In late September, an inscription was written on the memorial plaque in Kazani in huge red letters: Caco lives in us 10 br (the “10 br” being the acronym of the 10th Mountain Brigade of the Army of BiH, whose first commander was Musan Topalovic “Caco”). This heinous act of desecration of the already modest symbol of the brutal mass execution of Sarajevo’s Serbs, no matter how morbid it sounds, closed the circle: the homage to the executioner written over the incomplete list of his victims is not only a painful slap in the face for the families of those killed, but also the epilogue of the story of a city that, in the most difficult days of its 1425 days-long siege, had the strength to stop the criminals in its own ranks, only to side with them three decades later.
The Kazani pit
The passage on mount Trebevic became a mass grave for a still undetermined number of mostly non-Bosniaks who were abducted from their homes from the summer of 1992 to October 26, 1993, and then disappeared without a trace. Transcripts from the trial of fourteen persons indicted and convicted of the robberies and murders show that the victims found in and near the Kazani pit were guilty of being of a particular nationality – Serbs and Croats, or were killed because of the greed of the criminals – Bosniak and other victims. The most frequently mentioned number are the 29 killed, that is, the 32 victims, which investigators had revealed to journalists. It was established that the executioners were merciless and after killing them, they threw the victims into a pit, then covered them with lime, some were even burned. This lasted until that famous October day when the state of Bosnia and Herzegovina started an official crackdown on criminals from its own ranks. When the passions ultimately subsided, the exhumations from the infamous pit began. The process was, for reasons never disclosed, halted, and the remains found in 28 bags were buried in a secondary grave, at the back end of the Sarajevo cemetery of St. Josip, near the Kosevo auxiliary football stadium. The military court in Sarajevo sentenced Caca’s subordinates to between 10 months and 10 years in prison, mostly because the murderers and their accomplices defended themselves saying they had merely been following the orders of their superior, but also because the indictment did not charge them with a war crime, or even for first-degree murder, but merely for manslaughter, and most of them were convicted because they did not report the killings to the police, and not for participating in them.
The victims were treated differently even after their death and exhumation. The remains of a HVO (Croatian Defense Council) commander were returned to the family and buried in Sarajevo, others were exchanged posthumously, and from those 28 bags the remains of five women and ten men, aged 27 to 66, who were killed in the Kazani pit were identified. Two victims are Ukrainians, two Croats, one Bosniak and ten Serbs. Among them is the mother of Slobodanka Macanovic. Macanovic was helping the BiH Army to protect the defense lines at the time of her parents’ disappearance on the other side of the city. Marina and Radoslav Komljenac have not been buried even to this day: Radoslav is being searched for, and Slobodanka was given a single bone of her mother’s, by which she was identified, but was asked to return it afterwards. Predrag Salipur was also a soldier of the BiH Army, namely the 10th Mountain Brigade: his loyalty to Sarajevo and his pre-war comrades was rewarded with seven stab wounds to the body and neck, multiple fractures of his arms and legs, and finally decapitation. Of the seven victims found in the surrounding areas of Grm and Malina, five have been identified, and the remaining two are believed to be the brothers Zoran and Miodrag Vucurovic. Seven isolated DNA profiles still await comparison. The process is running sloppily due to the fact that the Commission for Missing Persons of Republika Srpska took over the remains; they do not hide the fact that it has a far greater interest in manipulating the number of victims than in providing closure to the families, whom it resents anyway for remaining in besieged Sarajevo. According to court documents and testimonies, all were killed in the zone of, and by order of, the commander of the 10th Mountain Brigade.
Before the war, Musan Topalovic was a musician, some would even say a popular one, and a defender of the city from the first day of the siege of Sarajevo. He was a member of the Green Berets “Piaf” unit, which was named after the tavern where they used to gather. He belonged to a constellation of popular commanders, known for not hiding their contempt for the former members of the Yugoslav People’s Army due to their reluctance to go to the front lines and confront a much superior military force. They did not think much better of the members of the police either, but they respected – or maybe feared – Vikic’s special forces, an elite police unit that played a key role in the defense of the capital in the first days of the aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina. “Vikic’s boys”, together with military special forces, will go on to play a key role in reinstating the renegade heads of the Ninth Motorized and Tenth Mountain Brigades of the BiH Army, as Ramiz Delalic Celo and Musan Topalovic Caco were publicly qualified on July 1, 1993. When the Mount Trebevic operation began on October 26, Celo surrendered almost immediately. Things were much more difficult with Caco. Nine members of the special forces of the Army and the police were killed while trying to capture the renegade command of the 10th Mountain Brigade, five of whose fighters also perished. Caco took his neighbors hostage in the building where he lived, and when he finally surrendered, the official version says that on the way from the First Corps Command to the prison, he tried to escape and was killed, while his escort was promoted to the rank of Major and awarded with the Golden Lily for his efficient reaction. Caco’s remains were buried under NN/unidentified markings not far from the secondary grave of his victims, but on December 2, 1996, they were exhumed and, with an unprecedented funeral attended by 10,000 people, accompanied to the Kovaci Martyr’s Memorial Cemetery, where he was ultimately buried. While the Green Berets organized this spectacle, the approval was given by the then-President of the Presidency of BiH, Alija Izetbegovic, whom the late General Jovan Divjak asked in a letter to disassociate himself from the event, which he qualified as causing fear among Sarajevo’s non-Bosniaks. Izetbegovic admitted to Divjak that he was surprised by the large turnout of people, but he did not disassociate himself, sticking to his position that Caco is both a hero and a criminal.
Izetbegovic was at the helm of the wartime Presidency of BiH, which ordered the Trebevic 2 operation carried out on October 26, 1993. On that day, more than 250 BiH Army soldiers were detained. The state seemed determined to clean up the criminals from its own ranks, Caco was – truth be told – talked about mostly as a criminal, but his crimes did not remain a secret. The media took care of that: the daily Dani published an entire series dedicated to the Kazani pit, confronting the inhabitants of Sarajevo with the truth about the disappearances of their neighbors. However, apart from General Divjak, who practically initiated Trebevic 2, persisting in the letters in which he informed the Presidency of information he had about the missing Serbs, and a limited number of NGOs, such as UDIK, who insisted on identifying the victims and paying tribute to them, little happened at the official level. Until 2011, when Svetozar Pudaric started going to Kazani and initiated plans for a memorial. The city administration accepted it and Pudaric, who was then SDP’s vice-president of the Federation, also allocated money from his fund for an open contest for a conceptual design. The process was slow, but the competition was nonetheless published. Pudaric died in the meantime, and since misery loves company, Benjamina Karic was elected as mayor of Sarajevo, arbitrarily canceled the contest, and ordered a memorial plaque to be placed with an incomplete list of those killed, refusing to name the criminal who murdered them. The plaque was placed in 2021, and the graffiti that desecrated the plaque this September exposed the mayor’s sins. The populist narrative about needing to preserve the supposed reputation of the BiH Army has put wind in the sails of the radicals who glorify Caco, insult the victims and their families, and degrade the magnificent defense of the besieged city down to the level of those who besieged us. But there is no giving up – this is evidenced by a new initiative in the City Council of Sarajevo, to correct the injustice and the text on the memorial plaque, and to place another one at the St. Josip cemetery. It is the least we can do to commemorate those who shared a life with us under siege and paid for it with their lives. That is the minimum amount of fairness to their families. And that’s a debt we should pay to the Army that defended the besieged city from the likes of Caco as well as from the siege.
Vildana Selimbegovic is the Editor in Chief of the daily newspaper Oslobodjenje.
Tranlated by Bogdan Petrovic