gestures, mere looks. One had a Molotov cocktail in his hand but after exchanging looks with another he hid it away. At that moment I made an assessment of the situation bearing in mind that I had previously seen a lot of police stationed in vans in surrounding streets. I was at that time next to the riverbank’s wall, between the stanica and the kiosk. Oddly, both kiosks were open for business. I realised that I would be trapped if the police charged (which I honestly assumed they would), so I decided to cross the river, expecting an escalation. Meanwhile the police threw some tear gas, but not in such a quantity to force the dispersal of the crowd. Already on the other side of the river, two kids aged about 16-18 were affected by the tear gas, and someone got bottles of water at the nearby kiosk to wash them.

I didn’t stay long on the other side, and after crossing back I went to the balcony of the Dom sindikata, a building on this square, where people were watching. I was still on the Dom sindikata when, around 2pm, the police tried to disperse the crowd in two fronts, one on the riverbank next to the Dom, the second one by pushing the crowd towards the big bridge. An ambulance came as at least one policeman was injured. The watchers on the Dom sindikata showed some enthusiasm, but among journalists standing there there were more signs of concern. After initially being pushed back towards Kulina Bana and the bridge, the crowd charged back, and to everybody’s surprise, broke the police barrier, a barrier consisting of a single line with no rear back up. Then, instead of reassembling, the police withdrew towards the streets around the Presidential building, and left the Canton building totally unprotected.

For a while I expected the police to come back, but they didn’t. Meanwhile the rioters seemed confused with such an easy victory. A few had to openly invite the crowd to attack the building. Eventually a small stand was set on fire, the window glasses were broken, and finally the building’s entrance was set on fire. All of this while the more passive protesters watched. There were also people standing on the street that goes from the bridge to the Alipasina mosque, but these were mostly just ordinary passers-by looking incredulous over what was going on.

By 3pm I was still expecting a come-back from the police and did not believe at that moment that the destruction would spread to other buildings so easily as it did. I walked towards the building for a few shots, and that was when it became obvious that the rioters were becoming more aggressive. Two of them approached me and told me not to take photos of faces. They did so politely, and I did not feel in immediate danger, but other people with cameras were less fortunate and were punched or somewhat assaulted. It was 3.10pm when I took my last photo and decided to get back home. By then I had a headache which, I was told later, may have been the result of exposure to tear gas and fumes – I did feel very sick later that day.

This was the protest, as I saw it. There were no banners, no demands, just a hundred young men or even less than that, who were given a chance to engage in destruction, maybe a hundred pensioners, and a few hundred people watching. I’ve been in many protests in different settings, and there was nothing of the typical protest vibe present in this one. There wasn’t even much anger, there was instead a rather odd, pervasive feeling that is hard to describe, as if it was some kind of parallel reality, and it was as if we were all feeling paralysed, merely waiting for something to happen – except the ones who were busy breaking glasses, spraying catchphrases and penises on the building’s walls and setting fire to the building. They didn’t show much emotion either, and certainly not rage. At that moment, they seemed guided only by a nihilistic sense of possibility.

As I walked towards Marijin dvor, the absurdity of the whole situation dawned on me. Cafés, shops – including electronic goods shops – supermarkets and shopping centres were all open for business, as if nothing was going on, just a few dozen metres away. Except for the disruption in traffic, it was just another day in Sarajevo.

Around 5pm things had significantly escalated and by then people had woken up to the seriousness of the situation. Rioters also attacked the Presidency building, setting it on fire, which damaged one of the deposits of the Arhiv BiH – the Bosnian state archive – located on the basement. The following is based on the eyewitness accountt of a friend, who lives in the centre, and was at the time of the events working in a building in front of the Alipasina mosque. When I called her around 6pm to know if she was safe, she told me, before the media reported it, that she could now see the building of the Opstina Centar – i.e. the municipal office – on fire. When we met on Saturday and went through the events again, she showed much more concern for the archives of the municipality than for anything else, as people’s practical issues are very affected: birth certificates, residency certificates, etc. She could understand attacking the Canton Sarajevo building and the Presidency, but not the municipality. She also told me that at 10pm, when he streets became secure again, and she walked home, there were many people in the streets, including people who took the tram to the centre with the specific purpose of taking a look at the destruction. People were walking up and down and there was a general feeling of sadness. I could see, and a number of people confirmed this to me, that this event brought back the memories of the first days of the war in Sarajevo, and the same emotions were felt all over again, like a tragic version of the episode of Proust’s madeleines.

On Saturday I went to the centre in the afternoon. I strolled around, and it was very different than the normal Saturday afternoon. There was much less people out, I’d say a quarter of the usual number. There was no buzz, although all business were working as usual. I stayed until 8pm, and as there were no trams in the centre, I walked to Marijin dvor with my friend. In front of the presidency building was still standing a small group of people, maybe 20 – the remaining participants of a peaceful protest that has since taken place every day. On Sunday anther peaceful protest took place, in which I didn’t participate. The main demand was the release of the persons who had been arrested on Friday, and friends who joined described how they spontaneously joined, and how loosely organised it was, but it was clearly effective, as all the protesters were released between that evening and the following morning.
I joined the protests again on Monday, 10 February, along with a friend. The atmosphere had radically changed. The Prime-Minister of Sarajevo Canton had meanwhile resigned his post, and there was a sense of possibility in the air, that positive change might be possible, although people I spoke to sounded very prudent, perhaps too modest in their ambitions, or perhaps realistically aware of the obstacles towards success.

Trying now to analyse what I’ve witnessed, the big question for me (and for many others) was the police’s behaviour. It seemed clear from very early on that a decision had previously been made not to use violence, possibly in light of events in Tuzla. The police official reporting today (Wednesday 12 February) to the assembly of Sarajevo Canton confirmed that, saying that the lives of the citizens were more important than the integrity of the buildings. But this was not merely the case of police restraint. The police completely withdrew, leaving public and private property, including crucially the Presidency building, at the rioters’ mercy for a number of hours. My initial feeling was that power was crumbling like a house of cards, under the pressure of a few hundred protesters, but that was an illusory impression. The stakes are high for those in power, and they are not as detached as to let go so easily. There has since been much speculation about this, many rumours and conspiracy theories, some openly vented by politicians, such as was the case of Bakir Izetbegovic, the Bosniak member of the collective Presidency of Bosnia, who suggested the rioters came from Eastern Sarajevo, and SDA’s Ahmet Sadikovic, former Security Minister, who declared having information that the hooligans belonged to Slavija football club from Eastern Sarajevo, both trying to tap the ethnic key. Most importantly, there has been great anxiety over the possible role of the current state Security Minister, Fahrudin Radoncic, a populist politician who immediately tried to score points on the situation, and whom many are aware may, once elections are held, ultimately benefit the most from a situation of political unrest. But we can also question how willing would the policemen, even the special forces, be to use violence. This is a crucial question.

Regarding speculation about who were the protesters and how well-organised they were: on Friday there was a certain level of coordination among the younger elements, and a core of people who were clearly organised. Some of them had an appearance consistent with the hooligan subculture, and I wouldn’t be surprised that they were fans of the local clubs, and homophobic graffiti sprayed on the Sarajevo Canton building makes one wonder whether some of them were the same people who attacked the cinema Kriterion where an LGBT festival was taking place. But these individuals were not the majority, and there were also many boys who seemed to have joined spontaneously, in small groups of friends. There weren’t many girls, but there were some, and there were a few people of all ages, but mostly people around 15-23, and older people, and very few people in their 30s. Disturbed as I may have been by their actions, in hindsight they seem to me rather mild. Private property was largely untouched and, bearing in mind they were let loose for a few hours, it could have been much worse. For instance, the GRAS kiosk adjacent to the tram stop in front of the Sarajevo Canton building was set on fire, and I suppose also pillaged. But the other kiosk, standing 3 metres away, was left untouched. In fact it remained working all the time I was there.

As for whether these demonstrators were hooligans or not, that is a matter of qualification, and great efforts were made to seize upon the initial shock of the population to portray them in the darkest way possible. They were called ‘huligani’ (hooligans) and portrayed as drug addicts, and false news was published that the police seized 12 kilograms of speed in tablets. The media spin tapped into the socially dominant codes of behaviour, which divide people into ‘kulturni’ (cultured), ‘primitivci’ (primitives), ‘seljaci’ (peasants), etc., and this may have alienated a great number of people from the protesters. But the reaction to this spin was itself a form of manipulation, which denied the obvious. Of course there were hooligans in the protests, and they brought stones and Molotov cocktails. But over the years so many protests have taken place in Sarajevo, larger in number, with absolutely no results, and a few dozen ‘huligani’ with a few Molotov cocktails have set something in motion. At that moment, they seemed guided only by a nihilistic sense of possibility, but the fact remains that they did not merely break glass and burn government buildings and GRAS kiosks , but also broke the inertia that had previously seemed so overwhelming.

Some people want to believe a revolution is taking place, but then again, only after everything changes can we say there was a revolution, and despite the resignation of four Canton governments (Tuzla, Sarajevo, Zenica and Bihac), power structures are still standing, largely untouched in fact, and a conservative reaction will very likely be supported by the international players, EU countries, neighbours Serbia and Croatia, and Turkey, which have their own unsolved domestic problems very similar to Bosnia’s, and which sanctify ‘stability’ more than anything else. They have anyway assigned Bosnia a low priority.

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Mladic arrested !

I am in Kozarac now,  a place in the municipality of Prijedor in North-west Bosnia which was razed to the ground in May 1992, and the totality of its non-Serb population deported, imprisoned or killed. I went today for a commemoration at  one of the concentration camps set up at the time to ‘receive’ the non-Serb population of this area, Trnopolje. There I could see in people’s faces the pain. i’ve seen that pain elsewhere in Bosnia, but today it struck me more than it usually does, I don’t know why.

But then I came back to Kozarac and got the news. Tears in everyone’s eyes, not so much of joy, but of surprise…a feeling of disbelief, that a moment in which nobody believed has come.

We turn on the tv, and there is Boris Tadic, President of Serbia, confirming the arrest live, first in Serbian, then in English. There, it’s truth! Now we can believe it. We feel happy, my friend and I, both outsiders, both foreigners. We feel happy and excited, but our excitement is shared by the people here only for a brief moment.

Photo, this morning, commemoration organized in front of the concentration camp of Trnopolje, in the municipality of Prijedor, by the Victims’ Associations  of Kozarac and Prijedor, and the ngo’s Izvor and Srecem do mira…

Update:

After the initial disbelief, then the joy that came with the confirmation of the news, the people of Kozarac simply got on with their lives as they do everyday. As if none of this was actually real. The contrast with the frenzy this arrest is causing in the media, on Facebook, on Twitter, could not be more striking. The contrast is such that I get confused. What is the real world, what is the virtual world, why do I seem more excited about this than these people who were once deported, whose homes were destroyed, their family members and friends killed, or themselves mistreated, abused, who knows what each of them went through… My excitement went away now. What does it mean, this quietude? It means at the very least that the arrest of one of the major responsibles for the tragedy that befell on Bosnia 19 years ago is not a matter for rejoicing.

What is there to expect then? I am told meanwhile that the same reaction was observed here when Karadzic was arrested. What is there to expect? The facts about what happened in the municipality of Prijedor 19 years ago are clear enough. The ICTY and the war crimes chamber in the State court in Sarajevo have produced enough convictions for people not to have many illusions about the benefits of justice in their lives.

This is not to mean that justice is not important. It is, for every single person I spoke to in this community. That is why many of them made the sacrifice of witnessing at the different courts, thus offering their contribution to the discovery of the truth.

But still, despite everything that everybody knows, since in August 6th 1992 Ed Vulliamy, Penny Marshall and Ian Williams came here and the whole world heard for the first time this almost unpronounceable word, Trnopolje, Tr-no-po-lje (yes even now, 6 years after I started to learn this language once known as serbo-croatian and which I now call Bosnian, I still find it hard to pronounce it, and cannot avoid putting the accent on the wrong syllable)… despite what we all saw then, despite the UN Prijedor Report, despite the convictions at the Hague and in Sarajevo, despite the ITN versus LM libel case in the UK, despite all of this, despite the fact that the truth is established and accessible, there isn’t even a memorial plaque in Trnopolje acknowledging that non-Serbs were imprisoned there, mistreated there, raped there, and then all of those who were not killed there were sent other camps, or to exile.

In this place, where a school was turned into a concentration camp and then once again into a school, there is, however, a monument to the fallen soldiers of Trnopolje. Yes, a memorial to Mladic’s soldiers stands there, through which the children pass everyday on their way to school. It goes without saying that this monument is a serious obstacle to reconciliation in this region.

So, in the end, maybe this is one of the reasons why there is no more than a quiet satisfaction here in Kozarac, this place that stands as a rare example of success on the minority return movement. Whatever justice could promise them, it has already been delivered. Now it is up to politics to do the rest. It is for political responsibles to acknowledge the truth that justice has already revealed, and in Prijedor that is a long way from happening. This is is clear not only through the case of the logor Trnopolje, but also through the case of the concentration camp of Omarska. which was set up on a complex of buildings belonging to an iron mining company, which was reverted to its prior use after the war ended and is now property of the greatest multinational of steel and iron, Mittal Arcelor.

And this leads us to the political impact of this arrest. But that will wait for another post.

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6 of April: Remembering war in Sarajevo.

This week two historical dates were commemorated in Sarajevo: the day of the liberation of the city in the Second World War and the beginning of the siege of Sarajevo, in 1992.

Photo: the Croat representative on the collective Bosnian presidency, Zeljko Komsic, places a wreath of the Eternal Flame.

The commemorations started with the deposition of flowers in memorial monuments. Flower wreaths were placed in the Eternal Flame, which marks the victory over fascism in the Second World War, but also at the Cemetery of Kovaci, the mezarja (Muslim cemetery) dedicated to the Shehid, the fallen soldiers of  Muslim faith. Flowers were also placed at the statue of Tito at the University campus (where the JNA barracks used to be), and at the bust of Vladimir Peric “Valter”,a partisan who became a mythical figure in Sarajevo; at the Vrbanja bridge in Grbavica where on the 6 of April 1992 two young women, Suada Dilberovic and Olga Sucic, were killed when Serb forces started shooting at a peace demonstation- the bridge was renamed after them; at the Partisan memorial park of Vraca; at the Old Jewish cemetery; and at the monument dedicated to the children of Sarajevo who were killed during the siege.

The commemoration of both wars was simultaneous not only because of the coincidence of dates, but also because of the coincidence of places: both the memorial park of Vraca and the Jewish Cemetery were used as launching pads from which the Serb forces targeted the city. The connection between both wars is also made through the invocation of anti-fascism. Such approach, while establishing a connection between both wars, also allows to identify the nature of the recent war as a new episode of the confrontation between fascism and anti-fascism, and thus ‘de-ethnicise it’. But such connection is far from being consensual, and reflects the ideological divide existent in Bosnian society. Not everyone views the communist regime only through the perspective of an heroic anti-fascist struggle. Thus not everyone who went to the Mezarija in Kovaci went also to the Vijecna Vatra, and only people affiliated with SDP, the social democratic party, went to Tito and Valter’s statues.

Only a few people attend such institutional ceremonies, mostly people in official positions and  NGO activists. Most Sarajevans are rather indifferent to them, and simply spend this city holiday enjoying Spring. This does not mean that they are unaware to the meaning of such date. On the contrary. We are speaking about living memory here. Those that are old enough have their own war experience to cope with, including, for the elderly population, the memory of both wars, and for the younger ones the legacy war is present both through their family’s history and through the lack of perspectives towards the future, a consequence of the social and political environment that emerged out of the war.

Photo: the memorial dedicated to the children of Sarajevo killed during the war.

This larger mass of people, who does not actively participates in commemorations are nevertheless interpellated by the existence of the memorials on the public space, on the streets which they walk through, on the squares where they enjoy their coffee or their beer, and the flowers remind them that there is something to commemorate. This is why different political forces try to place their own imprint into these memorial sites, so that they become associated with what is there to be commemorated and through that memory assert their legitimacy.

But there is more to memory than politics, and that is why, of all the forms to commemorate the war that took place in Sarajevo on this 6 of April, the one that most challenging was an anonymous initiative: on the Ferhadija street, formerly Vasa Miskin’s street, on the exact place where in 27 May 1992 the bomb that killed 20 people hit the floor, in what became known as the bread line massacre, someone drew a square with tape, and painted it orange, and on the centre, where the impact hole is, a red rose was placed.

I sat on some door steps for a while, watching people’s reactions. Some walked through without even noticing, but most people tried to avoid stepping over it as much as they could, contorting it when they could, or bouncing sideways to in extremis avoid smashing the flower. This is the most crowded street of Sarajevo, and it was not easy to see it before getting to its spot.

Some people stopped and looked at the memorial plaque placed at the wall of the closest building, others did not stop, but through their face expressions and gestures acknowledged the meaning of this rather precarious, ephemeral. Like memory, and like life itself.

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Christmas in Sarajevo

 Christmas in Sarajevo as a Catholic holiday.

I have been living in Bosnia and Herzegovina for  the last six months. Since I first arrived here in June, I have travelled a lot, both in the country and in the neighbouring countries. This was a very intense period, and as the holiday season approached I found myself with no energy left to travel away for Christmas, and decided to spend this period in Sarajevo instead. That proved to be a very fortunate decision, not so much because of the airport chaos in Europe, but because it gave me the chance to be part of a very special environment in a city which, despite being now overwhelming populated by Muslims, is nevertheless determined to preserve its multicultural character and traditions. It also allowed me to better understand how religion as a cultural phenomenon works in Bosnia as a marker of difference among the Bosnians.

When I first told one of my closest friends in Sarajevo that instead of joining my family I would would spend Christmas alone in Sarajevo, he immediately offered to accompany me to the Midnight mass in one of Sarajevo’s Catholic churches. What I first thought was an act of hospitality based on friendship turned out to be a very old practice among the Muslims of Sarajevo. “We always go, every year. In Sarajevo everyone goes to the ‘ponocka’, not only the Catholics.” And his mother added that it has always been like that, even during communist rule.

When I asked around, this was confirmed by everyone. People even seemed to be surprised when I replied that I had never heard of such a thing, believers of a different religion celebrating in this way a holiday that they acknowledge not to belong to their own religious practice. For the Muslims with whom I spoke this is an established tradition that has become part of their own identity, while not at all diminishing their attachment and respect to their own religious tradition.

I chose to go to the Midnight mass at the Cathedral, in the centre of Sarajevo. When I got there, around 22h 30, the doors were still closed, but there was already a small crowd outside waiting. Much more people were walking along the main streets, between Bascarcija and the Marshall Tito street, killing time before the mass. The crowd gathered in front of the doors was composed by Catholics, who were keen on getting a good seat and rather anxious for the doors to open, although the night was not particularly cold, while the apparently more relaxed attitude of the Muslims reflected in fact their concern not to deprive the Catholics of the best available places, as that would not be a respectful thing to do.

When the doors finally opened I was very lucky to find myself a seat. In a matter of a few minutes the church was totally full, with people standing even on the main way, something I had never seen before, and many people remained outside, and followed the mass thanks to the loudspeakers installed at the square. On the front, in the seats reserved for representatives of other religions, the presence of Orthodox priests indicated that this tradition of attending the ‘Ponocka’ was not exclusive to the Muslims.  The Cardinal Vinko Pujic, who celebrated the mass, on his homily acknowledged and made a note of appreciation for the presence of non-Catholics at the Mass, before addressing the Catholics, in a speech that extorted them to recognise Bosnia as their homeland, concluding that ‘Ova je nasa zemlja’. That this is also the land of the Catholics (that is of the Bosnian Croats) is also stated by the non-Catholics, nowadays mostly Muslims, that attend the midnight mass.

This is not to suggest that the coexistence between Bosniaks and Croats is devoid of tension in Sarajevo. Tensions do exist, and are revealed, on the one hand,  by the Croats’ anxiety about becoming a residual minority in the city, and on the other by some Bosniaks’ resentment against the system of quotas in access to public jobs which grants the Croats a larger share than their demographic proportion. I will deal with these tensions in another post, but for now it is important to highlight that in any healthy society the coexistence among different groups (whatever may be the criteria of differentiation) is marked by occasional conflicts and very often by persistent latent tensions. The level of cohesion of a society is most accurately measured not by the presence of absence of tension, but by the consensual mechanisms that help manage difference on people’s every day lives. One of such mechanisms has just been described in this post.

The ‘Ponocka’ is lived by the inhabitants of Sarajevo as an event that is part of their identity as Sarajevans, an identity that transcends the barrier of religion, while at the same time framing Christmas as a specifically Catholic commemoration (I heard a foreign of protestant faith complaining about feeling discriminated by the fact that before 24th December people greet only the believers of Catholic faith).

The Christmas holiday season is marked marked in Sarajevo by a surprisingly successful juxtaposition of different traditions that goes beyond the Catholic dimension. However, the coexistence of different traditions is not always devoid of controversy. The main focus of this controversy has been, in recent years, the figure of Djeda Mraza, a controversy which I will elaborate upon on my next post, the second of a series of three posts dedicated to the holiday season in Sarajevo.

(A photographic coverage of this event can be seen here)

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‘Future post-History’ in Sarajevo

The exhibition by Bosnian artist Braco Dimitrijević, ‘Future post-History’, which was displayed at the Biennale of Venice last year, is now on display in Sarajevo, in the Vijećnica, the building of the National Library.

The history of this building offers a good image of the history of the city of Sarajevo. Built in neo-moorish style during Austrian rule, it immediately became on of the most important symbols of the city. The building was severely damaged in August 1992, when the Serb forces shelled it with incendiary bombs, as part of their tactical goal of destroying the cultural heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina. More than 2 million books and documents were lost forever but the building now is being restored, slowly, just like, slowly, the visible signs of the war are quietly disappearing from the face of Sarajevo.

The loss itself is irreversible, but as the visible signs of destruction slowly either disappear or become invisible to the eyes of those who live here, the city displays its resilience through a systematic effort to make life pleasant and exciting, while assuming its depleted heritage. Thus the title of the exhibition is particularly appropriate to contemporary Sarajevo: Future post-History.

The exhibition is composed of different elements: on the building’s façade, a portrait of a casual passer-by, on the main hall an installation composed of three boats which instead of sails have giant portraits of iconic figures, and on the rooms around video-works are continually displayed. All of these elements are recurrent in the artist’s career, repeated with some variations in exhibitions and interventions on the cityscape worldwide, as episodes of a single narrative that unfolds through time and space.

What makes this exhibition particularly special is that, instead of the clean white walls of a prestigious art gallery, we have the dust and the typical mess of a building in reconstruction, which reinforces the feeling of being upon a process, not something finished, closed to the future, but rather a journey that we don’t know where it may lead but still embark on.

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Dobrovoljacka Street case: can Serbia provide a fair trial?

The arrest of Ejup Ganic in London last Monday, 1st of March, could not have happened in a more symbolically charged moment: exactly 18 years after the independence of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and on the same day when Radovan Karadzic was presenting, at the ICTY, his own version of the Bosnian war, while in Serbia a debate is ongoing about a parliamentary resolution about Srebrenica.

While the coincidence of dates between the Independence day and Karadzic’s opening defence statement at the Hague should be seen as a ‘lucky strike’ for the Serb authorities, this case cannot be reduced to a mere diversion, which succeeded in overshadowing Karadzic’s statement upon the public opinion, in Serbia and in Bosnia, as well as internationally.  The significance of Ganic’s case is that it represents an attempt to lend credibility to the absurd claim that in Bosnia the Serbs were conducting a defensive war. Although the case against him is not likely to have any impact on the outcome of Karazic’s trial, it will certainly have a significant impact on the debate in Serbia about the parliamentary resolution about Srebrenica, and most importantly, on the relations between Serbia and Bosnia and the on the stability of Bosnia, where general elections are to be held next October.

Ejup Ganic was arrested by the British authorities at the demand of Serbia, which issued an arrest warrant against Ganic and 17 other persons, conspiracy to murder, in the Dobrovoljacka Street case, about the attack against a JNA column in Sarajevo, on 3 May 1992.

This incident occurred a month after the beginning of the aggression against the newly independent Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina, carried out in the initial stage by the JNA, and it happened during an extremely tense moment. The day before, the JNA had launched an offensive against Sarajevo, which was halted by the Territorial Defence. The JNA in turn kidnapped the President of Bosnia, Alija Izetbegovic, at the airport which was under its control (for a more detailed description of the context surrounding the Dobrovoljacka Street incident, please click here). At the time of the incident, Sarajevo was already under siege for almost a month, and it remained besieged by Serb forces until February 1996, after the end of the war.

Although the context of the incident is well known, there is some uncertainty about the attack of the column, which was withdrawing from Sarajevo, under an agreement brokered by the UN in exchange for the release of Alija Izetbegovic. It is not established whether the attack was spontaneous, as Jovan Divjak, then deputy commander of the Territorial Defence, and who was himself present at the scene, declares, or whether it was launched by superior orders, emanating, as the Prosecution of the Special Court for war crimes of the Republic of Serbia alleges, from the Presidency of Bosnia itself, in which Ejup Ganic was serving as acting President, due to the kidnap of Izetbegovic.

Ejup Ganic’s arrest, and the warrant against 17 other Bosnian personalities reveals how, 18 years after the beginning of the war, battles over the interpretation of its causes and impact of the war in Bosnia are being fought, with the judiciary as one of its most important battlefields.

It has been argued by many observers that this arrest is a clear example of the abuse of justice for political purposes. I agree with such assessment, but I don’t think it’s enough to merely state it, as it can be argued against it:

  1. that under the principle of Universal Jurisdiction, it is legitimate on the part of the Serbian Special Prosecutor for War Crimes to launch an investigation on this case, and that Serbia is now a democratic state able to offer a fair trial;
  2. that, with the current government, Serbia seems to be finally coming to terms with the past, with the arrest and extradition of Radovan Karadzic, and now the debate about a parliamentary resolution condemning the Massacre of Srebrenica as evidence of such process; while the Special Prosecutor has been investigating and prosecuting cases involving perpetrators who are Serb citizens.
  3. Finally, it can also be argued that both the Prosecutor and the War Crimes Chamber of the Belgrade District Court are autonomous from political power, and that we should resist analysing the behaviour of states as if they were monolithic, homogeneous entities, because they’re not.

Starting from the third point, it is important to note that, although the state is certainly not an uniform creature, it is also true that when people in different positions of power share the same mind-set and the same perception of national interests, it is logic consequence that their values make their actions converge for an outcome that seeks to reinforce such mind-set, confirm those shared values and contribute to the perceived national interest.

Indeed, a closer analysis reveals that what is in fact happening is that the state of denial in which post-Milosevic Serbia has lived is being replaced by a more subtle trend, launched after the controversial ruling of the International Court of Justice, in 2007, absolved Serbia of the charge of genocide, merely condemning it for failing to take measures to prevent the genocidal act occurred in Srebrenica and for failing to punish genocide by failing to arrest individuals indicted for war crimes by the ICTY, and exempting the Serb state for any financial compensation towards Bosnia. The ICJ ruling has both released Serbia from the burden of guilt and, as Sonja Biserko and Edina Becirevic have stated, provided “a frame for Serbia to stick to”, which is “evident in domestic courts speaking with one voice that Serbia and its army have never had anything to do in Bosnia.”

This trend is the product of a significant communion in the way the current ruling elite in Serbia, the Special Prosecutor, Vladimir Vukcevic, and the court’s judges are dealing with the legacy of the Bosnian war, and consists basically in responding to internationally imposed constraints linked to the interest in joining the European Union by abandoning, on the one hand, the strategy of denial of the Massacre of Srebrenica, while, on the other hand, highlighting Serb victimhood, which results in the establishment of an apparent moral equivalence that will preserve the Serb national narrative of the Bosnian war, depicted as a Bosnian civil war in which the Bosnian Serbs were primarily acting in self-defence. This trend is also shared by the ruling elite in Republika Srpska, as is clear, among other things, by the term officially used there to define the war: Defensive-Fatherland war (odbrambeno-otadžbinski rat).

In this narrative, Serbia, as a state, is both exempted from any responsibility in the war, which represents the continuation of Milosevic’s argument at the time; and portrayed as the perennial protector of the Serbs, independently of where they live. Indeed, it is common practice that the Interior Ministry of Bosnia’s Republika Srpska reports, not to the Bosnian Special Prosecutor for War Crimes, but to his Serbian counterpart, on grounds that the Bosnians are not dully investigating crimes in which the Serbs were the victims (this is confirmed by the Serbian Special Prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic in this interview).

It is in this context that the process against Ejup Ganic should be seen. The President of Serbia himself confirmed the link:

“I believe that the Serbian parliament will soon adopt a resolution on Srebrenica and it would be a great mistake if only the ruling majority were to vote for it,” Tadić said.

He remarked that all the dilemmas on whether one or two resolutions should be adopted and whether it was a genocide or a crime “have missed the point,” which is to say that the people are not to blame.

“Serbia must distance itself from that crime, because there were also mass crimes against the Serbs,” said Tadić.

The president added that the Serbian court system has proven that it can process war crimes and prosecute its own citizens who participated in them, like for example the trial against members of the Scorpions, a paramilitary unit that was involved in the Srebrenica massacre, but that it does not want to take over every trial.(B92, 7 March 2010) (the second resolution mentioned by Tadic is supposed to specifically condemn the crimes committed against Serbs).

The ability of Serbia’s courts to provide a fair trial is, however, denied by the outcome of a number of war crimes trials recently held at the Special Court. In April 2009, the Humanitarian Law Centre, which has been systematically monitoring all war crimes trials, published a report (Trials for war crimes and ethnically and politically motivated crimes in post-Yugoslav countries), in which it indicates important flaws:

The Supreme Court of Serbia continues with the practice of setting aside first-in stance convictions for war crimes, significantly reducing terms of imprisonment of those convicted and affirming acquittals, which gives rise to the suspicion that the reason behind these decisions may be political.

This tendency, which is restricted to defendants of Serb nationality, is reinforced by the tendency by the Trial Chamber to benefit Serb defendants with mitigating circumstances invoked to reduce the time of their sentences, despite the seriousness of the crimes involved.

Referring to the Skorpions’ case, mentioned above by Boris Tadic, the report states that:

In 2008, the Supreme Court reduced the term of imprisonment of the Scorpions member Branislav Medić from 20 to 15 years although he was sentenced for murdering at least two Bosniaks and active participation in the execution of all six captives. The Supreme Court affirmed the acquittal of Aleksandar Vukov, another member of the Scorpions unit, despite the fact that evidence heard during the proceedings conclusively proved his criminal responsibility. Since the Supreme Court is the highest last instance to decide upon prosecution appeals concerning the responsibility of the defendants, with all appeals being heard by one single chamber, always made up of the same justices, there is a real risk of arbitrariness in delivering final court rulings (p. 94).

And about the Bytyci brothers’ case:

This trial is on the whole very unusual. Indicted were some accessories that had a secondary role in the commission of the crime and no charges were brought against the immediate perpetrators, co-perpetrators, true helpers and those who gave orders (abettors). All these point to the fact that the whole procedure was initiated and organized in order to fulfil, at least to some extent, the request of the American administration that the murder of the Bytyqi brothers, American citizens, be prosecuted. In the final outcome, this trial served to protect some high-ranking officials of the Serbian MUP from criminal responsibility and mock justice“. (p. 99)

Other misconducts have consisted in randomly ordering the psychiatrical assessment of witnesses whose testimony could contribute to the conviction of the (Serb) defendants, as in the Suva Reka case:

complying with the authority and legal opinion of the Supreme Court, the trial chamber in the Suva Reka case ordered the psychiatric assessment of a significant number of witnesses, including all those who were ready to give full account of what they saw and heard about the incident which is the subject-matter of the indictment. Approximately 100 of the witnesses examined by the court said they had no knowledge about the incident the defendants are charged with, although the incident resulted in 49 people killed and took place in broad daylight [12:00 no on], in the very center of a very small town, in the immediate vicinity of the institutions where witnesses happened to be at the time of the incident. The court did not seek the psychiatric opinion on any of these witnesses, but of those witnesses who were willing to say in court what they had seen and heard, which is a non sense and absurd.” (p. 95)

Furthermore, the defence of non-Serb defendants is seriously impaired by the reluctance of potential defence witnesses to come to Serbia to testify, as was clear on the Tuzla Column case. The defence witness have funded reasons to fear being themselves arrested and tried, bearing in mind the  bad-faith with which Serbia is using the international and regional mechanisms of police and judiciary cooperation.

The Tuzla Column case is a very relevant precedent, in what regards the case here in appreciation, the Dobrovoljacka Street case. The defendant, Ilija Jurisic, was convicted to 12 years for ordering the attack against the JNA convoy in May 1992, which resulted in 51 deaths. According to the Humanitarian Law Centre, guilt was not established beyond reasonably doubt.

Justice is usually represented as a blindfolded woman wearing a sword on her right hand and a weighing scale on her left hand. In Serbia, however, an accurate portrait of Lady Justice would include only the sword. This is why  Ejup Ganic’s extradition to Serbia would constitute a gross injustice.

This brief analysis can only lead us to the conclusion that in Serbia, transitional justice is being subverted to such an extent that, instead of contributing to a wider process of regional reconciliation, it is, on the contrary working towards deepening the tensions in Bosnia. The possible approval by the Serbian parliament of a resolution about Srebrenica cannot be therefore interpreted as a sign that Serbia is finally coming to terms with its recent past, but rather as a merely tactical move towards European Union accession. This, in turn, should lead us to raise important questions about the prospect of Serbia’s European integration.

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Filed under Bosnia, EU, Justice, Serbia, Uncategorized, War