Articles on the Bosnia Conflict



Report #8 – Prijedor and vicinity
By Peter Lippman
August 2013

2013 Report index

Report 1:  Kosovo, mid-July, 2013
Report 2Sarajevo, July 2013
Report 3Sarajevo, continued July 2013
Report 4Tuzla, July 2013
Report 5Mostar, July 2013
Report 6Srebrenica, August 2013

Report 7Srebrenica, continued, August 2013
Report 8:  Prijedor and vicinity, August 2013
Report 9:  Prijedor and vicinity, part two, August 2013
Report 10: Tomašica, December 2013

Previous journals and articles

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From Srebrenica I took a full day to travel up and over to the Krajina, Bosnia’s northwest corner, via Bijeljina. During my visits to Banja Luka, Prijedor, and Kozarac in late 2012 I had  encountered many signs of vibrant activism, and potential for more. The protests around the devastation and commercial development in Picin Park had taken place in Banja Luka. There was Emir Hodžić’s solitary commemoration of White Armband Day, May 31st, in Prijedor. There was no letup in the struggle for memorialization on the part of returnees and activists living in Prijedor, Kozarac, and the surrounding region. And these activists were communicating with each other and with other activists in Sarajevo, Mostar, Tuzla, and elsewhere in the country.

All this led me to conclude that 2013 was going to see spreading protest and activism. As you’ve seen from the earlier reports in this series, my expectations were fulfilled more than I could have imagined.

And my arrival back in the Krajina saw additional ongoing collaboration, ferment, commemoration, and solidarity among activists throughout the country. (People who are very familiar with activism in Bosnia are aware that relationships among the activists are not always free of friction, but it is not my place to discuss that here.)

You could say that the main problem in the Krajina is lack of justice. Over three thousand people – Croats and Muslims – were killed early  in the war, some in the notorious concentration camps of Omarska, Keraterm, Trnopolje, and Manjača, among others, and some on their own doorsteps. The rest of the non-Serb population was expelled. At least 1,200 of those killed are still missing. (I note that it is difficult to give hard numbers concerning these figures, as there are widely varying estimates. I have shared the most commonly-repeated ones.)

The fight against apartheid is part of the struggle for justice. Thousands of people, mainly Muslims and a few Croats, returned to their pre-war homes between 1998 and 2002 or so. They live as second-class citizens.

One of the rights that these people do not have is the right to commemorate publicly their experiences during the war and to honor their loved ones who were killed and/or disappeared. There are incidental exceptions to this; occasional gatherings are allowed, and there are a couple of plaques or markers of mass graves. But there is no permanent commemorative center and gathering place where survivors are free to visit. Mayor Pavić of Prijedor has seen to that. There is no concrete official, governmental support for the struggle, only obstruction.

But the fight goes on, and it is my impression that activists in the region and in the diaspora are more determined, more organized, and more productive than before. Theirs is a frustrating, uphill, long-term battle, but people are not giving up.

In late August of this year Prijedor ’92, the local organization of concentration camp survivors, wrote a public letter to Mayor Pavić requesting the construction of a memorial center at the location of the wartime camp at Omarska. Among other things, the letter stated that “addressing the past and acknowledgment of our history is one of the most crucial conditions for the construction of a stable future. [So we call for] an appropriate monument that recalls the civilian victims from our city, which would serve as a memorial and educational center; thus we ask you to issue an approval for the construction of such a memorial center at the former camp of Omarska…with this act the city of Prijedor would show that it regards all victims in the past war as equals. The necessity of marking this place with a monument is based on the fact of more than seven hundred innocent citizens murdered in the camp at Omarska.”

Ancient kula (tower) in Kozarac

A few days into August I arrived in Kozarac and met up with Satko, a native of that town, now living in the diaspora, but back in Bosnia to visit for part of the summer. We caught up on news since I had seen him last. We drove to a nearby village and, as we were crossing the main road from Prijedor to Banja Luka, Satko pointed at a building and said, “This was a factory before the war. There, Serbs killed about ten Muslim policemen from Kozarac on the first day after Kozarac surrendered, on May 26th, 1992. They [the Muslim policemen] did not fight; they were just arrested and shot. Some of their children were passing by as their fathers were brought to this place to be killed. Now it is a shoe factory.

“Around the same time, they took other people captive and loaded them up into six buses. Two of those buses were taken to the concentration camp at Keraterm.”

Satko introduced me to his young friend Geerlof, a remarkable high school student. Geerlof was visiting from Holland for the first time. He had become inspired to travel to Bosnia and to learn more about the place, after having finished an unusually ambitious student project for his class. He had the opportunity to enter a national contest for the best essay, and he decided that he wanted to win this contest.

At first, Geerlof wasn’t sure what he was going to write about. His teacher suggested that he write about the Balkans, and he chose Bosnia. Then he narrowed his topic down to “Genocide in Bosnia.” He decided that he would focus on what had taken place in the Prijedor area in 1992, since he felt that Srebrenica had already received much more coverage. Geerlof prepared and studied for a year, and wrote somewhere between 40,000 and 50,000 words, he figures – about a hundred pages. When he was finishing his paper he learned that Satko lived nearby. So he interviewed him and that topped off the paper.

But Geerlof told me that the Balkans is not a subject that is covered in the Dutch high schools, that students who were in high school now were born after Srebrenica, and that many of them never heard of it.

Geerlof won the national prize for his paper. There were twelve categories and he won in his category. In honor of his success he was chosen to write an article for the best newspaper in Holland. He decided to write about Serbia. He wrote that for Serbia to join the EU, it has to recognize the crimes that were committed in Bosnia.

I was impressed by the intelligence and drive of this seventeen-year-old; we’ll be hearing more from him.

Demolished mosque in Kozarac

I spent a little time in Banja Luka, visiting Dražen Crnomat, activist with the organization UNSA Geto (see my previous writing about Geto). Dražen brought me up to date on activism and events in Banja Luka. At the same time that the Bebolucija was taking place, primarily in Sarajevo and other parts of the Federation, in Banja Luka there were student demonstrations that made somewhat of a splash. These had nothing to do with the standardized identity number law that had people out in the streets in the Federation. Rather, students were upset that they were crammed into overcrowded dormitories; they were demanding that an additional one be built for them.

You could say, however, that generalized discontent was boiling over, prompted by this particular last straw, just as the identity number law was the last straw in the Federation. The Republika Srpska boasts even more corruption and an even weaker economy than the other entity. But there were mixed reports about the meaning of the demonstrations. Certainly there was anger expressed at the entrenched, now seven-and-a-half-year rule of President Dodik. There were quite some sharp barbs flung back and forth between student leaders and representatives of Dodik’s party. But at the same time, some of the student protestors publicly disavowed any connection with or even concern for the big protests taking place simultaneously down in Sarajevo.

Referring to the student actions, Dražen said that they were right to protest. He said that after a few days of their actions, the government brought in special police from outlying municipalities to control and intimidate them.

On activism, Dražen further said that “There are some very fine younger people here now, you can work with them.” People in Banja Luka who are anything under twenty years old have basically spent their whole conscious lives living under a series of more or less separatist, nationalist regimes in their entity, where the main message, especially during the time of Dodik, has been that the Republika Srpska is Serb territory and that it is only reluctantly and temporarily part of Bosnia-Herzegovina. But while Dodik has overwhelming influence over the media in the RS, at the same time, at least for the more perceptive citizens, he creates his own anti-Dodik propaganda by virtue of his autocratic, corrupt, and bullying ways. So there are at least a few young people who, although they have no memory of a relatively healthy society, can still understand that the present situation is not acceptable and that something needs to be done about it.

However, Dražen was not particularly optimistic. He told me that the activism around the criminal commercial development at the former Picin Park has wound down. “The network has fallen apart here,” he said. “The problem is that society has been homogenized, separated by entities. Sarajevo suffered three and a half years of siege. And we have been living under occupation now for 21 years – by our own people. Banja Luka has to confront its own problems. In Sarajevo, there’s a smaller population than before the war. But in Banja Luka, it’s a bigger population. And there are 70,000 Banja Lukans in Sweden.”

I found it telling that Dražen referred to his own government as an occupation, using the same terminology as Emir Suljagić. And when I asked Dražen how he evaluated the March 1st Coalition’s registration campaign, he said, “If they can get some votes, then more power to them.”

In my last report I mentioned an activist in Srebrenica who asserted that eighty percent of the citizens of the Republika Srpska support the idea of secession. According to a very recent survey, it’s not that bad, but it’s still very bad. Roland Kostić, professor in the Department of Peace and Conflict Research at Uppsala University, has been conducting polls for the UN and other organizations in Bosnia-Herzegovina since 2005. In a poll for Ipsos released on November 11th, data from 2005 was contrasted with contemporary data. On one hand, 55% of Serbs polled in the RS in 2005 stated that they believed in the possibility of peaceful coexistence among Muslims, Serbs, and Croats. This year, that number rose to 66%.

On the other hand, in 2005 68% of polled Serbs favored annexation of the RS to Serbia, while this year the number remained very close at 67%. (For a report on this survey, click here.)

Dražen did mention one issue that was boiling over in Banja Luka as we spoke. That pertained to the recent arrest of Željko Vulić, a long-time resident of Banja Luka who operated an auto garage near the center of town. Unfortunately for him
Mile Radišić, the villain of the Picin Park outrage (where Dodik’s government gave his company Grand Trade permission to demolish and develop the land where the park had been located), was given permission to build near Vulić’s property as well. This property was immediately adjoining the park, so Radišić’s construction project was spilling over onto Vulić’s land.

I mentioned in a
report from last year that Radišić was a friend of Dodik and that he had been indicted for corruption, but that there had been no resolution to this case. The case in question was one of crooked privatization of land belonging to the state-owned company “Medicinska elektronika.” Radišić and a confederate, Bojan Golić, had been arrested in March 2010 for manipulating the tender that led to Radišić’s purchase of the land. Golić was the director of the IRB, the Investment-Development Bank of the Republika Srpska.

This may sound complicated, arcane, boring, or insignificant, but the Radišić case – both in connection with his earlier crooked dealings and with the legal brutality visited upon Vulić – is a perfect example of how Bosnia-Herzegovina doesn’t work. It’s a textbook illustration of cronyism and the plunder of socially-created wealth in the interest of a few gangster politicians and their friends, to the detriment and suffering of the mass of ordinary people. All the other ills of present-day Bosnian society are attached to this dynamic.

To continue: Golić had approved the below-market sale of the Medicinska elektronika land to Radišić on the basis of oral instructions by the then Minister of Finance, Aleksandar Džombić, a member of President Dodik’s party.

After being arrested in March of 2010, Džombić pled guilty to a charge of “unconscionable work in connection with the illegal manipulation of prices in sales pertaining to Medicinska elektronika.” He was sentenced to four months in jail.

Other ministers were involved in this malversation, but prosecutors did not investigate further. Radišić’s case was in limbo as of the time of the fracas with Vulić.

Back to Vulić: Radišić’s construction project connected with Picin Park was not threatening to encroach on Vulić’s property in the main, but only on the access road to the property. Removal of that access road threatened to close down Vulić’s business. So, over the months in the earlier part of this year (2013), Vulić and supporters protested and resisted construction around his access road. In response, security companies and the city police guarded Radišić’s construction operations. Activists associated with last year’s Picin Park campaign, recognizing a further illegal maneuver by the destroyer of their childhood park, gathered in support of the Vulić family.

In late June of this year, Vulić and his family and supporters stood in the way of Radišić’s bulldozers as they tried to begin construction that would block Vulić’s access road. The police – numbering about fifteen at this point – arrested and beat up Vulić and one of his sons. They were released shortly afterwards, but not before Vulić was accused of lighting a mattress on fire in the jail.

Resistance to Radišić’s illegal operations continued throughout July. In the interval, as was his occasional practice, Vulić hosted the screening of an appropriately-selected movie on his property. The movie, “Punk Prayer,” depicted the fight between the band Pussy Riot and the Russian oligarchy.

Events came to a head again at the end of the month, when several dozen policemen were present, preparing to force through the uprooting of Vulić’s road. Vulić tried to obstruct progress of the bulldozers by driving his car into their path. Several policemen pulled Vulić out of the car, at least one of them becoming injured in the process.

Vulić was beaten and taken to jail again. In a move chillingly reminiscent of Soviet treatment of dissidents, he was placed in a psychiatric unit for evaluation.

In a comment on the incident, President Dodik accused Vulić of having been manipulated by opposition parties, and he regretted that the Banja Luka authorities had not responded to the situation earlier.

After four days, Vulić was removed from the psychiatric ward and was arraigned. Shortly thereafter, the RS Ministry of Interior, Unit for Professional Standards held a hearing and deemed that the use of force in the arrest of Vulić had been justified. By this time, the access road to the Vulić property was a thing of the past.

The whole case is reminiscent of things that have happened in Russia, the Ukraine, and Belarus, where the old Soviet ways linger on. It is not a coincidence that President Milorad Dodik, patron of the RS oligarchy, is sometimes called “Milorad Laktashenko” (a Belarussianization of his name, based on his home town of Laktaši) or, alternatively, simply “Milorad Lukashenko,”  after the Belarusan strongman.

But the RS is not exactly like Belarus...yet. Rather surprisingly, the apparently-forgotten prosecution of Radišić came back to life a couple of months after the Vulić incident. Together with three former employees of the IRB and Medicinska elektronika, he was convicted of corruption in that case and was sentenced to three years in prison. The purchase agreement with Medicinska elektronika was cancelled, and funds from Radišić’s bank accounts were sequestered to be used for restitution in that case. Sadly, this has nothing to do with the Vulić case, in which there is, until better days, no justice forthcoming.

View of Kevljani

Back in Kozarac, I spent the better part of an evening with Kemal Pervanić, a native of the nearby village of Kevljani, a survivor of Omarska and Manjača concentration camps, and now a resident of the UK. In 1999 Kemal wrote a book, The Killing Days, about his wartime experience. Click here for the preface to this book.

Kemal is one of those people for whom I have the feeling that any moment I can spend with him is a valuable one. I appreciate the ways that he has come around to understanding his traumatic experience and using it to create something positive. He has told me that in spite of the atrocities that he has witnessed and lived through, he has forgiven. And he quoted to me another man who had survived Omarska but who opposed revenge, saying, “A crime is a crime, no matter who commits it.”

I am wary of the need of privileged people, with their sublimated feelings of guilt, to hear that any victim is out there forgiving his/her tormentors, and what a beautiful thing they think that is. I am aware that sometimes even the “forgivers” are, perhaps unconsciously, manipulating that privileged audience. I don’t expect everyone who has been abused to forgive, and I am not certain that I would be a very good forgiver myself.

But Kemal has said, “I didn’t decide not to hate because I’m a good person. I decided not to hate because hating would have finished the job they’d started so successfully” (see source
here). The simple wisdom of this statement, the practicality of it, and the way it enables Kemal to live in a relatively healthy, functional way, all resonates for me.

And Kemal is indeed productive, not only writing a new book but also finishing up another creative and expressive project (and I’ve skipped telling about most of what he’s done in the last decade or so). He’s recently held a preview screening of his new film, “Pretty Village,” about Kevljani. Kemal says, “
The film has no politics in it. These are just human stories. There are no politicians in the film. People can’t relate to them.”

You can see a trailer here, and the Facebook page for the film is here.

(Please don’t confuse this upcoming film with “Pretty Village, Pretty Flame” (Lepo selo lepo gori), one of the most dishonest films I’ve ever seen.)

Kemal tells me that one woman who was interviewed for the film, Mevlida, spoke in a very matter-of-fact way about what happened to her family. Her father was strangled and shot in their front yard. When Kemal asked her where it happened, she just pointed and said, “Oh, it was right over there by that tree.”

Kemal calls Kevljani
“the village of mass graves,” as that’s where two mass graves were found. The village is located somewhat to the east of Kozarac, towards Banja Luka. To the extent that anyone has heard of it, that would be because the two large mass graves, Kevljani I and Kevljani II, were discovered in places that are situated well away from the public eye. But to Kemal, Kevljani is also the place he came from, where his formative years passed. “It had been a vibrant village with so many people,” he said. He fondly remembered a rousing New Years’ celebration on December 31st, 1991, practically on the eve of a war that few expected.

Kemal says that Kevljani was a village of 800 people before the war, but that now there are only around forty returnees permanently living there, with about eight children. There are more restored houses than there are people to live in them. Now there are only a few weddings and funerals there.

Mosque on the edge of Kevljani, site of mass grave Kevljani I

One morning Kemal took me to Kevljani and showed me around. We visited his friends and relatives, met his brother Kasim, and toured the two mass grave sites. We sat in the house of Mevlida, one of Kemal’s former neighbors, while she and her sister served us coffee.

We had an extended, multi-directional chat over coffee. Kasim told me about an interaction that he had had with a person who had been a guard at Omarska and who had mistreated people there. Now that person sells farming equipment at a store in the nearby village. Kasim went to buy something from him. The former guard said that he had had nothing to do with the mistreatment at Omarska. Kasim said, “You know that I was there, don’t you? If everyone like you denies having participated, then who was it that did all that killing?” Kasim told me that the man looked down because he was ashamed.

We talked about the need for people to organize. Kasim was skeptical about the impact of recent episodes of activism around Bosnia, but he pointed out that when
students, pensioners, farmers, and all classes of people learn to support each other, organizing will be much more effective. He also noted that in the present, precarious economy, people who have any job at all are in fear of losing their employment if they get involved in protest activities.

I walked around with Kemal, who said, “This village died before people came back, because only the older people returned.”

“Here is where they killed Šero, Mevlida’s father, right outside this house. They shot him next to the tree in front of his house. He yelled to his son Hamed to run. Hamed ran down the street but they caught him and killed him.”

We walked by houses that have been rebuilt and Kemal said, “This person is in Switzerland. That one’s in Austria. That one’s in Australia, and that one is in Germany…”

There were some Serbs who lived in a few houses at the end of the village, Kemal explained. Just before the attack on the village, some people went to their house for help. But there were troops who were stationed at one of the Serb-owned houses. The inhabitants said, “You see that the army is here, so we can’t do anything.”

In the village, only Šero and Hamed were killed, Kemal told me. The rest were taken away and killed elsewhere, mainly in Omarska, and some ended up being killed in a massacre at Korićanske Stijene.

Kemal pointed to a shack and told me that the first person who returned to Kevljani lived there when he first came back to the village. That person told Kemal, “I had to sing to myself to keep from going crazy.”

We walked to the two mass graves. The first one was a long deep trench near the existing mosque and cemetery. About 150 remains were exhumed from there. The site,
discovered in the late 1990s, was both a primary and a secondary grave. That is, some victims were buried there, and others that had been buried elsewhere were removed to that place. Then, some were removed from here and reburied elsewhere.

After the war the second grave, Kevljani II, just looked like a field to the returnees. Children played in that field, and people picked mushrooms there and ate them.
A cow grazed there. But Kemal’s brother Kasim noticed that there was a different kind of grass growing there and suspected that the field covered a mass grave. It was investigated in 2004. There, 456 bags of remains were uncovered, constituting the remains of some 300 victims. For a time, Kevljani II was the second largest mass grave in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and the largest in the Krajina region. (Recently a significantly larger mass grave has been excavated, about which I will write more soon.)


                    Site of mass grave Kevljani II                                                          Marker on site of mass grave Kevljani II


Kemal spoke of a man from Kevljani named Dževad Velić. He was taken to Omarska and severely mistreated, beaten there over a sustained period. At one point his brother passed him and Dževad said to him, “mene više nema” (I am no more). Soon after that, he disappeared. Later his remains were found at Kevljani II. He was buried about 100 meters from the house he was born in.

Kemal told me, “Children born after the war have been named after Dževad and after others who were killed. So they are living memorials to the victims.”

We talked about the history of the war and the strategy of the Serb forces’ drive to take over territory. Kemal told me that at the beginning of the war,
Kevljani was shelled for two nights. No one was killed in that way, but about 35 people from Kevljani were killed in Omarska.

Others were taken to Trnopolje, back down the main road, very near Kozarac. Kemal explained that the village of Trnopolje was a “ghetto” during the war. Muslims from the surrounding region were herded there, not only to the camp that was established there, but also to the surrounding village. Some women could come and go with permission of the guards until they too became the target of forced deportations, but men could not go. They would be shot if they tried to leave.

There was an official story that Muslim men who had tried to resist with arms at the beginning of the war were taken to Omarska, and the rest to Trnopolje.
But this is a fiction, because there were many people who were taken to Omarska without such an excuse, including some women and a 14-year-old boy.

Kemal explained to me that Serb forces first took over Kozarac and the villages east of there including Trnopolje and Kevljani, and then they moved west to the “Brdo” area, including Čarakovo. He said that if you looked at a map you could see how the plan unfolded, and that the army was moving step by step in a specific direction.

We dropped in on a man named Šero, another former neighbor and a friend of Kemal. This was a different Šero, obviously not the one who was killed.  Kemal had mentioned him to me, saying that he was tortured in Omarska for three hours, and that, “I don’t know how he survived.”

It was hot outside. Šero, dressed in shorts and a jersey t-shirt, was fasting for Ramadan. On the front steps he immediately launched into a monologue about how it’s better to be optimistic than pessimistic. “You can look at what someone has who has more than you, and feel pessimistic. Or you can look at what someone has who has less than you, and then you’ll feel optimistic.”

We went inside and chatted at length. Šero said, “I take care of myself, my family, and my neighbors. I can’t do anything about the rest of it; I can’t change the government.”

Preoccupied by a recent disaster, I said to Šero, “What about Fukushima? The Japanese took care of their families too, but the environment and the government’s carelessness did them in. For me, family is a broader concept.” He agreed.

Šero said, “We have to take risks, we have to make waves…if you’re thirsty, that’s proof that water exists. The existence of water doesn’t prove that you’re thirsty.”

I responded that it’s the same with justice: if you wish for justice, that’s proof that it exists. But it’s hard to find.

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