The outcome of the armed conflict in the former SFR Yugoslavia, between 1991 do 2001, is the violent death of 130 000 persons. Over 10 000 are still classified as missing. Serbia’s officials and institutions have, from the beginning of the armed conflict to this day, with very few exceptions, denied the involvement of the SFR and Serbian armed forces in the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. They have also denied the existence of any war crimes on the territory of Serbia in relation to these armed conflicts.
As an antithesis to the practice of forgetting the atrocities of war, the platform ratusrbiji.rs strives to inform and educate about the existence of secret mass graves, concentration camps and torture, murders and persecution of minorities, forced mobilization, paramilitary units’ crimes, as well as the human rights breaches in the Presevo valley between 1991 to 2001. The platform does this through connecting court-determined facts, official data of state and international institutions, testimonies of witnesses, survivors and victims’ families, as well as public information gathered by civil society organizations in Serbia.
The platform ratusrbiji.rs was supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany. The content and opinions featured on the ratusrbiji.rs website are those of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, and may not reflect the official stance of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The flare-up of nationalism in each of the former Yugoslav republics, and especially the breaking out of armed conflicts, affected the position of national minorities, including the Muslim population in Serbia. The term Muslim, beginning with a capital letter unlike members of other religions in Serbian language, was used in the SFRY to designate ethnical identity of individuals, that is, a group based on religious heritage, although it should be taken into account that many Muslims did not actually practice their religion. In 1993, the term Bosniak was chosen as a more adequate one.1 Muslim population in Serbia started being looked at as enemies and disloyal citizens since the beginning of war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In Sandžak, a.k.a. the Raška region, there were almost no conflicts between ethnically diverse population until the beginning of war in BH (1992). Since 1992, the state of Serbia and FRY institutions, through the activity of the Yugoslav Army, Ministry of the Interior, State Security Service and paramilitary units, were exercising systemic repression of Bosniaks. The media also played an important role in creating an opinion about Muslims as extremists who, by creating “the green transversal”2, wish to connect BH with Kosovo and the Middle East through Sandžak.3
Many representatives of security forces of Serbia, Montenegro and FRY would use this as an excuse for hostility towards Sandžak Bosniaks which reflected in numerous human rights violations, dismissals from work, framed court proceedings, abductions and murders.
In 1990, Sulejman Ugljanin and Rasim Ljajić founded the Party of Democratic Action (SDA), which attracted many Bosniaks. Ugljanin advocated for the autonomy of Sandžak, while Ljajić was trying to integrate Bosniaks into the political and cultural life of Serbia, which quickly led to their split up. The following year, Sulejman Ugljanin formed the Muslim National Council of Sandžak (MNVS) (since 1993 the Bosniak National Council of Sandžak), which then passed a Memorandum of the special status of Sandžak, a document which raised the issue of autonomy and status of Sandžak. In the same year (1991), the MNVS organised a referendum asking Bosniaks in Sandžak to declare themselves with regard to autonomy.4 The turnout was 70.2% and 98.9% of the voters were for autonomy.5
During the 1990s, apart from the SDA, other influential parties in Sandžak were the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS) led by Slobodan Milošević and the Yugoslav United Left (JUL), founded in 1994, led by his wife Mirjana Marković.
When the war broke out in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1992, the Yugoslav Army installed its troops and weapons on the hills around Novi Pazar6, which was supposed to strike fear into local population; the same happened a few years later, when the war in Kosovo started.7 With the same goal, the Yugoslav Army tried to ethnically cleanse villages situated along the border with BH in the course of 1992, as well as in 1993, by intimidation, arrests, robbing houses and destroying property.8 In 1993, the Humanitarian Law Centre (HLC) drew attention to the fact that more than 1500 citizens who lived along the border with BH were displaced, and, since they were the citizens of Serbia, unlike refugees from Croatia and Bosnia, they were not entitled to humanitarian aid.9
On August 26 1992, while waiting for a bus on the Priboj – Rudo road, Ramo Berbo, a Bosniak from the village of Sjeverin near Priboj was killed by soldiers who stopped by to fill their tanks. One of them approached Berbo and asked for his identification document, and when he saw the name, shot his gun and killed him on the spot. People at the bus station were then ordered to throw the body into the Lim river, while HLC researchers were told in 1993, that a certain Milan Lukić was imprisoned for this murder which was treated as negligent homicide.10
One of the really upsetting events in 1992 is certainly the abduction in Sjeverin. On October 22, members of the paramilitary unit Avengers, led by Milan Lukić, took 17 passengers from the bus travelling from Priboj to Rudo in the village of Mioče in BH. After being abducted, the citizens of Serbia were transferred by bus to Višegrad, where they were first tortured at Vilina vlas hotel and then killed and thrown into the Drina. A 12-year old Bosniak boy was left at the bus because the abductors thought he was son of the Serbian man who was sitting next to him. The following day, Milan Lukić and Dragutin Dragićević were arrested, but they were released nine days later.11 Among the abducted passengers from Sjeverin, there was also a woman, Mevlida Koldžić. To date, only the remains of Medo Hodžić have been found.12
One year later, in 1993, the village of Kukurovići, located on the border of Serbia, BH and Montenegro, was attacked. On February 18, the village was shelled by the members of Yugoslav Army’s Užice Corps. Three persons were killed: a woman found in a stable, with her clothes off and her arms broken, and two men murdered and thrown into the house which was then put on fire.13
Nobody has been held accountable for the crime in Kukurovići to date.
Only a few days later, on February 27, the Avengers committed another abduction. This time, they abducted twenty passengers from the train no. 671 on the Belgrade-Bar railway. There are indications that Serbian institutions knew about the plans for this abduction a month in advance. One of them is the classified information that the Serbian army of the Rudo municipality in Bosnia and Herzegovina was to abduct certain passengers. This information was sent to the general director of the the Belgrade Railroad Transportation Organization by the director of the Sector for Defense Preparations and Protection, Mitar Mandic, on February 1, 1993.14
The Avengers stopped the train in the village of Štrpci, which was not its usual stop, and took out 18 Bosniaks, one Croat and one person of a darker complexion whose identity is unknown. The passengers were first taken to the village of Prelovo, Višegrad municipality, where their clothes were taken off, they were robbed and beaten, and then to the village of Mušići, where they were killed and their bodies were thrown into the Drina.15
Only four bodies have been found to date.
In 1992 and 1993, abductions, torturing, murders, setting houses on fire, throwing bombs, beatings, the extorting of statements, attacks on mosques and cemeteries, were frequent.16 In October 1993, a football game between the Novi Pazar and Pristhina football clubs took place. The Pristina football club was owned by Željko Ražnatović Arkan, head of the Serb Volunteer Guard paramilitary unit. This very fact caused fear among the Bosniak population even before the game. After the game, many Bosniaks were arrested; during interrogation they were beaten, hit with batons on their palms and feet, tied up; they were also threatened with murder and expulsion, and with mentioning of Arkan’s and Šešelj’s names. 17
During this period, the police would frequently burst into Muslim houses and search for weapons, which, if found, would justify the accusation for war crimes.18
The arrests were happening on a daily basis and interrogations were conducted with the use of physical abuse aimed to humiliate, frighten and force the accused to confess.
According to the data shared by the former head of the Novi Pazar Police Department Suad Bulić on local TV in Novi Pazar, more than 17,000 citizens of Sandžak, mostly from Novi Pazar, Sjenica and Tutin, endured the treatment at the police. The so-called informative talks meant torturing, beating and humiliation. Bosniaks who went through this torture were accused of allegedly possessing weapons they needed in order to create the state of Sandžak.[footnote]Fahrudin Kladačanin, “Lekcije iz prošlosti”, Peščanik, 16 June 2011: https://pescanik.net/lekcije-iz-proslosti-sandzak/
In the period between October 1993 and March 1994, police repression had the form of national and religious intolerance. At the police stations in Novi Pazar and Sjenica, the Bosniaks were beaten with batons on their naked feet, forced to walk on dried glue, with frequent use of metal sticks.19 The cases of torture in Sandžak are continuously documented by non-governmental organisation Sandžak Committee for Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms from Novi Pazar.[/footnote]
The Bosniaks were thus forced to make false statements even in cases regarding alleged plans for the separation of Sandžak. For example, on the premises of State Security Service, Munir Šabotić was beaten into writing a confession that he, together with the rest of the accused, had organised military headquarters of the SDA.20
The rule of terror which dominated in Sandžak in the first half of the 1990s weakened after the signing of the Dayton Peace Agreement in November 1995, which ended the war in BH. Still, in spite of high birth rate and the development of textile industry, Bosniak population in Novi Pazar decreased by 7.88% in the period 1991-2002.21
“They asked me for weapons. I was interrogated five times. I wasn’t told what to bring exactly, but only to hand over the weapons. I’m not lying when I tell you I was hit by a baton at least a hundred times. They ordered me to kneel on the chair, face the wall, and then beat on my feet. They requested that I talk about who in the village had weapons, what was going on in the village” – Hamid Brulić from Raždaginje.22
“They took me to the office of commander Ravić…. Ravić asked me whether I knew who he was. When I said I didn’t, he cursed my Turkish mother and told me I was going to see who he was. He hit me in the face, I hit the cabinet and fell down. They were kicking me in the head and stomach while I was lying on the floor. Police officer Dragan asked the commander to let him deal with me, let him show me Turkey. He made a scream like they do in karate and tried to kick me in the groin. I moved and he kicked the cabinet. The vase with flowers fell… He ordered me to take off my trainers, lie down and put my hands behind my back. He handcuffed me, took an iron chair, placed it above me and sat down. He was hitting me with an American baton on my feet. Then he ordered me to get up and handcuffed me with my hands in front of me. He was kicking me in the stomach and slapping me. I just lost it, I wanted to jump out of the window. I lost consciousness and they splashed water on me. Then Rosić told them to take the scoundrel out because he wouldn’t confess to anything”, one of the supporters at the football game Novi Pazar – Pristina.23
“I reported to the Novi Pazar Police Department on May 9 1994. One of them asked me: are you Mustafa? I said, yes I am. I was waiting for 15 minutes. He said to me: Mustafa, do you know why we called you here? I don’t know, I answered, I don’t know why you called me, I have nothing to give to you other than a pure soul. If I had had weapons, I wouldn’t have let so many people torture me. He told me, his name was Karličić, leaning forward from the chair – you will have them, you will have them, you Turkish mother……… They were swearing at me, beating me on the feet with that stick, on my head and back. I was curling in pain. One of them who was beating me the most was putting that baton in my mouth, not straight, but on the side. I fell down beaten and humiliated” – Mustafa Džigal.24
“My father was born in 1957, he worked on the railway. On the day of the abduction, he was wearing a denim jacket and brown trousers and a shirt. He was short. He was going to the meeting of the Railways’ Union in Belgrade, as he was the president of the union. He has not returned home to Prijepolje. He didn’t have an ID nor a train ticket, only a railway identification card based on which he was identified as a Muslim… I would like that those responsible for the murder be punished. However, when I see how obviously facetious the trial before the Specialist Court is, I doubt that I will see justice in this country” – Selma Memović, daughter of Fikret Memović, abducted in Štrpci.25
In 2002, the District Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade raised charges against four Avengers: Milan Lukić, Oliver Krsmanović, Dragutin Dragićević and Đorđe Savić, for the abduction in Sjeverin. The District Court in Belgrade in 2003 convicted them, but the Supreme Court quashed that judgment and ordered a retrial because of the defects with regard to proving co-perpetration. At the retrial in 2005, the four accused were sentenced to the imprisonment of 20 and 15 years.26
In 2002, before the Higher Court in Bijelo Polje, Montenegro, Nebojša Ranisavljević, a former member of the Republic of Srpska Army was sentenced to 15 years’ imprisonment for the crime in Štrpci.27 In 2015, the trial of Luka Dragičević, commander of the Tactical Group Višegrad, and nine other persons suspected to have been involved in the abduction in Štrpci started before the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina.28
In 2016, Mićo Jovičić, one of the accused, confessed that he was involved in the crime as a guard, but that he had not killed anybody. He was sentenced to five years in exchange for testifying at the trials related to this crime.29
A trial against five members of the paramilitary unit Avengers for war crimes against civilian population before the War Crimes Department of the Higher Court in Belgrade.
The Sandžak Committee for Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms filed a total of 33 criminal reports in the cases of torture against Bosniaks in Sandžak (1991-1995), but only two were prosecuted. In the remaining cases, the victims have only been left with a possibility to raise private charges.30
In 2006, acting on behalf of Alija Halilović, the HLC filed a lawsuit against the state of Serbia for compensation of damages based on state’s responsibility for torture and 498 days of unlawful imprisonment. In 1993, Alija Halilović, together with 23 other persons, was arrested for violating the territorial unity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. He spent 498 days in detention unlawfully until the conviction rendered by the Novi Pazar District Court, after which he was released to wait for the final judgment. In 1996, the Supreme Court quashed this judgment and ordered a re-trial. However, in 2006 the new Criminal Code came into force and the offence Halilović was charged with became time-barred. Still, the First Municipal Court in Belgrade passed the judgment in 2007 according to which Serbia shall pay Halilović RSD 1,300,000 for the days he spent in detention.31
In 2006, the HLC raised criminal charges against NN members of the Yugoslav Army Užice Corps for the crime in Kukurovići. The case was referred to the War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office which is still conducting investigation.32
One year later, in 2007, the HLC filed a compensation claim on behalf of persecuted inhabitants of Kukurovići. In 2013, the Higher Court in Belgrade established the responsibility of Serbia for a war crime on the territory of Sandžak. However, the Court of Appeal quashed this judgment and ordered a re-trial. After that, the Higher Court changed its initial position, which was confirmed by the Court of Appeal. Children of one of the victims, Mušan Husović, filed a lawsuit for the compensation of non-material damages for the loss of their father, but their case was dismissed by both the Constitutional Court and the European Court of Human Rights, which referred to the fact that at the time of the commission of the offence, Serbia was not a signatory of the European Convention on Human Rights.33
Murders in the cases of Sjeverin and Štrpci did not happen on Serbian territory, but in the neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. The victims do not have physical impairment of at least 50%, since the majority of them have never been found or were found dead. These crimes were not committed by an enemy army, at least not one considered to be an enemy by the state of Serbia, while their victims were not the victims of liberation wars, because the governing narrative says that Serbia was not at war at that time.34 Having all this in mind, it is clear why the victims of crimes in Sandžak and their families are invisible to the authorities of the Republic of Serbia.
The crimes in Sjeverin and Štrpci are commemorated by street actions in Belgrade organised by non-governmental organisations Women in Black, the Humanitarian Law Centre, and Youth Initiative for Human Rights. In Sjeverin and Štrpci, the local authorities and Islamic community organise commemorations that are also attended by the members of victims’ families and NGO representatives.
A monument with the inscription “Whoever in this country forgets the Štrpci station and February 23 1993, has given up on the future” was placed in Prijepolje in 2009. The monument was erected by the local authorities in Prijepolje. However, only the names of victims from Prijepolje are written there, but not of those from other towns. President of Prijepolje Municipality Dragoljub Zindović said in an interview for Radio Free Europe in 2018 that the town paid for the memorial for people from Prijepolje and that “there is no logic to write down the name of some black man from I don’t know where who was killed in Bosnia and Herzegovina.” Also, Zindović said that the fact that a monument for all twenty victims was erected in Bijelo Polje (Montenegro) in 2016 only supported his position that there was no need to mention the names of all victims.35
The Centre for the Protection of Human Rights and Tolerance – Polimlje, together with other non-governmental organisations and individuals, has been demanding since 2009 that names of all victims are written on the monument in Prijepolje, finding it illogical and inhumane to separate them.36
The municipality of Priboj and the Majlis of the Islamic Community erected a monument in Sjeverin in 2015 in memory of the victims from this town. The President of Priboj Municipality from the Serbian Progressive Party, Lazar Rvović, said in 2017 that this was “one of the rare monuments in former Yugoslavia which does not spread hatred, but warns and unites. We, unfortunately, live in the area burdened with the surplus of history. And we haven’t invested enough energy in our wish to change the past.”37
In 2016, in the Block 23, Novi Beograd (Belgrade), on the building in which he lived, a plaque was placed for Toma Buzov, abducted at the Štrpci station, the only passenger who stood up against the taking out of the Bosniaks. The plaque was placed by the president of Novi Beograd municipality, Aleksandar Šapić. It reads: “in memory of humanity and courage”, without mentioning the event in which said humanity and courage were expressed.