In the land of the war criminals

Street dogs, dead souls and killers who are heroes

Published January 6, 1997 4:30PM (EST)

they eat pig or they get the fuck out," Ranko, 20, says of his former Muslim neighbors and friends in this northern Bosnian town.

Ranko is a nice guy. Good-looking, with a raffish sense of humor and a fluent rap-like English lapped up from the cinema and the meager offerings of
Republika Srpska television, he translates for me the lyrics of a Croatian rock band, Atomic Shelter, blaring from the loudspeakers.

Nix, 21, is quieter. "The Thinker," his friends call him. He's a writer, a poet, and as militantly Serbian as Ranko, though late at night and drunk, he whisperingly confesses: "My legs carry my dead soul, man; I am empty; I feel nothing. Do you understand me?"

Over beer and marijuana at the Ars Media bar in town, Ranko, Nix and other demobbed soldiers from the Bosnian Serbian army -- they call themselves "The Street Dogs" -- espouse in no particular order Stalinism, anarchism, nihilism, punk, metal, genocide, fascism, freedom of the press, love for mother Serbia and undying devotion for Ratko Mladic, the notorious Bosnian Serbian military leader and indicted war criminal. "Mladic, he's our man, our main man; he's a fucking hero and we would all die for him," says Ranko.

And they never forget Prijedor's "Silent Night."

Prijedor is a town of about 100,000 people in the center of a mining, forestry and agricultural district, nominally in Bosnia-Herzegovina, but to the Serbian residents, a proud component of the self-proclaimed statelet Republika Srpska. "Cleansed" of its Muslim population, Prijedor is also home to an estimated one-third of those indicted by the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague for "crimes against humanity" and "genocide" committed in Bosnia's civil war.

Many of those crimes were committed in these parts, beginning on a spring night in 1992.

the way Ranko and the others tell it, there was a list circulating through town, ominously entitled "The Silent Night." It supposedly listed the names of Serbian intellectuals, political leaders and community figures targeted by militant Muslim outsiders who had come to Prijedor to raise the town's 70 percent Muslim majority against its Serbian minority. The threatened Serbs, goes the story, struck first.

Documents issued by The Hague tribunal give a succinct and somewhat less mythological account of what happened next:

"About 23 May 1992, approximately three weeks after Serbs forcibly took control of government authority in Opstina [district] Prijedor, Bosnia-Herzegovina, intensive shelling by Serb forces of Bosnian Muslim and Croat areas in Prijedor caused Muslim and Croat residents to flee their homes. The majority of them were seized by the Serb forces ... [who] shot or beat them on the spot ... the Serb forces began taking prisoners to the Omarska, Keraterm, and Trnopolje camps."

In the camps inmates were gang raped; they were stabbed and mutilated; they were starved; they were sexually assaulted in front of their families and forced to perform fellatio on one another; some were shot. But mostly they were slowly, mercilessly beaten to death with boots, fists, shovels, baseball bats or any instrument that came to hand. Some of those indicted were listed as "visitors" to the camps.

Armed with an official "Wanted" poster, I drove the 300 kilometers from Sarajevo to Prijedor. It was early winter, and smoke was drawing from the chimneys in the Serbian villages I passed. Nothing was alive in what were once Muslim villages, only the skulls of torched homes, their roofs, windows and door frames burned out completely.

Finding the former camps is not difficult. There are signposts and billboards all along the 50-kilometer drive between the Bosnian provincial capital of Banja Luka and Prijedor. One of the camps, Keraterm, on the edge of Prijedor, is operating again, as a tile factory. Trnopolje, a village lying halfway between Prijedor and the Omarska concentration camp -- labeled a "death camp" by the Hague tribunal -- advertises guest houses.

The camps, linked to nearby residential areas by narrow-gauge railway lines, are remarkable only for their offensive blandness. The older villagers are gruff. To a visitor they claim to know nothing, except for the sowing of fields and the cutting of timber. In Prijedor, there is a mixture of fear, conspiracy and defiant pride. "What you have to understand is that these so-called war criminals are heroes up here," says an ex-opera singer from Sarajevo, playing "Killing Me Softly" on a Hammond organ at the AeroClub in Prijedor. "If you are going to indict one person, you have to indict everybody, because everybody participated."

The Aeroclub is owned by Simo Drljaca, the former police chief of Prijedor, described by a spokesman for The Hague tribunal as a man "accused by every major human rights organization of massive human rights violations," from the beginning of the ethnic cleansing in May 1992 until September 1996, when he was forced to resign at the insistence of IFOR, the Nato-led ground forces. Drljaca once famously remarked to a British journalist during a tour of the Omarska concentration camp in August 1992 that "Muslims are usually very skinny because they don't eat pork -- have you read the Koran?"

Drljaca remains free, though he is expected to be included in the next list of indictments to be issued this month. Meanwhile, he works for the Republika Srpska Ministry of the Interior and owns and runs a successful transportation business in Prijedor. The locals call him "Mr. Ten Percent." I find his office easily enough but a bodyguard acidly declines my request for an interview and advises me not to come again.

On May 11, 1992, the roundup began. Ranko passed through the streets of Prijedor as Muslims and Croats were dragged from their houses and shot, or beaten, and loaded into yellow and blue vans for transportation to the camps. Only 16 years old, he had already volunteered for the militia. A couple of men he knew were dragging an old Muslim man from his house. They grabbed Ranko and thrust a pistol into his hand, telling him to shoot the old man.

"My hands were shaking, I looked at him and pointed the gun but I couldn't shoot. He reminded me of my father. He was saying, 'Don't do it, son, don't do it.' He was kneeling in the gutter outside his house. Then his wife came down the stairs screaming and crying, and they shot her in the eye. She fell back inside her home. The old man stopped pleading, and began crying, just crying then."

The men pointed at a passing dog and ordered Ranko to shoot it, which he did. As the dog lay dying, they screamed at Ranko, asking him if he was a good Serb and telling him that if he could shoot a dog, then he could shoot a Muslim. Yes, yes, he was a good Serb. He closed his eyes and pulled the trigger. Ranko's customary bravado evaporates as he recounts the one second it took him to kill his first man. He saw at least 50 murdered bodies in the streets that day.

The Sensei Bar in Kozarac, a small, devastated village a couple of kilometers from Prijedor, is owned by Dusan Tadic, who has the dubious honor to be the first man tried by the war crimes tribunal.

Tadic was a guard at the Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje camps, where, according to the war crimes indictment, he raped women, beat and shot some prisoners to death and forced others to drink from puddles and crawl over broken glass, while jumping on them until they could not move. Then he emptied a fire extinguisher into their mouths as they lay prone. To his kid brother, Mladen, who now runs the Sensei Bar, "Dusan is a great guy ... he actually saved a lot of Muslims ... wouldn't hurt a fly... it's a case of mistaken identity ... he didn't even know how to use a gun."
Goran Borovnica, also from Kozarac, is on the wanted list, but has disappeared. Friends think he died fighting on the central Bosnia front during the war. He is accused of hauling out Muslim prisoners as they were being marched to the camps and shooting them on the spot. Goran was also "a great guy," says Mladen, "but very, very violent when drunk."

Goran's two sisters and mother live in a pitifully small house that used to belong to Muslims. Lubica, his mother, alternately weeps and screams obscenities about her former
Muslim neighbors. "He was a lovely man, and wouldn't hurt a mouse," she says. "If there were more people like my brother and Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, this war would never have happened," says Goran's sister, Branka, 38, pulling on a Vek cigarette. She kisses the images of Mladic and Karadzic on the wanted posters. "It was a normal war here -- and the Muslims shot at their own houses."

If that's true, the Muslims did a brutally efficient job. Kozarac is a ghost village, leveled, burned and empty. Scattered teapots and pans, lumps of melted glass, torn clothing, a dog carcass and charred bits of washing machines and stoves litter the streets and muddy lanes where 6,000 houses once stood.

IFOR wanted posters are sometimes quaintly accurate. One simply goes to 31 Cirkin Polje Street, Prijedor, as noted in one of the posters, and there you find Predrag Banovic -- and if you're very lucky his twin brother, Nendad. Both of them are accused of torturing and beating to death civilian prisoners.
The Banovics still work for the reserve police, a couple of local policemen tell me. They share a red motorbike and can often be seen riding through town, a couple of kilometers from the Keraterm concentration camp, where among other things, Predrag forced one man to bite off another's testicles.

I drove to their house on a narrow fruit tree-lined lane at the edge of Prijedor. Some lights were on, and through the latticed window I recognized Predrag, his black hair in a pony tail, kneeling on the bare wooden floor, counting freshly harvested apples. His father, Svetko Banovic, was entering the
figures in a book. I pushed the door open and stepped into the room. "IFOR!" Predrag whispered, thinking I was a military investigator who would arrest him. He hid his face with his hands and ran from the room as his father confronted me and forced me out. Mr. Banovic said that the man was a worker and that he hadn't seen his son for three years.

Suzana, Ranko's girlfriend, is angry and sick of the questions. It's late at night and we are at an impromptu birthday party for their friend, Momo. Momo and others are imbibing marijuana and rejki (the local turpentine). There's singing, laughter and a vague sensation that something could always turn nasty. Ranko tells us about a very funny night when they all got so drunk that "we beat the shit out of one another."
"Why don't you write about what the Muslims did to us?" demands Suzana. "Show what they did here." What did they do? I ask. "They did nothing, because we got in first," says Ranko. "But they wanted to. We were smarter and faster."

They tell me again about "The Silent Night."

"No, I never saw the list, but I know that it existed because my uncle's name was on it," says Ranko. "Hey," says Nix, whispering to me out of earshot. "This was their city, the Muslims." His eyes are wide. "No one will tell you what happened, because they're too fucking scared." The worst "atrocity" they can offer me is a cemetery for the Serbian war dead. "You will see it full of mothers crying for their sons and it will break your heart," Ranko assures me.

The dull red buildings of the former Omarska concentration camp are perched on the edge of the village of Omarska, seven kilometers from Prijedor. People could wash their dishes and watch the beatings and shootings from their kitchen window. A small red brick building in the center of the compound, now covered with a snowy fringe, was known as "The Red Building." Prisoners were taken there for "special treatment," which they almost never survived.

I'm looking for Zeljko Meakic, the former camp commander at Omarska, where up to 3,000 inmates were incarcerated, tortured or killed. Despite assurances from the Republika Srbska Minister of the Interior that Meakic has since been removed as deputy chief of the Omarska police, local villagers tell me that, yes, every morning "the commander," as they call him, still leaves for work at the Omarska police station.

It is freezing and snowing as night falls. I have been searching for Meakic's house for nearly two hours, getting conflicting directions. I stop in a tiny, isolated bar and ask the barmaid if she knows where Meakic lives. She says she's never heard of him, but a few minutes later, as I'm drinking coffee, I hear her describing my car over the telephone.

In late August 1992, Ranko had a friend over for a few drinks. His friend belonged to a military demolition team that had received orders that night to blow up a mosque in central Prijedor. Ranko's friend invited him to go with the team, about a dozen boys. At around midnight they set off for the Muslim temple, which Ranko tells me, "was about 200 years old. I don't know, they all look the same -- cheap." They battered the door down and began smashing up the mosque, downing more rejki as they looted and destroyed.
One of the boys started playing Iron Maiden and Nirvana over the loudspeakers that had once broadcast the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer. Then they lit a bonfire of carpets and tables in the middle of the mosque and bored holes in the walls by the light of the fire. They wired up the charges, dismantled and took the sound system and gathered outside to
watch the walls crumble in a single cloudy explosion, singing and laughing. I asked Ranko if he felt ashamed. "Why? I did two djamijas [mosques] the same way. If you destroy their djamijas, they never come back."
I'm curious, then, as to why the mosques I pass are all destroyed, while the Muslim graveyards abutting them are left conspicuously untouched. One man I ask, a farmer in a field, replies, "not enough bulldozers," but Suzana's answer is different. "Disrupting the dead. It brings bad luck."

One night, drunk and stoned, and by way of explanation for all the questions that I have asked, Nix replies in song:
I used to love her

But I have to kill her

She feels so much

She drove me nuts

She's buried right in my backyard

I know I miss her

So I have to kill her

She's buried six feet under

And I can still hear her complain

"Guns 'n' Roses," he says, as if that says it all.

The head spins with the myths and imperatives that pervade all Balkan conversations, the memories of past wrongs crying to be righted. "The Silent Night," Muslims who "breed like rabbits," the dispossessed Serbs who had "once owned all the land," the mythical caches of arms in every Muslim household, the frontier between Turkey and Europe, manned by the innocent, vigilant Serbs, the plans by Bosnian President Alia Izetbegovic to create a fundamentalist Islamic state where every Serbian maiden would be forced to wear the chador.
Beyond Prijedor, the process muddles on. While The Hague tribunal calls repeatedly for the arrest of the indicted, IFOR officials argue that they have no mandate to arrest. The government of the Republika Srpska maintains that there are no war criminals on its territory (it refuses to recognize the legality of the indictments), therefore it has no obligation under international law to arrest anyone.

In Prijedor, the Street Dogs yell "sex and violence" like baying wolves, screaming at the empty streets and darkened roofs, sending a chill across the town's already frigid air. They have rocket-propelled grenades, anti-tank
missiles and plastic explosives in their bedrooms. Ranko's cupboard has an arsenal where other kids might store their tennis rackets. Still, for all their bravado and defiance, psychic hounds are snapping at their own heels.

"You see," says Nix, with a slow, sweet smile revealing tombstone teeth that belie his tender years, "you despise us. But you cannot despise us more than we despise ourselves."

By Gordon Weiss

Gordon Weiss is an Australian journalist based in Sarajevo.

MORE FROM Gordon Weiss

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

National Security Violence Against Women