A report by a commission funded by the government of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity claimed that Serbs were subjected to ethnic cleansing in Sarajevo during the war and that crimes against them have been ignored.
Former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic’s defence said he has serious health problems including a potential stroke and asked for his appeal against his conviction for genocide and other wartime crimes to be postponed.
Ratko Mladic’s defence lawyers said on Monday that they have asked the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals in The Hague to delay appeal hearings set for March 17 and 18 in order to check whether the former Bosnian Serb military commander is well enough to participate in the proceedings.
“The basis of the [the request] was medical information about Mr. Mladic recently disclosed by the [Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals’] Registry as to his cognitive impairment, impending surgery, a potential new (previously not reported) stroke, and other issues relevant to General Mladic’s fitness to participate in hearings,” said the request filed by Mladic’s lawyers Branko Lukic and Dragan Ivetic.
They said they submitted the request on February 28.
Mladic, 76, has had several serious health problems while in detention in the Netherlands and has suffered two previous strokes and one heart attack. His defence has repeatedly complained about the medical care that he has received in custody and asked for him to be released for hospital treatment.
The UN court sentenced Mladic to life imprisonment in November 2017, finding him guilty of genocide in Srebrenica in 1995, the persecution of Bosniaks and Croats throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, terrorising the population of Sarajevo during the siege of the city and taking UN peacekeepers hostage.
Mladic appealed against the verdict, as did the Hague prosecution, which is calling for him to be found guilty of genocide in six other municipalities in 1992.
A date for the final verdict has not yet been set, but Carmel Agius, president of the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, has said it will be delivered by the end of this year.
Mladic’s final verdict should have been handed down earlier than that, but following a challenge from the defence, three judges were removed from the trial after Mladic accused them of bias.
New judges were then appointed who needed time to familiarise themselves with the case.
BIRN has launched a new campaign entitled If You Were Here, which will tell the stories of family members of missing persons from the Balkan wars who are still waiting to discover the fate of their loved ones.
Bosnia’s Strategy for Prevention and Combatting Terrorism, which expires this year, has not received nearly enough resources to succeed – and clear terrorism prevention systems have yet to be set up in all local communities, analysis by BIRN shows.
As efforts continue to finally make Sarajevo landmine-free this year, Bosnia’s demining experts explain how they deal with facing death or injury every day – and why they dedicate their lives to such a dangerous job.
It’s 16 minutes past midday on Christmas Eve, and Sead Vrana sends me a text on Viber, seeking to push our interview back by 30 minutes.
“I have a high-profile task where my presence is required on site, may we postpone our meeting to 15.30?” the message requests.
The task was removing explosives that had been discovered in an underground fuel tank at the Blazuj military barracks on the outskirts of Sarajevo, where some 750 migrants are currently being housed.
Within two hours, Vrana and his Explosive Ordnance Disposal team successfully clear the site of an M57 hand launcher grenade, some bombs, a 90mm white phosphorus smoke cartridge, an 82mm O-832 frag projectile, a VPROM1 drill, a 20mm bullet, and a HEAT anti-tank rifle grenade.
At 2.41pm, Vrana messages again: “Okay… I have just entered my office and am waiting for you.”
A deminer’s everyday working life can be unpredictable, he explains as he hands me a Turkish coffee in a tiny copper mug.
“Today I thought I might come to the office and finish the annual report… maybe check some emails, write some letters… and then we had the situation in the field… and it was not an average day.”
Vrana’s office at the Federal Administration of Civil Protection in Sarajevo, littered with knickknacks and keepsakes dear to his heart, feels almost like that of any other employee in a government job.
Documents are haphazardly pinned to the noticeboard, a plastic smiling Snoopy doll and a framed picture of his wife share a corner of his desk, and a few photos of Vrana and his workmates are stuck fondly to the wall. It’s the mid-20th Century 90mm artillery shell casually jutting out in front of his desk that begins to hint that his job may not be typical.
“I don’t like sterile spaces,” he explains as he notices me eyeing an ornamental array of 20 and 40mm anti-aircraft bullets, neatly positioned in ascending order of size on the coffee table opposite his desk.
The top of the filing cabinet is festooned with trinkets of death: four anti-personnel landmines, two mortar shells, a hand grenade and few shaped charges, all of which Vrana deactivated himself.
And yet despite the myriad of killing devices adorning the room, Vrana’s presence is both disarming and peaceful, and his every word is executed with an elegant exactness that has echoes of the meticulousness that is needed in his work.
The work is still very much necessary because, 25 years on from the 1992-95 conflict, Bosnia and Herzegovina remains one of the most mine-contaminated countries in the world.
Sead Vrana is a South Slavic literature graduate of the Philosophy Faculty at Sarajevo University, a published poet, and an aspiring PhD candidate. He’s also the most experienced unexploded ordnance disposal technician in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and chief of explosives at the Federal Administration of Civil Protection.
Back in 1993 during the war, just a month before his 18th birthday, Vrana volunteered to disarm his first ever landmine. A mine had been discovered five or six metres away from the enemy’s front line, and so Vrana, who didn’t like receiving special treatment for being the youngest soldier in his team, seized the opportunity to demonstrate his skills.
Soon after successfully deactivating the landmine, Vrana’s body began to shake: “I started to rewind all the things I did that could have cost me my life,” he recalled. “And I said to myself: ‘I won’t do that anytime again,’” But evidently he did.
After the war’s end, an unemployed and uneducated Vrana, who just happened to be proficient in the art of explosive ordnance disarmament, started working as a deminer for the government. In this time for new beginnings, he also commenced his studies of South Slavic literature, an interest he had possessed well before the war had begun.
Vrana, who is affectionately nicknamed ‘Bomb Killer’ by his ten year-old daughter and ‘Bomb Doctor’ by his colleagues, derives a strong sense of purpose and fulfillment from making his country safer.
“This job satisfies my need to be useful because I know I am useful in a very concrete way,” he said. “When I do something like disposing of a 500kg bomb from downtown or… clearing out the forgotten ordnance from somewhere in the forest on the former front line, I know I did something that counts.”
Documentary photographer Rocco Rorandelli, who spent time with landmine victims for his project ‘Landmines: The Endless War’, said that one of the saddest aspects of the situation was that “whenever they stepped on mines, it was mostly in places where they were used to walking, so it was a totally unexpected turn of events”.
In the capital, the presence of mines and UXOs still threatens Sarajevo and the surrounding municipalities, which has prompted Nermin Hadzimujagic, director of the Mine Detection Dog Centre, to create a project called Mine Free Sarajevo 2020, an initiative to clear Sarajevo of unexploded ordnance by the end of September this year.
“Security is very important for our people,” Hadzimujagic explained. “We have kids, they’re walking around, and they need to have a safe environment.”
International trauma expert Professor Alexander McFarlane said that deminers are at “significant risk” of psychological injury due to “the constant apprehension that when you are deactivating a mine, you’re going to be a victim yourself”.
Yet despite repeated exposure to life-threatening situations spanning nearly three decades, Vrana’s temperament remains abundant in lightheartedness and cheek. Eyes twinkling, he fondly recounts a conversation he once had with his wife when she expressed dissatisfaction that he couldn’t fix things around the house.
“Every other man knows how to repair things in the household and you do not,” his wife complained to him one day. “OK, yes, but we are not using any explosives in the house,” he reasoned back.
When asked how he makes peace with the dangers of the job while having a family, Vrana exhaled heavily and his joviality disappeared.
“If there wasn’t life insurance, I wouldn’t be doing this job, even if I love it very much,” he began. “Just because of my daughter. This way, I know that if something happens to me, they will not have to struggle in their life without me.
“In this line of work,” he declared, “there is no trial and error – it’s only trial.”
‘This is a humanitarian job’
Inside the boardroom of the Federal Administration of Civil Protection, with arms folded purposefully across his expansive chest, Ferhat Ljuca sits in his navy-hued uniform with an unmistakable regality, nodding slowly and attentively as questions are posed to him.
Ljuca is a father of three who loves barbecues and hates heights. He is also a demining quality controller for the Federal Administration for Civil Protection, and has been working in landmine clearance since he was a teenager.
Growing up without a mother or father, Ljuca’s childhood never afforded him the luxury of daydreaming about what he might be when he got older.
“I had a very hard life,” he recalled. “I watch my children say, ‘I want to be a fireman, I want to be a doctor.’” Ljuca didn’t have such options: “I always thought, I will be a good human.”
When the war came, Ljuca’s vocation began to form of its own accord: “The war found me at 15, 16… I became of age to be a soldier… but that was all forced, and that’s how I became what I am… that’s where I first met with mines.”
He said that deminers are “kind people, always in a good mood – you can’t be short-tempered or angry in this job”.
“We encounter various things… a man without a head, torn up… falling apart… intestines… dismembered bodies,” he explained. “But we have to take it all standing up.” He shrugged resignedly, almost in slow motion: “What can you do?”
“If somebody gave me a computer to work at everyday between 8am and 4pm, I couldn’t do it,” he declared. “This is a humanitarian job, you remove danger so a child, a man, livestock won’t have an accident… You simply fall in love with this job and I wouldn’t know what else to do.”
Despite his evident passion for his work and seemingly high level of tolerance for emotional distress, Ljuca admitted that he is not psychologically immune to what he witnesses on the job.
“I can’t say that it isn’t scary. You do some jobs… and it can happen to me that for several hours I can’t eat… I can’t wash my hands of a bad feeling,” he said.
He recounted an incident near the town of Olovo that he was called out to several years ago, which remains embedded in his psyche today. A man had taken his 12-year-old son into a mine-contaminated forest to gather firewood.
“While he was cutting the wood in the minefield, the little one was playing,” Ljuca began. “There was an explosion… and the little one died.”
When Ljuca and his team arrived at the scene, they noticed the father and son’s small cart that was supposed to carry their wood back home with them.
“The man didn’t have the money to pay for firewood, so he took his child with him into the woods… and now what meaning does his life have to him?”
Ljuca explained that mine awareness plays an integral role in Bosnia’s mission to protect its people from mines.
He recounted a call-out out to Hadzici a year or so ago, where three boys aged between 12 and 13 had accidentally stumbled into a minefield after running away from an angry dog.
“They had been through mine risk education, and so when they saw the mine signs, one of them used their phone to call his dad… Dad said: ‘Stay there, don’t move’, and called us,” he said.
When he and his colleagues discovered the boys, they had been standing in the same spot for three whole hours, exactly what the Mine Detection Dog Centre’s education had taught them to do.
Those boys are now mine awareness activists, said Marija Trlin, one of the Mine Detection Dog Centre’s mine risk educators: “We actually got feedback from them because they remembered what we were telling them and they saved their lives.”
‘Let’s make tomorrow more beautiful’
As fulfilling as a job in mine action can be when lives are saved and outcomes favourable, each year deminers continue to die on the job.
“Deminers only make two mistakes in their career,” asserted Ljuca. “The first is when they become a deminer, and the second is when they die.”
According to Svjetlana Luledzja, a spokesperson for the Bosnian Mine Action Centre, since the war’s end, 131 deminers have been permanently disabled and 54 killed, including two veteran deminers last year in the town of Kupres.
After hearing of their deaths, 31-year-old Milan Cvoro, who had only just embarked on his career in demining, spent several days searching his mind for possible explanations. “The fact that they had long years of experience brought questions – How? What?” he said.
When Cvoro graduated from law school back in 2014, he never envisioned his workplace to be a minefield.
“I was interested in criminal and family law, and I dreamed of a courtroom, making important decisions,” he reminisced. But when he couldn’t get a job after passing the bar examination, he decided to seek employment elsewhere.
Cvoro worked in everything from morning bread delivery to retail, hospitality and customer service, yet nothing provided him with the sense of making a contribution that he so dearly craved.
So eight months ago, after completing a demining course conducted by the Bosnian Army, he embraced the opportunity to make a difference.
“I decided to do what’s up to me…to repair something, to feel more helpful,” he said. “We all would love for our lives to go in the direction that we imagined, but let’s do something in the period until that job comes through, to make our tomorrow more beautiful.”
Cvoro’s job as a manual deminer sees him entering confirmed mine-contaminated areas in search of landmines and unexploded ordnance. After carrying out a control check, he uses scissors to carefully cut any vegetation and bushes down to a height of five centimetres, conducts a visual inspection, and then performs a detailed check-up, scanning the soil for UXO presence with a metal detector.
When a strong signal is found, he uses a metal prodding implement to feel exactly where the explosive is, before digging a hole 15 centimetres in front of it. When the explosive is located, Cvoro then fences off the area with sticks and red tape and arranges for people like Vrana and Ljuca to remove and destroy it.
On Cvoro’s first day, he was assigned to work in a place where no one had walked in over 20 years. On his second day, he discovered a TMA-3 anti-tank mine and said that his head filled with regrets about all the things he had wanted to do in his life but didn’t, and all the people he had wanted to tell things to but hadn’t.
When Cvoro’s mother first learned of her son’s decision to work in demining, she was seriously concerned. “Do you really have to do that?” she asked him. “Can you not do something else?”
But for Cvoro, being a deminer provides significant meaning for him in the knowledge that he is helping to create a better tomorrow for his country.
“The work makes me more fulfilled because I can see the things that I do are heading towards a useful future for my nephew, neighbour or some other human… and even if no one else sees it, it’s enough for me to feel that,” he explained.
He was just three years old when the war broke out, but believes each individual has a personal responsibility to bring positive change to this post-war nation.
“It’s up to us to do things that we can, so that Bosnia will be more beautiful for us, our children and others,” he declared. “Why not give a part of ourselves in an effort to leave something behind us… at least a trace?”
Since becoming a deminer, Cvoro said he cherishes his family more than ever, always making sure to send them a text message when he returns to the control point after finishing a job.
“I have two sisters, and we hear from each other without fail, because you never know what the day brings and what dangers you can meet with,” he said. “Because believe me, as we walk out from the work site, we say: ‘Thank God.’”
Lawmakers in the upper house of the Bosnian parliament voted to reject a proposed legal change intended to make the denial of genocide and war crimes punishable by jail sentences.
The House of Peoples, the upper house of the Bosnian parliament, voted on Thursday against changing the criminal code of Bosnia and Herzegovina to criminalise the denial of genocide and war crimes.
The proposed legislation envisaged that public denial or justification of genocide, crimes against humanity or war crimes as determined by the International Court of Justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia or a domestic court would be declared a crime and punished with prison sentences ranging from six months and five years.
It also envisaged sentences ranging from one to ten years in prison for those who, by abusing their position or authority, commit acts of hatred or deny verdicts passed down by war crimes courts.
The proposed legislation further aimed to criminalise the granting of awards or privileges to convicted war criminals, and the naming of neighbourhoods, buildings, streets and squares after them. Sentences envisaged for this ranged from six months to five years in prison.
The explanation of the legislation noted that the conviction last year of Bosnian Serb wartime political leader Radovan Karadzic classified the Srebrenica massacres as genocide and said that public denial of such verdicts was “deeply offensive and frightening for victims, leading to additional political destabilisation of the situation in Bosnia and Herzegovina and further distancing [its] peoples from full reconciliation”.
MP Zlatko Miletic, who brought the legislation before parliament, asked lawmakers to vote for the changes to the criminal code and make “a historic move towards reconciliation”.
Salko Hondo, a veteran photojournalist for Oslobodjenje, the Sarajevo-based newspaper that courageously kept on publishing throughout the three-and-a-half-year siege of the city, went on his final assignment on July 16, 1992.
Hondo had been deployed to take pictures of people queueing for water near the marketplace in the Ciglane neighbourhood when a projectile exploded close to him.
“A grenade hit a pillar that was holding up an underpass in Ciglane, and a shower of shrapnel came raining down on him,” said Hondo’s former work colleague and friend Djuro Kozar, who was in the newsroom that day.
Hondo was identified from his bag, which had the word Oslobodjenje on it.
Former journalist Arina Sarac was also in the newsroom on the day the photojournalist was killed.
“He left and that was my last meeting with him… I didn’t know what happened. On the following morning I came to the newsroom. Before they could tell me what had happened, I saw a copy of Oslobodjenje on the table and Salko Hondo’s obituary in it,” Sarac said.
Hondo’s wife Nura had received no information about her husband’s death, so when he did not come home from work, she went to Ciglane to look for him. When she got there, she found out that he had been killed.
Before going to work, he told her not to worry about their daughter Azra, who lived outside Sarajevo and was expecting a baby at the time.
“It was our last conversation, as he was leaving to photograph that unfortunate water queue… He went out, but he returned and said: ‘Nurke, do not worry at all. Azra has all she needs for the baby – not just for one, but for three babies if needs be.’ That was the last thing he said,” she recalled.
Azra Hondo Subasic had fled Sarajevo because of the siege, and heard the news about her father’s death on the radio.
“On the day of his death, we turned on our radio and the first news we heard was: ‘Salko Hondo was killed today,’” she said through tears.
“I could not believe it. I remember it as if it was yesterday when I heard the news about his death. I heard on Radio Sarajevo that he got killed, unfortunately. I did not hear it from my mum or family, but on Radio Sarajevo…”
Hondo’s colleague, photojournalist Fehim Demir, learned about his death on the television news.
“At first I was completely frozen. I watched all that and I listened to the news, but I could not believe it. I could not believe it, because we had parted two or three hours before… He was afraid,” Demir said.
The day after Hondo’s death, Oslobodjenje published his obituary.
“Salko Hondo’s camera was loaded with a film that marked yet another day of war in Sarajevo. Lethal pieces of shrapnel prevented him from shooting the entire roll and completing yet another daily testimony of the Sarajevo war drama,” said the article published on July 17, 1992.
“The film will somehow get to the newsroom today, to demonstrate, in such a tragic way, that there are still people in journalism whose work outlives them. Hondo was one such journalist: for more than three decades, he used his camera to record the joys and sorrows of Bosnia and Herzegovina, leaving behind tens of thousands of photographs as an unparalleled testimony of those times,” it added.
Demir gave a speech at his funeral at Lav cemetery in Sarajevo, but couldn’t speak for long: “I managed to say three or four sentences, no more than that,” he recalled. “I seized up. Everything froze inside me.”
‘All of us are in danger’
Over 70 journalists and media workers, both Bosnians and foreigners, were killed during the 1992-95 Bosnian war. The first was another Oslobodjenje journalist, Kjasif Smajlovic, who was murdered in April 1992 in the newspaper’s office in the town of Zvornik.
No one has been prosecuted for any of their deaths. Indeed, the Bosnian state prosecution has not even filed a single indictment charging anyone who was directly responsible for the killing and wounding of thousands of residents of Sarajevo during the siege.
The Hague Tribunal found Stanislav Galic guilty of a campaign aimed at terrorising civilians in Sarajevo in the period between 1992 and 1994 when he was the commander of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps of the Bosnian Serb Army.
Galic’s successor as commander of Sarajevo-Romanija Corps, Dragomir Milosevic, was also convicted by the Hague Tribunal of terrorising the civilian residents of Sarajevo.
The former Bosnian Serb political and military leaders, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, were convicted of responsibility for a campaign of terror against civilians through sniper and artillery attacks on Sarajevo. Karadzic’s verdict is final; Mladic is appealing.
Salko Hondo’s former colleagues remember his dedication to his job at Oslobodjenje, which was one of the daily newspapers with the largest readership before the beginning of the war in 1992 – as well as his perennial sense of humour.
There is one anecdote about Hondo that is most popular among his Oslobodjenje colleagues – about when he irreverently addressed Yugoslavia’s all-powerful president-for-life Josip Broz Tito as he was leaving Sarajevo once after attending a ceremony.
“He greeted him, waved, and said: ‘Comrade Tito, goodbye, hope there won’t be any hard feelings,’” said Arina Sarac.
Hondo had photographed events throughout the former Yugoslavia for more than 30 years, ranging from ruling party congress meetings to the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics.
“He was ready to do whatever was required for the newspaper right away, no matter where the task would take him,” his former work colleague and friend Djuro Kozar recalled.
Kozar said that Hondo first worked as a photographic lab technician developing rolls of film and then became a photojournalist. He was afraid of almost nothing, except grenades, Kozar recalled.
“It’s interesting, as he used to accompany me to artillery firing practice at Kalinovik, Manjaca and some other Yugoslav People’s Army training grounds, and he was afraid of grenades. He said: ‘I am afraid a grenade will kill me.’ I told him: ‘Salko, I don’t think that will be your destiny. All of us are in danger,’” he said.
Hondo’s daughter Azra remembered her father with both tears and laughter as she shared some childhood memories.
“I went to Vuk Karadzic elementary school. He once came to take some photos. There was some celebration, I cannot remember what exactly it was… When he took the photos, they asked him: ‘So, what grade is your daughter in?’ He did not know what grade I was in. Mum was so mad at him,” she said.
In the days that followed Hondo’s death, his last photograph of people queuing for water was published in Oslobodjenje, the one he took just before the explosion that killed him.
The photograph was accompanied by an article by journalist Vlado Mrkic, who recalled his last assignment with the photo-reporter.
Summing up his feelings, Mrkic wrote: “Life has always seemed like a dream, but never as much as today…”
The Last Despatches series is part of BIRN’s Transitional Justice Initiative, co-funded by the Kingdom of The Netherlands and the European Commission.
The Prosecution of Bosnia and Herzegovina has requested a two-month custody extension for Armen Dzelko and Emir Alisic, who are suspected of fighting in Syria, while their defense proposed measures of prohibition.