Banja Luka (foto A. Sasso)

Banja Luka (photo A. Sasso)

Parents, grandparents, children – hundreds of people have been guarding Banja Luka's main square for over six months, demanding justice for David. Regardless of who wins Sunday's elections, they are determined to go all the way

05/10/2018 -  Alfredo Sasso Banja Luka

The demonstration is scheduled at 6 pm in Trg Krajine, Banja Luka's central square – an appointment that has been repeating every day since March 27th. Today [October 2nd, 2018] is day 189. A few minutes before 6, hip hop songs start from the powerful coffers. It is like the sound of bells: people slowly begin to fill the square and approach the large secular altar of flowers, candles, and scarves surmounted by the raised fist in metal. Davor, David's father, comes out of the tent in the centre of the square, and everyone goes to hug him. He wears a heavy jacket and cap, necessary for this premature winter in the Bosnian Krajina. His face is worn by the permanent fatigue of the last few weeks, the serious suffering of these last six months, and the hundreds of interviews and demonstrations. Activists start distributing large photographs of a smiling boy with dreadlocks. It is David Dragičević, Davor's son. It is the sign that the event is really about to begin.

For the hundred and eighty-ninth time, hundreds of citizens of Banja Luka raise their fists and ask for "Pravda Za Davida", justice for David. David, 21, a graduate student in electrical engineering, a fan of reggae and hip hop, died more than six months ago in unknown circumstances. His body was found on March 24th, six days after his disappearance, in the Crkvena stream near the city centre. By now, no one doubts that it was a murder and that there were at least some inconsistencies in the work of the police, judicial, and institutional bodies of Republika Srpska, one of the two entities that make up Bosnia and Herzegovina and of which Banja Luka is the capital. It is equally indisputable that David's case is one of the crucial themes of the electoral campaign that will end with the vote of October 7th. The mobilisation Pravda za Davida has revealed a glimpse of indignation against the abuse of power, but also of solidarity transversal to ethnic-administrative barriers, as it had never happened in Bosnia and Herzegovina in recent years.

A long list

The schedule of the event appears to be consolidated, almost ritualised. It starts with the reading of a list, interrupted by screams of disapproval, of the characters involved in the management of the case and that the movement indicates as responsible for or accomplices of misdirection. It is a long list, about 50 names and surnames. The first is the Minister of the Interior of Republika Srpska, who had immediately labelled David as a "street boy, a drug addict" and denied the murder hypothesis against all evidence. There are the police leaders who had initially filed David's death as a case of drowning, in a spot where the water is only a few centimetres high and despite the unmistakable signs of scuffling on the body. There is the author of the first autopsy, who stated that David died immediately after the disappearance and was on heavy drugs – a thesis completely disproved by the counter-claims of foreign experts. There are those who accused David of theft on the night of his disappearance – a thesis soon exposed as a total machination. There are the heads of the prosecution, whose investigations after seven months have led to nothing, reinforcing suspicions by the movement and the independent media that the institutions are covering the real perpetrators, perhaps for an altercation that ended badly. Or perhaps, some argue, for some bigger matter concerning the relationships between organised crime and deviant institutions. Finally, there is the university professor who for months has been saying, with great echo of the Republika Srpska government media, that Pravda za Davida is a Western scheme, a colourful revolution to destabilise Banja Luka. The movement responded with irony. "We took the children to the streets, we gave them crayons and markers. Then I announced: 'Here starts our colourful revolution'", says Daniela Ratešić, one of the most active members of the Pravda za Davida collective. "They say we pay people 50 Euros to come to the square. Since we have been here for 180 days, even Soroš would have gone bankrupt!".

The moment comes for the movement's trademark song, Klinac iz geta (The boy from the ghetto), a hip hop piece composed by David when he was 16, which contains a dramatically prophetic phrase: "It seems I will not get far, because I'm just a another pawn in this story". Everyone sings it word by word, and the many elderly people in the square seem to be the most involved. There is certainly at play the identification with a family tragedy. "Anyone can potentially see their child in David", explains Daniela. Yet, behind the emotional drive there seems to be a real social need, the need to listen to – and practice – a speech of empathy and mutual recognition, opposed to the typical narrative of the dominant powers since 1995, made of identity segregation and constant fearmongering. "People were waiting for someone to come and say something, because they were afraid to talk. Fear of each other, fear for survival, fear of everything", Daniela continues.

Transnational solidarity

Another key moment is the reading of the messages that come from all the countries of the former Yugoslavia, some through the highly participated Facebook groupPravda za Davida (320,000 members). These messages are sometimes simple, full of encouragement and good intentions, but also of strong concern for the future. In a sense, we hear more talk of the future here than in the entire electoral campaign in Bosnia and Herzegovina which, like all the previous ones since 1996, has focused on the past, on the irredentisms still linked to the war, on what has not been done in recent years. Or on a generic tomorrow, based on the self-absolving illusion that external actors will bring solutions and resources, be it Russia, Turkey, or the European Union. It is also because of this vagueness that the slogan screamed by Davor Dragičević, "Idemo do kraja" ("Let's go all the way") represents a break from the status quo.

The re-appropriation of public space is another key element. For the movement, Krajina Square has become David Square. The big sign "Davidov Trg" is beside the clock stopped at 9.11 am which commemorates the earthquake of 1969, one of the founding elements of Banja Luka's collective memory. The secular altar and the raised fist in metal have become the main visual standpoints of the square. Also this is, consciously or not, an experiment of resistance against Bosnian ethno-cracy. Since the post-war period, toponymy and monuments have been an exclusive tool of the ruling parties to rewrite history for their own use and consumption, mark identity divisions, and carry out mass distractions.

The writing "Davidov Trg", beside the clock that commemorates the earthquake of 1969, photo A. Sasso


Therefore, the protest also and above all shows a clearly political need, which denounces the lack of representation and responsibility. "The word 'minister' comes from the Latin 'to serve'. Now, ask yourself: who is serving who in this country?", they say on the microphone. A class element emerges when other interventions from the square underline the humble condition of Davor Dragičević, a war invalid who works as a waiter, as opposed to the stručnjaci – the educated, protected, and well paid "experts" who occupy the higher positions in service of private interests.


One of the most common words in the square is "normal". "We are normal people", "we want a normal country". In other countries and eras, normality would be synonymous with conservation, but here it is a desire for emancipation, almost a revolutionary act. The semantic universe of the word "politics" is saturated by the parties, almost all organised on an ethnic basis, which have governed for the entire post-war period: patronage in management of resources, rigid social hierarchy, conformism.

Sociologist Srđan Puhalo explains. "Everything is politics today, but politics is not accountable to citizens. Whether you have water at home or not is politics, because depending on the political affiliation someone comes to connect you to the aqueduct. What I call 'fear of politicisation' is instilled to make people more passive. There is nothing more political than asking the police, the court, and the power of attorney to do their job properly".

"The demonstration is moving towards its conclusion. Throughout his life, Davor has remained silent. After months of huge exposure, he decided not to make any public statements before the two appointments which, in all probability, will mark a decisive moment for the future of Pravda za Davida.

One is obviously the vote on Sunday October 7th, when the current blockade of power that rests around Milorad Dodik will seek reconfirmation. Dodik is the current president and for twelve years the autocratic leader of Republika Srpska, and his circle is formed by those who Pravda za Davida indicates as responsible for the misdirection. Several analysts claim that the Dragičević case has negatively influenced consent for Dodik and that his party, although slightly favoured, has wasted the chances of an easy victory. On the other hand the opposition parties, which are actually just more moderate Serb-Bosnian nationalists and equally infiltrated by corruption, present themselves as an alternative more in form than substance. One of the most frequent criticisms of Pravda za Davida is that it has allowed itself to be exploited by the opposition parties of Republika Srpska, who have filled thus their gap in leadership and content.

The other appointment is the great national procession, the third in six months, to be held on the afternoon of Friday October 5th. The movement announced it after relations with the Republika Srpska government slipped to alarming lows. After initially showing understanding, Milorad Dodik has recently launched attacks of all kinds towards the movement. First, in an interview with a Belgrade newspaper, he threw heavy allusions on David's parents, accused of raising the boy in "unusual conditions" because of their separation. Then, in an electoral rally, he threatened the eviction of the square and mocked David's dad: "He brought the bed to the square and thinks he's the boss. On October 8th – the day after the elections – he will longer be there".

At the beginning of September, during a demonstration in the centre of Banja Luka, the two had a fortuitous and very tense face to face. Dodik, perhaps for the first time in his political career, appeared very awkward, while Davor remained impassive, stating the accusations without even looking him in the eye and finally exclaiming the usual, firm "Let's go all the way". Activists tell us that they take the government's threats very seriously and do not rule out strong actions if necessary, including leaving the country and applying for asylum in a country of the European Union to internationalise their cause.

Justice for David, justice for Dženan

The event of October 5th, therefore, takes place in an atmosphere of great nervousness. Nobody says it openly, but the date has an important symbolic meaning in ex-Yugoslavia. On this day, in 2000, the fall of Slobodan Milošević's regime took place in Belgrade. The Interior minister of Republika Srpska added further tension by claiming that "ultras groups" will arrive from the other entity of the country, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to cause unrest.

In fact, Pravda za Davida knows that it can count on the Federation's support and twin fight. On October 5th in Sarajevo, at the same time as in Banja Luka, the Pravda za Dženana (Justice for Dženan) demonstration will take place to ask for justice for Dženan Memić, who died in the Bosnian capital in 2016 in circumstances that have never been clarified. According to family members and independent media, he was the victim of an aggression disguised as an accident. This is another of the so-called "silenced cases", violent deaths in which the authorities have had direct responsibilities or misdirected the investigations – a phenomenon that has finally gained visibility through the tragic cases of David and Dženan. The fathers of the two boys, Serbian Davor and Muslim Muriz, have met several times in the recent months. A picture of them hugging has had great circulation, becoming a reference for those who think that Bosnia and Herzegovina can become, one day, a normal country. It is certainly not realistic to think that normalisation can happen easily. Two tragedies alone – with a political meaning, but still with a family dimension – cannot spark change in a country where, to use the words of Sarajevo activist Svjetlana Nedimović, the pressure of daily problems is often such that people are not able to focus on a problem that concerns them and to mobilise. Still, these are the first demonstrations in post-war Bosnia and Herzegovina that show a clearly transversal participation in the two entities. These collectives have opened a space of common expression, now they need other causes to expand it.

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