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REGIONAL REPORT

The three men acquitted of the Ahmici massacre cause a stir on their return home.
By Amra Kebo

Bosnia: Ahmici Three Homecoming


Vlatko Kupreskic caused a few surprises when he and his and his cousins - brothers Zoran and Mirjan - returned to Ahmici late last month.


A day after The Hague acquitted them of the massacre of 116 Bosniaks in the village, Vlatko spoke of reconciliation with his people's one-time enemies, in an address to a bemused throng of nationalist Croats who had gathered to welcome him and his cousins.


Many in the crowd had seen the tribunal appeal decision, the first such ruling by the The Hague, as a vindication of their belief that the court is anti-Croat, and perhaps expected their returning heroes to deliver a more militant speech.


"Coexistence has always been possible here, and it will always be. For there can be no Bosnia without equality of all three peoples. There can be no Bosnia if only one people is favoured. For that would signal the end of Bosnia," declared Vlatko, in an interview with IWPR in the war-scarred village.


Memorials to those who died here are very much in evidence. At the entrance to the Ahmici, there's a huge cross with the names of Bosnian Croat fighters who lost their lives in the conflict. Further on, one comes across the remains of a mosque - a dedication to the Bosniak victims of the 1993 massacre stands close by.


The tribunal last year convicted Vlatko, Zoran and Mirjan Kupreskic of participating in the infamous massacre, sentencing them to six, eight and ten years respectively. Following a successful appeal, the verdict was overturned on October 23 and the men were released immediately. Two other defendants in the case, Drago Josipovic and Vlado Santic, had their sentences reduced.


And twelve days into his new-found freedom, Vlatko has turned his words about coexistence into deeds: he has employed five Bosniaks from the village to help him expand his business.


In a region still torn by ethnic divisions, Vlatko's speech revealed there was a glimmer of hope for the future. However, many here would disagree. In Bosnia-Herzegovina, those responsible for Bosniak massacres are still at large and refugees who have returned home now find themselves living next door to the perpetrators.


Such is the climate of fear, that many Bosniak women - mothers, sisters and wives of the Ahmici victims - only spoke to IWPR on conditions of anonymity.


Everyone is afraid of each other. "The Croats and the Bosniaks live side by side but they avoid contact with each other," one said. Another, a neighbour of the released men, said she was prepared to speak to them but wouldn' t because other Bosniaks would look down on her.


The tribunal is not helping the situation. Delays in prosecuting the perpetrators of the massacres in Bosnia are believed to be deepening divisions in society. Sulejman Pezer, a Bosniak, was surprised the Kupreskic men were set free.


"Since we trust The Hague it was probably the case of their not succeeding in getting sufficient evidence that the Kupreskics really perpetrated the crime, " he said. " But the tribunal has said its word and we have no choice but to accept it."


Another Bosniak, who lost both his parents to the Croats, refuses to contemplate the possibility of Bosniaks and Croats ever living together again. He is bitter about the verdict and does not trust The Hague to deliver a just sentence ever again. "As far as the tribunal is concerned, I support Milosevic when he attacks it," he said.


Despite serving four years in tribunal detention, Zoran and Mirjan Kupreskic believe, somewhat surprisingly, that the tribunal is absolutely indispensable in prosecuting perpetrators of the Bosnian war, arguing that national courts are still unable to process war crimes.


However, they have called for the court to be reformed. Zoran thinks it needs to undergo a fundamental change. He believes the prosecution has a clear advantage over the defence and that more thought should go into the issuing of indictments as, he insists, there were problems with many of those handed out immediately after the war.


Also, he believes, people should be offered compensation in cases where innocence is established, something the present tribunal statute does not allow. "People cannot have confidence in the tribunal if its mistakes are not corrected," he said.


It is hoped that Vlatko's "speech of coexistence" will aid the building of trust between the split communities of Bosnia. But for now, at least, the Bosniaks and Croats of Ahmici remain divided.


Fear is widespread, and nationalist sentiments continue. The tribunal may have released the Kupreskic men but the real killers still walk freely. Until the perpetrators are jailed, there is little hope of reconciliation in Ahmici, let alone in Bosnia.


Amra Kebo is a member of IWPR's war crimes reporting network. She is also editor of Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje and IWPR's Assistant Editor in Sarajevo.