IWPR: Voices of Victims Heard at Belgrade Conference

Organisers hope event will encourage creation of regional commission to establish truth about war crimes in region.

Bosnian war crimes victims told a Belgrade conference this month about their suffering as part of a plan to raise public awareness about atrocities committed during the 1990s Balkans conflicts.

This conference, which took place on September 5, heard from victims from Brcko in eastern Bosnia, and was one of a series of similar events held to let people talk about the abuses they were subjected to during the Bosnian war of 1992-1995.

Previous hearings have tackled the genocide in Srebrenica and war crimes commited in Prijedor, Foca and the prison camp in the village of Celebici.

The event, dubbed Brcko ’92 – Beyond Reasonable Doubt, was organised by the Humanitarian Law Centre, HLC, the Hague tribunal outreach programme, and non-governmental organisations the Convict Association of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Convict Society of Brcko District.

The organisers say they hope that the hearings will encourage the creation of a regional commission to establish the truth about war crimes committed in the region. They believe that discussing people’s experiences could prevent war crimes from taking place in the future and heal the “open wounds” of Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs.

Natasa Kandic, executive director of the HLC, said a detailed account of war crimes in the 1990s would serve as “a warning” to future generations.

“We’ll know who was responsible for what,” she said.

Ruth Van Rhijn, head of the legal department of the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe, OSCE, who also attended the conference, said attitudes in Serbia were changing for the better.

“There is a more of a will to speak openly about war crimes and to say publicly who was responsible. It is very important that the public in Serbia and in the whole region know what facts have been established by the tribunal and in domestic courts,” said Van Rhijn.

According to data collected by the Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Centre, RDC, 98,000 people were killed in the Bosnian war – 57,000 soldiers and 40,000 civilians. Bosniaks accounted for 64,036 of the dead, Serbs for 24,905 and Croats for 7,788.

The RDC also provided a detailed picture of what happened in Brcko.

RDC’s Snjezana Filipovic said their research showed that between 1991 and 1995, 1,432 people were killed in Brcko, with 226 people still missing. Most atrocities were committed in 1992, when 944 people were killed, including 505 civilians – 409 men and 96 women.

Adila Suljevic, Smail Music, Abdulah Mujdanovic and Dzafer Deronjic came from Brcko to testify at the hearing in Belgrade. Some of them have also already testified in war crimes trials at the Hague tribunal.

Suljevic, who is now 42, told the conference that in May 1992, she hid in a basement after she heard gunfire and saw houses burning in the town. But after several days, she had to leave because she was starving and was then arrested by Serbian paramilitary forces.

One of them – a man nicknamed “the Russian” – raped her in a dark cell and encouraged other soldiers to do the same.

“At that moment, I only wanted to die. I heard boots and footsteps. I was dead, believe me. I was so ashamed that I survived. My world crashed down,” said Suljevic.

She described how the three soldiers only stopped their attack because she was covered in blood, then the Russian kicked her naked down some steps.

“After this, Goran Jelisic took me off to execute me by shooting me, and I prayed to God to kill me soon,” she said. “But Jelisic gave up and transferred me to the Luka camp, where I was released thanks to the good will of my old school teacher.”

In 1999, judges at the Hague tribunal sentenced Jelisic – who apparently called himself “Adolf” – to 40 years in prison after he was convicted of murder, cruel treatment, plunder and inhumane acts. This sentence was confirmed on appeal two years later.

Mujadinovic was captured with his son at the beginning of May 1992 and transferred to a camp in Brcko. He said that Bosnian Serb soldiers ordered two of his friends to go outside the camp, and he then heard the sound of fighting.

“We saw that one of them had broken legs and arms and the other one was without his nose – it had been cut off,” said Mujadinovic.

“One guy came inside and said, ‘Come on, you too, follow them.’ I turned around and saw my son. He left and later he returned, bloody and without shoes. He told me that [the Bosnian Serb soldiers] beat him,” said Mujadinovic. His son was later taken away and he never saw him again.

The Hague tribunal’s representative in Serbia Matias Hellman also addressed the conference, refering to several judgements that have been handed down by the court in relation to crimes committed in Brcko, including the Jelisic verdict.

“The trial chamber described Jelisic as a sadistic killer who after pleading guilty and admitting all of these murders, didn’t feel true regret for the crimes. Although [he wasn’t] the architect of these crimes, it is very important to try the perpetrators,” said Hellman.

He pointed out that Biljana Plavsic, former president of Republika Srpska, has also been sentenced to 11 years in prison in connection with the crimes in Brcko, while Momcilo Krajisnik, former president of the Bosnian Serb parliament, has been sentenced to 27 years. Krajisnik is currently awaiting the appeals chamber’s judgement.