The authorities of the Republika Srpska are not telling the whole truth on the suspicious death of 21-year-old David Dragičević. But there are now thousands of protesters who every day, for a month and a half, have been asking for clarity
Since six weeks ago, every afternoon at 6pm, the protest occupies Trg Krajine, the central square of Banja Luka. Born spontaneously through social networks, the daily mobilisation is constantly growing, with the peak reached on April 21st, with about 10,000 people. These are huge numbers for a city that, in recent years, is not used to non-governmental events. Banners and protest t-shirts show the stylised face of a carefree boy with dreadlocks and sunglasses. The hymn is a song with hip-hop rhythms that goes like this: "It seems I will not go far, because I'm just another pawn in this story. I'm not going anywhere, I'm wrong, I'm just another boy from the ghetto".
The boy with dreadlocks and the author of the verses is David Dragičević, 21, electrical engineering student at the University of Banja Luka, passionate about reggae and hip hop. David died six weeks ago in his city, in circumstances still unknown – hence the mobilisation Pravda za Davida (Truth for David). The case continues to shake both the society and leadership of Republika Srpska (RS), one of the two entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina, with Banja Luka as its capital.
David Dragičević disappeared in Banja Luka on the night between 17 and 18 March. He left a bar around 3.30 and his traces were lost from there. Family members and friends immediately started to look for him, organising a social media campaign that got strong support from citizens and the media. They were confident they would find him alive, but disturbing information began to circulate on a quarrel between David and some people. Also, in a message that David allegedly sent to a friend, he wrote that if something happened to him, the fault was of a boy whose name and surname was given. On the 24th, David's lifeless body was found at the confluence of the Crkvena stream and the Vrbas river, not far from the Kastel, the fortress that dominates the city centre.
Two days later, on March 26th, the Republika Srpska police presented their own version in a press conference, relying on a first autopsy. "It all started that day, because the family and friends did not believe that version", explains to OBCT a participant in the demonstrations, who wishes to retain anonymity.
The police dismissed David's death as accidental, attributing it to drowning in the Crkvena torrent (although water barely reaches the knees in the place where the body was found), and refused to continue the investigation. In fact, the autopsy detected several hematomas along the body, that were however considered mild. Also, in David's pockets some objects were allegedly found (a USB stick, a Swiss knife, money) which had been stolen on the night of his disappearance in a house near the place of discovery. On the latter episode, the authorities have created further confusion. The video that would prove the theft, once made public, appeared insufficient to identify David and lead to heavy suspicions that it had been manipulated or fabricated altogether.
Pressed by the family and the first protests, the RS government entrusted a second autopsy to a Belgrade pathologist. He says that the boy remained alive for 2 to 4 days after his disappearance, thus contradicting the first autopsy according to which David died that very night. The new result corroborated the murder hypothesis, yet RS Minister of the Interior Dragan Lukač continued to reject it and excluded the reopening of the investigation.
Meanwhile, various inconsistencies in the handling of the case increased discontent and suspicion – for example, the fact that the Bosnian Serb police initially assigned the case to the unit for organised crime, rather than the one for ordinary crime. It is a completely unusual procedure for an "accidental" death of a 21-year-old boy with no known connection to criminal organisations.
The Pravda za Davida campaign and the independent media are asking for explanations, as they suspect that the police are misdirecting and covering the real perpetrators. But no official clarification arrives. Another unusual element is the passive role of justice bodies. Many wonder why the Banja Luka Public Prosecutor does not issue any public statement or take significant action on the case. Davor Dragičević, David's father, states in an interview that the prosecutor "has shown false evidence, videos in which he claims my son appears, but that is not my son. At that point I told the lawyers that I will not sign any documents without them".
The participant in Pravda za Davida explains to OBCT: "Through the Facebook group [at the moment of writing this article, it counts about 127,000 members], peaceful daily parades have been organised in Piazza Krajina, which still last and are attended by David's parents and family, his friends, and many ordinary citizens. We ask the competent institutions to start doing their job, and to do it in the service of all citizens, and not just the privileged ones". In addition to the mobilisation, the platform has served to collectively compare and disseminate the documentation on the case: "David's parents released documents that challenge the version of the authorities: photos, videos, autopsy reports. In addition, throughout the city you can see stickers with David's face, flyers, writings, and the bank account to support legal expenses".
David's father, Davor Dragičević, is the most active and visible figure of the protest. He always speaks in a low, but firm voice. He slowly lists the names and surnames of the institutional leaders that he considers "co-responsible" of the murder until truth is established: the Minister of the Interior and the police chief of the Republika Srpska; the leaders of the two criminal police units; the prosecutor of Banja Luka. Davor Dragičević is a war veteran, he fought in the RS army. The less and less veiled accusations of politicisation and instigation coming from the RS government do not even seem to touch him. "I am here only for truth and justice", he often repeats.
David's case has acquired a profound political value. In support of Pravda za Davida, the Bosnian-Serb opposition summoned a special session of the RS Parliament on the "security situation in the entity". This is a blow to Milorad Dodik's power structure, which has based its consensus on an obsessive notion of security, understood as borders, history and patriotic symbols of the Republika Srpska to be defended by external enemies. Dodik's party, the SNSD, is handling the situation with increasing difficulty, and the contradictory positions of some members suggest some internal conflict or, according to some, the panic that the case could seriously damage the party's reputation in view of October general elections. Milorad Dodik himself was initially conciliatory, even taking part in one of the Pravda za Davida events and promising some concessions to the movement. These gestures appeared as a defeat of the Minister of the Interior, but they did not have a concrete follow-up. On May 5th, Dodik reacted for the first time with open impatience, complaining that the case was "politicised" and that it could not be solved "on the street or in the square".
Truth, media and politics
In what is yet another battle for truth fought in Bosnia and Herzegovina, media play a crucial role. The Banja Luka activist claims that "censorship was not lacking even in this case, especially as regards RTRS [owned by the RS government], but also other media. On the other hand, independent portals, bloggers and BN television have offered more objective information. This shows the controlled regime in which we live". The media close to the government mostly blamed David as a deviant, thief and drug addict, the sole responsible for his own fate.
Now, institutions and the media are targeting the mobilisation itself, with openly paranoid tones. At the beginning of April, the head of the RS police claimed , referring directly to Pravda za Davida, that "some are using a tragedy to achieve their goals", arguing that "some Western intelligence services have infiltrated social networks to make up information. Here, every event is used to create a security problem, ignoring the real dangers in Bosnia and Herzegovina: terrorism, Salafist and Wahhabist movements, unofficial mosques", and a long etcetera.
An article recently published by RTRS alluded to a connection between US interests and the "raised fist protests" in Banja Luka (the fist is one of the symbols of Pravda za Davida). The article suggested a parallel between these protests and Otpor, the anti-Milošević movement in Serbia in 2000, which is one of the negative paradigms of Euro-Atlantic interference in the universe of the souverainist right to which Dodik's party belongs. Davor Dragičević's response was disarming: "We are told that the raised fist is Otpor, it is terrorism, it is revolution. In fact, it's just my right fist. You are the destroyers of Republika Srpska, not us".
To be accused to be mercenaries and traitors is a constant in Republika Srpska, as the Pravda za Davida group seems to be fully aware. The participant we interviewed reflects: "Individuals in the group are effectively acting as a social movement. But they always stress that they only seek justice and truth, they only want assassins and instigators to be found. It is clear that justice and truth are not achieved without political action, but it is important to stress that the word 'politics' creates confusion and disgust in us. Since the beginning of the protest, the organisers have called for peace and dignity without political interference. Nobody believes our politicians, everyone knows that their only goal is to stay in power, and to do that they will do anything. For years, anyone who thinks differently or rebels has been immediately labelled as a foreign mercenary, destroyer of Republika Srpska etc.. So, it does not matter that the action is 'politics'. The important thing is to keep the attention high and not allow our fight to be repressed. This year there will be the elections and we expect some provocation. Only by remaining united can we reach truth and justice for David".
The "silenced cases"
David Dragičević's case has raised, perhaps for the first time, more attention for the so-called "silenced cases" (zataškani slučajevi) of Bosnia and Herzegovina. These are violent deaths, usually in street clashes, in which the version of the competent authorities appears hasty, incomplete, or completely different from that of family members and independent journalists. These, on the basis of counter-evidence, testimony, and analysis of the acts, publicly name law enforcement agents, high political and institutional figures, or their direct family members – all subjects who would remain immune from any investigation thanks to a largely compliant, corrupt, and inefficient judiciary.
Before David, two were the best known cases: that of Dženan Memić , 22, victim in Sarajevo in 2016 of a road crash (according to the authorities) or of an aggression disguised as an accident to cover those responsible (according to the family); and that of Nikola Đurović , 21, run over in Banja Luka in 2011 by a car that family members claim with certainty was led by a senior RS official, although another person received a (light) sanction. Now, many other "silenced cases" are emerging: Jovan Arbutina from Banja Luka, Alen Šehović from Sarajevo, Danijela Aranđelović from Tuzla, Ivona Bajo from Bijeljina, to name a few.
These cases are often only known to a local public, and the scarce, fragmented information available online does not always allow us to confirm the full reliability of non-official versions. But the lack of transparency, professionalism, and empathy on the part of the judicial and police bodies emerges in a constant, incontrovertible, and disquieting way. All this triggers a spiral of deep distrust towards the public authorities, but also testifies to the inexhaustible tenacity of so many small battles for truth and justice scattered across Bosnia and Herzegovina. These battles have gone their own way without support and intermediation in a social fabric marked by group belonging, that family members challenge by naming those responsible after patient, painful reconstructions.
"Now we realise how insignificant we are in the lives of those in a position", wrote a blogger from Banja Luka. However, Pravda za Davida has opened a space of visibility and expression for these scattered battles. A space that is transversal, needless to say, to the "ethnic" and administrative borders of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In the hottest days of the mobilisation, David's father decided to go from Banja Luka to Sarajevo to meet Murz Memić, Dzenan Memić's father, for mutual support and advice. The Pravda za Davida protester we interviewed comments: "This fight was supported by people from other cities of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the region. In addition to justice for David, we seek justice also for Nikola, Dženan, etc.. A recurring slogan is 'We will not forgive you for our children', and this can be interpreted as the red line that we will not allow to pass, we will not allow everything to pass and remain unpunished. Everyone agrees on this".
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