Interview 10 Aug 15

Our Hero, Your Killer: A Sarajevo Story

Public denial of crimes against Serbs by the Bosnian Army in besieged Sarajevo shows that rival interpretations of the wartime past remain hard to reconcile, historian Nicolas Moll tells BIRN.

Denis Dzidic BIRN Sarajevo
Musan Topalovic. Photo: YouTube.

The story of Musan Topalovic, alias Caco, a criminal who became a Bosnian Army brigade commander during the siege of Sarajevo and was later feted as a hero despite his alleged wartime crimes against Serbs, is the subject of Nicolas Moll’s new study, ‘Sarajevo’s Best-Known Public Secret’.

Topalovic’s 10th Mountain Brigade is believed to have killed over 20 civilians, mostly Serbs, and then dumped their bodies in a pit in the Kazani area of Sarajevo.

He was shot dead by police who arrested him during an armed crackdown on criminal gangs in the city in October 1993 and buried in a secret grave, but later exhumed and given a hero’s funeral.

Moll, a citizen of France and Germany who has lived in Sarajevo since 2007, looks at public attitudes towards Kazani and other crimes against Serbs in the Bosnian capital during the war, as well as politicians’ and the media’s role in the debate about whether Topalovic was a hero or a killer.

BIRN: Do you think people’s opinions about Caco and his crimes are a good example of the ‘ours versus theirs’ attitude to victims in Bosnia and Herzegovina today?

Nicolas Moll: Many in Sarajevo don’t want or have difficulties to publicly recognise that crimes have been committed against Serb civilians by the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, or they admit it, but immediately continue with a “but…”, for example: “but the Serbs committed much more crimes”, “but Caco defended our city” or “but he killed not only Serbs”, etc. This refusal to acknowledge “our” crimes, or the will to downplay them, reflects a general tendency which we can find all over Bosnia and Herzegovina.

In the same time, there has been a continuous effort, and this since 1997, by different actors in Sarajevo to criticise this attitude and to recognise these crimes, and in this continuity and strength these efforts are quite remarkable, also compared to other cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. One step in this process was that in January 2013 the municipality of Sarajevo signed an agreement to build a monument in Kazani: this is the first time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and also in the wider region, after the wars of the 1990s that a city officially declared its willingness to build a monument related to crimes committed by its own military forces.

Unfortunately, nothing has been done since two years to implement this agreement, what can be seen as an illustration that the resistances and fears related to the Kazani-topic continue to be very strong.

How important do you think acknowledging crimes against Serbs in Sarajevo would be?

To recognise these crimes also institutionally, for example through a monument, would be important for at least three reasons: as a sign of respect for the victims, as an illustration of the will that Sarajevo is ready to deal honestly with all the dimensions of its past, also the infamous ones, and also as a signal for others that it is possible and necessary to address the past in a self-critical way.

I understand that recognising these crimes is not an easy step, mainly because it collides with the dominating Sarajevo narrative about the heroic defense of the multi-ethnic town where all the perpetrators have been on the other side. Some might also fear that admitting these crimes would only give credit to those Bosnoserb nationalists who try to equalise all crimes. But admitting the crimes against Serbs in Sarajevo does not make the siege of Sarajevo legitimate. And denying or downplaying them will anyway only give arguments to your opponents to say that you want to hide something.

Building a monument in Kazani does not resolve all problems and might also for some have alibi-functions, in order to say that now we have done something and we don’t need to talk about it anymore. But building a monument related to the crimes of Kazani would mean that these crimes would be acknowledged officially, institutionally. Besides that, it would be also very important to create more opportunities for discussion about the committed crimes, so that also younger people in Sarajevo know more about them and have the possibility to discuss about them. Building a monument is not the end of a process, but a step in a wider process.

What role do you think the media played in the debate about Caco and the Kazani killings?

Concerning the process of dealing with Caco and Kazani, the role of media has been crucial, and among all actors they have been so far the strongest advocates against the glorification of Caco and for the recognition of his crimes. This started very early after the war, in 1997 when [Bosnian magazine] Dani disclosed the testimonies about the crimes in Kazani, and since then different media in Sarajevo have regularly brought up this topic and criticised attitudes of denial.

During the war, the role of the Sarajevo media has been much more ambivalent: in this time, they mostly avoided to talk about the crimes committed against Serb civilians within Sarajevo, and when after the death of Caco in October 1993, they started to call Caco a criminal, they nevertheless mainly continued to avoid to talk about specific crimes against Serbs.

Concerning the role of media in general regarding facing the past, I think the case of Kazani shows how important their role can be. But in order that facing the past becomes a comprehensive and deep-going process, it is important that also different other actors contribute to it, like for example victim associations, civil society actors, historians, judicial organs and politicians.

In your study, you say that the court has been working on this case for 20 years, how important is the judicial ending of this process? What do you think can the judiciary do in reconciliation – it is not very successful in the ICTY and Bosnian state court?

For the crimes committed in Kazani, there has been the trial at the military court in 1994 against members of the 10th Mountain Brigade commanded by Caco, and then after the war several other trials against individual members of the brigade in front of the Cantonal Court of Sarajevo. I am not sure if there should be a judicial ending concerning murder and war crimes. Of course, it would be important to find a definitive judgment concerning Samir Bejtic, whose trial is now lasting for more than ten years. But if in the next years some new evidence is found about the involvement of somebody else in the crimes of Kazani, then there should be another trial against this/these persons.

Concerning reconciliation: I don’t think the main task of any court should be to achieve reconciliation. The main task of a court is to establish criminal responsibility. I think courts are a very important element for processes of facing the past: Not only because they are there to clarify criminal responsibility, but also because, through their work, they contribute to establish facts about crimes and also to public debates about the past. And this is already a lot. All these are important preconditions for reconciliation processes, but to think that courts should directly contribute to reconciliation is to overload them with too much expectations.

As a foreigner living here in Bosnia and Herzegovina, do you think that this glorification of one’s own victims and denial of others’ is something specific to this region, or have you encountered it in other places?

The focus of a society or a group on one’s own heroes and victims and the neglecting of own perpetrators and other victims is nothing specific to this region. I think that in every post-conflict society, this is at first – and often for a long time - the general and dominating tendency.

In France for example, after the Second World War, the dominating narrative focused on fighters and victims of the resistance movement, and neglected the victims of the Holocaust and the fact that the French state had actively participated in the deportation of Jews to the death camps. It took several decades, and foremost the commitment of perseverant individuals - historians, filmmakers, civil society actors, journalists, politicians - to question this attitude and to modify the dominating narrative.

In the different successor-states of Yugoslavia, we have very strong attitudes of denial, but what I find interesting and encouraging is that there are also many actors, on various levels, who question these attitudes of denial and/or who try to bring into dialogue different historical narratives: various NGOs in Bosnia and Herzegovina but also elsewhere, as for example Documenta in Croatia, Women in Black in Serbia, the Humanitarian Law Centre in Serbia and Kosovo, the Youth Initiative for Human Rights and Euroclio in the whole region.

There are also very committed individuals who outside of formal structures do question existing selective attitudes, as for example the persons gathered in the informal initiative Jer me se tice (Because izt Concerns Me) which is addressing questions of denial in different parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

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