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Elusive Truth Begins to Surface as Bosnia Licks Its Wounds

Guilt: Each group--Serb, Croat, Muslim--had believed itself the victim, not the perpetrator, of atrocities. But nuances of reality are undercutting myths.

April 26, 1998|MARK J. PORUBCANSKY | ASSOCIATED PRESS

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — The memory of the dozens of innocents he killed keeps Miro Bajramovic, a Croat, awake nights. A Sarajevo woman is ashamed of the blood spilled by Muslims. Serbs confess to murdering and dismembering victims.

More than two years after the fighting stopped, a more subtle and truer picture is starting to replace the sanitized versions of events that people on all sides were fed during the wars that broke up Yugoslavia.

Serbs, Croats and Muslims long believed that the people on their sides were only the victims of murder, rape and ethnic purges, not perpetrators.

But a string of revelations--a result of independent journalism, outside pressure and the toll of time on the human psyche--is challenging that belief. They are forcing people in all camps to look again at what their sides did.

The process has just begun, and the result is hard to judge. Denial and resistance run deep, especially within ruling elites. Leaders like Serbia's Slobodan Milosevic and Croatia's Franjo Tudjman, who were in charge during the war, still control the news media in those countries and are not inclined to preside over a broad rethinking of the war's conduct.

The question now is whether they can keep the genie in the bottle. If they cannot, people in the former Yugoslavia might be able to begin putting to rest decades of suspicions, creating a greater chance that they can live in peace with each other and their neighbors.

Despite the official reluctance to delve into the war, Croatian sociologist Vesna Pusic sees signs of catharsis for Croats in Bajramovic's confessions and in society's unease with other men whispered to have done terrible things.

Serbian psychologist Jelena Vlajkovic said lurid tales told by Slobodan Misic and another former Serb soldier "have definitely broken the illusion of some Serbs who thought of themselves as innocent victims."

But the biggest shock so far has been for Muslim-dominated Sarajevo. The deaths of more than 10,000 people in 3 1/2 years of siege had left residents with a self-image of righteous victims.

Now, news magazines that muted their criticism of events inside the city during the war are revealing how Sarajevo criminals who fought off Serb attacks on the front lines also took advantage of the chaos to rob, torture and murder people.

Separately, a book by Sarajevo's first military chief of staff claims that soldiers of Bosnia's Muslim-led government slaughtered dozens of Croat villagers in southwestern Bosnia in 1993.

Such reports "shook everything I stood on," said Aida Hadzialic, who heads a Sarajevo construction company's legal department. "I can't believe this was happening around me, that I didn't know about it, and didn't do anything. I'm so ashamed."

Muslim warlord Musan Topalovic, alias "Caco," and some members of his 10th Mountain Brigade primarily victimized Serbs in Sarajevo, but they attacked prosperous Muslims and Croats too. They killed at least 30 people in 1992-93. The remains of their victims were strewn along the front line, and the true number probably never will be known.

Sarajevo courts tried 14 members of Caco's brigade in 1994. Three were ordered into psychiatric treatment, four were convicted and given prison terms and the rest were sentenced to time already served.

Documents from those trials, which were kept secret until recently, detail how Caco's men slaughtered a Serb couple, Vasilj and Ana Lavrov. Vasilj's throat was slit; his wife's head was severed with a single blow of a foot-long knife, and her remains pushed over a hill on the front line.

Even though few people question the personal integrity of Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, they do wonder how close the warlords' connections reached to him, how exactly Caco died after he was arrested, and why the courts handled others so gingerly.

At the same time, men like Bajramovic in Croatia and Misic in Serbia are coming forward. Of the 70 suspects publicly indicted by the international war crimes tribunal seated at The Hague, Netherlands, 55 are Serbs, 19 are Croats and three are Muslims.

Bajramovic and Misic have been arrested by their governments. Bajramovic was among nine men charged by Croatia with unlawful arrest, extortion, attempted murder and murder. But the Hague tribunal so far has not requested extradition.

Serbs, first in Croatia in 1991 and then in Bosnia in 1992-95, were frightened by Serbian propaganda into believing they must kill or be killed.

Croats, meanwhile, saw themselves as victims of a Serb land grab. But Bajramovic jolted Croatia by revealing how in 1991 his unit entered villages and killed Serbs and tortured and executed prisoners.

In the Feral Tribune weekly, he described the "best" torture techniques:

* "You burn the prisoner with a gas flame, and then pour vinegar over his wounds, and you concentrate on his genitals and eyes."

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