Forgotten Victims: Bosnian Croat Fighters Never Tried for Elderly Civilians’ Murders

Zaim Konjhodzic, who was seized and killed in 1993, with his wife and children. Photo courtesy of the Konjhodzic family.

Forgotten Victims: Bosnian Croat Fighters Never Tried for Elderly Civilians’ Murders

4. May 2020.12:50
4. May 2020.12:50
In the latest in the Forgotten Victims series, BIRN examines the killings of several elderly people by members of the Bosnian Croat wartime force, the Croatian Defence Council, who have never been brought to trial.

This post is also available in: Bosnian

He recalled how the unknown soldier then told his father: “Turn around and look at your house one last time.”

Alija Konjhodzic never saw his father again.

After the arrest, he went to the military police station to try to find out why his father had been taken.

“They said they had found weapons at his place. My father did have weapons, but it was hunting weapons and he had all the permits,” he said.

Later that day he went to see the police again, but his father was not on the list of people who had been detained.

Ten days after his arrest, the body of Zaim Konjhodzic was brought to Ljubuski. According to Alija Konjhodzic, his father’s former colleague at the Mostar police informed him that he had been killed, and organised the transportation of his remains.

“We could not bury him according to the religious rites as his body had already started decomposing. I got some sort of unverified information that they killed him at Heliodrom [HVO-run detention facility in Mostar] and left his body on Brkanovo Hill, and that somebody allegedly reported that to the civilian police,” he said.

Detainees beaten, abused and killed

Dženaza Zaima Konjhodžića. Izvor: Štefica Galić

The International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague convicted six military and political officials of a self-proclaimed, Bosnian Croat-led wartime statelet called the Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia, which had its headquarters in Mostar.

They were found guilty of a series of wartime crimes against Bosniaks, including offences against detainees at the Heliodrom facility. Among the six Herzeg-Bosnia officials who were convicted was Slobodan Praljak, the chief of the HVO’s main headquarters, who took poison as the judge delivered his verdict and died soon afterwards.

Between May 9, 1993 and April 18 or 19, 1994, the HVO held captured Bosnian Army soldiers and civilians at the Heliodrom facility, where conditions were “very harsh” and detainees were mistreated, the Hague Tribunal’s verdict said. The HVO also took Heliodrom detainees to do forced labour on the front line in Mostar, where several dozen were killed or wounded.

There are also numerous cases of people being taken from their homes in the Herzeg-Bosnia territory and killed, and the direct perpetrators have never been convicted, as in the case of Zaim Konjhodzic.

Huso Obradovic, a dentist from Mostar, was held at Heliodrom for 253 days. He was present when Zaim Konjhodzic was brought into a room with 20 other detainees at the detention centre at the beginning of July 1993.

“The man in his late sixties came to our room. He was tall and bony. He was beaten by HVO military prisoners who were in the adjacent room. They beat him hard, five or six of them. He screamed for help,” Obradovic recalled.

“At some point they knocked him down and one of them hit him in his face with a stick. His facial artery burst and a big stream of blood began gushing up towards the ceiling. I guess they got scared and left. I ran over to him and tried to stop the blood. I managed to do it using a compress and I told him: ‘Man, be careful how you act, this is a detention camp.’”

Obradovic said he saw Konjhodzic one last time shortly after the beating.

“He was shouting, I think he was not aware of the situation and where he was,” Obradovic said.

“It was afternoon or early evening when he stood up and broke some glass because he wanted to cut his veins. A policeman from Capljina, who was next to him, grabbed him and knocked the glass out of his hand. About ten minutes later Ante Buhovac, who was a chief of guards in Heliodrom, came and took him away. We never saw that man again. We found out later that his family buried him in Ljubuski.”

Emir Konjhodžić. Izvor: Predrag Blagojević

In 2007, the Cantonal Court in Mostar sentenced former Heliodrom detention camp guards Miroslav Marijanovic and Ante Buhovac to a total of seven years in prison for war crimes.

They were convicted of mistreating prisoners, beating them and making death threats. But following an appeal, Marijanovic’s sentence was reduced to two-and-a-half years and Buhovac’s sentence to two years.

Obradovic said that he wanted to give a statement to the Herzegovina Neretva Cantonal Prosecution about Zaim Konjhodzic, but was discouraged from doing so.

“I wanted to tell them what I had seen. However, at the time I was told it meant nothing in court. Buhovac took him away. I don’t know if he killed him. Who were the soldiers who beat him? I don’t know their names. I only know one of them was nicknamed Slavonac,” Obradovic said.

The Herzegovina Neretva Cantonal Prosecution told BIRN that it is not working on any case related to Zaim Konjhodzic.

Emir Konjhodzic, Zaim Konjhodzic’s older son, spent the war years in Mostar and reported what happened to his father to Interior Ministry officials in the city.

The Agency for Investigation and Documentation of Bosnia and Herzegovina then took over the documentation related to Heliodrom and subsequently forwarded it to the Hague Tribunal, Emir Konjhodzic believes.

“However, as regards my father, nobody has filed a criminal report. Nobody has contacted us,” he said.

One usual fact is that two different dates of death were recorded for Zaim Konjhodzic, his son said.

“When we began doing paperwork for the inheritance proceedings, we noticed that two dates of death were registered in our father’s case. One of them was [recorded] in 1999, indicating that he died at Heliodrom,” Emir Konjhodzic said.

“My wife went to Djacki Dom [a Mostar municipal office] to finish the paperwork, when she got a document from some archive that my father died at a hospital at 5pm on July 11, 1993. That is nonsense, because according to my brother who buried him, his body had already started decomposing. I have a feeling that they are doing everything to ensure that crimes are forgotten and criminals are let off,” he added.

Amer Đulić. Izvor: Predrag Blagojević

Stefica Galic, who is now editor of the Tacno.net website, spent the war in Ljubuski working as a photographer. She knew Zaim Konjhodzic personally and she attended and photographed his funeral.

“When they buried Zaim’s body on July 12, 1993, the body had surely already started decomposing, as strong odours of decomposition could be sensed. So the allegations that he died at a hospital were just a continuation of covering up the truth,” Galic explained.

She said that just like Zaim Konjhodzic’s murderers, those responsible for the murders of other Ljubuski residents from 1992 to 1995 have not been prosecuted either.

“Besides Zaim Konjhodzic, whose murderer is unknown, it is not known who killed Ramiza Delalic, Ibro Osmic, Huso Karailo, Mijo and Vida Grbavac,” she said.

“I approached the Western Herzegovina Cantonal Prosecution. I was told that they were conducting an investigation into the murder of Huso Karailo, whose case was a war crime case, while investigations related to Mijo Grbavac and Ibrahim Osmic were considered to be regular murder cases. As for Ramiza Delalic and Zaim Konjhodzic, cases have never been launched,” she added.

According to witness testimonies at the Hague Tribunal and the Bosnian state court, some of the Bosniak detainees from Ljubuski were transferred from Heliodrom to the Military-Investigative Prison in Ljubuski.

At the beginning of this year, the retrial of prison officers Ivan Kraljevic, Mato Jelcic, Stojan Odak, Vice Bebek and Vinko Radisic for crimes committed at the Military-Investigation Prison began at the state court’s appeals chamber.

In 2014, the prosecution also indicted two Bosnian Croats, Ivan Ancic and Vid Palameta, for wartime crimes in so-called Herzeg-Bosnia, but neither appeared in court. Both men live in Croatia and have not been handed over for trial.

Criminal impunity at the ‘bone hospital’

Amer Djulic spent a total of 233 days in captivity at HVO facilities – at the notorious Kostana ‘bone hospital’ in the town of Stolac and in the Dretelj, Gabela and Heliodrom detention centres.

He still lives in Stolac and says that every day, he sees some of the people who arrested, interrogated and physically mistreated him at the Kostana hospital in 1993, while he was still not yet 18 years old.

He told BIRN that the hospital was a place where any HVO fighter could abuse detainees if they wanted. People were called for questioning and tortured.

“The Kostana hospital was the seat of the HVO’s military police, but it was open to all HVO members who wanted to prove their strength and abuse people who had their hands tied up,” Djulic said.

He was forced to bury the bodies of two of his cousins who had been killed, and was physically mistreated by some of his neighbours from Stolac for over an hour until a Croatian soldier stopped them. He said that he still does not know the name of the man who saved his life.

Djulic has gathered what he says are new pieces of evidence against the people he considers responsible for the crimes against him, who have still not been prosecuted, and sent a report to the Herzegovina Neretva Cantonal Prosecution two years ago.

“I have been told by the Herzegovina Neretva Cantonal Prosecution for a year and a half that they are waiting for an approval of the [state] prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina. I still have not received a response, as if they are ignoring me,” said Djulic, who now heads the Association of Detainees from Stolac.

Son investigates parents’ murders

Nijaz Piragić. Izvor: Predrag Blagovčanin

Nijaz Piragic has been waiting since 1994 for the prosecution of those responsible for killing his parents Zejna and Jusuf Piragic in their apartment in Mostar.

“A few years ago I was contacted by the State Investigation and Protection Agency to give a statement to them. I told them all I knew. After that, they called me once more to sign that statement. So, in 26 years of investigation they have taken my statement twice,” Piragic said.

The investigation into the murder of his parents has still not been completed, and Piragic now believes that his parents’ murderers will never stand trial. A witness to the murder of his parents died last year.

“More than 25 years have passed, witnesses are dying, people no longer remember. The relevant institutions – from the prosecution to police – are not doing their job and it is not in their interest to solve such cases,” Piragic said.

“I told them not to call me again unless they obtained some new pieces of information. I have post-traumatic stress disorder, I was injured during the war.”

Piragic got his information about what happened to his parents from witnesses in Centar 2 neighbourhood in Mostar, where they were killed.

He said that what he found out was that around midnight on the night of the murders, four fighters arrived in a Mercedes that was used by a unit led by Vinko Martinovic, the commander of so-called Convicts’ Battalion of the HVO police, who was later convicted by the Hague Tribunal of expelling Bosniaks from their homes in Mostar.

Piragic said that the soldiers entered the apartment, they tried to strangle his sleeping father and then shot him in the chest and head.

“My mother tried to flee through the window, but two of them caught her and dragged her across the street. Later on they killed her,” he continued.

“I was told that Ivan Zelenika was there. I said that to the police. I don’t know if Ivan Zelenika killed my parents, but I know that the State Investigation and Protection Agency has the authority to investigate that. They also have a hundred statements about what Zelenika did in the Centar 2 neighbourhood,” Piragic said.

Mostar’s Cantonal Court sentenced HVO fighter Zelenika to two-and-a-half years in prison in 2015 for the beating and abusing Bosniak civilian detainees during the war.

In a separate case at the state court, Zelenika was sentenced in 2016 to six years in prison alongside three HVO fighters for crimes against Serb civilian detainees in Mostar and at the Dretelj detention camp, where they were beaten, sexually abused and made to do forced labour.

Neither indictment included the murders of Zejna and Jusuf Piragic.

The Forgotten Victims project is supported by the government of the United Kingdom and is being implemented by the United Nations Development Programme, UNDP, as part of its Regional War Crimes Project.

Predrag Blagovčanin

This post is also available in: Bosnian