PHOTO: Relative of the Omarska concentration camp victims near the Western Bosnian town of Prijedor in Bosnia-Herzegovina holds photos of excavated bodies of her relatives on 06 August, 2006. You can view more concentration camp photos from Bosnian Genocide at this link.
By Tovah Lazaroff, JPost Correspondent in Geneva
Originally published: Apr 26, 2009.
JERUSALEM POST – As an inmate in the Omarska concentration camp in Bosnia, in 1992, Nusreta Sivac began her days by counting the corpses of those who had been killed overnight.
“We would see them on the grass in front of the ‘white house,’ which was a little building where the worst torture was committed,” she told the audience who had gathered on Friday to hear her and other victims of racism, including some from Rwanda. They spoke on the sidelines of the United Nations anti-racism conference that met in Geneva last week.
They sat on a small stage, set off from one of the main corridors in the UN’s European headquarters, at an event titled “Voices: Everyone affected by racism has a story that should be heard.”
Speaking with the help of a translator, Sivac explained how in April 1992 Serbs took over her native city of Prijedor, in the northwest part of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and went about “ethnically cleansing” the area of Muslims (Bosniaks) and Catholics (Croats).
First, “freedom of movement was strictly limited. Muslims and Croats had to wear white bands around their arms and to have white flags on the windows of their apartments,” she said.
Sivac was 40 and a judge in the municipal court. Within a few days of the takeover, she was banned from her job.
“I thought that was the worst thing that could ever happen to me, and later I realized that was only the introduction to the worst thing that could ever happen to a human being,” she said.
In June, she was asked to come to the police station, where she was forced onto a bus and driven away by members of the Serb military forces.
“I did not know in what direction I was taken. Only when we arrived I understood that I was taken to the Omarska concentration camp,” she said.
It was an unusual move because mostly it was men who were sent there, while women and children were typically driven to the border with the Bosnian-controlled area, where they sought protection, Sivac said.
She was one of 36 women among 3,500 men detained at the camp.
The women were given rooms above a restaurant. During the day they were forced to serve food or clean while the rooms that they slept in were used to torture prisoners.
“We would hear them screaming every day… When we would come up to the rooms to sleep, we first had to clean because blood was everywhere,” she said.
Every day, people were tortured to death and massacred. Drunken guards jumped on the bodies and sang Serb nationalist songs, she said.
Fathers would see their sons tortured and killed and sons would watch their fathers being murdered, she said.
“Even some of the detained women saw their husbands tortured, and no one was ever allowed to help anyone. They would have risked their lives,” she said.
“Once I saw my cousin running on the grass area covered by the massacred bodies and he was desperately looking for his son. Then I saw them killing him.”
Another time, she saw a Serb soldier take a knife and make a cross on a woman’s face.
Male prisoners were only given one meal a day, a small piece of bread, bean soup and coleslaw, she said.
“When detainees would go to eat, they had to pass a line of Serb guards that would beat them,” she said.
If prisoners did not finish the meal within minutes, they risked being beaten, sometimes to death, Sivac said.
Many people stopped going to meals to avoid the beatings.
For the women, nighttime was the worst, she said.
“The guards would come to the rooms and take us somewhere in the camp and rape us. That happened on a regular basis. We were not allowed to say anything to anyone. I was regularly raped and beaten,” said Sivac.
She was the only judge to survive the camp. All the male Muslim and Croat judges were killed. But Sivac survived until her release in August 1992, right before Western journalists and the Red Cross were brought in to see the camp, which was closed later that month.
Today, she has returned to live in Prijedor, which is now part of the Republic of Srpska. The city is now 99 percent ethnic Serb. Most of the Muslims live in the Federation of Bosnia, where there are some 500,000 Muslim refugees.
No one in the Republic of Srpska talks about what happened in 1992.
“I am surrounded by a society that does not recognize what happened, which I find very difficult,” Sivac said.
In Prijedor, “I see some of the perpetrators and some of those who came already out from The Hague,” she said.
Prejudice still runs so deep in Prijedor that she cannot work there. Instead she travels more than an hour to the Federation of Bosnia to work.
“I have been called to witness in The Hague and I have seen the man [Zeljko Mejakic] that was regularly raping and beating me and other women,” Sivac said.
“He was the worst to the women in the camp. I know that many of the women did not talk about their experiences, because it is extremely difficult to think and to talk about it, even for me today, but I have to be strong and let my voice be heard.”
In 1996, an American documentary, Calling the Ghosts, was made about her story.
Still, she told the audience in Geneva on Friday, very little attention is paid to what happened in Bosnia.
“Unfortunately, the concentration camps in Bosnia is something very rarely spoken about, which is dangerous. We should not close our eyes to what happened. We should condemn it and never allow it to happen again,” she said.
UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay, who joined the panel, said, “This is why this conference matters. It is because of your experiences.”
Racism, she said, “is a global human tragedy blighting lives and destroying the future of men, women and children in every corner of the world. We must always insure that the voices of the victims are heard and that they resonate.”
Mindstream: A Monthly Jewish Review November 1992. Volume XXXVIII No.8.
PHOTO: Banjica concentration camp near Belgrade was primarily staffed by Serbs who wore NAZI uniforms. Photo shows Jews executed by Serbian Chetniks (Nazi collaborators) in October 1941 in Serbia.
By: Dr. Philip J. Cohen
PHOTO: Adolf Hitler and Serbian Prince Paul of Yugoslavia (aka: Knez Pavle Karadjordjevic).
During four centuries of Ottoman rule in the Balkans, the Jewish communities of Serbia enjoyed religious tolerance, internal autonomy, and equality before the law, that ended with the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the emergence of the Serbian state. Soon after a Serbian insurrection against Turkish rule in 1804, Jews were expelled from the interior of Serbia and prohibited from residing outside of Belgrade. In 1856 and 1861, Jews were further prohibited from travel for the purpose of trade. In official correspondence from the late 19th century, British diplomats detailed the cruel treatment of the Jews of Serbia, which they attributed to religious fanaticism, commercial rivalries, and the belief that Jews were the secret agents of the Turks. Article 23 of the Serbian constitution granted equality to every citizen but Article 132 forbade Jews the right of domicile. The Treaty of Berlin 1878, which formally established the Serbian state, accorded political and civil equality to the Jews of Serbia, but the Serbian Parliament resisted abolishing restrictive decrees for another 11 years. Although the legal status of the Jewish community subsequently improved, the view of Jews as an alien presence persisted.
PHOTO: Serbian Chetnik Milan Nedic, the president of a Nazi-backed puppet government in Serbia during World War II, and Adolf Hitler meeting, September 19 1943.
Although Serbian historians contend that the persecution of the Jews of Serbia was entirely the responsibility of Germans and began only with the German occupation, this is self- serving fiction. Fully six months before the Nazi invasion of Yugoslavia, Serbia had issued legislation restricting Jewish participation in the economy and university enrolment. One year later on 22 October 1941, the rabidly antisemitic “Grand Anti-Masonic Exhibit” opened in occupied Belgrade, funded by the city of Belgrade. The central theme was an alleged Jewish- Communist-Masonic plot for world domination. Newspapers such as Obnova (Renewal) and Nasa Borba (Our Struggle) praised this exhibit, proclaiming that Jews were the ancient enemies of the Serbian people and that Serbs should not wait for the Germans to begin the extermination of the Jews. A few months later, Serbian authorities issued postage stamps commemorating the opening of this popular exhibit. These stamps, which juxtaposed Jewish and Serbian symbols (but did not contain Nazi symbols), portrayed Judaism as the source of world evil and advocated the humiliation and violent subjugation of Jews.
PHOTO: Draza Mihailovic’s commanders collaborated with German Nazi Fascists. On this photo, Draza Mihailovic’s commanders with the invader (from left to right): (1) Colonel Lucic, (2) Major Dangic, formerly of the Yugoslav Army, Chetnik commander, co-operators with the Germans and Milan Nedic’s men, (3) Ilija Trifunovic-Bircanin, Mihailovic’s commander for Dalmatia, (4) Milorad Ljanovski, (5) Daka Tesanovic, Chetnik commander, and (6) Lieutenant Ignjatovic, a German Nazi officer is shown by a cross.
Serbia as well as neighboring Croatia was under Axis occupation during the Second World War. Although the efficient destruction of Serbian Jewry in the first two years of German occupation has been well documented by respected sources, the extent to which Serbia actively collaborated in that destruction has been less recognized. The Serbian government under General Milan Nedic worked closely with local Naziofficials in making Belgrade the first “Judenfrei” city of Europe. As late as 19 September 1943, Nedic made an official visit to Adolf Hitler, Serbs in Berlin advanced the idea that the Serbs were the “Ubermenchen” (master race) of the Slavs.
Although the Serbian version of history portrays wartime Serbia as a helpless, occupied territory, Serbian newspapers of the period offer a portrait of intensive collaboration. In November 1941, Mihajlo Olcan, a minister in Nedic’s government boasted that “Serbia has been allowed what no other occupied country has been allowed and that is to establish law and order with its own armed forces”. Indeed, with Nazi blessings, Nedic established the Serbian State Guard, numbering about 20,000, compared to the 3,400 German police in Serbia. Recruiting advertisements for the Serb police force specified that “applicants must have no Jewish or Gypsy blood”. Nedic’s second in command was Dimitrije Ljotic, founder of the Serbian Fascist Party and the principal Fascist ideologist of Serbia. Ljotic organized the Serbian Volunteers Corps, whose primary function was rounding up Jews, Gypsies, and partisans for execution. Serbian citizens and police received cash bounties for the capture and delivery of Jews.
The Serbian Orthodox Church openly collaborated with the Nazis, and many priests publicly defended the persecution of the Jews. On 13 August 1941, approximately 500 distinguished Serbs signed “An Appeal to the Serbian Nation”, which called for loyalty to the occupying Nazis. The first three signers were bishops of the Serbian Orthodox Church. On 30 January 1942, Metropolitan Josif, the acting head of the Holy Synod of the Serbian Orthodox Church, officially prohibited conversions of Jews to Serbian Orthodoxy, thereby blocking a means of saving Jewish lives. At a public rally, after the government minister Olcan “thanked God that the enormously powerful fist of Germany had not come down upon the head of the Serbian nation” but instead “upon the heads of the Jews in our midst”, the speaker of these words was then blessed by a high-ranking Serbian Orthodox priest.
A most striking example of Serbian antisemitism combined with historical revisionism is the case of Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic (1880-1956), revered as one of the most influential church leaders and ideologists after Saint Sava, founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. To Serbs, Bishop Velimirovic was a martyr who survived torture in the Dachau prison camp. In truth he wasbrought to Dachau (as were other prominent European clergy), because the Nazis believed he could be useful for propaganda. There he spent approximately two months as an “Ehrenhaftling” (honour prisoner) in a special section, dining on the same food as the German officers, living in private quarters, and making excursions into town under German escort. From Dachau, this venerated priest endorsed the Holocaust:
“Europe is presently the main battlefield of the Jew and his father, the devil, against the heavenly Father and his only begotten Son… (Jews) first need to become legally equal with Christians in order to repress Christianity next, turn Christians into atheist, and step on their necks. All the modern European slogans have been made up by Jews, the crucifiers of Christ: democracy, strikes, socialism atheism, tolerance of all religions, pacifism, universal revolution, capitalism and communism… All this has been done with the intention to eliminate Christ… You should think about this, my Serbian brethren, and correspondingly correct your thoughts, desires and acts.” (Bishop Nikolaj Velimirovic: Addresses to the Serbian People–Through the Prison Window. Himmelsthur, Germany: Serbian Orthodox Eparchy for Western Europe, 1985, pp. 161-162).
Today, many Serbs proudly cite the Chetniks as a resistance force and even claim that the Chetniks were somehow allied with the United States during the Second World War, but this is simply historical revisionism. According to the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust, Chetnik resistance against the Nazis came to a complete stop as early as the end of 1941. Thereafter, the Chetnik resistance actively collaborated with the both Nazis and Fascists, and for this reason Jewish fighters found it necessary to abandon the Chetniks, in favour of Tito’s Partisans. In reality, the Chetniks, dedicated primarily to the restoration of the Serbian throne and territorial expansion of the Serbian state, were the moral counterpart of Croatia’s Ustatsha. Both were quintessentially genocidal; the Chetniks committed systematic genocide against Muslims, who, for nearly all of 500 years had lived peacefully with the Sephardic Jewish community. Under explicit orders from their leader Draza Mihailovic, the Chetniks attempted to depopulate Serbia,
Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Croatia of all non- Serbs and in the process, massacred most of the 86,000 to 103,000 Muslims who perished during the war.
For years, the Serbian dominated Belgrade government has supported and trained PLO terrorists. Immediately after the murder of Leon Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro in 1985, the terrorist mastermind Abu Abbas was welcomed in Belgrade. Since the late 1980’s, Abu-Nidal has maintained a large terrorist infrastructure in Yugoslavia, in coordination with Libyan, Iraqi, and Yugoslav intelligence services. During the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as Iraqi missiles landed in Israel, Belgrade supported its ally Iraq. Support of anti-Israel terrorism may be a consequence of support for nonaligned Arab states, rather than an expression of anti-Jewish sentiment.
Although the Jewish community of Serbia is not currently experiencing persecution, overt expressions of Serbian antisemitism do surface in such mainstream institutions as the Serbian Orthodox Church and the official news media. The 15 January 1992 issue of the official publication of the Serbian Orthodox Church, Pravoslavlje (Orthodoxy), carried an article entitled, “Jews Crucify Christ Again.” In this polemic, “treacherous” and “surreptitious” Israeli politicians were said to be constrained from expressing their “pathological” hatred of Christians openly because “they know that Christian countries gave them the state.” Allegedly, nuns are so
frequently beaten in Israel, that one nun was actually “happy, because they only spit in her face.” Only weeks later, when Russia extended diplomatic recognition to the former Yugoslav republics of Croatia and Slovenia, the official Yugoslav (Serbian perspective) news agency Tanjug blamed “a Jewish conspiracy” against Serbia, hauntingly reminiscent of the theme of the 1941
The essential strategy of Serbian propaganda is to portray the spiritual kinship between Jews and Serbs as victims of the Holocaust and endangered by Croats. This concept is disseminated through the Serbian-Jewish Friendship Society, founded in Belgrade in 1988 and supported by the Serbian government. In January and February 1992, Dr. Klara Mandic, the secretary-general and principal voice of this organization, syndicated a chilling article in the North American Jewish press. This article alleged that Ankica Konjuh, an elderly Jewish woman, was tortured and murdered by “Croat extremists” in September 1991. However, even as she released this story to the press, Dr. Mandic knew that Ankica Konjuh was neither a Jew norcould have been killed by Croats. Bona-fide witnesses have testified that Ankica Konjuh, a 67 year-old Croat, was one of 240 civilians massacred by Serbian forces after the last Croat defenders were driven from the region. Moreover on 23 December 1991, the Federation of Jewish Communities of Yugoslavia met in Belgrade and demanded in writing that Dr. Mandic cease and desist misrepresenting Ankica Konjuh as the first Jewish victim of the war.
Nevertheless, in late February 1992, when Dr. Mandic lectured at the Hillel House of George Washington University in Washington, D.C., she provided the rabbi with a copy of that misleading article, delivered without further comment. It is noteworthy that this speaking engagement was part of a tour arranged by Wise Communications, a Washington-based public relations firm representing the Serbian oil company Jugopetrol, a thinly veiled proxy for the Communist Belgrade government. Beginning with the proposition that antisemitism has never existed in Serbia, Dr. Mandic portrayed Croatia as preparing to repeat the Holocaust. She claimed to be a “Jewish leader,” although Jews are distinctly absent from her constituency. Less than half a dozen Jews are actual members of her society of several thousand. She introduced herself as an “eyewitness” speaking on behalf of Croatian Jews, although since the war began, she has had no contact with any of the nine Jewish communities of Croatia. When Dr. Mandic was asked to comment on Serbian (Yugoslav Army) shelling of the synagogue of Dubrovnik, the second oldest surviving synagogue in Europe, she denied that the synagogue had ever been damaged at all. Meanwhile, the attack has been well documented by the Jewish community of Dubrovnik and the World Monument Fund.
Jewish sensitivity to the Holocaust is similarly exploited by the Jewish-Serbian Friendship Society of America (Granada Hills, California), an offshoot of Dr. Mandic’s organization. Its newsletter equates the Jewish and Serbian positions during World War II, both as victims of Croats, but fails to mention Serbian complicity in the Holocaust, Serbian collaboration with the Nazis, and Serbian genocide against Croats, Gypsies, and Muslims. It warns of an imminent Holocaust being initiated in Croatia. A contrasting portrayal of Croatia, however, emerges from a spectrum of Croatian Jews, American Jews who have visited Croatia, and international Jewish agencies monitoring events on site. All concur that there is no state-sponsored antisemitism in Croatia; the rights of the Jewish minority are respected; and antisemitic incidents are virtually unknown. Thus, only a few dozen of the 2,000 Jews of Croatia have chosen to emigrate to Israel since the war began.
Serbia of today and Germany in World War II offer striking parallels. In 1991, Vojislav Seselj, a member of the Serbian Parliament and leader of the Serbian irregulars who call themselves Chetniks, declared, “We want no one else on our territory and we will fight for our true borders. The Croats must either move or die.” Croats in Serbian conquered regions are forced to wear red-and-white armbands, analogous to the yellow armbands worn by Jews in Serbia during the Holocaust. The stated purpose of the expulsion of Muslims and Croats from captured regions is “ethnic cleansing.” The indigenous non-Serbian populations of the invaded territories are being driven from their homes, exterminated, or imprisoned in concentration camps, to create regions of Serbian ethnic purity. Jewish community centres, synagogues, and cemeteries have been damaged and destroyed by characteristically indiscriminate Serbian artillery attacks. To all of this, the Jewish-Serbian Friendship Society has remained conspicuously silent.
Belgrade has promoted the myth of Serbian kinship with the Jews as fellow victims of Nazi oppression, while concealing the true extent of Serbian collaboration with the Nazis. It is ironic that Serbia is now seeking Jewish support for a war in which both the idealogy and methodology so tragically echo nazism. The European Community, the Helsinki Commission, the United
Nations, and the United States have all condemned Serbia as the aggressor.
Western diplomats have characterized the current Serbian regime as “a lying, terrorist criminal organization.” Serbia, however, claims to be the victim and campaigns for Jewish sympathy and support, exploiting the powerful symbolism of the Holocaust. Serbia’s professed solicitude for the Jewish people must be reexamined.
Flashback: What did Bosnian Serbs do in heavily militarized villages around Srebrenica from 1991-1995? They had participated in a number of brutal massacres against the Bosniak population in and around Srebrenica, including nearby municipality of Vlasenica.
Flashback: What did Bosnian Serbs do in heavily militarized villages around Srebrenica from 1991-1995? They had participated in a number of brutal massacres against the Bosniak population in and around Srebrenica, including nearby municipality of Vlasenica.
Among the victims in Rakita there are mother and daughter Almasa and Suada Hajdarevic and Salko and Mehmed Efendic who come from a family in which seven brothers and one cousin were murdered.
Serbs from heavily militarized villages around Srebrenica murdered 2.600 Bosnian Muslim civilians in Vlasenica municipality during the past war. Until now, 650 remains were exhumed and 350 bodies identified.
“We are going to Tuzla, Kozarac, Visegrad, to as many places as we possibly can, to places where Serbs committed crimes in our name, led by those who in the name of Serbhood, in the name of Greater Serbia, in the name of criminal politics, those who had committed such horrible brutalities. We express our human responsibility and a community act of solidarity with the victims of these crimes… We are disgusted with the current government in Serbia, as well as with the International community’s injustice toward the victims of this crime, which is one of countless crimes committed against the people of Bosnia-Herzegovina, especially against the people of Bosniak nationality.”
Only Dragan Nikolic was convicted to 20 years of imprisonment for crimes in this town, while proceedings are ongoing against two more individuals. Other perpetrators are still free.
Here are NAMES of buried victims and FUNERAL PHOTOS:
- Hajdarević (Derviš) Almasa (1936-1992)
- Hodžić (Ahmo) Sadidin (1965-1992)
- Jahić (Avdo) Almir (1975-1992)
- Musić (Meho) Mehmed (1928-1993)
- Pezić (Sulejman) Enis (1962-1992)
- Salkić (Šaban) Nedžada (1974-1992)
- Hajdarević (Emin) Suvada (1954-1992)
- Heljo (Sejfo) Jasmin (1973-1992)
- Salaharević (Muhamed) Edin (1973-1992)
- Kičić (Munib) Galib (1974-1992)
- Efendić (Ahmo) Mehmed (1973-1992)
- Efendić (Ibro) Salko (1964-1992)
- Arnaut (Ramo) Selim (1956-1992)
- Hidić (Mehmedalija) Hakija (1952-1992)
- Durić (Hamid) Osman (1956-1992)
- Mekić (Haso) Melka (1912-1992)
- Hurić (Himzo) Hajrudin (1965-1992)
- Huremović (Mujo) Osman (1927-1992)
- Mehmedović (Redžo) Nedžad (1966-1992)
- Mehmedović (Redžo) Kemal (1964-1992)
- Gagulić (Alija) Hajrudin (1963-1993)
- Esmić (Muhamed) Mujo (1959-1993)
- Heljo (Sejdo) Paša (1927-1992)
- Jašarević (Sinan) Kadir (1959-1992)
- Hadžić (Muradif) Enes (1961-1992)
- Karač (Hamdija) Sead (1969-1992)
- Patković (Huso) Hasib (1940-1992)
- Ibralić (Šaban) Husein (1951-1992)
- Begić (Hasan) Suljo (1928 -1995)
- Ferhatović (Avdo) Advija (1974-1992)
- Mušanović (Mustafa) Fahrudin (1961 – 1992)
- Mušanović (Mustafa) Mevludin (1958 – 1992)
- Kastrati (Ahmet) Rahman (1931 – 1992)
- Hodžić (Juso) Rešid (1971-1993).
DID YOU KNOW? Serbs have repeatedly blocked the legislation on Holocaust and genocide denial in the Parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina. After all, the first experiments in mass executions of Jewish camp inmates by poison gas were carried out by Serbs that collaborated with Nazis. Serbia was the first country to declare itself “Judenfrei” (“cleansed” of Jews). Today, Bosniak MP commemorated the Holocaust Remembrance Day (Yom Hashoa) and called for this important legislation to be adopted.
Bosniak Member of Parliament Marks the Holocaust Remembrance Day: Yom Hashoah
House of Representatives, Member
Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina
On Tuesday 21st April 2009, we are commemorating Yom Hashoah, the Holocaust Remembrance Day. This date, 27. Nisan according to the Hebrew calendar, marks the anniversary of the 1943 Warsaw ghetto uprising.
I take this opportunity to honor the heroes of the 1943 Warsaw uprising, and also to remember that we still have to fight fascist ideology, so that this ideology will be defeated once and for all.
Although the fascist states have been defeated, fascism as an ideology has not. I sincerely hope that the Parliament of Bosnia and Herzegovina will find the courage to adopt legislation against Holocaust and genocide denial. And in that way, it would be a contribution to the fight against fascism.
1. Jews and Bosnian Muslims have joint experience in persecution and genocide in Europe
2. Serb Nazi collaborators murdered 20,000 Muslims around Srebrenica in 1943 genocide
3. Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel condemns Karadzic for denial of Srebrenica genocide
4. Hasan Nuhanovic interview for the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum
5. Jasenovac Research Institute – a Serbian-nationalist organization that denies Srebrenica genocide
6. So called “Srebrenica Historical Project” and Stefan Karganovic’s Anti-Semitic Source
7. Our Friends at the United States Holocaust Museum
8. Holocaust Denier David Irving Jailed in Austria
9. Holocaust Remembrance Day 2008
A case against four Srebrenica genocide survivors – Samir Avdic, Nedzad Hasic, Ahmo Harbas and Behrudin Husic – is marked by severe torture and forced confessions. Serb interrogators are on record for using knives to carve crude Orthodox crosses on the shoulders of tortured prisoners. The human rights groups have asserted that the confessions had been forced and that there was no evidence to support the convictions.
Republished in accordance with the Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
Justice can be a tricky business. Some 8,000 men and boys were killed in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre. And while the Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) victims have been seeking some form of justice ever since, Bosnian Serb authorities are doing the same by trying Bosniak men for the murder of four Serb men and one Bosniak man in a forest that has become synonymous with the Srebrenica massacre.
What happened in that forest, where thousands of Bosniak men fled after the fall of Srebrenica to Serb forces, is what Bosnian Serb authorities hope will tip the scales of justice. The question now is this: Will the sentencing of a group of Bosniak men for the murder of four Serb men and one Muslim help to balance out the deaths of 8,000?
The war crimes case, which has dragged on in the Republika Srpska courts for 13 long years, is wrought with legal ambiguities, political obstruction and bizarre circumstances.
On 4 March 2009, a local court in Bijeljina (Republika Srpska) sentenced 43-year-old Samir Avdic for murdering a Bosniak man, Munib Mustafic, from Srebrenica, while fleeing from Bosnian Serb forces. The court sentenced Avdic to five years in prison, minus the three years he had already spent in custody following his initial arrest in 1996.
“In my client’s case, all human rights conventions and legal procedures were violated. The case, where no material evidence was found, is marked by humiliation, torture, threats, severe beatings and a false confession,” Damir Alagic, Avdic’s newly appointed lawyer, told ISN Security Watch.
The court based its sentence solely on Avdic’s signed confession given to police investigators immediately following his arrest – despite claims from psychiatrists and medical examiners that the confession was given after days of brutal interrogation. Medical records state that Avdic had suffered broken ribs and a broken leg, head injuries and hand wounds and that interrogators had used a knife to carve a crude Orthodox cross on his shoulder. However, according to the signed confession, the injuries and the carving were inflicted upon the defendant by other members of the group with whom he fled to the forest.
Out of five medical examiners who participated in the case trials in 1997, 1998 and 2009, four concluded that Avdic was mentally unstable and unfit to stand trial or to sign a confession.
During the latest trial, Avdic denied having confessed to the murder, claiming that he had signed documents presented to him by investigators and prosecutors without understanding their contents. Aside from the confession, no additional evidence was produced, nor was the body of Mustafic ever found, though it was determined that he was killed during the 1995 massacre in Srebrenica.
A chain of tragedies
Avdic was in born in Bratunac, a small town near Srebrenica which fell to Bosnian Serb forces in the summer of 1992. Prior to the Serb military offensive, many Bosniak men fled to Srebrenica, while women and children remained behind. While Serb forces overtook Bratunac, Avdic’s wife, mother, six-year-old daughter and dozens of other family members were killed. Over 3,000 Bosniak civilians were killed in Bratunac during the offensive.
In the days between 11-15 July 1995, two years after being designated a UN Safe Area, Srebrenica became the scene of the worst massacre in the Bosnian war, with Bosnian Serb army, police and paramilitary forces killing up to 8,000 men and boys, most of them while trying to reach territory controlled by the Bosnian army, some 55 kilometers away.
The Bosnian Serb army easily disarmed some 400-strong Dutch UN forces. Women and children found shelter in the Potocari UN base near Srebrenica, while the men, both civilians and disarmed soldiers, fled to the surrounding forests.
Following UN negotiations with Serb troops, some 25,000 women were [forcibly] transferred by bus from the Potocari base to territory under the control of the Bosnian army.
UN peacekeepers handed over to the Bosnian Serb forces about 5,000 Muslims who had been sheltering at the Potocari base, allegedly in return for the release of 14 Dutch peacekeepers who were being held captive at the Nova Kasaba base near Srebrenica.
Witnesses estimate that there were between 10,000 and 15,000 men attempting to flee Srebrenica through the forest, and that they had divided themselves up into hundreds of individual groups to avoid ambushes. Some 3,500 of those men made it safely to the city of Tuzla on 16 July. The rest were killed, captured or trapped behind Serb lines.
One of the groups that managed to escape from Srebrenica, but failed to make it out of Serb-controlled territory, was the “Zvornik Seven,” of which Avdic was a member. After the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995, Avdic and six other men remained hidden in the forest for nearly 11 months, near Poljanice, only a few kilometers from besieged Srebrenica.
According to their testimonies, they survived on a diet largely of leaves, grass and snails. The high summer temperatures caused dehydration and finding water sources was a continual problem. A cave in a nearby mountain provided shelter from Serb patrols during the daylight hours, while nights were spent foraging for food.
On 11 May 1996, unaware that the war had ended six months earlier, the group came upon a NATO Implementation Forces (IFOR) patrol and surrendered, asking to be transferred to territory under the control of the Bosnian army.
However, en route to Tuzla, they were intercepted by a Republika Srpska police patrol, who claimed that the seven were wanted for murder. The Bosnian Serb police demanded that IFOR hand them over for questioning. The men were transferred to the city of Zvornik, in Republika Srpska, where they were charged with the murder of four Serb men, while Avdic was additionally charged with the murder of Mustafic, the Bosnian Muslim.
According to their statements to the local media and from IFOR members present at the interrogations, the men were severely beaten by both police investigators and inmates while held in custody, forced to endure sleep deprivation and then tortured into signing documents that are believed to be their alleged confessions. Mysteriously, following the December 1998 retrial, the transcripts and signed confessions disappeared, and the 2009 trial was forced to rely on the 1998 verdict for evidence of the confession.
In the case files, ISN Security Watch discovered that the members of the group confessed to the murder of four men from Milici. The alleged confession stated that after the murder they cut the bodies of the victims, burned and buried them. As for Munib Mustafic, Avdic confessed that he murdered him in August 1995 in the cave in which they were hiding for hoarding salt.
In the quick trial, three of the men – Nedzad Hasic, Ahmo Harbas and Behrudin Husic – were sentenced by a Zvornik court in May 1997 to 20 years in prison. The others were released due to lack of evidence. The allegedly murdered Munib Mustafic, whom police said was the eighth member of the group, was never indicted. (It remains unclear to this day how Bosnian Serb authorities determined that Mustafic was murdered in the forest.)
Interestingly, the court accepted the argument put forth by Avdic’s defense team (assigned by the Bosnian Serb authorities) that in a “state of war a Bosniak, enemy soldier was not a protected object,” referring to Mustafic. The acceptance by the court of this argument is rather contradictory given that Mustafic and Avdic were both Bosniaks.
The members of the group were also sentenced to an additional year in prison for the possession of a large amount of firearms and explosive devices on the territory of Republika Srpska. The defendants confessed in 1996 that they had a single rifle in their possession, but deny the existence of any other weapons.
In the retrial in December 1998, the sentences for Hasic and Harbas were upheld while Husic was sentenced to 11 years for involvement in murdering one of the men. The previously released Avdic, who at that time lived in US, was sentenced in absentia to 10 years in prison for murdering Mustafic, but the sentence was reduced to six years.
Both processes were regarded as unjust by the international community in Bosnia and Herzegovina and human rights groups, who asserted that the confessions had been forced and that there was no evidence to support the convictions.
The convictions seem to have been based almost solely on self-incriminating statements signed by the defendants after they had been tortured or ill-treated by Zvornik police in the original investigative procedures. International Police Task Force representatives present at the police interrogation confirmed that the defendants had been beaten by police investigators.
Legal experts and international monitors claimed that little other evidence was produced to sustain the murder charges. Only partial remains of the bodies of two of the murdered Bosnian Serbs were found, while the other two have never been found. The court refused to obtain blood samples from the remains to be analyzed and matched with blood stains found on the clothes of some of the defendants.
Murat Tahirovic, the head of an association of Bosnian prison camp inmates, which provided legal help for Avdic, said that the trials were highly politicized from the beginning and that all seven men were victims of a dysfunctional system.
“These trials, from 1997 until today have nothing to do with the law or punishing murderers, rather with Bosnian Serb efforts to equalize the crimes from Srebrenica massacre. With this case they are trying to say that maybe Serbs killed Bosniaks in Srebrenica, but Bosniaks were killing each other as well,” Tahirovic told ISN Security Watch.
“I can’t say whether Avdic is guilty or not, but if Republika Srpska cares about Srebrenica Bosniaks, why didn’t they punish the murders of the rest of the 8,000 people killed?” he asked.
“Several reports noted that around 25,083 people from Republika Srpska were involved in the events in Srebrenica. We prepared a file of 430 persons directly involved in the Srebrenica massacre who are still working in the entity institutions. The question is, why Republika Srpska authorities so far have not charged anybody for the Srebrenica massacre or made any arrests,” Tahirovic said.
In January 1999, the Republika Srpska Justice Ministry decided to exchange three of the indicted men for three Bosnian Serbs serving sentences for war crimes in Tuzla, in the Bosniak-Croat run Federation entity, and soon afterward amnestied them, while the Federation Justice Ministry moved to temporarily release Hasic, Husic and Harbas.
All three have fled the country. ISN Security Watch has learned that Hasic and Harbas currently live in Switzerland, holding Swiss citizenship, and that authorities there have refused to hand them over to Republika Srpska. Husic lives and works in Croatia. Furthermore, all members of the group have been deemed mentally and physically handicapped as a result of their months of hiding in the forest and the subsequent police torture.
Following his initial release, Avdic lived in the US on a temporary visa until 2000. He remarried and had a child. In March 2007, he was arrested for assault and reckless driving, but charged only with being a fugitive from a foreign country. Acting on a warrant issued by Republica Srpska in 1998, the US extradited Avdic in August 2007 to authorities there.
After his deportation, Avdic gave a new statement to the court claiming that Mustafic had not been a member of their group and that he had not had contact with the victim following the fall of Srebrenica.
“After that I never saw him again. I signed the confession document but the content was written by the prosecutor […]I don’t know how they came up with the information but I did not tell them anything,” Avdic wrote in the statement obtained by ISN Security Watch. He also denied his previous statement that the he had not been severely beaten by police investigators in Zvornik. The original 1996 confession said his injuries had been inflicted by Hasic.
“For Samir Avdic, the war is still not over. He is the victim of the leftovers of war propaganda while some figures are trying to build their political careers on his case. This is all about bad people in very influential positions,” Alagic said.
The lawyer also said that even now, some Bosnian Serb authorities are trying to pressure Avdic into not withdrawing his confession and implicating wartime Bosniak officials from Srebrenica by threatening to issue an extradition request for his 7-year-old son now living in the US and offering to reveal the location of the remains of his slain wife and daughter.
Alagic says he is sure that with new witnesses, new evidence and expert testimonies, Avdic and the other members of the “Zvornik Seven” group will soon be freed.
Anes Alic is a senior writer for ISN Security Watch, based in Sarajevo. He is also the co-founder and executive director of ISA Consulting, based in Sarajevo and Tel Aviv. Republished for “Fair Use” in accordance with the Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107.
That date will mark the 14th anniversary of the genocide in the town, said Munira Subašić, chairman of the Movement of Mothers from the Srebrenica and Žepa Enclaves Association.Furthermore, the association will hold a series of Round Tables, book promotions and other events to mark the ccasion.
“Who could ever have imagined 50 years after ‘Never Again’, after Auschwitz, Treblinka, Mautthausen, Oranienburg Sachsenhausen… that we would again see concentration camps (photos), mass expulsions, mass murder… that genocide would happen again? And happen again it did, in the heart of Europe – in Bosnia & Herzegovina.” – Fadila Memišević
TRANSCRIPT / TRANSLATION
Today, on the birthday of Sarajevo, as citizens of Sarajevo like to call it, we are organising a worldwide campaign to commemorate and remember the victims of genocide – not just in Bosnia & Herzegovina but all around the world. We are organizing this event together with the US Genocide Prevention Project organization.
Mario Mančić, Youth Initiative for Human Rights – Croatia:
We are gathered here today in order to mark out the Sarajevo Rose – at the place where a crime was committed – as a way of keeping alive the memory of what happened. The most important thing is that it is young people from all across the region who are doing this together. So we have come from Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia & Herzegovina, from Montenegro, to mark out this spot together as part of our programme of joint activities with partner organizations.
Sarah Harović, Youth Initiative for Human Rights – Montenegro:
I am Sarah Harović and I have come from Podgorica ahead of Youth Initiative Montenegro and – I am here also with the Youth Initiative Bosnia &Herzegovina – we are here together with the rest of the team from across the region. There are representatives from Croatia – from Zagreb, Youth Initiative Zagreb, there are people from Serbia – Youth Initiative Serbia.
I consider it a great honour that we, as young people and as people from across the region, are able to take part today in a really great activity like painting the Sarajevo roses which is important to all of you and also to us young people, firstly of course because we were unable to do anything ourselves in the past but also I think we can help build better relations and create a better future for ourselves – a better future for all of us in the region.
Fadila Memišević, Director of Society for Threatened Peoples – BiH:
We came here to send a message out to the world – and to the United Nations in particular – that preventive action must be taken to ensure that genocides will happen never again. Who could ever have imagined 50 years after “Never Again”, after Auschwitz, Treblinka, Mautthausen, Oranienburg-Sachsenhausen… that we would again see concentration camps (see photos), mass expulsions, mass murder… that genocide would happen again? And happen again it did, in the heart of Europe – in Bosnia & Herzegovina.
From Genocide Prevention Project’s press release:
“I lost my whole family during the crimes committed in Srebrenica. Today, all I hope for is to find the remains of my sons and my husband and to bury them properly,” said Hatidza Mehmedovic, a Srebrenica survivor and President of the Mothers of Srebrenica.
“Together, as survivors of genocide, we come together to raise our collective voice to call on the international community to stop and prevent mass atrocities and genocide all over the world. The world failed to stop these crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina, but we call for action today in Darfur.”
“Today, we send a strong message to all the governments of the former Yugoslavia that those responsible for genocide, such as Ratko Mladic, must be held accountable and sent to the ICTY for prosecution and punishment,” said Fadila Memisevic, Director of the Society for Threatened Peoples – Bosnia & Herzegovina.
“In addition, we stand in solidarity with all other survivors of genocide around the world to demand that those responsible for the horrendous crimes committed in Cambodia, Rwanda, and Darfur are held accountable.”
The International Association of Genocide Scholars held its 7th biennial meeting in Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina, on 9-13 July 2007. Also in 2005, Dr. Kathleen Young took students with her to the Genocide Conference and memorial service to commemorate the 10 year anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide. Please watch her video: