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Montenegro Avoids Shameful Memory of Deadly Wartime Deportations

25.05.2020

Families of 66 mostly Bosniak refugees handed over to Bosnian Serb troops by Montenegro in 1992 and then killed want a memorial built for their loved ones – but the authorities seem keen to avoid facing up to past crimes.

“It would mean a lot to me, and to my children, to everyone… I think it would also be good for the state of Montenegro to do this so that future generations would know that there used to be some terrible people who took some innocent people away to their deaths. So that it will never happen again to anyone in the world.”

Hava Bosno is explaining why she believes the Montenegrin authorities should install a monument to at least 66 mostly Bosniak refugees from Bosnia and Herzegovina – her husband Esad among them – who were handed over by the police in the Montenegrin town of Herceg Novi to the hostile Bosnian Serb Army, and then killed.

The first of the two groups of refugees was handed over on May 25, 1992. They were deported by bus to a Serb-run detention camp in Foca in eastern Bosnia. Only a few of them survived.

On May 27, 1992, another group of refugees was sent to an unknown location in eastern Bosnia. Subsequently it became known that they had been killed. The remains of most of them have not yet been found.

“Imagine when somebody takes away your father or husband, in front of your eyes and takes him to his death,” said Bosno. “After many years, we buried several of his bones, which were found somewhere around Belgrade.”

The family had moved to Montenegro from Srebrenica in Bosnia precisely to avoid any involvement in the war, explained Bosno, who now lives in Sweden.

“We didn’t do anything. We were just looking to save ourselves… Our husbands did not take up rifles to fight, but set out to leave behind all that evil that was being prepared,” she said.

Hazbia Begic, whose husband Asim was also taken away, went to the police station in Herceg Novi with Bosno to try to find out what had happened to both their spouses.

“When we arrived at the police, a police officer intercepted us and asked: ‘What do you want?’” she recalled. “We asked about our people and he answered us disrespectfully, looked at his watch, pointed and said: ‘If you don’t leave here in five minutes, you’ll be going off somewhere just like your people.’”

The next day, the two women went to see the police chief, who “waved a piece of paper and said it was a list of all the criminals to be picked up in Montenegro and deported to their home municipalities”, she said.

Hazbia Begic’s sister-in-law, Bahrija Begic, whose husband Azem was taken away too, said that she also came to Herceg Novi initially as a refugee from Bosnia with her husband and two daughters in an attempt to avoid the war.

Bahrija Begic, who also lives in Sweden now, recalled that the police took her husband in for questioning on May 23, 1992, and he never returned.

“An ordinary car parked in the yard, followed shortly afterwards by a police car. I don’t remember what the policeman who arrived were like, but I do remember every line on the faces of the men getting out of the ordinary car. They were huge… I remember the gold chains, the shaved heads and their stern stares,” she said.

“We were told to hand over our ID cards as quickly as possible. I ran to the house to find our papers and my husband stayed outside. I searched in a panic… I found the IDs and went back out and my husband wasn’t in the yard. He was in the car… They told me in a cold voice that it was a ‘routine check’, and left.”

She went to the police station the next day to ask why they were keeping her husband. The police chief heard her out, but offered no response. Other officers insulted and swore at her, then escorted her out.

“I was offended and humiliated, but after a few hours I went back again… I was received by the police on duty and they heard me out again. For the first time, they gave me a lot of hope. They told me to pack food, warmer clothes and shoes because my husband would need them… I was packing, rejoicing – he was alive,” she said.

“That evening I took the bag,” she continued. “I handed it to the duty officer at the counter. His attitude, his expression and the way he dropped my bag on the floor told me everything… He just added: ‘Leave the station as quickly as possible, otherwise you are next.’”

Begic said that she never found out exactly when her husband was killed, who killed him or why. His body was found in Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia in June 1992, but only identified in 2005.

“DNA samples from my girls, who are now adult women, confirmed that it was him,” Begic said.

In 2005, she sued the state of Montenegro and won. “They admitted their mistake, that they were at fault. It is a great step towards justice, although justice will never be completely done,” she said.

“My girls and I were paid compensation by the state of Montenegro. Can this sum of money make up for the loss of a husband and a father to my girls? My answer is no, it can’t. That pain can never be compensated for.”

A court settlement with 200 relatives of the victims and several survivors was reached in December 2008, after nearly four years of litigation for damages. Montenegro paid a total of 4,135,000 euros in compensation to the families for the illegal actions of the Montenegrin police.

Begic hopes that people will learn something from what happened back in 1992: “Human life and human rights should be above everything – above nation, religion, gender or skin colour,” she said.

‘All innocent victims should have a memorial’

Hava Bosno (left) with her children and husband Esad, who was deported and killed. Photo courtesy of Hava Bosno.

In 2011, a group of NGOs wrote to the president of the Montenegrin parliament and the heads of the various parties’ groups of MPs asking for a day of remembrance to be established in Montenegro for the victims of the 1992 deportations.

Human Rights Action, the Centre for Civic Education, ANIMA – Centre for Women’s and Peace Education and the Council for Civilian Control of Police Work also asked for a memorial be built in front of the police directorate building in Herceg Novi.

The NGOs further demanded that the Montenegrin police apologise for their unlawful conduct in arresting and deporting the refugees. None of their requests was fulfilled.

In September 2018, they again sent a request for a memorial for the victims to the Montenegrin prime minister, the ministers of internal affairs and culture, the head of the Herceg Novi municipal council and all its councillors.

Only the culture ministry responded, saying that the municipality had to approve the initiative first before it could do anything.

In June 2015, the Herzeg Novi municipality asked the government and the culture ministry to interpret the provisions of two articles in the Law on Memorials, but received no answer. The municipality noted that the law says that a memorial cannot be built until 50 years has passed from the day on which the event it commemorates took place, unless the government gives its permission. It also noted that the consent of the police directorate is required if the memorial is to be installed outside its building.

If these conditions are fulfilled, the Herzeg Novi mayor’s office said it would be willing to go ahead with the initiative, “because we believe that an adequate memorial should be raised to all innocent victims of the 1990s wars”, it told BIRN.

The mayor’s office also noted that it did not receive any response from the relevant state authorities to an initiative submitted in 2015 by the Association of War Veterans in the Municipality of Herceg Novi, which wanted a memorial built for 25 soldiers who were killed in the 1990s war.

“All of this leads us to the conclusion that the state does not have the will to raise the aforementioned memorials, and the reason we can all see is that the state authorities that led Montenegro in the 1990s, when these events happened, are the same ones that are still there today,” the mayor’s office said.

The Democratic Party of Socialists has been in power in Montenegro since 1990. Its leader Milo Djukanovic was prime minister at the time of the refugee deportations in 1992 and is now president of Montenegro. Herceg Novi is one of the few towns in which the opposition is in power locally.

The proposal for a memorial was going to be put to the Herceg Novi municipal assembly in 2015, but was not included on the agenda for the council session because it did not receive the required majority.

Councillors from the Democratic Party of Socialists, Citizen List Izbor and Novska List abstained, while those from the Socialist People’s Party and Democratic Montenegro were not in the assembly hall during the vote.

Dragan Simrak was a councillor with the Social Democratic Party at the time and proposed that the initiative be included on the agenda for the council session. Now he is the manager of the Herceg-Novi municipality, and he said that the time is still right to push ahead with the memorial.

“It only takes a little political will to implement this. Unfortunately, there was no will at either the state or the municipality level. That’s obvious,” Simrak said.

But the director of ANIMA – Centre for Women’s and Peace Education, Ljupka Kovacevic, insisted that no representatives of the political parties that allegedly advocate dealing with the past have done anything to push the memorial initiative forward.

“Not one public forum, one discussion, one piece of action. They think it’s enough that they are politically ‘for it’,” Kovacevic said.

‘All the defendants were acquitted’

Tea Gorjanc Prelevic, director of Human Rights Action (centre, foreground), at a commemoration of the deported victims in May 2015. Photo: Human Rights Action.

Twenty-eight years on, no one has ever been convicted of the deportations. Nine former police, interior ministry and state security police were prosecuted for war crimes against civilians, but acquitted.

They were cleared by the Higher Court in Podgorica in 2012, and the verdict was confirmed by the Appeals Court in 2013. The court ruled that the accused acted unlawfully but did not commit war crimes, nor did they participate in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina on any side.

“Under great pressure from the public and the international community, nine former state employees were clumsily and selectively indicted, among whom were neither top officials nor those people from the prosecution who authorised the arrests and deportations,” said Tea Gorjanc Prelevic, the director of Human Rights Action.

“Although this was one of the best documented crimes ever, all the defendants were acquitted,” Gorjanc Prelevic added.

She said that to date, the prosecution has done nothing to review the errors it made in the case and to establish who else could be charged.

On behalf of six of the mothers, wives and sisters of the victims, Gorjanc Prelevic has filed a suit to the European Court of Human Rights, accusing Montenegro of “failure to provide criminal justice in this case and to respect the human right to life and the prohibition of torture”.

Proceedings are still ongoing and closed to the public, but Gorjanc Prelevic said she believes that the plaintiffs have “a great chance of succeeding”.

Since 2010, Human Rights Action has also been organising annual memorial gatherings for the victims of the deportations in front of the police building in Herceg Novi.

‘This does not help Montenegro on its European path’

Kovacevic said that while the state has compensated the families of the victims and thus acknowledged that a crime was committed, it “has not accepted responsibility for this crime and found the culprits”.

The European Commission, in its reports on Montenegro’s progress towards EU membership, has repeatedly said that one of the conditions that the country must fulfil is to face up to its 1990s past and punish those responsible for war crimes.

The commission’s most recent report noted that no new war crimes cases have been opened since 2016, and that four cases, including the refugee deportations case, remain in the preliminary investigation phase.

Asked if the raising a memorial to the victims of the deportations would have a positive impact on the country’s progress towards EU membership, Gorjanc Prelevic responded that it would be good for Montenegro’s democratic development in general.

“The crimes of the past must be accepted, punished, and marked, without exception, and properly introduced into the education of generations to come. Only this will give them the chance of not repeating [such crimes], which of course is in the European Union’s interest,” she said.

Kovacevic said she believes that a memorial could serve as a foundation for reconciliation between divided communities of different ethnicities in the country and help to enable a shift away from a “warrior mentality” and false patriotism.

It could also serve as a lasting warning that people are obliged to refuse to obey orders resulting in war crimes or other human rights violations, argued Tamara Milas, coordinator of the human rights programme at the Centre for Civic Education.

“It does not help Montenegro on its European path that not even this one war crime has been punished in accordance with international and domestic law,” Milas said.

“Marking May 27 as a day of remembrance for the victims of the deportation would not only be a commemoration of the 66 victims, but also an opportunity to highlight the obligation of everyone in society to together strengthen ideas directed against the hatred that led to this crime,” she added.

Hava Bosno, whose husband was among the victims, said that she still does not understand why he was deported and killed, and that she has felt hurt by the Montenegrin authorities’ attitude ever since.

“They took a part of me, someone I loved. They took the father of my children,” she said.

“Such terrible things should never happen again. Especially not to innocent people.”

This article was produced as part of BIRN’s Balkan Transitional Justice grant scheme, supported by the European Commission.

Source: Balkan Insight