Fate Unknown: The Long Search For Sarajevo’s Missing Serbs – Analysis


By Zdravko Ljubas

For 27 years, Milan Mandic has been looking for his father – one of several thousand Serbs who died or went missing in the besieged Bosnian capital during the war, some of whose bodies were hidden in mass graves or dumped in a ravine.

“I’m still looking for my father’s remains, 27 years after he was killed. The last time I talked to him was over the phone on June 24, 1992. Two days later I called again. No one answered the phone,” Milan Mandic, a pre-war resident of Sarajevo, told BIRN.

The war came to Sarajevo in early April 1992, after Bosnian Serb troops, helped by the former Yugoslav People’s Army, started surrounding the city, following a referendum on February 29, 1992 to declare the country’s independence from the Yugoslav Federation.

Nearly 100,000 people were killed in the war – more than 11,000 of them in besieged Sarajevo.

Before the war broke out in 1992, Sarajevo-born Mandic, a Serb, worked as a communications technician at the main post office in the city. The beginning of war did not scare him out of the city, so he continued working until he was injured in late April 1992. He was transported by helicopter to a hospital in Pale, a wartime Bosnian Serb stronghold.

“I was alone there. My wife and two children, as well as my parents, were still in Sarajevo. I thought the shooting would stop soon, but very soon I realised it would not, so I decided to get my wife and children out of the city,” he said.

But his parents were convinced that no one would take action against them because they were elderly.

“They were wrong. My mother was detained and taken to the nearby Dobrinja neighbourhood, controlled by Bosnian Muslim troops. For some two weeks, she was kept in a basement of what used to be a bank,” he said.

The basement’s floor, as his mother later told him, was covered with wooden palettes, under which water was poured so that none of the inmates, around 35 of them, could sit or lie on the ground.

His mother was then transferred to the former military barracks in Sarajevo, known as Viktor Bubanj, which served throughout the war as a court and a detention facility under control of the Bosniak-dominated Bosnian Army.

She was then handed over to Bosnian Serb troops and free as part of a prisoner exchange, but Mandic’s father, who was an invalid, remained at home alone. After June 24, 1992, he didn’t answer the phone again.

“I was told a Muslim army sniper killed my father. His body was, allegedly, left for several days, after which some Serbs, forced to dig trenches with a [detainee] work unit, covered his body with the soil from the trenches,” said Mandic. In 1996, the body was reburied in another, as yet unknown location, he added.

Mandic’s case is one of thousands in the city that endured a 43-month-long siege by Bosnian Serb troops, with almost constant shelling, power and water supply cuts, and a severe lack of food.

According to the Sarajevo-based Investigation and Documentation Centre, a total of 3,300 Serbs were killed in Sarajevo, including some 1,100 in the part of the city which was under siege by Bosnian Serb troops, and 2,200 in the parts of city controlled by Serbs. Most died as a result of shelling and sniping by the Bosnian Serb forces that encircled the city, although some were targeted because of their ethnicity.

The Bosnian Serb authorities in Banja Luka claim far more Serb civilians in Sarajevo were killed, with the number exceeding 6,000, although this figure includes the wider region around the city.

This disagreement over the death toll, however, does not detract from the pain of people like Mandic, whose loved ones are still among thousands of Bosnians who are still on the missing persons list more than two decades later.

Bodies dumped in a ravine

It is believed that the bodies of some 150 Serbs from Sarajevo, as well as non-Serbs who tried to protect them, were thrown into a ravine known as Kazani at the foot of Mount Trebevic on the eastern side of the city.

Svetozar Pudaric, the former vice-president of the country’s Bosniak- and Croat-dominated Federation entity, an ethnic Serb himself, was one of the first officials who asked for a memorial to be built to mark the Kazani site.

While not trying to justify the crimes, Pudaric explained that the situation at the outset of the war was chaotic.

“Some defence troops, at the early, disorganised stage of the war, were pre-war criminals, gangs, those who were armed even before the start of the war,” he said.

He remembered many cases of people who were ousted from their apartments so that “local ‘sheriffs’ could take those flats for themselves or their families”.

He insisted however that the Bosniak-dominated wartime authorities in Sarajevo, unlike the Bosnian Serb authorities in Republika Srpska at the time, were not involved in ordering or organising the crimes against ethnic Serbs in Sarajevo.

But he admitted that the Sarajevo authorities, especially at the beginning of the war, were not able to control the various armed groups that emerged to defend the city – although he argued that they should have done more to prosecute those responsible for the crimes against non-Bosniaks, mostly Serbs.

One of the cases that shows the inefficiency or unwillingness of Sarajevo’s wartime authorities to investigate crimes and punish the perpetrators was the murder of the Ristovic family, who were killed while having lunch at home in city’s Velesici settlement on July 8, 1992.

A group of armed men shot and killed Petar Ristovic, his sister Bosiljka, brother Obren, mother Radosava and cousins Mila and Danilo. Danilo was only 14, and had reportedly only come to the house to bring his cousins some fresh bread. The news spread through the city at the time by word of mouth.

Two days later, local media published only a statement by the Defence Ministry and the headquarters of the Bosnian Army saying that three unidentified perpetrators committed homicide. The perpetrators were never identified or prosecuted.

“Why that murder was not solved? It did not happen during the night and somewhere secluded, and they knew who did it,” said Svetozar Pudaric.

That was not the only case in which an entire Serb family was killed during this time of anarchy in 1992, remembers Djuro Kozar, a prominent journalist from Sarajevo.

In a recent article, Kozar cited the cases of the Elek and Krajisnik families. Djordje, Bozidar and Ljubica Elek were executed in their home in the Pofalici settlement on May 16, 1992.

At the same time, according to reports, many Serbs from the same neighbourhood were taken to the Viktor Bubanj detention facility; some are still missing.

Another massacre occurred in November 1992, in the Buljakov Potok neighbourhood, where Janja Krajisnik (55) was killed, as well as her twin children Boro and Borka (both 27), while her youngest son Nenad, who was just a little boy, survived. The killer allegedly fled to Germany.

Troops ‘out of control’

The Kazani case, however, best highlighted the inability or unwillingness of the authorities to deal with the violent lawlessness in Sarajevo.

In 1992, Musan ‘Caco’ Topalovic, commander of the 10th Mountain Brigade of the First Corps of the Bosnian Army, was a law unto himself.

Caco’s militia operated in parts of Sarajevo’s Old Town, where the unit’s headquarters was, and in downtown Sarajevo, seizing not only Serbs and Croats, but also soldiers from other units to take them to dig trenches on the front lines on Mount Trebevic. His unit would bring its victims to Kazani to kill them.

When the authorities called on him to surrender, Caco refused to obey, and detained and killed the police officers who were sent to arrest him. But in a police operation in October 1993, Caco was arrested and then killed while allegedly trying to escape from a police van.

Near the end of the 1992-95 war, a total of 14 members of Caco’s unit were accused and prosecuted – not for the Kazani killings, but for aiding the crimes and not reporting them.

They were sentenced to total of 37 years in prison, but none of them actually served their sentences. There is no a single record that any of them ever expressed remorse for the crimes at Kazani.

Meanwhile Samir Bejtic, a former member of the Bosnian Army’s Tenth Mountain Brigade, was arrested after the war in Germany and transferred to Bosnia. His trial for the Kazani crimes has continued for 15 years so far, after the case was returned to the Cantonal Court in Sarajevo for a fourth time. The proceedings have already gone on for longer than his original, first-instance sentence of 14 years in jail.

Such stories do not encourage Serbs to consider returning to the city to live in their pre-war homes.

Milan Mandic, for example, now lives in a refugee settlement in East Sarajevo, the part of the capital that is under Bosnian Serb control, just a few kilometres from his old home in the city centre.

Search continues for mass graves

The Mandic family house still stands in the Novi Grad municipality in Sarajevo, a few hundred metres away from the spot at which Milan’s father was killed back in 1992.

Milan Mandic also owned an apartment in the city centre, but said he decided to sell it after he heard that Serbs were being threatened with death.

Mandic now heads a local organisation, the Association of Families of Missing Persons of the Sarajevo-Romanija Region, representing Serbs who are still looking for missing family members who were killed during wartime and buried secretly at sites like Kazani.

Three exhumations have been carried out since the end of the war at the Kazani ravine, which is some 30 metres deep and 70 metres wide. The remains of 21 people have been found, and 16 of them identified so far. Bosnia’s Missing Persons Institute said that no further exhumations are planned at the site because it has no information about more potential graves there.

But Kazani is not the only mass grave in Sarajevo, claimed Mandic: “We are sure there are several mass graves with Sarajevo’s non-Bosniak population, mostly Serbs, but there are so many difficulties in actually probing those places,” he said.

One of the sites he mentioned is at Sarajevo’s municipal dump in the Novi Grad municipality. A search at the dump in 2013 turned up the remains of a Bosniak man whose corpse had been moved there after initially being buried in the grounds of a psychiatric hospital in Sokolac, some 50 kilometres away.

No further excavations are currently planned at the dump. “For now, we have no new information based on which we would conduct a new search at the site,” said the Missing Persons Institute.

Another mass grave, Mandic said, is believed to be in a field next to the state radio and TV building, also in the Novi Grad municipality.

“We believe a few dozen people might be there. They were, allegedly, first buried then covered with a crushed-up old van from the city’s transportation company, then covered with soil and grass,” said Mandic.

The Missing Persons Institute said this site was searched in 2012, 2013 and 2018. The first exhumation turned up the remains of a Serb man; the second revealed “bone fragments of human origin”, said the Missing Persons Institute. The third only produced a single bone, but it was not possible to tell whether it was human or animal.

The Missing Persons Institute asked the Bosnian state prosecutor in April to be allowed to hold a fourth exhumation at the site, but it is still waiting for the prosecutor’s decision.

Hope never dies

Mandic still hopes he may one day find his father’s remains, nearly 30 years after he was killed.

“I’m not actually sure where his body could be. There is also another possibility – that he was buried somewhere near our family house, where many new buildings were built after the war, so his remains may even be under some of those buildings, so it would be impossible to ever recover them,” he said.

Mandic, however, is not angry or vengeful. Neither does he blame Sarajevo, which he said was always “my city”.

“It changed a lot, it is not the same anymore, but it’s still mine,” he said. The war ruined the city’s spirit, he believes – but that did not prevent him from educating his two daughters in Sarajevo.

“They successfully completed their studies in Sarajevo, but they know, because of the nationalism that did not die, that they still face some stupid problems. Although they obtained their diplomas, they cannot find proper jobs in Sarajevo because they are Serbs. At the same time, they cannot find jobs in [Serb-dominated] East Sarajevo because, as they told them, they finished [studies at] faculties in Sarajevo, so they should look for jobs there,” he added.

Despite what happened to his father, Mandic said he refuses to hate.

“I raised my children not to hate anyone, just like my parents taught me. Some of their best friends today are Bosniaks,” he said.

Unfortunately, he continued, politicians in Bosnia and Herzegovina are still trying to keep people of different ethnicities in fear of each other to maintain their hold on power.

“They should just let this distressed people live and work in peace, with no fears, and it would be better for everyone,” he urged.

“We who lost our dearest ones all suffer in the same way, as crimes, grief and pain have no nationality.”

This article was produced as part of BIRN’s Balkan Transitional Justice grant scheme, supported by the European Commission.

Balkan Insight

The Balkan Insight (formerly the Balkin Investigative Reporting Network, BIRN) is a close group of editors and trainers that enables journalists in the region to produce in-depth analytical and investigative journalism on complex political, economic and social themes. BIRN emerged from the Balkan programme of the Institute for War & Peace Reporting, IWPR, in 2005. The original IWPR Balkans team was mandated to localise that programme and make it sustainable, in light of changing realities in the region and the maturity of the IWPR intervention. Since then, its work in publishing, media training and public debate activities has become synonymous with quality, reliability and impartiality. A fully-independent and local network, it is now developing as an efficient and self-sustainable regional institution to enhance the capacity for journalism that pushes for public debate on European-oriented political and economic reform.

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