Margareta BlaževićDora Tomljanović

Maglaj, Truth and Propaganda

“All this happening after the war is what is the hardest thing for me. Why do we, ordinary people who are not in politics, hate each other (Not everyone!) so much? Why are they not being convinced that we should hate those who made us hate each other, to kill each other? (…) They [the politicians] agreed well on how to do this, to divide the territory, to rule us like this.”

Rizo Salkić, 24 minuta sa Zoranom Kesićem [24 minutes with Zoran Kesić], November 11th 2021

I have been asking myself this very question ever since I tried to convince my classmates in the 8th-grade elementary school history class that we should not hate and blame all Serbs for the war in Croatia. Unsurprisingly, my efforts miserably failed, I was labelled a ‘četnikuša’ (i.e., a female ‘chetnik’) and my classmates told me I should leave Croatia and never return. I believe that this experience was one of the first push factors towards basing my professional path around questions such as the one raised by Rizo Salkić quoted above. 

In one of my attempts to answer that and many other similar questions about the conflicts following the breakup of Yugoslavia, I came across a documentary ‘Maglaj, War and Peace’ in which Rizo is one of the protagonists. Along with two other war veterans and his good friends, Boro Jevtić and Marko Zelić, Rizo talks about the wartime events in and around Maglaj as well as the war’s consequences for the people of Maglaj. What makes the documentary especially interesting is the fact that Rizo, Boro, and Marko are all of different ethnicities and fought on opposite sides during the war. Rizo is a Bosniak who was a part of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ABiH), Boro is a Bosnian Serb fighting on the side of the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), and Marko is a Bosnian Croat and a former member of the Croatian Council of Defense (HVO). In the aftermath of the war, the trio became good friends who now cooperate, socialise, and work together on educating and reconciling the citizens of Bosnia and Herzegovina, especially the people of Maglaj Municipality. 

Aside from these extraordinary men, Maglaj is also known as a municipality in Central Bosnia where all three armies clashed, formed and switched alliances between the autumn of 1992 and winter of 1994. The situation in Central Bosnia was perfectly described by the following quote from the Independent’s article reporting on the war: “The HVO in Kiseljak are themselves encircled by the Muslims, who, in turn, are ultimately surrounded by Serbs.” 

In September of 1992, the VRS launched an offensive in and around Maglaj while the alliance formed by HVO from Žepče and ABiH was defending the territory. The tensions between the ABiH and HVO started to arise after the Vance-Owen Peace Plan was proposed. According to the Plan, Bosnia and Herzegovina would have been decentralised and divided into 10 provinces with each province controlled by representatives of either the Bosnian Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks. While the Bosnian Croat representatives fully agreed on and endorsed it, the Bosnian Serb and Bosniak sides disagreed with the Plan. After declining to submit to the HVO rule in 3 provinces promised to Bosnian Croats under the Plan, the HVO started implementing the territorial division forcefully, attacking Bosniak villages and towns in Central Bosnia. This campaign started with the massacre in Ahmići, where 116 civilians were executed by HVO forces in the early morning of the 16th of April 1993. The campaign also included forced emigration, illegal detention and rape of the mainly Bosniak population in that territory.

The alliance between the ABiH and HVO armies in Central Bosnia finally broke in July of 1993. After breaking the alliance with ABiH, the HVO rushed to form one with VRS despite being at war with them until then. The HVO (backed by soldiers from the Croatian Army, HV) and VRS forces then proceeded to put the town of Maglaj and surrounding areas effectively under a siege or, as also termed, a 9-month-long blockade.

During that period, the town of Maglaj and the surrounding areas were relentlessly bombed and the roads were blocked (mostly by HVO and VRS) which made it difficult (sometimes impossible) for the civilian population to acquire food, water or medical supplies. Aside from significant hunger, the civilian population suffered from indiscriminate artillery fire, theft, expulsion, and displacement. Perpetration of serious human rights violations (e.g., murder, torture, rape, and unlawful detention) was also not uncommon. The blockade led Maglaj Municipality to become one of the places in Bosnia and Herzegovina most devastated by the war. The blockade ended in March 1994 when the Washington Agreement was signed and HVO and ABiH agreed on a ceasefire. 

Setting aside the geopolitical interests of all sides participating in the blockade of Maglaj and the surrounding areas, I decided to delve into the social and psychological factors which might have led to violence in an otherwise functioning ethnically heterogeneous community. The trio from the documentary agreed that the main catalyst was – the propaganda. As Marko Zelić said in an interview for a TV show “U fokusu [In focus]”: “We were all affected by media censorship. We knew little about what was happening on the other side… The media directed towards us disseminated what someone wanted us to hear. We could not listen to what we wanted and what we would like to know a little more about.”

While all three sides in the conflict disseminated biased information and propaganda, the Special Rapporteur of the UN’s Commission on Human Rights emphasised in one of his reports that Croat political representatives are “constantly using the media as a means of “demonising” other ethnic groups”. Crimes against Bosniak and Serb civilians were rarely reported and responsibility for them was denied. Local politicians disseminated false information about attacks against Croat civilians planned by extremist troops in ABiH labelling all Bosniaks as conspirators to the plan. As reported, this resulted in “a climate of fear and hatred in the area”.

The situation has, unfortunately, not changed significantly since the war. In my initial research into the wartime events regarding Maglaj Municipality, I was bombarded with information that turned out to be either entirely false or a biased (re)interpretation of facts. Evidence-based information (for example, information based on courts’ archives) was impossible to find online and very difficult to find in university or research institutes’ libraries. Information about the events accessible online can mostly be found on politically biased portals (such as HercegBosna.org, Croativ Online and Narod.hr) mostly focused on disseminating nationalist propaganda and inaccurate, revisionist interpretations of history.

For example, some of those (in this example, Croat) portals claim a certain wartime member of the BiH Presidency visited Maglaj in July of 1993 on a UNPROFOR transporter and ordered local ABiH military leaders to attack the HVO and Bosnian Croat civilians in Maglaj. After a closer look into the literature, news sources, court archives, and reports from that time – I could not find any evidence of such an event ever occurring. Regardless, this event is nowadays used as a propaganda tool which increases social and political tensions among citizens, as well as promotes distrust and ethnic segregation within the communities in Central Bosnia. A partial answer to Rizo’s question lies in this and many other, similar instances.

Exposure to such propaganda and dissemination of biased, false information permeated with nationalist and revisionist sentiment is what makes us, ordinary people, hate each other. It is what encouraged hatred during the war and what keeps the hatred, resentment and distrust alive and thriving today – not only in Maglaj, not only in Bosnia and Herzegovina but in the entire region. However corny or repetitious this might sound – the only antidote that could stop this perpetual and dangerous cycle is to consistently, boldly, and persistently promote – the truth. 

“You can’t put it [the war] behind you, (…) you have to teach people what a mistake that was, so that it doesn’t happen again (…). I think that people can live together, I’m convinced, it doesn’t take much. It just takes for people to open their eyes and tell the truth about how it started and what happened. On all three sides.”

 Rizo Salkić, Maglaj, War and Peace.

I extend my gratitude to dr. Mirza Buljubašić and dr. Nejra Veljan for their unwavering assistance in sourcing evidence-based information regarding the events in and around Maglaj. 

Margareta Blažević is the program officer at the Youth Initiative for Human Rights Croatia. She graduated from the International crimes, conflict and criminology Master’s program at the Free University in Amsterdam, Netherlands. 

Sources:

Bellamy, C. (1993, July 4). Many dead as Croats renew Maglaj assault: Fighting intensifies in central Bosnia as Morillon’s men are trapped in their base by troops demanding the release of comrades. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/many-dead-as-croats-renew-maglaj-assault-fighting-intensifies-in-central-bosnia-as-morillon-s-men-are-trapped-in-their-base-by-troops-demanding-the-release-of-comrades-1483069.html

Horvatić, P. (2018, September 15). “15. rujna 1993. Maglaj – vojnici Armije BiH i mudžahedini izmasakrirali obitelj Zekić”. Narod.hr. https://narod.hr/kultura/15-rujna-1993-maglaj-vojnici-armije-bih-i-mudzahedini-izmasakrirali-obitelj-zekic 

International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. (2015, September 8). Crimes before the ICTY: Central Bosnia. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cjpkod9WRd8&t=1232s 

Kliko, A. (2019). Rat u srednjoj Bosni. Institut za istraživanje zločina protiv čovječnosti i međunarodnog prava. 

Komšić, Z. (2022, January 14). “U fokusu” – ratni neprijatelji, pa najbolji prijatelji. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CF_pw5LbU_8 

Mazowiecki, T. (1993, May 19). Situation of human rights in the territory of the Former Yugoslavia (E/CN.4/1994/4). Commission on Human Rights. https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/G93/138/69/PDF/G9313869.pdf?OpenElement 

OSCE. (2021, November 9). “Maglaj, War and Peace” Documentary. OSCE. https://www.osce.org/mission-to-bosnia-and-herzegovina/503818 

24 minuta sa Zoranom Kesićem (2021, November 1). Gosti: Akteri dokumentarnog filma “Maglaj, rat i mir”. EP248-07. Youtube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PS2E1x8zDvs&t=1210s 

Prosecutor v. Blaškić. (2004). ICTY, Case no. IT-95-14-A.