Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Dr Zoran Pajić
Last year, Sarajevo celebrated the rejection of the Serbian extradition request for former member of the Bosnian presidency, Ejup Ganić, by a London magistrate, in connection with the infamous Dobrovoljačka case.
But that was it. No further action was taken by the Bosnia and Hercegovina, BiH, authorities to expedite their own investigation into the killing of Yugoslav army, JNA, soldiers in Sarajevo at the start of the Bosnian war - even though, following Ganić’s release, Bosnian prosecutors promised to intensify their own efforts to bring those responsible to justice.
Despite investigating a number of witnesses, they have issued no indictments.
Neither has Bosnia taken steps to alert the international community relevant institutions about Serbia's practice of issuing charges and arrest warrants that are not in accordance with agreements between the prosecution services of Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia.
The Dobrovoljačka case is still open, as shown by the recent arrest of one of the alleged suspects in the drama, former Bosnian army general Jovan Divjak.
On March 3, Divjak was detained at Vienna airport at the request of the Serbian authorities, who wanted him in connection with the killing of a number of soldiers in Dobrovoljačka street in Sarajevo on May 3, 1992.
This notorious incident took place a day after former Bosnian president Alija Izetbegović was seized by the JNA at Sarajevo airport on returning from peace negotiations in Lisbon.
An agreement was reached that Izetbegović would be released and a JNA column allowed out of the besieged city, but subsequently the column was fired upon. Belgrade says 42 soldiers were killed, while Sarajevo claims the number was much lower.
The consequences of the Bosnian inertia in handling this case are twofold. Firstly, it created an open space to be exploited by Serbia playing the role of a regional policeman.
Serbia, dissatisfied with a Bosnian investigation into the killings, launched after the Hague tribunal concluded in 2003 that there was not enough evidence to indict either Ganic or Divjak, started its own investigation into the incident.
In 2009, a Serbian court issued arrest warrants for 19 people in connection with the case, including Ganic and Divjak.
One can detect a long-term Serbian strategy masterminded by the political and loyal intellectual leadership of this country and directed at a young generation, born at the beginning of the 90s, who cannot remember the war in the region.
By prosecuting and hunting “war criminals” in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, the authorities are trying to create the false impression that Serbia was the prime victim of the Yugoslav wars and suffered most by “defending” the former Yugoslavia.
This scenario, based on the claim that “others are to be blamed for all what happened to us”, leads to the tragedy which took place in a Sarajevo street in 1992 becoming a new national myth in Serbia.
Secondly, the principles of transitional justice are clear in demanding the facts of a crime be fully established, to offer an answer to the question “what happened?”
This is the only way for the victims and survivors, as well as for perpetrators, to face the past and to come to terms with it. This is what has to be done in the case of the Dobrovoljačka street attack, and the sooner the better.
But the case has never been processed, no proper investigation has been carried out and no indictment issued. Consequently, the case has been open for 19 years now, which feeds into all sorts of speculation on both sides and deprives the victims’ families appropriate closure.
It is quite certain that this closure over the Dobrovoljačka case cannot be provided by an over-zealous Serbian war crimes prosecutor, nor by the over-heated Sarajevo media, or through angry statements by local politicians on either side. The case must be resolved by the Bosnian judiciary.
If there are doubts about its impartiality, then a joint Bosnian-Serbian investigation commission should step in. Finally, if neither of those options is acceptable, then a credible international body in the field of criminal law could be invited to investigate.
Faced with the arrests of the former Bosnian politicians and military officers, the state prosecutor’s office in Sarajevo hastily drafted a few statements claiming that the investigation had been in process since 2006, which sounded pathetic and irresponsible.
The public perception remains that nothing is being done because of consistent pressure upon the judiciary exerted by the Bosniak political elite and by Sarajevo war veterans’ organisations.
This means the case is now viewed as a symbol of local patriotism and political correctness in Sarajevo.
New incidents of unlawful arrest may follow, but they will soon be forgotten. What remains is the quest for the truth, which has to be established once for all, accounting for every single soldier killed, each vehicle involved, and every superior command issued.
There are at least 100 families in Serbia still asking “what happened” on that day on Dobrovoljačka street. And until that question is publicly answered, this case will never close.
Dr Zoran Pajić is visiting professor in the department of war studies at King’s College, London, and a member of IWPR’s board of trustees.
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight