Here are a couple of items
related to Banja Luka and the RS: I, some stories that illustrate the nature
of Bosnia-Herzegovina's Serb-controlled entity, the Republika Srpska, and
II, a couple of stories of resurgent activism in Banja Luka.
I. The Republika Srpska
The RS is an entity that was created through genocide and mass expulsion of
non-Serbs: Muslims, Croats, Roma, and others. With the return of some of
those expelled people, the RS is still roughly 90% Serb. The entity is a
permanent source of destabilization for Bosnia and the region, with its
corrupt leader of 12 years, President Dodik, playing the political dynamics
of the country like a master. He knows how to heighten and reduce tensions
exquisitely, with more saber-rattling in election years, just to make sure
his flocks gather up and vote for his party. He regularly talks of
secession, even of joining Serbia—something that will never happen
peacefully. Dodik is cozy with President Putin. In his way he is, more or
less, the image of Trump.
In an exercise in fantasy that has real political repercussions, lately
Dodik has taken to calling his entity a "state." For example, after a public
event in Serbia earlier this month, with Serbia's President Vučić present,
Dodik tweeted about the "successful collaboration between our two brotherly
states." President Vučić, required by the Dayton agreement to respect the
sovereignty of Bosnia, repeated the tweet on his own twitter account.
Along those lines, the RS Minister of Education announced recently that
starting this fall, elementary schools in the RS will use the same textbooks
as Serbia. These will cover the "national subjects": language, history,
geography, and "environment and society." One commentator described this as
a step towards the conversion of the RS into an "autonomous region of
What's more, the RS Parliament has introduced a bill that will make Cyrillic
the official script of the entity, compulsory for official usage—with
monetary penalties for failure to use the script. A similar law is being
proposed in Serbia. Representatives of non-Serbs in the RS, for whom the
Latin script is part of their identity, are protesting this move. The two
scripts are equally valid according to the constitution of
And in early June, Dodik announced that schools in the RS would be
prohibited from teaching anything about the Srebrenica genocide or about the
siege of Sarajevo. These matters are covered in textbooks produced in the
Federation, and have been used in RS schools where Croat and Muslim pupils
study. Dodik said, “It’s impossible to use textbooks here that say the Serbs
committed genocide and kept Sarajevo under siege. This is not correct and
this will not be taught here.”
In a more recent move to conceal or revise history, as I mentioned in my
second report, in mid-August Dodik called a special session of the RS
Parliament to discuss the 2004 Srebrenica Commission report on the
Srebrenica massacres.* Muslim members of the Parliament boycotted the
session, and the Serb members duly voted to annul the report. This move was
accompanied by a resolution to create a commission that would draft a new
report, which would “illuminate all the uncertainties from the first report,
but also include in the report the suffering of Serbs in and around
Kemal Kurspahić, former editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, discussed
the revocation of the Srebrenica report, saying that it was "an escalation
of the denial of the nature and extent of that crime that was found to be
genocide in binding decisions before the International Court of Justice and
the International Criminal Tribune for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY)."
Kurspahić also commented that for an RS-appointed "international commission"
to take on a new investigation of the genocide would be a "mission
impossible," but that, for starters, such a commission should take a look at
the Kofi Annan's report on the fall of Srebrenica (see
to the UN General Assembly on November 15, 1999.
In a recent address, again in Serbia, Dodik announced, "We love Serbia, we
experience Serbia as our country. We view the RS and Serbia as a united
space...Serbia is our identity; we Serbs in the RS and in the world. Serbia
is our guarantee..." And regarding the Bosnian identity, he continued, "We
are not that. We are Serbs. We wish for peace, freedom, and we want to live
with others. They have to know that we are prepared to defend the RS. The
Serb people has an enormous (this could also be translated as "tremendous")
love for the RS and for Serbia."
In late July, President Dodik made it clear how much he wishes to live with
people other than Serbs. In an address on Serbian radio, he discussed the
muezzin's call to prayer from the mosque. He termed it "howling," and said
that "Serbs are traumatized" by the sound.
Also on the subject of freedom, in an earlier speech Dodik declared his
thankfulness for the deeds of convicted war criminals Radovan Karadžić
and Ratko Mladić, saying
that they were "Serbian heroes" and asserting that in the past, the Serbs
had given freedom to all the other peoples of the former Yugoslavia.
Official RS continues to make unsavory compromises with regard to its
accused war criminals, as well as those already convicted. One prominent
example is that of Dragomir Vasić,
on trial for genocide committed in and around Srebrenica. During the war,
was commander of the police force in Zvornik and head of the Public Security
Center in that town. He took orders directly from Mladić,
and wrote a message to Mladić,
later decoded by international investigators, that described the
"liquidation of Muslim soldiers."
Together with four other suspects, Vasić
is accused of the forced expulsion of the population of Srebrenica; the
separation of displaced men of Srebrenica; and the detention and killing of
men and boys in the region. The trial has proceeded over a period of several
years, since 2015, in a desultory fashion.
has been involved in RS politics since the end of the war, sometimes serving
as a representative to the RS entity Parliament. For a time in the early
part of the 2000s, he was banned from politics altogether by High
Representive Paddy Ashdown, due to his support for then-fugitives
Radovan Karadžić and Ratko
Mladić. The ban
was lifted by a subsequent HR.
currently, again, a member of the RS Parliament, and he is running for
re-election in October's national elections. Apparently the criteria of the
Central Election Commission permit the candidacy of those on trial for
II. Banja Luka
Towards the end of my
stay in the Krajina, I visited the RS capital, Banja Luka. With at least
twice the population of Prijedor, Banja Luka is more spread out, with broad
avenues and bigger parks. Compared to Prijedor, it feels more like a city
than a town. However, the Banja Luka bus station looks not to have been
renovated since Tito died. It looks more decrepit and gloomy than some bus
stations I've seen in out-of-the-way burgs in Latin America. One would think
that in the capital of Dodik's "state," more care would be taken to afford
the arriving traveler a presentable first impression of the city.
I visited the rebuilt Ferhadija mosque, an architectural masterpiece built
by the Ottomans in the late 16th century, and destroyed by Serb separatists
in 1993. It was rebuilt and reopened last year, on the anniversary of its
bombing. The mosque is looking quite beautiful. In the front courtyard,
there is a list of donors on a placard; all those listed have Muslim names.
Walking around the center of town, I noticed several cultural "compromises."
The bookstands, which substitute for real bookstores, are piled up with
books glorifying nationalist heroes such as
Draža Mihailović and
Dobrica Ćosić, and books by Milorad Ekmekčić, a Bosnian Serb nationalist
I noticed that Lepa Brena,
a Bosnian Muslim who by the early 1980s had changed her name and become a
very popular Serbian pop-diva, was coming to town. And there were "mafins"
(muffins) for sale, and actual American-style doughnuts. And the
least-Bosnian thing of all: "kafa za ponijeti" – coffee to go. In America,
you drink coffee in the car on the way to work, or at your desk. In
Bosnia—until recently?—you drink coffee with people.
I visited Dražen,
a seasoned activist I know from the organization Oštra Nula, now working
with Basoc, an outgrowth of that organization, concerned with social justice
and preservation of historical memory. If you can read Bosnian, see
told me that people are leaving Banja Luka as well as other places. He
commented that, as far as doing activist work with people, "krpimo"—they are
patching things together.
I have noted before that upwelling of activism and protest has taken place
at unpredictable times and in unexpected places. Banja Luka has been the
scene of such events in the past, the location of some stalwart grassroots
activities. Currently there's a movement underway in Banja Luka that is
probably, for now, the strongest protest in the country.
This concerns the murder, in March, of a young man named David Dragičević.
According to varied and sometimes muddled reports,
mid-March and his body was discovered about a week later in a shallow creek
near where it opened into the river Vrbas. The official story is that
drowned after fleeing a band of assailants who were attacking him. There are
all kinds of stories about
and the incident that ended his life; some of them were issued by the
police, insinuating that David
was involved with drugs, or that he had committed a burglary. The surviving
family was not satisfied with these stories, nor with the autopsy, which
failed to determine much about the nature of the young man's death.
father, Davor Dragičević,
quickly mobilized a protest campaign that raised questions about his son's
death. With the police asserting that David's death was not related to
violence and that no crime had taken place, Davor and his supporters
wondered why David's body was bruised in several places; how a shallow creek
could have carried the body a considerable distance to the Vrbas; and why it
took the police five or six days to discover the body in that shallow creek.
Davor started to organize protest demonstrations under the banner "Pravda za
Davida" (Justice for David), and by mid-June sustained protests were taking
place at Krajina Square, the main square in the center of Banja Luka, which
people informally renamed "David's Square." A makeshift shrine was fashioned
there with a four-foot tall carved wooden fist; a "democracy wall" where
people could post articles and write messages; and artifacts from David's
life, such as a guitar and CDs. People could come by and lay flowers and
light candles. On the message board was a slogan:
"When injustice becomes law,
resistance is your duty."
The protests were
taking the shape of a movement, as Davor articulated the resentment toward
the police and the state felt by many other parents, young people, and
friends of David Dragičević.
By this time activists in the region were taking notice of the home-grown
movement. In Prijedor, Goran had expressed to me that he was pleased
that young people he didn't know
were organizing these protests, and that they seemed to have some of the
same anti-nationalist tendencies, and certainly the same anti-corruption
feelings, as the older activists. Dražen
described the movement as a very good development. I recalled my
conversation in Sarajevo with Darjan, who had said that there were certain
issues that concerned everyone; certainly one of these was the safety of
young people in the cities.
was openly confronting the official story and challenging the Banja Luka
police, contradicting them by saying that his son had been murdered. The RS
Minister of the Interior, Dragan Lukač,
went on the offensive, not only by denying this assertion, but by
threatening to sue a prominent investigative journalist, Slobodan Vasković,
who had brought to light evidence that countered official police statements.
One assertion that went against the police version of events said that David
was tortured in the police station; an activist in Banja Luka explained to
me that there was "someone
in the police with a conscience who has been providing information."
One participant in the protests, a woman whose daughter had been a friend of
explained what the movement meant to her: "David has become a light that has
begun to lead us through our murky, brutal reality. We have begun to look
and see the entire evil that surrounds us. We have begun to listen and see
the cries of others who have begun to awake alongside us."
Those others include people in other parts of the country—and certainly in
the other entity—who have experienced similar traumas related to their
children or their young peers, or who are simply distraught about police
brutality and violence among youth. People in Sarajevo, for example,
compared the apparent murder of David Dragičević
with that of young Dženan Memić, who was killed on the outskirts of Sarajevo
in early 2016. The murder was never solved; anger and nervousness about this
and similar mysterious violence resonated with the Dragićević case.
In this connection, Davor Dragičević invited Dženan Memić's father, Muris,
up to Banja Luka to participate in a protest demonstration with him. At the
same event Spasenija
the mother of a young man who was murdered in Tuzla, also participated. It
is a powerful thing when activists in the RS invite people from the Muslim-
and Croat-controlled entity into any action of solidarity. It happens, at
times, that Serb activists for justice in Banja Luka have felt that they
have to maintain distance from Muslims in order not to provoke animosity
among other Serbs in the city. The present exception, where the Pravda za
Davida movement has actively reached out to people in other parts of the
country, is a hopeful one. And the movement has not remained confined to
Banja Luka: there were protest demonstrations against police violence and in
support of David and Dženan this spring in Tuzla, Sarajevo, and Mostar. One
that took place in Sarajevo was attended by several thousand protestors.
It is also a significant that Davor Dragičević, David's father, is a veteran
from the 1990s war on the RS side. He professes loyalty to the RS, saying,
“I made this country
[sic] and now this country is killing my kids. This is not what I fought
for.” He further comments, “It is a private state. This is a case that
proves there is no law in this country. It shows you can kill people with
impunity if you are powerful.” Davor also accuses "the very heights of the
RS" of a cover-up of the crime.
Discussing the considerable support the Pravda za Davida movement has
garnered, Davor said, “Many people people come because they don’t have a
job. There’s no hope for young people or their kids. The main thing is
people want to change the state, the system.” In Bosnia-Herzegovina overall,
youth unemployment is over 50% and people are aware of high-level
corruption. At an average of 3,000 euros, the monthly pay of the top
officials in BiH is some seven or eight times as much as the income of
ordinary people, and this more than rankles.
reporter Slobodan Vasković is not the only person who has experienced
repression in connection with the case of David Dragičević. A leader of the
local activist organization ReStart found it prudent to leave the country
after he was given "well-intentioned advice" that he was in danger. And RS
police have been hauling in participants in the daily protests for
questioning on a regular basis.
Banja Luka-based commentator and activist Srđan Puhalo summed up the basis
of the Pravda za Davida movement, saying, "Residents of the Republika Srpska
do not trust their institutions. They don't trust the police, the
prosecutors, the doctors, the judges; they do not trust anyone. The
Ministers have long since ceased to be authorities, and have become puppets.
Not even the pompous press conference of a couple of days ago prevented a
large number of people from gathering on Krajina Square, in honor of the
murdered young man and to express doubts in the results of the
investigation." Puhalo went on to blast the local mainstream press for being
in the pocket of Dodik's party.
In early July one of the largest protest demonstrations since the war took
place in Banja Luka; the police reported that 4,000 to 5,000 people
attended. An independent commentator reported that the number was closer to
15,000. People came from Sarajevo, Zenica, and Brčko
Dodik criticized the protest, calling the participants "traitors and
mercenaries," saying, "We should have prohibited it," and announcing that he
was going to investigate the financing of the non-governmental organizations
that have been involved in the protests, "to see who is paying them and who
they are working for."
Meanwhile, not surprisingly the matters of police violence and institutional
coverup have been politicized in the Serb-controlled entity. In this
election year, the RS opposition has seized the opportunity to blast Dodik's
government for being irresponsible, dishonest, and, generally, everything
that the SDS (former party of Karadžić)
assures that it will not be when it assumes power this fall.
I note here the August 21 anniversary of a massacre perpetrated in 1992 by
Serb separatist police. The crime took place during the period after the
concentration camps at Omarska, Keraterm, and Trnopolje had been discovered
by international reporters and that information made known to the outside
world. At that time, Serb authorities decided to close down the camps. They
released some prisoners to Croatia and bused others to the front line with
central Bosnia. Others were transferred to the camp at Manjača,
and still others were killed.
One convoy of prisoners
from Trnopolje was bused to a cliff called Korićanske Stijene on Mt. Vlasić,
where more than 220 men
were robbed and then lined up, shot, and pushed over the steep embankment.
The remains of these people were covered up, and it was only last year that
some of them were discovered. Much later, the policeman who commanded this
operation, Darko Mrđa, was tried at the ICTY and sentenced to 17 years in
prison for two counts of crimes against humanity. Ten other policemen have
also been found guilty.
Darko Mrđa was released from prison in 2013, nine years after he was
sentenced. Since then he has lived in the Prijedor area, his appearance
confronting survivors on a daily basis. In the period since his release he
has made abundantly clear that his pre-sentence statement of regret and
remorse was false, provoking his victims regularly. He was subsequently
arrested, in 2016, for other war crimes. He has been charged with torturing
and killing Bosniak and Croats at Omarska and Manjača,
as well as outside of the camps. Mrđa is currently on trial before the
state-level Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He has been allowed to remain
free for the duration of the trial.
Index of previous journals and articles