The International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals in the Hague has finally passed a second-instance verdict sentencing RS Army General Ratko Mladic to life in prison for genocide in Srebrenica, persecution of Bosniaks and Croats, terrorizing Sarajevo citizens and taking UN staff hostage. On the eve of the passing of the verdict, the President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vucic, announced a “difficult day for the Serbian people”. However, this verdict was readily received by a wide range of regime media. The emphasis was mainly on the acquittal of Mladic of the charges of genocide in six Bosnian municipalities during 1992, as well as on the dissenting opinion of one judge of the Appeals Chamber. The most radical media published front page headlines such as: “[Mladic] a hero and a martyr” (Kurir), “Mladic – forever a Serbian hero” (Informer), “Life sentence – they didn’t even read the complaints” (Novosti). Prime Minister Brnabic, Vojislav Seselj, SPS and Dveri agreed that this is a political and anti-Serbian court, as well as that “their verdicts are increasingly moving us away from reconciliation in the region.” These are expected reactions which obscure the facts.
Unintentionally, the final verdict against Mladic coincided with another verdict, which is the result of one woman’s legal struggle for her own yard, a yard which embodies the aftermath of the recent war, the horrible legacy of not only General Mladic, but also all the assistance he had from the state and Serbian Orthodox Church. I am talking about the decades-long struggle of Fata Orlovic from Konjevic Polje near Srebrenica, which symbolizes the life of Muslims in Eastern Bosnia from the beginning of the war in 1991 until today. Namely, her husband, together with 20 other relatives, was killed in the genocide in Srebrenica in 1995, and the fate of their property (house, garden, several agricultural buildings, fields and meadows) shows how the mechanism of “deep” cleansing of the terrain, which the Serbian side employed in the war, worked. After the genocide, Republika Srpska passed the Law on the Use of Abandoned Property, which legalized the seizure of everything that once belonged to the Bosniaks killed or expelled from the territory of that Bosnian entity. According to that law, the property of the Orlovic family was confiscated and given to the Church Municipality of Drinjaca, which came up with the “genius” idea to build a place of worship in the yard of the emptied house.
When Fata Orlovic returned to Konjevic Polje together with other returnees after the war, she found an active Orthodox church in her yard. That is when her fight for the repossession of her property began, and that journey lasted over 20 years. In order for all this to be possible at all, Republika Srpska first had to annul the disputed Law on the Use of Abandoned Property in accordance with Annex 7 of the Dayton Agreement, but, despite that, this returnee could not get her property back. This is why she started the fight for justice, which seemed unattainable. And so, while the legal teams of Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, and later Ratko Mladic, with the wholehearted support of the majority of Serbian intellectuals and writers, were trying to prove in The Hague that there was no genocide, persecution or ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, Fata Orlovic progressed step by step in the process of taking back her house and yard, which were confiscated due to precisely the events these legal teams denied. Thus, this small, lonely process was set as a counterweight to the overall effort of the Serbian political, cultural, and legal elite to deny the war and war crimes on the territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Fata Orlovic started her fight for the return of her property and the relocation of the Orthodox church from her yard in the institutions of the Bratunac judiciary, which proved to be an impossible mission. The local Orthodox community couldn’t find an appropriate plot to move the church to, arguing that the best and only place for it is in Fata Orlovic’s yard. The controversial Bishop Kacavenda, holder of the highest honors in Republika Srpska, who was fired after years of public pressure due to accusations of pedophilia and abuse of children, occasionally served in that church. Fata Orlovic did not give up, which is why she was sentenced in 2009 by a court in Bijeljina to 30 days in prison, and one year suspended sentence, for “disturbing a religious rite and causing national, racial, and religious hatred”. It was a clear message from RS authorities to Bosniak returnees that they will not get back their property that easily and that they will have to live with pressures, torture and daily humiliation.
Therefore, the trial against the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina went beyond the framework of national justice and reached the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, which, in October 2019, determined that “B&H authorities failed to comply with the final and binding decisions of 1999 and 2001, in which the right to repossession of the property in question to the applicant was established’. Therefore, a violation of the right to property from Article 1 of Protocol No. 1 of the European Convention was established, and a three-month deadline for execution of the verdict was set, i.e. for the church to be removed from Mrs. Orlovic’s property. The relocation of the church, however, lasted 18 months.
“It’s all legally yours and still you have to fight for twenty years. And you know how it is once you get it. And here, I will tell you, I think it’s important. It is good for them and for us to calm down, because the church has never been, nor should ever be, in anyone’s yard. If somebody needs it, let them take it to their yard, I am not against it,” Fata Orlovic told the media after the verdict of the European Court. These words of hers carry more weight and meaning than the entire court archive in The Hague. Finally, the removal of the illegal church building began two days before the final verdict against Ratko Mladic. Although she’s waited for it for more than 20 years, it was a difficult day for Fata Orlovic. She drank her coffee and planted flowers in the place where the church stood. The next day, exhausted, she ended up at the Clinic for Lung Diseases in Tuzla. Today, she is stable and under constant medical supervision.
However, the reaction of the public in RS, which saw this act as “demolition of holy sites”, as well as the congratulations of some Belgrade intellectuals to Republika Srpska, after the verdict against Mladic, on “only one genocide, the one in Srebrenica”, are discouraging. Back in 1995, they were encouraged to “raise their heads high” and look at the newly opened churches, just as they are encouraged today to ignore the past and look at the new factories. Between these propagandistic mantras, the history of one woman remains – Fata Orlovic from Konjevic Polje who showed us, with her Gandhian struggle, what the real life of Bosniak returnees to RS looks like.
Translated by Marijana Simic