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Abandoned by the State: Bosnia’s Wartime Torture Victims

7. May 2019.11:28
Thousands of Bosnians who suffered in wartime detention camps still receive no assistance from the authorities because the country’s state-level law on torture victims is being obstructed by an ethnically-based political dispute.

This post is also available in: Bosnian (Bosnian)

Fikret Alic looks like a healthy middle-aged man these days – nothing like the emaciated figure who was photographed behind the wire fence of the wartime Trnopolje detention camp in 1992.

The disturbing photograph of Alic, with his gaunt face and protruding ribs, surrounded by other prisoners in the Serb-run camp, became one of the defining images of the Bosnian conflict.

Alic now lives a peaceful life with his wife and three children in the town of Kozarac, near Prijedor in north-western Bosnia and Herzegovina.

But he has not yet recovered from his time in detention – the ‘man behind the wire’, as he became known in Bosnia and Herzegovina, sustained permanent damage to his kidneys during his two months in captivity.

Alic says that he still remembers everything about his ordeal, and is still woken from sleep by nightmares, 27 years afterwards. What also angers him is that the state does not seem to care about him and the other detainees and torture victims of the 1992-95 war.

“For the 60 days I spent in concentration camps, from Keraterm to Trnopolje, I haven’t received a single Bosnian mark. As a former prisoner, I don’t even have the right to get proper [free] healthcare,” Alic told BIRN.

Alic lived and worked for many years in Denmark, which now pays him a disability pension. “If I hadn’t earned my income in Denmark, I would have been like any other former prisoner in Bosnia and Herzegovina – a man without any rights,” he said.

Bosnia’s Law on the Protection of Victims of Torture, which is intended to provide financial assistance, help with rehabilitation and other benefits, was first drafted in 2006. A second draft followed in 2011 and a third in 2017.

The draft law defines wartime detainees and people who were raped or subjected to sexual violence as victims of torture, as well as those who suffered physical abuse.

But the law has yet to be adopted, even though Bosnia and Herzegovina is bound to enact it under the UN Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment and the European Convention for the Prevention of Torture and Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, both of which the country has signed.

In 2006, the UN Committee Against Torture also urged the authorities to ratify the law immediately, and the European Commission, in its annual reports on the progress of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s progress towards EU integrations, has repeatedly stated that it should be ratified as soon as possible. But Bosnia’s state-level Council of Ministers has yet to agree to do so.

Implementing the law would be costly – Bosnia’s Ministry of Human Rights and Refugees estimates that 288 million euros would be required over a period of 15 years.

But Jasmin Meskovic, the president of the Alliance of Detainees of Bosnia and Herzegovina, who spent 50 days in a prison camp in Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia in 1992, said that victims of torture only want recognition for their suffering, and that the financial reparations could be symbolic.

“Nobody wants to get rich because of being a victim of torture,” Meskovic said.

The fact that there is no state-level law also means that there is no official estimate of the number of wartime detention camps in the country, or the number of victims of torture.

The Alliance of Detainees believes there were 657 such camps, and possibly around 200,000 detainees, according to the estimates of three war victims’ associations.

“It is pathetic, embarrassing and irresponsible that there is still no official record of people who went through the concentration camps in Bosnia and Herzegovina, or were either killed in a camp, or were displaced [from their homes], or died upon leaving the camp,” said Meskovic.

The Sarajevo-based Alliance of Detainees alone has more than 55,000 members who it has certified as torture victims – a status which is achieved by providing statements from at least two witnesses.

“The basis of all the problems for former prisoners is the lack of a state law on victims of torture. We believe that the law must be a state law, in accordance with international standards, and as such, must be enforceable. We do not understand why it has still not been referred to the Parliamentary Assembly of Bosnia and Herzegovina for ratification, no matter what the outcome is,” said Meskovic.

Torture law stalled by politics

There were two types of detention camps in the southern town of Mostar, which was divided between Croats and Bosniaks during the war. On the ‘west’ side, which was under the control of Croat forces, Bosniaks and Serbs were detained in the camps, while in the ‘east’, the camps were run by the Army of the Bosnia and Herzegovina, and held Croats.

The Association of Mostar Detainees operates on the ‘east’ side of the now-reunified town. Emir Hajdarevic, a member of the association’s board who spent 1,309 days in the Heliodrom, Dretelj, Vojno and Sovici camps, believes that the state-level law has not yet been ratified because of the country’s ethnically-based politics, which perpetuates wartime divisions.

“Unfortunately, in this country, three parties were involved during the war, and hence there are three sides in the ratification of any law,” Hajdarevic explained.

Bosnia and Herzegovina has two political entities, the Bosniak- and Croat-dominated Federation and the Serb-majority Republika Srpska. Republika Srpska in particular does not want to see any new powers established at a state level, as this would challenge its autonomy.

Republika Srpska already has its own law on wartime torture victims and rejects the idea of a state-level law which would supersede its own legislation.

“It is clear that Republika Srpska is obstructing the ratification of the law at the state level, since it has ratified its entity law and does not want any transfer of competencies to the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina,” said Hajdarevic.

Meanwhile the state presidency has three members, one from each major ethnic group (Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs), and no law can pass through the similarly ethnically-divided state-level Council of Ministers without consensus, meaning that each ethnic group can block progress.

In the ‘western’ part of Mostar, Karlo Maric, the president of the Croatian Association of Bosnian Croat War Prisoners, who spent nine months and 20 days in a detention camp in Jablanica and 70 days in solitary confinement, said the failure to adopt the torture law must be addressed if Bosnia is to move forward towards EU membership.

Maric argued that adopting the law is an obligation under Chapter 23 of the legislation that Bosnia must harmonise with EU legislation as part of the accession process – the chapter that concerns justice and fundamental rights.

“Unfortunately, as the progress of this is incredibly slow, many victims will not experience moral satisfaction, nor compensation for non-pecuniary damage,” he said.

In Republika Srpska, where there is an entity law on wartime torture victims, former detainees’ representatives have a different view, however.

Vlado Dragojlovic, who spent seven months and 16 days in four camps under the control of the Croatian Defence Council in Odzak, Bosanski Brod, Slavonski Brod and the Donja Mahala camp near Orasje, is now a member of the presidency of the Alliance of Bosnian Serb War Prisoners and president of the Association of Detainees of Modrica and the Posavina Region.

He believes that the issue is better dealt with by the entities, and that the state should not be given more powers by new legislation.

“Society is divided, and so are the victims, too. Victims in the Federation [entity] will call me an aggressor, and I will call them criminals. It is a distrust that is constantly lighting sparks,” Dragojlovic said.

“We in the Alliance have made the decision that a law at Bosnia and Herzegovina’s level is unacceptable for us, and that it is better to have it legislated at the entity level,” he added.

However Republika Srpska’s law, which was ratified last year, has been criticised because it favours Serb victims. People of other ethnicities who were imprisoned at Serb-run camps in Republika Srpska during the war, but no longer live in the entity, cannot receive any benefits under the legislation.

Republika Srpska’s Minister of Labour and War Veterans and Disabled People’s Protection, Dusko Milunovic, insisted that there was no constitutional basis for a state-level law.

“By adopting this law at the state level, there would be a transfer of competencies from Republika Srpska to the level of Bosnia and Herzegovina, contrary to the constitution of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the consent of the entities,” Milunovic said.

But Bosnia’s Minister of Human Rights and Refugees, Semiha Borovac, said that the state has to ensure that all torture victims in the country are granted equal rights.

“The only way to ensure uniform protection for all victims of torture in Bosnia and Herzegovina is the adoption of a state law. This is in line with the recommendations of the UN Committee Against Torture,” argued Borovac.

Sociologist Slavo Kukic said that the failure to adopt the state law and the dispute over the Republika Srpska legislation shows that Bosnian society is immature and still needs the assistance of the international community.

“There can be no difference between the citizens of a country depending on where in the state they live… a law has to be ratified for all citizens of the same country, according to which they all have the same rights,” Kukic argued.

No rights for male rape victims

Zihnija Basic, from the town of Kakanj, was arrested in Sarajevo by Bosnian Serb police in December 1995, after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement which ended the war.

Basic spent 22 days in camps in Ilidza and Kula in East Sarajevo, where he was sexually assaulted in detention.

But today, as a male survivor of sexual violence, he has no rights to compensation or benefits because the Law on the Protection of Victims of Torture has not been ratified yet – and as a man living in the Federation entity, he is not officially recognised as a victim of war.

Female survivors of wartime rape and sexual abuse are recognised as war victims through the Federation entity’s Law on Civilian War Victims, however.

“It’s hard for me to talk about how I feel and what I’ve been through,” said Basic.

“We all carry a heavy trauma with us. Nobody admits that we’re walking bombs. I was saved from the abyss by psychologists and doctors. They helped me to talk about everything that I had lived through after more than 20 years… and there were also thoughts about suicide, despite support from my family,” he added.

Basic is one of 275 men who suffered sexual abuse and have applied for assistance to the Sarajevo-based Women – Victims of War association.

The association’s president, Bakira Hasecic, said that men who were victims of rape and sexual violence do not want to talk about what happened to them, and that it is difficult for them to explain to their families.

“When we’re taking about the state-level law, the question is how many victims of torture have died or taken their lives without feeling reassured or receiving recognition for their pain?” Hasecic asked.

“It is obvious that there is no political will to ratify such a law, especially if it is at the state level. In 2005, we tried to pass a law on raped and sexually abused women at the state level. However, there was no political will [to support the law] from Republika Srpska,” she added.

In Republika Srpska, 1,803 female victims of war have been registered, of whom 696 were rape victims.

The Republika Srpska-based branch of the Women – Victims of War association said the entity’s Law on Protection of War Crimes Victims of Republika Srpska was only being patchily implemented.

“The administrations in some municipalities are not doing their job properly, and victims are upset,” said Bozica Zivkovic Railic, the president of the association.

“When it comes to realising the rights of female victims of torture in Republika Srpska, the situation is ten times worse than in the Federation. They do not know anything here, nor do they care. They will make promises, but nothing will be done when it comes to money,” she insisted.

Caring for victims of wartime torture has often been left to the non-governmental sector, and to organisations like Vive Zene Tuzla, which has been active for 25 years as a centre for therapy and rehabilitation.

More than 4,000 people have undergone psychosocial treatment via the association, said Jasna Zecevic, the president of Vive Zene Tuzla, which is preparing a critical report on the status of torture victims in Bosnia and Herzegovina that will be submitted to a UN committee in November.

Zecevic said that it was crucial for victims to receive recognition for what they went through.

“This is the most important psychological moment, for the state to admit that there was torture and that its citizens experienced wartime trauma. If this recognition comes about, this will be the first step to mental healing,” she argued.

“The law is also needed because of the men who were in the camps and were victims of sexual violence. It is also important that the law at the state level treats all victims in Bosnia and Herzegovina in a uniform manner and avoids the discrimination that currently exists under the law in Republika Srpska,” she added.

Traumatised survivors seek security

Psychologist Ismet Dizdarevic said it was important for the community to acknowledge the status of everyone who was detained in a camp during the war, raped or sexually abused.

“What is most psychologically evident is that these people were highly traumatised and that particular attention should be paid to this,” said Dizdarevic.

“What they need first, undeniably, is economic security. They need to be provided with what they are naturally seeking – compensation – which is very important in a psychological sense,” he added.

Instead of being treated as outcasts, the victims should be made to feel that they are worthy members of society, he continued: “Among other things, there is a need for adequate legal protection, which is a state debt to these people. Otherwise, the victim of torture with chronic trauma will not be content and will continue to live in an uncertain world.”

Fikret Alic said he was satisfied when former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Hague Tribunal in April – but he remains disappointed by the failure of his own country to adopt a law giving rights to torture victims.

“I, as this ‘man behind the wire’, cannot understand a state that can’t get itself together, nor even try for more than 20 years to put the Law on Protection of Victims of Torture on the agenda,” Alic said.

“What will I answer my child when I am 70 years old, when he questions whether I, his dad, have any pension?” he asked.

“I do not need to be rich. I need kind, human words, I need all war criminals to be punished, I need our children not to learn the wrong history, and I need there to be no more war.”

Mirsad Bajtarevic is a journalist for BH Radio 1. This article was produced as part of BIRN’s Balkan Transitional Justice grant scheme, supported by the European Commission.

This post is also available in: Bosnian (Bosnian)