Bosnia Spends €2 Million on ‘Divisive’ War Memorials

Over the past four years, more than two million euros have been dedicated to building memorials honouring military and civilian casualties of the Bosnian war – but most only commemorate victims from the dominant ethnic group in each area.

Since April 2015, tenders worth over four million Bosnian marks (around 2,042,500 euros) have been announced for building memorials to military and civilian victims of the 1992-95 war, according to an analysis by BIRN of data from the public procurement website.

But representatives of war victims claim that such memorials are almost always dedicated to victims from the majority ethnic group in the area in which they are built, and experts argue that they do not contribute to peace-building.

“In most cases there is no real truth about the events that happened at the location where the monuments in question have been built,” said Edvin Kanka Cudic, coordinator of the Association for Social Research and Communication.

Over the same period since April 2015, tenders worth around 500,000 euros for the restoration and maintenance of memorials have been announced.

‘A memorial shows that time can’t erase everything’

The Gunpowder Depot building near Kalinovik, where Bosniaks were imprisoned during the war, remains unmarked as a detention site. Photo: BIRN.

The Novi Grad municipality in Sarajevo is one of those that have allocated the largest amounts over the past four years – around 220,000 euros.

In one of the most lavish projects last year, the municipality of East Ilidza allocated some 150,000 euros to build a major memorial in the Serb-majority city of East Sarajevo as a tribute to Bosnian Serb soldiers killed in the war, a project backed by Serbia and the city of East Sarajevo.

The municipality of Kalinovik meanwhile issued a tender last year valued at over 112,000 euros for the construction of a memorial complex honouring around 350 Bosnian Serb Army soldiers killed during the conflict in the area.

A Bosniak association of war victims from the Kalinovik area said that while spending money on commemorating fallen Serb troops, the municipality has continued for years to obstruct the construction of a memorial to Bosniaks who were killed there.

Samir Vranovic of the association of families of missing persons from the Kalinovik area, Istina-Kalinovik ’92, said that the municipality has not been asked to provide funds for the memorial, and that the victims’ families have the resources to build it themselves.

He described the allocation of a large amount of municipal cash for building the monument to Serb soldiers alone as “unfortunate and sad”.

“We have no possibility of marking detention camp locations [where Bosniaks were detained by Bosnian Serb forces] in Kalinovik in a dignified manner by putting up memorial boards or monuments,” Vranovic said.

“We are constantly suffering from mental distress caused by municipal leaders, primarily the mayor and her office, because we keep getting rejections to our requests to put up memorial plaques, as well as to mark and fence off cemeteries in [the nearby villages of] Mjehovina, Jelasci and Vihovici,” Vranovic told BIRN.

He said that 122 Bosniak civilians were killed in the Kalinovik area during the war, while 42 more are still listed as missing – his own father among them.

He said that his father was first detained at the Miladin Radojevic school and then at a building known as the Gunpowder Depot, where detainees were mistreated.

Art teacher Hilmo Jasarevic was held at the improvised detention centre at the Gunpowder Depot too. His wife Memna Jasarevic, now a member of the Istina-Kalinovik ’92 association, explained that she fled in fear from Kalinovik with her children in 1992, but her husband stayed.

“My Hilmo did not want to go. He said: ‘My kids will do no harm to me.’ He meant the kids who he taught in school. However, it turned out he was wrong,” Jasarevic said.

The remains of her husband were found in Miljevina, about 40 kilometres away. His body was incomplete.

Vranovic and Jasarevic believe that it is important to mark the places where their loved ones were detained. They explained that they had the idea of building a memorial at the Gunpowder Depot site, but have been rejected by the municipal authorities in Kalinovik, where Serbs are the majority ethnic group.

“If we could put up a plaque here, it would be a sign that time can’t erase everything. It would be a trace of these people’s existence,” Jasarevic said.

“It is very important that people know about it, also for the sake of our neighbours in Kalinovik, as they should know that those people lived with them and they were killed,” she added.

The municipality of Kalinovik has not responded to BIRN’s inquiry about the requests by Bosniak war victims’ associations to install memorials.

So far the Bosnian state court has convicted five people of crimes in the Kalinovik area. The Hague Tribunal meanwhile convicted former Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic under a first-instance verdict of persecution of Bosniaks and Croats in several municipalities, including Kalinovik. He is now appealing.

Former Bosnian Serb political leader Radovan Karadzic was convicted by the Hague Tribunal under a second-instance verdict of persecution in Kalinovik, among other crimes.

Politicians make promises while victims’ families wait

Kazani on Mount Trebevic near Sarajevo, where civilians were executed during wartime. Photo: BIRN.

Memorialisation in Bosnia and Herzegovina is only partially regulated by law, said Adis Hukanovic of the Civil Peace Service Forum. Hukanovic explained that there is no specific law that governs the issue of constructing memorials, although there is legislation that mentions it in the context of other issues related to the war.

“I’m referring to the Law on Missing Persons, which grants families of victims or associations of families of victims the right to mark exhumation or burial locations,” he said.

Amor Masovic, a member of the board of directors of the Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina, argued that mass and individual grave sites should be marked, “not only for the sake of victims and their families, but for the sake of the future”.

However, the issue becomes more complicated when someone from one of the country’s two political entities, the Serb-dominated Republika Srpska and the Bosniak- and Croat-majority Federation, wants to install a memorial to people who were killed or disappeared in the other entity, Masovic added.

Dalmir Miskovic, a peace activist and member of a civic initiative called Marking the Unmarked Suffering Sites, said that there are many unmarked sites in Bosnia and Herzegovina about which people know and talk little.

One of them is Kazani, on Mount Trebevic near Sarajevo, where captured civilians were brought to be killed during the siege of the city. Their bodies were then thrown into a deep pit. Several members of the Tenth Mountain Brigade of the Bosnian Army have been convicted of murders at Kazani.

“There has been talk about a memorial at Kazani for around 15 years. Governments have changed, mayors of Sarajevo have changed, vice-presidents of the Federation [entity in which Sarajevo is located] have changed, but in the end nothing has happened,” said Miskovic.

Milan Mandic, president of the Association of Families of Missing Persons from Sarajevo-Romanija Region, said that a promise was made to him personally that the Kazani killing site would be marked.

“And nothing has been done. The place should just be marked with a memorial board. But there should be a central memorial, a monument to all Serbs killed in the city of Sarajevo [during the siege], with their names written on it, without any insulting words or anything,” Mandic said.

BIRN has not received a response from the Sarajevo city administration, which has previously announced that the 2019 draft budget envisaged allocating resources to start building a memorial at Kazani.

Most monuments honour combatants, not civilians

A monument in Kalinovik to Bosnian Serb soldiers who were killed during wartime. Photo: BIRN.

Ninety per cent of all the monuments built over the past four years in the country have been installed in honour of military victims.

Amer Delic, a member of the Centre for Nonviolent Action and Marking the Unmarked Suffering Sites, says that a strong nationalist narrative can be heard during commemorations at memorials to soldiers.

“I have a feeling that they were built with a militaristic intention, not so much to respect the loss of life and make it a place of remembrance, memorial and solidarity, but they exist more like a threat [to other ethnic groups],” he said.

Mandic said he believes that civilian war victims are more deserving of having their disappearance or murder locations marked than “soldiers who fought on frontlines”.

Meanwhile, the wording on memorials installed by one ethnic group are often perceived as offensive by members of other ethnic groups.

Monuments celebrating Ratko Mladic in Lukavica in Serb-majority East Sarajevo and in Kalinovik, and a student residence dedicated to Radovan Karadzic in the town of Pale incite ethnic animosity, argued Almin Djelilovic, the head of an association of wartime detainees from Hadzici called Don’t Forget, Don’t Let it Happen Again 1992-95.

When he was 22, Djelilovic was detained at the Serb-run Kula detention camp in East Sarajevo, where detainees were made to do forced labour, and some lost their lives.

But he said he sees no difference between war victims of any ethnic group, and argued that all detention camps throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina should be marked, whoever was imprisoned there.

“Up to 1992, we lived together, then we waged a war, and now we are living together again. We should just face the truth, but the truth is a difficult problem,” he said.

Monuments and memorials that are perceived as ethnically divisive or even threatening can also deter people who fled certain areas during the war from returning, experts pointed out.

Vranovic cited the Bosniaks who fled Kalinovik in the 1990s and have yet to return, saying that the monument depicting Ratko Mladic as a hero at the very entrance to the town sends out a clear message: “Bosniaks, do not come back here, this is a war criminal’s place.”

Authors: Dzana Brkanic and Lamija Grebo , BIRN , 3 January 2020 


Photo: BIRN