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Bosnia-Herzegovina Report #4 - Chicanery in the RS, Activism in Banja Luka
By Peter Lippman
August 2018


2018 Report index

Report 1: Anger, activism, exodus
Report 2: Srebrenica
Report 3: Kozarac and Prijedor
Report 4Chicanery in the RS, Activism in Banja Luka
Report 5: Elections and stability in Bosnia-Herzegovina
Report 6: Migrants, environmental wreckage, sports

Previous journals and articles

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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 Serbia."

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 Bosnia-Herzegovina.

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 Srebrenica.”
*(See
http://balkanwitness.glypx.com/srebrenica_report2004.pdf)

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
http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6afb34.html) 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 Karad
žić 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 Vasi
ć, on trial for genocide committed in and around Srebrenica. During the war, Vasić 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, Vasi
ć 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. Vasić 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.

Vasi
ć is 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 genocide.

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 historian.

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 Dra
žen, 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 https://ostranula.org/tag/banjalucki-socijalni-centar-basoc/.

Dra
žen 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 Dragi
čević. According to varied and sometimes muddled reports, David disappeared in 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 David drowned after fleeing a band of assailants who were attacking him. There are all kinds of stories about David and the incident that ended his life; some of them were issued by the police, insinuating that David Dragičević 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.

David Dragičević's 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.

Davor Dragi
čević 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 Dragičević 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 David Dragi
čević, 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 Dragi
čević 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 Aranđelović, 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.

Investigative 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 Brč
ko to participate. Afterwards, President 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 Manja
ča, 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 Manja
ča, 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.

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