Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

War of Words Over Missing Bosnian Serbs

Serbs claim Bosnian state agency searching for missing persons has focused energies on Bosniaks.
By Maja Bjelajac
  • Exhumation of a mass grave at Potocari, Srebrenica. Thousands of Bosniaks were executed by Bosnian Serbs following the fall of the enclave in 2005. (Photo: Adam Jones/Flickr)
    Exhumation of a mass grave at Potocari, Srebrenica. Thousands of Bosniaks were executed by Bosnian Serbs following the fall of the enclave in 2005. (Photo: Adam Jones/Flickr)

War victims associations in Republika Srpska, RS, have accused the Bosnian state’s Institute for Missing Persons, IMP, of not doing enough to find missing Serbs.

The IMP has rejected these accusations, arguing that the reason more Bosniak people have been identified is simply because they made up the majority of victims of the 1992-95 war.

The remains of some 21,000 missing persons have been identified so far in Bosnia – around 9,000 are still missing, of which more than 1,700 are believed to be Serbs.

The Organisation of Imprisoned and Killed Soldiers and Missing Civilians in the RS, OZPBNC, claim that the IMP has ignored Serbs and focused on Bosniak victims.

“Only 32 victims from the RS were identified in 2010,” its president, Nedjeljko Mitrovic, said. “That number is way too low, since 1,742 Serbs are still considered missing. This is intolerable.”

According to the latest data, 104,732 people died in the Bosnian war – 68,101 Bosniaks, 22,779 Serbs, 8,858 Croats and 4,995 members of other nationalities.

Last year, 964 remains were exhumed, and 702 people identified, 32 of them Serbs. Since 2008, when the IMP was established as a state institution, replacing entity-level commissions on missing persons, only 97 missing persons of Serb nationality have been identified.

Representatives of the OZPBNC claim such a small number is proof that the IMP is neglecting Serb victims, and have demanded that the IMP be replaced once again by entity-level commissions, claiming they would be more efficient.

The RS authorities have showed little trust in the IMP’s abilities to carry out its task. Six month after the IMP was founded, the Banja Luka government formed its own body, the Operational Team of RS for Finding Missing Persons, which was also tasked with gathering information about grave sites.

The RS is also weighing up passing its own laws on missing persons, even though there is already a state law which deals with issues such as regulating the search for victims and the rights of the families of missing persons.

The IMP refutes claims that it is neglecting Serb victims, saying its work is driven by humanitarian concern, not the nationality of the victims.

“There is absolutely no discrimination,” Amor Masovic, chairman of the IMP’s board of directors, said. “We are not looking for missing Serbs, Bosniaks or Croats - we are looking for missing sons, daughters, mothers and fathers.”

The head of the IMP’s Banja Luka office, Milijana Bojic, said, “I am looking for the remains of my brothers, who are Serbs, as well as my students and all my compatriots who disappeared.

“But as a humanitarian and a professional, I am looking for all the missing persons, regardless of their nationality, because we cannot know who is in a grave until we exhume remains and send them for analysis.”

Tanja Topic, a political analyst with the German Freidrich-Ebert foundation in Banja Luka, claimed that the RS government was using the concerns of the families of missing persons to further their political goals.

“These [missing persons] associations, which in RS are seen as non-governmental organisations, actually depend heavily on the government’s budget and, in a way, serve as spokespersons of governing structures,” Topic said.

“The problem we have with missing persons stems from the lack of common interpretation of the events from the recent war. Victims’ associations in Republika Srpska acknowledge only their own victims and condemn only the crimes committed by the other side.

“Although it is a fact that majority of victims were Bosniaks, the associations in RS refuse to accept that because this is not in line with what the RS officials have been saying.”

According to Topic, the criticism of the IMP’s work and calls for it to transfer its authority to entity commissions were part of an RS policy to weaken all state-level institutions.

“Emphasising the strength of Republika Srpska institutions and pointing out alleged weaknesses and malfunctioning in Bosnia’s state institutions is not an improvisation, but a well-planned strategy carried out by authorities in Banja Luka,” Topic said.

Topic's claims have been dismissed by Stasa Kosarac, head of the Operational Team of RS for Finding Missing Persons, and a member of the RS ruling party, the Union of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD.

“Those NGOs [dealing with the missing persons] deserve to be [paid from] the budget of RS and the RS has the right to financially support these organisations, in a transparent manner,” he said.

“The RS government supports non-governmental organisations whose work is of public interest, but it does not influence their work in any way. These NGOs and victims’ associations, regardless of the source of their funding, have the right to maintain their own views on all relevant matters.

“Accusations that the NGOs funded by the RS government act as spokespersons for the government are completely unfounded and come from some Bosniak political circles in Sarajevo, as well as from NGOs from the RS who do not have the status of organisations whose work is of public interest.”

Maja Bjelajac is an IWPR-trained reporter from Banka Luka.

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