Zagreb, April 15, 2023, photo: Centre for Women War Victims
Zagreb, April 15, 2023, photo: Centre for Women War Victims

On this day 30 years ago, one of the cruelest war crimes in the territory of the former Yugoslavia was committed in Ahmici near Vitez. In the early morning hours of April 16, 1993, local Croatian Defence Council units launched an attack on the village. The International Criminal Court for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague found that 116 women, men, and children were killed in Ahmici, 24 were wounded, and 169 houses and two mosques were destroyed.

As written by the late journalist of Borba and founder of SENSE news agency, Mirko Klarin: “After the massacre in Ahmici on April 16, 1993, the political and military leadership of the Bosnian Croats presented a whole range of theories and (im)possible explanations to international representatives – from the crime being provoked by a mysterious Englishman to it being committed by Serbs, and even by Muslims disguised in uniforms of the Croatian Defense Council. The cover-up continued even after the war, specifically from November 1995, when the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia indicted those responsible for the crime in Ahmici. The Croatian authorities did, in fact, force the accused to surrender voluntarily, but at the same time took steps to ensure that evidence that would contribute to uncovering the truth about Ahmici did not reach The Hague alongside Blaskic, Kordic, and other accused. Archives were moved to places inaccessible to investigators before their arrival and thoroughly cleaned of compromising documents.”

This year, ahead of the anniversary of the crimes committed in Ahmici, activists from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina gathered once more to say “Not in our name” and advocate for a policy that doesn’t hide its own mistakes and takes responsibility for remembering crimes, especially when the facts about the victims have been established by international and domestic courts.

They warned that today, the silence of politicians contributes to the creation of a flood of non-recognition that can drown the possibility of building trust and ultimately reconciliation. When politicians don’t speak up, it creates the impression that the lives of murdered children and women aren’t worth mentioning.

Unfortunately, today there are no breakthroughs towards respecting the dignity of victims, like the visits of then-President Ivo Josipovic, who commemorated the victims in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and his joint visit with then-President Tadic to Vukovar and Paulin Dvor. While there were very important joint commemorations within Croatia in Varivode, Grubori, and Skabrnja by Prime Minister Plenkovic and ministers, it seems that the process of reconciliation at the high political level has stalled. Regular reminders to the public about the need to acknowledge the suffering of victims are necessary. Apologies from former presidents were not enough. It’s worrying that recognition of the suffering of those killed by members of the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) and Croatian Army (HV) hasn’t become a part of Croatia’s policy towards Bosnia and Herzegovina.

To ensure that the stalled process of reconciliation continues, the President and the Prime Minister of Croatia have been called upon to publicly distance themselves once again from war crimes committed in our name. There have also been calls for one of the squares or streets in Zagreb to be named after the Ahmici victims in memory of one of the greatest war crimes in the wars in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1991 to 1995.

In Croatia, there is rarely a self-critical assessment of the complexity of this war. The war was not just a defense of one’s own home, as simplified in the Declaration of the Homeland War adopted by the Croatian Parliament in October 2000. Today, there are few voices in politics like Vesna Pusic, who systematically advocated for clear distancing from Franjo Tudjman’s misguided policies towards Bosnia and Herzegovina, which were also marked by war crimes. Although Presidents Mesic and Josipovic apologized for the crimes, and President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic laid a wreath on the monument in Ahmici, it is necessary to consistently take and reinforce the stance towards atrocities, especially when civilians are killed in crimes. Especially when women and children are killed.

In Ahmici, the killers wanted to intimidate all the villagers. But people returned. They rebuilt their houses. They rebuilt the destroyed mosques and erected a monument. Today, they mourn their dead but have turned to their everyday tasks, building a mosaic of everyday life in Central Bosnia, where people of different nationalities and religions continue to live side by side.

Sometimes they mourn their dead together. On this day thirty years ago, in the village of Trusina, on April 16, 1993, nineteen civilians and three captured members of the Croatian Defense Council were killed in the morning hours. Several members of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina were sentenced for this war crime by the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In a now-deserted place, about twenty kilometers from Konjic, the silence is only interrupted by occasional visits and the laying of flowers in memory of those killed. Dragica Tomic from the Association of Families of Fallen, Deceased, and Missing Croatian Defenders in the Homeland War in Konjic takes care of the commemorations and extends a hand to people who recognize the suffering of all victims.

Little is known about the culture of remembrance that is being built in neighboring Bosnia and Herzegovina through joint visits to places of suffering by civil initiatives such as the Center for Nonviolent Action and associations of veterans, and camp detainees from different sides of the war. The valuable initiative of marking unmarked places of suffering has brought information about mass graves and places of suffering to many people in the vicinity of where they live, and for some of the survivors, comforting knowledge that someone else sees and knows about their suffering. Those who remember learn from each other how to be better people.

In Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, and other post-Yugoslav countries, the space for self-critical reflection on the crimes committed in our name, in the name of the newborn states, is only just being built. More than 130,000 people, their families, and loved ones paid too high a price. State institutions created after the breakup of Yugoslavia in 1991 did not prepare memory books in which all their names and surnames would be recorded, along with brief notes about their lives and circumstances of their suffering, and the leaders of the states only occasionally devote some of their attention to those killed on the other side of the wars. Although the steps that statesmen have taken are very valuable, the preparation of permanent records, such as books of the dead, remains in the domain of civil initiatives and artistic expression.

Yesterday, the “Not in Our Name” initiative reminded the public of the crime in Ahmici with an action in Ban Jelacic Square in Zagreb and in a conversation at Dokukino after the screening of film clips prepared by SENSE – Center for Transitional Justice. Valuable reflections on how to present crimes to the public, especially to young people, were offered by professors who are in daily contact with students and pupils.

Nadezda Cacinovic, a professor of philosophy at the University of Zagreb, wondered: “Can people really start thinking about what happened? It is not easy to find the right kind of representation of the crime. In the public eye, the price of state independence is taboo. We have to say what happened. Instead, we embellish and lie. We have to admit it. It is uncomfortable, people do not want to hear it.”

Marko Fucek, a history professor in elementary school, emphasized that: “Expectations of elementary school teachers are often too high. Maybe we can lay the foundations for future thinking, but the community outside the education system has a much greater impact. There are no causes of war in textbooks, and in others, the causes are sanitized and softened. Ahmici is not mentioned by name in any textbook. The generations who are now finishing elementary school were born after the war. If we can encourage them not to accept myths, we have done a lot. Maybe there is still some way to confront the past through learning about crimes, for example, in the case of the Holocaust.”

Ana Raffai, a theologian and German language high school teacher spoke about fears: “People are afraid that if they show empathy to others, nobody will see their pain. They are afraid to step out in front of others. Forgiveness is a risky step, and that is the essence of faith. In Central Bosnia, I teach how to live together, how to accept others after the war.”

We are still burdened by the legacy of unfinished wars and faltering transitions from less to more democracy, which is turning into a culture of lies. In the moral wasteland which is spreading due to the denial of legally established facts, the idea of establishing the Croatian Defence Council Museum exactly in the place of the former Heliodrom camp has emerged. The plan, approved by successive Ministers of Defense of Bosnia and Herzegovina since 2019, is now financially supported by the Croatian Ministry of Veterans. Former camp prisoners and human rights activists have condemned the construction of the museum at the camp site.

The question is how much strength and patience do the generations who lived through the war have for reminding us. The new generations still need to discover information from the dark side of our shared past, which is overshadowed by war crimes.

Nura Pezir, a survivor and witness of the crimes in Ahmici, said while a photo of her son Ahmed, who was killed before her eyes, was shown in court: “Let them see, let them all see, let them see what they did.” Do we see it? Do those who were children then, and adults now, want to see it?

Have they seen the presentation “48 Hours of Ashes and Blood” by SENSE – Center for Transitional Justice? Have they seen the film “Graham and I” by Nenad Puhovski?

Will anyone visit one of the mass graves in Central Bosnia, lay a flower and ask themselves what we need to do in order to regain trust in each other and build peace together?

Vesna Terselic is the director of Documenta – Center for Dealing with the Past. She is a member of the Regional Council of the RECOM network for reconciliation.

DwP, 20.04.2023.

Translated by Luna Djordjevic

Pešč, 24.04.2023.