Human Rights Activists and Tribunal Officials Discuss War Crimes with Residents of Notorious Bosnian Serb Town
Today in the Bosnian town of Foca, a decade after the war ended, the destroyed homes of Muslims forced to leave are still visible. The air of gloom is palpable. Foca’s misery stems in part from the unwillingness of the international donors to assist the place believed to harbour indicted war crimes suspects. It is the lingering memory of the horrible crimes that took place in the town during the war, however, that makes the atmosphere in Foca particularly dismal.
Those crimes were the theme of a town hall meeting organised here on October 9 by the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Republika Srpska, in cooperation with the Outreach Programme of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY. The meeting was attended by investigators, prosecutors, and legal advisors involved in tribunal cases on Foca. Its aim was to educate the local community about the war crimes committed in the town, through the use of expert presentations and videotapes of witness testimony from trials at the ICTY.
It is quite a daring feat to talk about war crimes in a town where Muslims are still reluctant to enter, and where only a week earlier local Serbs attacked Muslim women as they tried to lay a memorial tablet dedicated to war crimes victims. On the day of the Helsinki Committee townhall meetings, numerous Republika Srpska police secured the town’s centre, and no incident occurred.
In the streets, it was difficult to tell what ordinary Focaks – leaning back in the chairs in the surrounding cafés, or busy with their Saturday routine – thought about the attempt to talk in their midst about crimes normally surrounded by silence.
The eight-hour long presentation at the town’s House of Culture was attended by local government and police representatives together with religious leaders, NGOs, judges, prosecutors and lawyers from the area. Confronted by the facts, they at least seemed stunned by the human capacity for evil, and despondent at the suffering endured by the victims.
Young Muslim women and girls were among Foca’s principal victims. They were enslaved and raped on daily basis during the first year of the war. The perpetrators were members of the Republika Srpska army and police, along with soldiers from Montenegro (mainly from the Niksic area). Other terrible crimes were also committed in Foca, including murder, torture, and the destruction of civilian property and religious sites.
Victim testimonies about rape and enslavement in Foca were most shocking. According to the judgment in the case against Dragoljub Kunarac, Radomir Kovac and Zoran Vukovic, tens of Muslim women, some as young as 12, were detained in various locations in the town, and forced to have sex with the accused and with dozens of other persons. The crimes took place in 1992 and the first half of 1993; the indictment was issued in 1996, and the trial began in March 2000. Eight years after the events, some of the victims did not have strength and will to come to The Hague to testify against those who raped and enslaved them. Some brave women did decide to testify – with their faces hidden from the courtroom and voices altered.
Those present in Foca’s House of Culture had an opportunity to see a video recording of the testimony by Dragoljub Kunarac. His demeanor stood in stark contrast to the brutality of the acts he perpetrated. He spoke in an articulate manner, presenting apparently reasonable arguments about his alleged innocence. According to Kunarac, it was witness “DB” who had sexually assaulted him. He denied raping 15-year-old witness “87”, claiming he only told her to unbutton her shirt, so that if Serb soldiers entered the room they would not suspect that he was sparing her from violence. The court accepted the testimonies by witnesses DB and 87 that Kunarac raped them. Three other women also told the court that he raped them.
Witness 87 told the court how Radomir Kovac, “owner” of four women, once forced them to dance naked on a table, said they would be executed at the nearby river and then took them there. They were subsequently held as sex slaves.
Witness “75”, detained in the Foca high-school centre with other women, described a visit by TV crews from Belgrade and Pale. The women were warned beforehand to speak positively about their treatment. The witness said that previously her mother and brother had been killed and that she’d been raped by 50 men, “So how could I say anything, to look them in the eyes and say that I was fine? I couldn't. I couldn't look them in the eyes."
The same witness, asked by the prosecutor about how she felt after the gang rape she had described, responded, “I felt dead.”
In mid-July 1992, two Muslim women who were detained in the Partizan Sports Hall, in the immediate vicinity of the police station, came to the station and complained to the police chief Dragan Gagovic about the sexual violence there. The two women testified that the next day Gagovic took one of them to an abandoned Muslim apartment and raped her.
These testimonies call into question Hannah Arendt’s theory of the “banality of evil”. There is nothing banal about the characters of those who carried out the acts recounted in Foca’s House of Culture.
That is not to say the Foca criminals had no capacity to make moral judgments. After raping witness “50”, Zoran Vukovic told her he could have hurt her much more, but would not since she was about the same age as his daughter. Even the perpetrators of such crimes apparently persuaded themselves they could distinguish between the acceptable and the unacceptable, between good and evil. But in their moral universe the threshold of good was monstrously low.
Eight individuals were charged by the ICTY with crimes against humanity for the wartime rapes in Foca. In February 2001, Vukovic, Kovac and Kunarac were given prison sentences ranging from twelve to twenty-eight years (confirmed on appeal). Dragan Gagovic and Janko Janjic died during SFOR’s attempts to arrest them, in 1999 and 2000 respectively. Dragan Stankovic, arrested in July 2002, is currently awaiting trial. Gojko Jankovic and Dragan Zelenovic remain at large.
In March 2002, Milan Krnojelac, former warden of the primary detention center for Muslim men, KP Dom, was also convicted for crimes in Foca. At least twenty-six people died in KP Dom as result of the beatings. The ICTY found him responsible for crimes of torture, murder, imprisonment, enslavement and persecution of the Muslim population. Krnojelac was sentenced to seven-and-a- half-year’s imprisonment, increased to fifteen years on appeal.
Most unfortunately, the limits of the ICTY mean that it will never be able to indict or try the majority of the Foca’s perpetrators. Their names, however, can be found in the tribunal’s judgments and transcripts, as participants in rape and other crimes. Some may be hiding in Serbia and Montenegro in the belief that they are safer there.
The victims whose painful testimonies we heard in Foca on October 9 deserve justice. All those responsible for the crimes committed against them should be held to account.