A year after Bosnia’s largest mass grave was found in Tomasica, the incredible story of its discovery highlights victims’ families desperate attempts to gain justice from the authorities.
|Mourners at the reburial in July of bodies found in the Tomasica mass grave. Photo: Beta/AP/Amel Emric.|
It was the summer of 1992 when Hava Tatarevic saw her six sons and her husband for the very last time. Since then, she has been searching for the truth about their fate. Until last year, when their bodies were found lying next to each other, perforated with bullets, in a grave that was never meant to be discovered – Tomasica.
“Tomasica is finally proof of how they murdered my children. I saw them taken away and I knew they were going to be killed,” Tatarevic said.
For over two decades, Tomasica has been a fact that no one wanted to address, which everyone knew about but actively avoided acknowledging.
Four hundred and thirty-five bodies of men, but also women and children, have been recovered from the grave after it was finally discovered in October 2013. So far, 284 murdered residents of villages surrounding the Bosnian town of Prijedor have been identified and buried. The full story of Tomasica, however, remains to be told.
According to Mujo Begic, the Bosnian Krajina regional director of the Missing Persons Institute of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the investigation aimed at locating the Tomasica grave was extremely protracted. While searching for missing people from the Prijedor area, he suspected that a large grave had to exist. But there did not seem to be any witnesses. The response he got from residents in the Tomasica area was simply: “I know nothing.”
But it is difficult to imagine that the location of a mass grave the size of a football pitch was unknown to locals whose houses are only 300 metres away.
Tomasica lies outside Prijedor, the seventh biggest city in Bosnia, in the north-west of the country, and is part of Republika Srpska, the Serb entity of Bosnia.
The pit where the victims’ remains were found is nine metres deep and the site takes up 100 square metres. Dozens of soldiers must have been assigned to dig a hole of such width and depth and transport all the dead bodies there. Even 22 years afterwards, the driveway to the site is clearly visible on aerial photographs.
As long ago as 1996, a Swedish journalist called Bengt Norborg reported about the potential existence of a mass grave near Prijedor. Norborg gathered information about atrocities committed in north-western Bosnia from eyewitnesses, which – together with reports by Human Rights Watch and other journalists – resulted in the estimate that around 1,000 people went missing in the area in 1992.
“The stories we did (Tonci Percan and I) that winter of 1996 in central Bosnia all came about because of rumours we picked up in Zagreb from Zvonimir Cicak, a member of the Croatian Helsinki Committee, rumours of more mass graves and concentration camps than the ones already discovered in the Prijedor area,” Norborg explained.
“Tomasica was another mining complex with dots of small hamlets around the area. We asked the people in the closest villages about the existence of mass graves and the rumours of killings during the summers of ‘92 and ‘93. The villagers all denied hearing about it (these were Serb villages), but the feeling was, after having talked to them, that this was probably not entirely true,” the Swedish journalist continued.
“We continued asking and finally came to people living outside of the villages. These were Croats that had stayed in spite of the ethnic cleansing. They were terrified but spoke on condition of anonymity and told us about the transports of people. They had heard others (Serbs from the village) talk about the killings and burials and they felt the smell from the area,” he said.
An open secret
The fact that Tomasica was discovered as late as 2013 is even more incomprehensible because the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had already investigated some of the crimes committed in and around Prijedor during the war.
The former mayor of Prijedor, Milomir Stakic, was sentenced to 40 years in prison for the extermination and murder of the non-Serb population in the area and the creation of detention camps. So far, 26 people from the Prijedor area have been sentenced for similar crimes by local courts and the ICTY.
Tomasica also appeared in the notorious diaries of Ratko Mladic as a site where bodies were dumped to cover up the Prijedor violence in 1992.
During the war, there were mass killings of Bosniaks and Croats by the Bosnian Serb Army in the Prijedor municipality. The infamous Trnopolje, Omarska and Keraterm concentration camps were close to the city.
The Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Centre estimates that over 5,400 people were killed in Prijedor and the surrounding areas.
Immediately after the war, witnesses of crimes were intimidated or even killed if they spoke out. “No one wants to be a traitor to one’s nation,” said Mujo Begic, explaining why there is still so much reluctance to provide any information about the remaining mass grave sites in Bosnia.
When asked, not a single Serb resident in Prijedor and surrounding villages was willing to share his or her views on Tomasica. A disabled Bosniak war veteran explained this by using a Bosnian saying: “Suti, moze te cuti” – “Stay silent, someone can hear you.”
Norborg said that people didn’t dare to speak out because they were terrified of reprisals.
“This was war and people were killed for nothing. You had paramilitary gangs roaming around the area looking for reasons to kill and steal. I think even many ordinary Serbs were frightened,” he explained.
“So most people knew about it but kept their mouths shut – either because of fear or out of loyalty to their own.”
Eventually, a former Bosnian Serb soldier, who was a direct participant in the killings, decided to come forward and contacted the Missing Persons Institute. “He was haunted by the eyes of a girl he shot,” Begic explained. But it still took two years of persuading and negotiating to find the exact location.
Rights and recognition
So far, 22,000 missing people have been identified since the end of the war. But the more time elapses, the more difficult it will be to find the bodies of the remaining 9,000. Witnesses and perpetrators will die, and with them any hope of finding the exact location of the graves. This is probably what many unprosecuted perpetrators are counting on.
The issue also stands in the middle of much broader disputes over guilt and punishment in Bosnia.
Viktorija Ruzicic-Tokic, programme officer at the International Commission on Missing Persons, said that a fund to compensate missing people’s families has never been set up because of continuing disagreements about who was responsible for the conflict.
“According to the law, a fund for families of the missing would have to come from the state budget. This would mean that neither entity [the Serb-led Republika Srpska or the Bosniak-Croat Federation, the two political entities that make up Bosnia] would have direct control over who receive compensation and who does not,” Ruzicic-Tokic explained.
The fund would in essence distribute money to all families of the missing, regardless of their background. This would lead to an unprecedented shift in the general approach to the 1990s war, making the loss of all victims equal – be they Serbs, Croats or Bosniaks. A move which would be truly revolutionary in Bosnia.
Bosnia does not have a state-level compensation system for civilian victims of war, and support for families of the missing varies, depending on where they live. Bosniak civilian victims of war living in Republika Srpska are often exposed to discrimination and obstruction; the situation of Bosnian Serbs in the Bosniak-Croat Federation can be similar.
Hava Tatarevic made headlines in Bosnia in July this year as the mother who lost six sons and a husband and had been living on just 150 Bosnian Marks a month (75 euro) – her spouse’s pension – since the end of the war.
But the Republika Srpska authorities had already decided earlier in 2014 that she was not even eligible to receive this money. Now for her to gain the status of a civilian victim of war, which would entitle her to benefits, she must prove exactly how her sons were killed.
Tatarevic’s house in the small village of Zecevi, about 20 kilometres from Tomasica, is decorated with a Bosnian Army flag and pictures of her sons and husband.
In the run-up to this month’s elections in Bosnia, she was visited there by a series of politicians seeking to portray themselves as sympathetic to her cause, and by journalists fascinated by her story. “They come nearly every day, taking pictures and asking me about my health,” she sighed.
The media reports caused diaspora Bosnians to offer donations, which have improved her financial situation, but the attention seemed to have exhausted her. She no longer remembered the exact birth dates of her sons. “The youngest was born in ‘75. Or ‘76? No, I think it was ‘75,” she said, struggling to recall the year.
Tatarevic has filed a case in Republika Srpska, asking to be defined as a civilian victim of war, a process that requires an investigation into the killings and a definition of the crime committed.
But while excavations at Tomasica are due to continue, now the elections have passed, her case is unlikely ever to be properly investigated and resolved, as is so often the situation in Bosnia.