Analysis 09 Apr 08

Serbs Quibble Over Monument to Strpci Victims

The row over a monument to 18 Sandzak Muslims abducted and killed in 1993 reflects wider failure to grant justice to victims’ families.

By Zoran Maksimovic in Novi Pazar

Fifteen years after the abduction of 18 Muslim Bosniaks and a Croat from Serbia and Montenegro at a railway station in neighbouring Bosnia and their subsequent brutal murder, plans to commemorate their deaths with a monument have been put on hold.

Only days after the start of construction in the Serbian border town of Prijepolje, which was home to several of the victims, work on the monument to the 19 men has been halted by complaints.

Serbian paramilitaries, the Avengers, abducted the 19 passengers from a Belgrade - Bar train on February 27, 1993 at the town of Strpci (BIH), took them to a village near Visegrad, in Bosnia and killed them.

So far only Nebojsa Ranisavljevic, a member of a Serb paramilitary organization operating in the border areas between FRY and Bosnia-Herzegovina, has been brought to justice. The other killers remain at large.

Following a four-year trial in Bijelo Polje in neighbouring Montenegro, home to 10 of the victims, which ended in 2002 Ranisavljevic was sentenced to 15 years’ jail for "war crimes against the civilian population" for his role in the hijacking of the Belgrade-Bar train at Strpci and the abduction and subsequent murder of 19 civilian passengers.

Ranisavljevic was member of the unit under the command of Milan Lukic, who was arrested in Argentina in August 2005 and extradited to the UN war crimes court in the Hague in February 2006. He is charged with exterminations and persecutions committed in Visegrad in 1992 and will go on trial later this year. However, the Strpci case is not included in the indictment.

The delay to the work on the monument in Prijepolje follows complaints by local representatives of five Serbian parties, the Democratic Party of Serbia, Serbian Radical Party, New Serbia Social Democrats and the Socialist Party of Serbia.

They have demanded that the Bosniak mayor of the town, Nedzad Turkovic, halt the construction on the grounds that the project commemorates all 19 murdered passengers - when only some of them came from Prijepolje.

“By building a monument to all the murdered passengers…those behind the scheme are indirectly laying blame for this crime on our town and its citizens,” they said in a statement.

Turkovic has dismissed the Serbs’ complaints, saying all the details of the project were being executed in accordance with the council’s decision, including its location and the text on the memorial plaque.

“No one needs a discussion on this when the whole country is in a difficult position ... and at a time when good inter-ethnic relations could easily deteriorate,” Turkovic warned.

But the complaints have added yet another delay to the drawn-out struggle to commemorate the victims’ suffering, at a time when their families feel justice has yet to be done.

The rows come ahead of May 11 local and parliamentary elections in Serbia, which will see nationalist apologists for the wars of the 1990s and moderates fighting hard for control of the reins.

Some local analysts say that at a time when many Serbs have failed to confront the truth about the ethnic wars of the 1990s, the current arguments about the construction of the monument in Prijepolje are a bad sign.

Semiha Kacar, president of the Committee for Protection of Human Rights and Freedoms in Sandzak – the mainly Bosniak areas straddling Serbia and Montenegro – said it would be “inadmissible” for the planned monument to feature only the names of victims from one municipality.

“The victims must not be divided by birthplace, or by the towns in which they lived; they must not be made into objects of bargaining and separation,” Kacar told Balkan Insight. “Such division would be akin to minimizing the crime.”

Almir Mehonic who initiated the project to mark the anniversary of the abduction, said “not a single [other] monument in the world separates the victims [in this way].”

Mehonic said some local Serbs wanted to stop the project, or water it down, because it represented a “thorn in the side” of Serbian nationalism.

“First they were bothered by its location, then by the message on the monument, then by its shape and then by the number of victims,” he said. “What they are really bothered by is the monument itself,” he added.

Rights activists agree that disagreements over - and opposition to - the construction of the monument reflect a wider failure by the authorities in Serbia to grant true justice to the victims’ families.

Natasa Kandic, director of the Belgrade-based Centre for Humanitarian Law, said elements in the Serbian police and security services clearly knew the abduction was going to take place and took no preventive action

“Who knows how many more perpetrators of this crime are walking around free,” she asked.

“It’s obvious that both they and others who knew the abduction would take place - and did nothing to prevent it – haven’t been brought before the courts,” Kandic added.

Velija Muric, lawyer for the families of the victims, said the Strpci case was far from over.

“Everyone knows… who gave the order and who the executioners were and all of them are free, while the bodies of the abducted and murdered still haven't been found,” he said.

“It’s necessary to look truth in the eye, name the criminals and bring them to justice”.

Zoran Maksimovic is a freelance journalist from Novi Pazar. Balkan Insight is BIRN`s online publication.

This article is part of BIRN Serbia`s minority media training and reporting project, supported by the British Embassy in Belgrade.

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