For the first time a Bosniak leader goes to Kazani, which somehow symbolizes the crimes committed by parts of the Army of BiH against Serbs and Croats in besieged Sarajevo
On June 13 the chairman of the Bosnian Presidency Bakir Izetbegović visited Kazani on mountain Trebević to pay his respects to the victims killed and dumped in the caves nearby between 1992 and 1993 by some members of the 10th Mountain Brigade, under the command of Mušan ‘Caco’ Topalović.
As reported by Radio Slobodna Evropa, Izetbegović commented that he should have come earlier and that he hoped his visit would have a positive political effect, inspiring others to do the same. The visit was welcomed by the president of the Association of the families of the victims in the Sarajevo-Romanija region Milan Mandić and by the president of the Serbian citizens’ council Miladin Vidaković. Mandić said that the gesture was heartening and suggested that the other members of the Presidency follow suit: Ivanić, for instance, should visit Tomašica— the site of a mass grave in the Prijedor municipality where hundreds of bodies of Bosniak and Croat victims have been found since 2013.
Izetbegović’s visit is particularly significant since this is the first time that a member of the Bosnian presidency (and also that a member of the SDA, the main Bosniak party) goes to Kazani, which somehow symbolizes the crimes committed by parts of the Army of BiH against Serbs and Croats in besieged Sarajevo.
The crimes of Kazani
29 bodies have been exhumed so far from the caves in Kazani, all of them belonged to civilians from Sarajevo and most of them were Serbs. However, the exact number of the victims killed there has never been established. This is one of the objectives of Association of the families of the victims in the Sarajevo-Romanija region.
On this matter Izetbegović only said during his visit that there had already been criminal trials during the war and he hoped that the cases that had not been completed yet could be closed, so that the full truth could be established.
So far, 14 members of the Army of BiH have been on trial for the crimes committed in Kazani, yet these were never found to be war crimes, but only ordinary murders. Hence, the indicted were given prison sentences ranging between 10 months and 6 years.
Since Caco died during the blitz organized to arrest him in 1993, the only war crimes case for the Kazani crimes has been that against member of the 10th brigade Samir Bejtić, which has been going on for over a decade and has been re-started 4 times, most recently in February 2016. Bejtić’s defense lawyer, Fahrija Karkin, even argued that it was not fair that his client be prosecuted for war crimes while the other perpetrators of the same crimes got away with ordinary murder sentences. However, as the director of the Research and Documentation Center Mirsad Tokača underlined in an interview on the Kazani facts, crimes where civilians are dragged out of their homes and killed by members of the military clearly classify as war crimes, as civilians are protected under international law. According to Tokača, there was enough evidence to prosecute all Kazani perpetrators for war crimes, but there was no political will to do so.
Such designation is necessary to underline the gravity and sensitivity of the crimes, and the reluctance of the Bosnian judiciary testifies to the political significance of the Kazani case. The fear that the admission of these crimes could lead to an equalization of victimhood as well as the enduring celebration of Caco as a hero by part of the population has prevented an open debate about what happened in Kazani.
It was the sporadic initiatives of some Bosnian media, politicians and civil society, besides the lobbying of the victims’ families, that has prevented the public debate about Kazani from completely closing up and the crimes from being forgotten.
Initiatives for remembering Kazani
Already in 2011 the vice-president of the Federation of BiH Svetozar Pudarić had started an initiative to build a monument to the victims in Kazani, which had led to the signing of an agreement with the then mayor of Sarajevo Alija Behmen for cooperating in the construction of the monument. However, the change of the city administration in 2013 had then led to a new deadlock.
Local civil society also contributed to raise public awareness about the facts in Kazani. The UDIK, Association for Social Research and Communication, has been speaking out about Kazani in several occasions, most recently in October 2015 by staging a demonstration in front of the Sarajevo Cathedral.
In 2014 another awareness raising initiative grew out of the gesture of an individual citizen. Sarajevo resident Haris Jusufović wrote an article, which was later published on news portal Buka, talking about the responsibility of Sarajevo citizens to find the missing and to support the construction of a memorial for them. His individual initiative was the object of a documentary film produced by the Institute for War and Peace Reporting (IWPR), “No Excuses”, which was then screened in Sarajevo in April 2015. In the panel discussion that followed the screening, Jusufović spoke about the sense of responsibility he had felt to find out about the faith of his neighbors, and his wife recalled how acquaintances had disapproved of their initiative and suggested that after 20 years they should got over the past.
Finally, in December 2015, a group of activists from the initiative Jer me se tie (because I care) placed a plaque remembering the victims of the 10th Mountain Brigade in At Mejdan square in Sarajevo center, and advanced three requests to the Bosnian authorities: that an independent commission identify all the civilian victims of crimes occurred in the parts of Sarajevo under the control of the Army of BiH; that all the cases of war crimes against civilians in besieged Sarajevo be investigated; and that a monument be erected in Sarajevo to remember the victims of the 10th Brigade and of other military and police units. However, the plaque did not last long and was found damaged shortly afterwards, bearing witness to a profound unease with the acknowledgment of these crimes in Sarajevo.
A difficult acceptance
Why is it so difficult to accept that such crimes have been committed? After all, the Bosnian institutions had already repudiated Caco when they killed him in 1993 and then prosecuted members of his unit. And yet, years later, Caco’s body was exhumed from the anonymous grave where it had been previously placed and buried in a pompous funeral close to soldiers died in the war, thereby de facto rehabilitating his deeds.
Even the father of Predrag Šalipur, one of Caco’s victims, recalls almost nostalgically this figure as a personable guy, always ready to help others, and prone to party with whomever, “just give him drums and a guitar”. He and his son were both close friends with Caco before the war, and yet Caco and his unit tortured and killed Predrag before dumping his body in the Kazani caves. Yet Predrag’s father claims to have forgiven him and believes that Caco ended up crazy because of the drugs he abused.
It is difficult for those who had believed in a multicultural Sarajevo to admit that some of its celebrated defenders revolted against this ideal and committed atrocious crimes with the petty motive of plundering some apartments. And yet, human rights activists are positive that this acknowledgment is fundamental to revive the multicultural myth and make it real. In this sense, Izetbegović ’s visit is an encouraging first step.
However, it is doomed to remain an empty gesture, if it will be belied by the politics of denial practiced on an everyday basis by Bosnian politicians. This is why this first step should be followed by concrete measures, like the construction of a memorial, the identification of all the victims of Caco and the 10th Mountain Brigade and the definitive designation of the facts in Kazani as war crimes.
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