Survivors of crimes committed in central Bosnia in 1993 during the conflict between Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) and Croats welcomed the visit by Croatian President Ivo Josipovic on Thursday to the sites of some of the worst atrocities committed in the area.
The survivors voiced their hope that the Croatian leader's “sincere gesture” would aid reconciliation.
“I am grateful to the president for visiting us. His visit and his apology mean a lot to us. This gives us hope that the relationships (between Muslim Bosniaks and Catholic Croats) could improve and that we could finally start living a normal life,” Mulija Ahmic told Balkan Insight.
Mulija was one of a few dozen people who gathered in front of a mosque in the village of Ahmici to greet the Croatian president, who went to the site to pay respect to civilians killed by Zagreb-backed Bosnian Croat forces on April 16, 1993.
Josipovic, who is the first Croatian official to visit Ahmici, laid flowers at the monument to the victims erected in front of the village mosque, which was destroyed in the incident and rebuilt after the war.
The Ahmici massacre was one of the most brutal episodes of the conflict between Bosniaks and Croats, which was part of a larger 1992-95 inter-ethnic war in Bosnia. Most of the people killed in the attack, which begun in early morning hours while villagers were still sleeping, were women, children and elderly. Nearly all Bosniak homes in the village were burnt at the time, some of them with bodies of the injured and killed still inside.
Since the war, several Bosnian Croat military and political leaders had been sentenced by the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague for the Ahmici atrocity.
“Nothing can bring back the victims, but we understand your visit…. as a call for a horrible crime such as the one committed in Ahmici not to be repeated to anyone anywhere,” Elvedin Kermo, the president of an association of survivors of the massacre, told Josipovic.
“We hope that your visit will contribute to the improvement of relations here,” he added.
Josipovic said he believed the brutal crimes of the 1990s will never be repeated.
“All the peoples in Bosnia-Herzegovina suffered greatly and I believe that they deserve a better future,” he told Kermo.
Josipovic, who was accompanied by the spiritual leaders of the Bosnian Catholics and Muslims, Cardinal Vinko Puljic and Mufti Mustafa Ceric, respectively, shook hands with some of the survivors who thanked him for the visit.
“I left everything I was doing at home to come here, to see him… it is not easy for him and it is not easy for us, but we need to move on,” Vahida Ahmic told Balkan Insight.
Ahmic and her family - including her husband, son and daughter-in-law – were among a handful of civilians taken from the village in UN armored vehicles by British UN peacekeepers in 1993, but not before hiding in a shed for hours from where they witnessed a number of their neighbours being killed.
After visiting Ahmici, Josipovic and the Bosnian religious leaders traveled to the nearby village of Krizancevo Selo, where scores of Croat civilians were killed in fighting between Bosniak and Bosnian Croat forces in December 1993.
“I am glad that he came because things like this can help reconciliation… the past brutalities should have never happened,” Anto Krizanac, who was injured in the village in December 1993, told Balkan Insight.
Josipovic and Bosnia’s religious leaders laid flowers at a monument to victims in Krizancevo Selo.
“I believe that the time has come for us to understand that all our dead, all our innocent victims, deserve true respect,” Cardinal Puljic told journalists.
“We visited two places marked by pain… to put an end to an ugly period in our relations and turn a new page,” Mufti Ceric said.
Ceric invited Puljic to jointly visit all “sites of suffering” in Bosnia.
“People are waiting to hear our call for reconciliation, for living together so that the crimes will never again be repeated, especially not crimes against our neighbours with whom we share this beautiful country,” Ceric said.
Josipovic’s highly symbolic visit to sites in central Bosnia where horrific crimes were committed during the conflict comes a day after he apologised for Zagreb's wartime policies, which he said have contributed to Bosnia's current ethnic fragmentation and political deadlock.
As former Yugoslavia started falling apart in the 1990s, the then Serbian and Croatian leaders supported the secessionist aspirations of Bosnia’s Serb and Croat peoples with the idea to carve up their neighbour’s territory and share it between the two states.
As a result, the multiethnic Bosnia found itself engulfed in one of the most brutal conflicts in Europe since World War II, in which 100,000 people were killed and some 2 million forced out of their homes.
Relations between Zagreb and Sarajevo have been gradually improving since the death in 1999 of independent Croatia's first president, Franjo Tudjman. Despite the fact that there are still open issues between Sarajevo and Zagreb, Croatia is now widely perceived in Bosnia as a friendly country.
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