Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Bosnia War Victims' Compensation Struggle
Sarajevo cemetery where many of the victims of the Bosnian Serb siege of the city are buried. (Photo: Michael Goodine/Flickr)
When the eastern Bosnian town of Zepa fell to the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, on July 25, 1995 – shortly after nearby Srebrenica had met the same fate – around one hundred of its male residents headed toward Macedonia, trying to escape Serb forces and save their lives.
But in order to reach Macedonia, they had to cross Serbia first. They didn’t expect any problems there because Serbia was not officially at war with Bosnia and Hercegovina, BiH, at the time.
However, when they crossed the border into Serbia, many of these men were captured by the Yugoslav army, VJ, which was under Belgrade’s control.
Among them was Amir Omerspahic, 21 at the time, who claims that one man from his group was killed right after the VJ captured them.
Omerspahic claims he was then sent to the Sljivovica camp in Uzice, central Serbia, where he and other Bosniaks were handed over to the Serbian police.
“They were wearing dark blue uniforms. I thought they would treat us better than the VJ soldiers, but they were even worse - they were beating us all the time,” Omerspahic said, his gaze fixed to the floor.
He said he had spent six months in that camp.
“We would go for days without food and water in the camp barracks. When we did get some food, the guards would count to ten, and the last one to finish his meal would be beaten,” he said.
According to Omerspahic, night time was when the abuse was worst. Policemen gave each prisoner a Serbian nickname and would call out those names.
“They called me Kraljevic Marko (a Serbian hero from the 14th century). If they called one of us and we failed to answer immediately, they would beat us,” Omerspahic recalled. “If we had to go get water or use the bathroom, we had to pray as the Orthodox do first, say our Serbian nickname out loud and only then they would let us go out. This torment lasted for quite some time.”
According to data from the Association of Concentration Camps Prisoners of BiH, ACCP BiH, Omerspahic is one of over 800 prisoners from Bosnia who were detained in two prison camps in Serbia during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war - Sljivovica and Mitrovo Polje.
Although ACCP BiH members have filed several collective lawsuits against Serbia demanding reparations, Belgrade courts have yet to rule in the plaintiffs’ favour. In two cases, judges determined that there wasn’t enough evidence that the detention centres were prison camps and that war crimes were committed there.
According to Omerspahic, the Serbian authorities have argued all along these were refugee camps, not detention facilities.
“They claim they were our saviors - that the camp we were held in was a refugee camp and that they kept us in Serbia for our own safety. What kind of safety was that when people were tortured and mistreated, and three died in detention,” he said.
Like many other former detainees from camps in Serbia, Omerspahic has all the necessary documentation from the International Red Cross Committee that proves he was held in Serbia in 1995. However, he cannot get hold of documentation from Uzice centre, because its archive has allegedly been destroyed.
Although the plaintiffs who lost their cases in Belgrade have filed an appeal, they are not optimistic that the outcome will be different this time. They point out that Serbia’s true role in Bosnia’s war has yet to be determined in court and that might affect their lawsuits as well.
According to Senad Jusufbegovic, a lawyer with the ACCP BiH, if the Hague tribunal rules that Serbia was directly involved in the Bosnian war that will strengthen the plaintiffs’ claim that Serbian police had a reason to keep Bosniak detainees in detention camps and mistreat them there. In other words, it would be easier to prove that war crimes were committed in these camps.
PROBLEMS WITH COMPENSATION IN BOSNIA
Those who were detained in Bosnia during the war also have problems getting compensation from local authorities.
Although there is no official data, it is estimated that over 600 camps and detention centres existed in Bosnia during the war. Most of the inmates were civilians, but there were also camps for prisoners of war and deserters. Some detainees were held in several camps for years.
A Bosnian state law on the rights of civilian victims and victims of torture in BiH has yet to be passed, which makes it very difficult for non-combatants to receive proper compensation.
From the moment the draft law was proposed, its adoption was obstructed, claimed Saliha Djuderija from the BiH ministry of human rights and refugees. According to her, entity ministries cannot reach and agreement that would be acceptable to all.
“The law on rights of civilian victims and victims of torture is currently waiting to be harmonised between the entities,” she said.
Bosnian law stipulates that a civilian victim of war is someone who was wounded, went missing or died as a result of the war. Persons who were sexually abused also fall under the category of civilian victims, but those who suffered as a result of torture and imprisonment in detention camps are not covered. Therefore, they are not entitled to monthly compensation payments from cantonal, municipal or entity budgets, like other civilian victims of war are.
For now, survivors of prison camps who were tortured and mistreated there can only turn to the courts to demand their rights.
President of ACCP BiH Murat Tahirovic says the association has around 55,000 members who, on average, each spent around 60 days in prison camps. The association has so far submitted over 15,000 lawsuits to local courts - most of them, around 12,000, ended up in courts in Republika Srpska, RS.
BiH courts have so far ruled in about 20 cases, which plaintiffs won. The amounts granted vary - ranging from a few hundred to thousands of euro. But the payments have yet to be issued to the plaintiffs.
Tahirovic believes that BiH institutions, primarily the courts, are still not ready to deal with the compensation problem, pointing out that even when payments are made there’s a huge discrepancy between the sums received by victims in various parts of the country.
“In one case, a person who spent six months in a prison camp was granted 4, 400 euro, while another, who spent three months in a prison camp, was granted 15,000 euro,” he said.
“It is very important to us that BiH authorities realise that this is not a proper way to deal with the problem of reparations. It is high time they start thinking about the best solution.”
In 2009, the Association of Concentration Camp Prisoners of RS, ACCP RS, filed 536 cases at the municipal court in Sarajevo. They are suing the Federation for war crimes committed in detention camps in which Serbian civilians and soldiers were imprisoned and tortured between 1992 and 1996.
President of this association, Branislav Dukic, says these cases are being processed, but there haven’t been any verdicts yet.
According to him, verdicts recognising a victims’ suffering trumps compensation in advancing the reconciliation process.
“The human aspect is far more important than the financial. Victims get moral satisfaction when their suffering is recognised by the authorities. Without that, there will be no reconciliation and coexistence in BiH,” Dukic said.
HAGUE TRIBUNAL RULINGS’ EFFECT ON COMPENSATION CLAIMS
In December last year, the RS authorities received some 1,400 compensation requests from the Union of Civil Victims of War from the Sarajevo canton - amounting to around 470 million euro - for the suffering endured by residents of the capital during the 1992-95 siege.
The legal basis for the reparation claims stems from the Hague tribunal’s judgement in the case against the former commander of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps of the VRS, General Stanislav Galic.
In 2006, Galic was sentenced on appeal to life in prison for crimes committed against civilians in the besieged city. Nearly 12,000 Sarajevans were killed and many more wounded by Serb forces during the 44-month sniping and shelling campaign.
However, in January this year, the RS authorities dismissed all these reparation claims as invalid, arguing that they were not supported with proper evidence. They also described the hundreds of payment demands as an “organised political act” against RS.
The ACCP RS announced recently that it would sue Croatia as soon as the appeals verdict in the case against former Croatian army general Ante Gotovina is handed down by the tribunal.
In April this year, tribunal judges found Gotovina guilty of persecution, murder and other war crimes against Serb civilians committed during the Storm military operation in August 1995 and sentenced him to 24 years imprisonment. Around 200,000 Serbs fled Croatia during the offensive, and many of them settled in RS.
“The appeals verdict in Gotovina’s case will give us an opportunity to prove that Serbs did suffer in Croatia and should receive compensation for that,” the association’s president Dukic said.
Also, the Bosnian Serb authorities claim that in the aftermath of Operation Storm, Croatian forces attacked the Serb-held town of Mrkonjic Grad in north-western Bosnia, killing several hundred Serbs and destroying thousands of their homes. They believe the judgement in the Gotovina case will help their claim for compensation from Croatia.
Meanwhile, ACCP BiH is awaiting a verdict in the case against former Serbian Security Service, DB, chief, Jovica Stanisic, and another other ex-Serbian security official, Franko Simatovic.
Stanisic and Simatovic have been charged with participating in a joint criminal enterprise, with the objective of forcibly and permanently removing non-Serbs from large areas of Croatia and Bosnia through persecution, murder and deportation of the Croat, Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat populations.
ACCP BiH hopes the verdict in this case might shed more light on Serbia’s involvement in Bosnia in the Nineties.
“We really need a verdict which will expose Serbia’s true role in the Bosnian war, because that would help the victims with compensation claims,” Tahirovic said.
RAPE VICTIMS DEMAND THEIR RIGHTS
When in March this year four former members of the Croatian Defence Council, HVO, were found guilty of crimes against Bosniaks imprisoned in the HVO-held camp Vojno and sentenced to a total of 69 years in prison, Saja Coric was immensely relieved.
She was one of the prisoners held in this camp, where she says she was tortured and raped. She does not want to talk about that anymore. Today, she is the president of the Centre for Victims of Vojno Camp in Mostar.
Coric says she is still not ready to demand compensation for her suffering while detained in the camp. What bothers her and other wartime rape victims most is the fact that their legal status is not properly defined.
“Our association wants the status of rape victims to be regulated at the state, not entity, level - so that they become the responsibility of the state, not entities,” she said.
The reason for this demand are discrepancies between compensation rape victims receive in Bosnia’s two entities.
"Proving our status of victims of war is hard enough, but when it comes to compensation, it turns out we are not treated equally in the Federation and RS. In the Federation, monthly compensation to rape victims is about 280 euro, while in RS it is only between 50 and 150 euro,” said Maja Sostaric from the Association Zene Zenama (Women to Women).
SOLUTION REQUIRED SOON
Entities don’t have in their budgets any funds allocated specifically for compensation to civilian victims of war, but pressured by the ever increasing number of lawsuits, the authorities are aware that they will have to find a solution soon.
Victims’ associations believe the only proper way to solve this problem is to pass a law at state level which would guarantee all civilian victims equal rights, regardless of the entity they live in.
“When they finally realise that this law would define the number of victims and the amount of money that is needed for reparations, then we’ll be able to talk about reconciliation in BiH,” Tahirovicm, of the ACCP BiH, said.
Selma Boracic is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.
This article was produced as part of IWPR’s Tales of Transition project funded by the Dutch government.
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