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When Azmir Sabanovic was 14 years old, he was one of thousands of people who fell victim to reservist police officers who were responsible for persecution, murders, abuse and rape in the Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska during the war in 1992.
Sabanovic used to live in the Visegrad area, and he told BIRN how newly-mobilised reservist police officers used to escort children to school in the spring of 1992 – and then one of them physically abused him.
“One night, one of them singled me out. Me, a child, a male,” he said.
“At that moment I could see in his eyes what he was going to do. What he did has changed my destiny until the end of my life. It is beyond comprehension that someone could do such a thing to a child, particularly a boy,” Sabanovic said.
There were 400 reservist police officers in Visegrad before the war, and the force was multi-ethnic. However, as the conflict began, 183 more officers were recruited by the Serb-run police station in the town.
A number of them had criminal records, said Huso Kurspahic, the former commander of the police station in Medjedja, near Visegrad.
“All the criminals from Serbia, including [Hague Tribunal war crimes convict] Milan Lukic and others, were brought in. These men were the most dominant – the ones without character – and they are the ones that misused this reserve police force the most,” Kurspahic said.
The Bosnian Serb authorities’ wartime practice of employing criminals as reservist policemen has been acknowledged by several Hague Tribunal judgments, including the ones convicting Lukic, former Republika Srpska police minister Mico Stanisic and former Republika Srpska parliamentary speaker Momcilo Krajisnik.
Marko Attila Hoare, a historian who testified as an expert witness at the Hague Tribunal, told BIRN that recruiting people with criminal records was intentional.
“The police forces of Republika Srpska were turned into an instrument for waging war against civilians. So it was very important to have criminal elements who were ready to behave in a brutal criminal way against civilians, against their former neighbours,” Hoare said.
Mile Matijevic, a professor of security issues at Banja Luka University and Eastern Sarajevo University, also said there was “major irregularity” in the recruitment of reservist officers at the beginning of the armed conflict.
“The irregularity was reflected in the uncontrolled admissions of reservist police officers [to the force], starting with their qualifications and their eligibility, so some people with criminal records, with criminal pasts, joined the force,” Matijevic explained.
These untrained recruits went on to commit various crimes, including war crimes, he added.
Hoare said that reservist police were involved in the persecution and unlawful arrests of Bosniaks and Croats.
“That was ethnic cleansing. The then police forces were essentially very important in that process, but they had to be the forces that were really ready to execute atrocities against civilians, not act as professional policemen, but in a criminal manner,” he added.
As well as the verdicts handed down by the Hague Tribunal, the Bosnian state court has also delivered 13 final verdicts convicting former reservist police officers of war crimes.
The majority of the convicted reservist policemen were from the town of Prijedor, and were sentenced for murders in the surrounding villages, for crimes committed at the Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje detention camps, and for mass killings at Koricanske Stijene.
Edin Ramulic, an activist from Prijedor, described the reservist police force as “the primary political army that was used for taking over authority”.
“In the spring of 1992, they had 1,700 police [in Prijedor], more than three-quarters of whom were reservist police officers. As we could see during trials and from the facts that have been determined, those reservist police officers literally participated in all the crimes,” Ramulic said.
‘A negative spiral of distrust’
Muharem and Suada Elezovic had two sons, Edin and Emir, who were both killed at Koricanske Stijene after being transported there in a convoy of detainees who were told by their Serb captors that they would be freed under a prisoner exchange.
“In Koricani, the men were separated from the women, in two buses, never to be seen again. It was said in secret that they had been killed, but we had lived in hope until we found their bones,” said Suada Elezovic.
Members of reservist police forces have been convicted of the murders of around 200 civilians at Koricanske Stijene.
“Reservist policemen did it… All the crimes in Prijedor, the biggest crimes in the war, and at Koricanske Stijene, they did all that, those same people,” said Muharem Elezovic.
“I only had those two sons. I lived and worked for them, and now… I have nothing now.”
The Republika Srpska Interior Ministry has said that the new reservist police force is needed because the entity doesn’t have enough manpower to deal with security challenges and the ongoing migrant crisis. The force is expected to include over 1,000 armed and uniformed officers.
Republika Srpska’s Interior Minister Dragan Lukac told media on Monday before the entity’s parliament started discussing the draft legislation to establish the reservist force that he thought its creation was “important for security”.
“With a new wave of migrants [entering Bosnia and Herzegovina], we believe this is the right move,” Lukac said.
His ministry declined to talk to BIRN about war crimes committed by members of reservist police forces in the past.
The police minister in Sarajevo Canton, Admir Katica, said that he believes that the Republika Srpska authorities’ initiative was politically-motivated.
“There are over 430 policemen for each 100,000 citizens in Bosnia and Herzegovina. You should consider the fact that the number ranges from 210 to 220 [for each 100,000 people] in the whole of the European Union. So our numbers are twice as high as the average,” said Katica.
Bosnia and Herzegovina’s state security minister, Dragan Mektic, said the initiative represented “an unnecessary overspill of inflammatory, warlike rhetoric” and would raise tensions.
In response to the Republika Srpska initiative, the Bosniak- and Croat-dominated Federation entity is also planning legislation to introduce its own reservist police force, which could include as many as 4,500 new officers.
In April, the Office of the High Representative, the international overseer of the peace deal that ended the war in 1995, expressed concern that talk of forming reservist police forces in both entities “does not contribute to peace and stability in Bosnia and Herzegovina”.
“A negative spiral of distrust and mutual competition, even fear, has been launched, and this dynamic is worrying, as it threatens stability, creating tensions and divisions in the country,” the OHR said in a statement.
Experts argue that the establishment of new reservist forces is expensive and unnecessary.
“We should primarily strengthen the professional forces of all security services. The fact is that there is a high number of policemen, which means that the state has invested and is still investing significant resources in the education, training, equipping and functioning of these forces,” Matijevic said.
“And now the question arises as to what would be the benefits of activating a certain smaller number of reservist units, primarily consisting of people without any police knowledge,” he added.
Katica argued meanwhile that improving the capabilities of the current police forces should be the priority.
“We should go for the necessary things, such as staffing the active police and improving their education. We should work on networking our system better, and really reform the police, so we no longer have police agencies that are not interconnected,” he said.
“We have so many police agencies that do not exchange data as best they can or cannot agree who is [the relevant authority] for a specific incident. These are the things we should solve,” he added.
Fear of ‘political police’
Victims of war crimes say that they lost confidence in the Republika Srpska police back in 1992, during the first year of the war.
Suada Elezovic described the establishment of the new reservist force as “a return to the 1990s”.
Experts believe there is a danger that reservist police officers might again become a tool used by political parties, as they were in 1992.
“I worry that people with sick minds… plan to abuse this reserve police force in some way as some sort of political police,” said Interior Minister Mektic.
Azmir Sabanovic, who suffered at the hands of reservist police in 1992, said that the trauma he went through as a boy still haunts him.
“When police stop me on the road, I go back to 1992 right away,” he explained.
His fears that the establishment of the new reservist police force could be a precursor to a renewed outbreak of persecution are shared by many Bosniak war victims.
“I think that the creation of a reservist police force represents the recreation of war crimes, or of the abuse and persecution of all non-Serbs that live in these areas,” he said.
Lawmakers in the Bosnian Serb parliament will vote later this week on the proposed legislation to establish the new reservist force, with observers suggesting it is highly likely to pass.