Bosnian Village Relives Wartime Trauma
A convicted war criminal’s escape revives painful memories for Bosniaks of Stupni Do.
Mulija Likic woke up on October 23, 1993 to the sound of shelling, not realising that her life was about to change forever.
“My husband Avdija said it was over and that I should run. I took our baby, my Jasmin, who was 16 months old at the time. I just grabbed his bottle. I took our other son, five-year-old Rusko, by the hand and we ran towards the woods,” she recalled.
The Bosniak-populated village of Stupni Do, in central Bosnia, had been surrounded by Croatian Defence Council (HVO) troops. All the houses were burnt down in ensuing the attack, and 38 of the 150 villagers were killed, mostly members of the extended Likic family. The oldest victim was 72-year-old Salih Likic, while the youngest, Sabina Likic, was only two.
Those who managed to escape hid in the nearby woods, but worried constantly that the sound of their children crying would alert the HVO soldiers in the area.
“We gave our babies tranquilisers so that they’d fall asleep and stop crying. I didn’t have any food for Jasmin. I put some water in his bottle, warmed it up with my hands and made him drink so that at least he wouldn’t be thirsty,” Mulija said.
Stupni Do was targeted because of its location in a valley surrounded by Croat communities, say Bosniak residents who returned after the war.
Croat and Bosniak forces were in alliance against the Serbs when conflict broke out in Bosnia in 1992, but allegiances shifted in 1993 and the two became enemies, with devastating results.
One of the men prosecuted for crimes in Stupni Do was Dominik Ilijasevic, known as Como. In 2007, a Bosnian court sentenced him to 15 years and sent him to a prison in Mostar.
Once Ilijasevic had served the majority of his term, he had a right to 25 days’ release for home leave. In September last year, he failed to return to prison and instead absconded to Croatia, where he holds citizenship.
He has asked to be allowed to serve the rest of his sentence in Croatia.
The Bosnian State Prosecutor’s office says that a bilateral agreement with Croatia stipulates that if a convict escapes from one country to another where he holds citizenship, then that country has the right to decide whether to extradite him to the state where was originally convicted.
In Ilijasevic's case, a district court in the Croatian town of Zadar decided not to extradite him, while also agreeing with the sentence handed down by the Bosnian court.
If Ilijasevic were back in jail in Bosnia, he would be entitled to release after two-thirds of his term, although that right is sometimes is denied for particularly grave crimes.
In an interview to the Croatian media, Ilijasevic said he doubted he would have been granted this early release, and that was the main reason he fled to Croatia.
Villagers in Stupni Do question why Ilijasevic was allowed to leave prison at all, and say the case has made them lose faith in the Bosnian judiciary.
“How was it possible for a convicted war criminal to have a summer vacation as if he wasn’t serving a sentence for serious crimes?” Mulija Likic asked. “He didn't receive an adequate sentence in the first place, and then he escaped to Croatia.
“What kind of message does that send to the victims?”
In a trial at the Hague tribunal in 2005, the man found to have commanded the attack on Stupni Do, Ivica Rajic, pleaded guilty to grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions, including wilful killing, inhuman treatment including sexual assault, and misappropriation of property. Rajic was sentenced to 12 years in prison, but he was granted early release in August 2011.
In Stupni Do, few believe that Ilijasevic will go on to serve out his sentence in Croatia.
“I don't believe in the Croatian judiciary,” said Zahid Likic. “There have already been various manipulations in their media around the number of victims at Stupni Do and the seriousness of the crimes. They are trying to diminish the gravity of these crimes.
“So how can we expect the Croatian judiciary to be fair and just in ruling on Ilijasevic's case? And even if he ends up in a Croatian prison in the end, I don't think he will serve a full sentence, or that he will be treated as a real criminal.”
Zahid is the son of Salih Likic, the 72-year-old killed in the massacre, and he was among former residents who began returning to Stupni Do from 2007 onwards.
He recalled the chaos and brutality of the attack on the village in October 1993.
“The HVO came from the surrounding hills and came across my father. They killed him, threw his body into the house and set the house on fire. We later collected his bones so that we could bury his remains,” he said.
Zahid Likic escaped to the nearby town of Vares and hid in an apartment with his wife Hidajeta and their eight-year-old son Dado.
However, the HVO soon found him and took him to a prison camp where around 350 Bosniaks from Vares and the surrounding area were imprisoned. They spent 80 days there.
“We were subjected to horrific torture. They would beat us as long as they had strength to do so, and would then force us to lick each other’s blood, eat hair and teeth. They forced us to sing their nationalistic songs. I am still traumatised by it,” Zahid said.
Those who managed to escape to the nearby woods did not dare to return to the village. The HVO would not even allow the dead to be buried until October 30, 1993, seven days after the massacre.
As well as the killing and destruction, three girls from Stupni Do were raped, one in front of her father, who was then killed.
One of these three women now lives just a few hundred metres from the ruined house in which she was attacked.
“I was with my father, some neighbours and relatives,” the woman, who asked not to be identified, told IWPR. “There were 12 of us in one house. That was where they found us and the abuse started. They took our gold, and then took women out and raped them. They wanted to burn us alive in a summer house. We were pouring water all over our bodies so that we wouldn’t get burnt. Then we found an axe, opened the door and ran into the woods,”
After surviving the war, she later married and now has two children. She now lives what appears to be a typical rural life, and says her children know nothing of her tragic experience.
“After what happened, I didn’t expect my life to ever be normal again. I lived one day after another. I wasn’t even thinking about what my life after that might look like. However, I married in 1994, had children, and my life has some purpose,” she said.
“My life is pretty normal now, but there is still something inside me. One moment I’m happy, but then suddenly I might cry. Not a single day passes for me without a tranquiliser,” she added.
While the woman does not know the name of the man who raped her, she says that after 20 years, she would still be able to describe him and draw him. But she has done her best to move on with her life.
“I now have greenhouses. I produce vegetables which I sell in the town. I have two cows and produce cheese, which I also sell. The children are going to school. We have to earn somehow,” she said.
The news that Ilijasevic was now at liberty in Croatia disturbed her.
"Now I live in fear. It's not easy when you know that those who committed war crimes in our village walk free," the rape victim told IWPR.
For Mulija Likic, being back in the village is “hard, but we’re doing our best”.
“I can never forget what happened. But I have two sons and I have to work to support them,” she said.
Mulija says she does know who committed crimes against the many members of her family. Some of them, she said, were their neighbours before the war. Some still live in nearby villages. She is certain that one of them is her current neighbour.
“He sometimes sees me on the street. I lower my head or turn away. He beeps from his car to greet me,” she said. “I always wonder who he is greeting.”
Minela Jašar is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo. Aleksandra Tolj is an IWPR-trained reporter in Eastern Sarajevo.
This article was produced as part of IWPR’s Tales of Transition project funded by the Norwegian embassy in Sarajevo. IWPR is carrying out this project in cooperation with the Sarajevo Centre for Contemporary Arts and EFM Student Radio.