The massacre of 71 young people in Tuzla on May 25, 1995 was one of the most deadly crimes against civilians of the Bosnian war – but the only person to be convicted is still free.
When a shell exploded in Kapija square in central Tuzla, Sandro Kalesic’s parents were marking their wedding anniversary, and the little boy’s father had taken the day off work to celebrate the occasion.
Two-and-a-half-year-old Sandro was killed by the blast, which took the lives of 71 young people and wounded more than 200 others after a shell was fired from Bosnian Serb Army positions outside the north-eastern Bosnian city in the evening of May 25, 1995.
“When I noticed that my Sandro was hit, I pulled him close to me and felt something wet around his heart,” recalled Dino Kalesic, Sandro’s father. “Then I moved him away from me and I saw blood… blood in his heart area. So we ran to my car over shredded bodies.
“When we arrived at the entrance gate to the Clinical Centre, I felt Sandro pass away in my arms.”
Edina Ahmetasevic was a young woman who also lost her life that day at Kapija; her father Arif was on the frontline when it happened.
“I heard that a massacre had happened in Tuzla. I thought, God forbid, she used to go out frequently. Later on, at around 10 o’clock, they brought me back from the battlefield. I arrived at Gradina [hospital] and saw them carry Edina out of the University Clinical Centre. They were carrying her to the pathology section,” he said.
Adnan Piric was a 17-year-old handball player; he had come to the city centre that day after a practice session when the shell hit Kapija square. “My friends who had come with me, they were lying on top of me, so I tried to move them away, they were already dead,” he recalled Piric lost his leg, which doctors amputated after he was wounded.
His friend Asim Hadziselimovic was severely injured, but survived the massacre, although he had to undergo more than two years of medical treatment afterwards. “I got out of bed for the first time two-and-a-half years later. I shall never forget the feeling. Believe me, I had to learn how to walk again,” he said.
‘The smell of blood’
Doctors and medical staff at the University Clinical Centre in Tuzla worked hard to minimise the number of victims that night – the hardest night in Tuzla’s recent history.
“The smell of blood, the cries, a mixture of deodorants because all those children had got spruced up for their night out, when they were supposed to meet their first and, it turns out, last crush,” said Salih Slijepcevic, a medic at the University Clinical Centre.
“One cannot describe the types of injuries and those contorted faces of dead children with pain in their faces, but it was even harder watching the hope of their parents lifting blood-stained white sheets looking for their children and their friends.”
Esma Slijepcevic had hoped that her son Asim was among the survivors until the very last moment.
“I heard a grenade had fallen and injured and killed many people. I went there to look for my Asim. I was thinking he was maybe helping others, maybe carrying the wounded. But while I was searching for him, I saw a lot of blood, many wounded people, many dead people covered with sheets. Later on we found out that he too was dead,” she said.
Four days after the Tuzla massacre, a funeral for the victims was organised. Because of the constant shelling of the city at the time, the funeral took place at 4am on May 29.
“We were afraid of a new massacre given the large number of people who attended it,” said Tuzla’s mayor, Jasmin Imamovic.
Parents had to say their last farewells to their children in silence.
“I know we had to be quiet because of the shelling and it was hard for me to suppress my feelings. I wanted to express my pain, but we had to suppress it,” said Esma Slijepcevic.
Edina Ahmetasevic’s father Arif found the funeral almost impossible to bear.
“I thought to myself, my God, a mix-up could have happened here. They might have given me someone else’s coffin. So, while at the grave, I uncovered her, cuddled her, made sure it was her, cuddled her and tucked her in again,” he said.
“I think this was probably the most difficult moment in the tragedy that I survived… cuddling her in her grave.”
The convicted man flees
Only one man has been convicted of the Tuzla massacre – but he has not yet served his sentence.
The Bosnian state court convicted Novak Djukic, commander of the Bosnian Serb Army’s Ozren Tactical Group, of ordering an artillery squad to shell Tuzla on May 25, 1995. He was sentenced to 25 years in prison.
But in February 2014, Djukic was released from prison when the country’s Constitutional Court quashed the verdict because of an incorrect application of the law. In June 2014, the state court convicted him again but reduced his sentence to 20 years.
But a few days later, his lawyer Dusko Tomic informed the state court that Djukic was undergoing medical treatment in Serbia, which meant he could not begin to serve his sentence.
“There were no indications that he would flee. Djukic and I gave a public announcement to the media saying we would go to Tuzla, lay flowers and bow down before the innocent victims. I was convinced it would happen, but, in the end, it did not happen,” Tomic said.
The Bosnian authorities have repeatedly asked Serbia to take over the verdict and force the fugitive Djukic to serve the rest of his sentence there, but the Belgrade court has yet to issue any ruling. Hearings in the case have been postponed several times.
Nearly two-and-a-half decades after the massacre, the parents of the victims have not yet come to terms with the fact that only one person has been judged responsible for a crime of such magnitude.
“I would like to see him, meet him and look him in his eyes and ask him if he can fall asleep, if he sleeps well, if he sees those children in his dreams, if images from Kapija, where 71 people were killed and more than 200 wounded, appear in his mind,” said Dino Kalesic, two-and-a-half-year-old Sandro’s father.
Djukic’s lawyer insists that his client is not guilty. Throughout the trial, the defence stuck to the thesis that the explosion was detonated in Tuzla itself, and that the deaths were not caused by a shell fired from Bosnian Serb positions.
“In my opinion, Novak Djukic was wrongfully convicted, because we know who committed the crime, who made the explosive devices, who triggered the explosion, who took them to Tuzla,” Tomic said.
Expert witnesses’ findings say otherwise. After making an assessment of the Kapija blast, military expert Berko Zecevic determined that a 130mm artillery projectile was fired from Mount Ozren on May 25, 1995.
“Not only my estimates, but also numerous other analyses have showed that it was fired on Mount Ozren from a distance of 27.5 kilometres,” Zecevic said.
“On the basis of a map found by prosecution investigators, it was determined that three 130mm artillery weapons were situated there. The map contained clear and pre-defined targets in the zone of Tuzla. Kapija was one of the specified shooting targets,” he added.
The parents of the dead and the survivors of the massacre are still waiting for Djukic to finally be put behind bars.
“I would get satisfaction, if he is guilty, and it has been proven that he is, to see him serve his sentence,” Adnan Piric said.
Another survivor, Admir Ikinic, said he had a message for Djukic: “From 1992 to 1995, you shelled me here in my town, from Majevica, Ozren and from other places, every day,” Ikinic said.
“I managed to escape for three years, but you found me in front of Kapija, you injured me, and here I am, I survived, and you must answer for what you did.”