Company of Honest Aggressors
by Vlado Mrkic
Dani, Sarajevo, Federation Bosnia-Hercegovina, B-H, March 3 2000
Ismet Djuheric was the first commander of the unit of the Army of the Republic of Srpska "Mesa Selimovic", whose members were mostly Muslims from the villages in the municipalities of Bosanski Brod and Derventa. This unit of "Muslim Chetniks", as some referred to it, was and until today remains one of the big controversies of the past war. Ismet Djuheric talks to Dani about the events in which he participated and which he witnessed
Today Ismet Djuheric lives with his wife Hanumica in the village of Sijekovac near Bosanski Bord. He and his daughter are employees of the oil refinery in Brod. Discounting several months spent as refugees in the nearby villages of Dubocac and Kobas, the Djuherics are the only Muslim family that has spent the whole war in the village of Sijekovac.
Ismet Djuheric talks to Dani about the events in which he participated and which he witnessed. This article is only a small part of that story, testimony about a tragic time, about the events which could have taken place, it seems to us, only in the boiling Bosnian pot, heated by divisions and hatred of neighbors on the other sides of the Sava and Drina rivers.
BEGINNING OF TROUBLE: Before the war, I worked in the Bosnian Brod City Hall, and had connections with some activities of the authorities and in connection with the authorities. I mention this because it affected my later fate. I've been active in politics, always a leftist, a member of the Communist Party, later of the Communist League. Today, I am a Socialist. I think that is correct. I have always claimed and still think that extremists started this war. They were a tool in the hands of those who came to power after the first multi-party elections, when our misfortune started.
Before the war, I was a reserve officer of the Yugoslav People's Army. I had the rank of captain and was a member of the then 327th Brigade in Derventa. The battalion from Brod was a part of that Brigade. I carried out certain tasks, at the time that was legal; the war hadn't started in this region yet, although I was afraid that it would. My activities in the City Hall were also related with that. Many did not like that, above all extremists, mostly Croats, and then also Muslims. I say Muslims, because that is who I am. I was a Yugoslav, now I am a Muslim [the current official name for Bosnian Muslims is Bosniaks].
After the fall of the YPA barracks in Slavonski Brod [across the river in Croatia] the tensions in this region significantly increased. There were clashes, people were carrying weapons. I was among those who advocated common life, not necessarily brotherhood and unity. Croatia was already a new state. If we need to protect ourselves from someone, I used to say, let us at least protect ourselves together, since we already live together, Serbs, Croats and Muslims. Extremists among Croats and Muslims were against that and I can tell you that both groups tried to convince me to join them. Not because of ideals, but because of interests, since they probably expected that my reputation and my knowledge in connection with my work could have helped their cause.
They said: "Join us, nothing will happen to you". That was evident when they attacked me later. I was attacked by the members of the militia which had been formed in Brod at the start of March 1992 and had exclusively Croat and Muslim members. The first commander of the military police in Bosanski Brod was Josip Bilic. All of them were appointed based on the orders coming from Slavonski Brod. Serbs had already withdrawn to Lijesce.
FIERCE SHOOTING: I was the president of the Local Commune Sijekovac and when some locals approached me to figure out the way to protect ourselves, mostly from criminals, the general attitude was that all of us, Serbs, Muslims and Croats should participate in local sentries. However, the extremists won over in the end and chased away those who wanted to live together. I was immediately fired from the post of the president of the local commune. Actually, I was not fired, but they simply took over.
17 members of the so-called military police participated in a physical attack on myself and my family. They attacked us in our house and demanded that I turn over weapons. They thought that the YPA had stored weapons in my house. I did not have those weapons but I did have my own. They shot first and than demanded that I surrender. The shooting was fierce. That night I talked to General Kukanjac, with the commander of the Brigade in Derventa, with the headquarters in Brod, with the headquarters in Lijesce, and demanded that the attack on me be stopped. I did not want to surrender. My wife, son and daughter, who were minors at the time, were in the house with me. What hurt me the most was that among the attackers were some of my neighbors or their children.
The walls of our house were covered with bullet holes. An intervention to stop these attacks came from the top, but we had no other choice but to leave. That day, there was a burial. An important individual of some sort had died and everyone was at the burial. When we saw that the sentry had left, we somehow got out of Sijekovac and went to my birthplace Dubocac. I got in touch with the garrison and went to Derventa.
HOS ARRIVES: However, the same group which attacked me in Sijekovac, reinforced by a group of HOS soldiers [HOS, or Croatian Defense Forces, was an extreme right (pro-Ustashe) Croatian militia, active both in Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina in 1991 and 1992] under the command of in this region well known Obradovic, attacked and took over Dubovac. Obradovic lived in Slavonski Brod, had a bar there; he was a Serb and hailed from Kraljevo in Serbia, but was still in HOS. After the fall of Dubocac we ran away to the Muslim village of Kobas and that's where my family lived, while I was in Derventa with the Brigade.
A group of 22 HOS soldiers, the so-called Handzars, whose commander was certain Ekrem Mendela, originally from somewhere in central Bosnia, came to Sijekovac from Croatia and set up a camp in containers belonging to a company from Teslic, near my house. They controlled Sijekovac, together with the so-called intervention platoon of Nijaz Causevic from Sijekovac, also known as Medo. Obradovic and Causevic raged in this region with their groups until the liberation of Brod. Obradovic died later; he was killed by his own soldiers, when they were running away from Zboriste; he tried to stop them and one of them killed him.
FOX IN KOBAS: Since then, until the liberation of Brod, I was in Derventa. In August 1992 I formed my own unit within the Army of the Republic of Srpska. Most of its members were Muslims, but there were also a few Serbs and Croats. Its name was the independent Muslim unit "Mesa Selimovic" [famous Bosnia Muslim writer], and it existed within the Army of the Republic of Srpska until the end of the war. It was formed in the village of Kulina near Derventa, in front of the village school. It was named by General Kelecevic, and at the time Colonel and now General Slavko Lisica. I was the first commander of the unit, until January 1993, and after that I left the Army and worked in Brod. The unit had about 120 soldiers, but the number varied from time to time. Therefore, it was the size of a company. It fought in all battles around Brod and Derventa, and also participated in fighting around Teslic, Tesanj, Maglaj and Zavidovici. Its members were to the last honest people, who stayed to live here. This unit did its job honestly. In our opinion we had the right to defend our land, and we did defend our land and property; we stayed there and believed that that was just. And indeed, most of these people until this day live and work here.
How was this unit formed? Let there be no confusion, we volunteered. I wanted to somehow protect people who stayed on their land. We contacted Lisica and he accepted our proposal. At the time he was a colonel, a commander of a tactical group. He came to Kobas, where we had escaped from Dubocac, gathered Muslims and in the yard of the house where I was living, delivered a speech, and promised people that no one was to touch them. Then he said: "If you are willing, I will send you vehicles". There was no force. Later, we gathered in front of the school in Kulina and were thinking about a name for the unit. As far as I remember, I think that Lisica mentioned the name of Mesa Selimovic, and that General Kelecevic accepted. I also liked the name and agreed. I had read Mesa, sometime because his books were a part of the required reading list at school, and sometimes because I liked his books. And that's how it stayed. As a unit we did not do anything bad, let one of our opponents say that is not true. We were visited by foreign journalists, even princess Jelisaveta came to the front to see us. We were visited by British members of the Parliament; they drank coffee with us. We were famous for our culinary skills. As people from the banks of the Sava river, we could prepare really good fish.
AGGRESSORS ON THEIR OWN LAND: What I did, what all of us did, we chose that and are not sorry. I know that Serbs were declared aggressors, but we did not accept that. We were a part of the Army of the Republic of Srpska, we were with our neighbors, there was no one else there; there was no one from Montenegro or Serbia. If they were aggressors, then we were aggressors together with them. And how can I be an aggressor on my own land? I do not understand that. It was a war, there were those who carried weapons and were not mature enough for that; there were all sorts of things and one had to take care of himself and stay on one's own land. Some could not take it and they left, but some did persevere and stayed. Whole Muslim villages stayed. Take, for example, Luzani and Omeragici in the Derventa municipality, complete villages inhabited by Muslims and all of them are still there.
There were many Muslims from Derventa in my company, but also in the rest of the Derventa Brigade. It is impossible to take that at face value, the stuff they said about the aggression. Until May 1992, when those children were killed in Kolibe, 18-year old YPA conscripts, the YPA was a legal military force in this region. Even then it was impossible to talk about aggression. That word was used to pull the International Community on one side in the conflict. And everyone wanted that. I know of cases that all three sides attacked their own villages in order to accuse the other sides and that cannot provide alibi for no one of them. That is the truth. All that was done in order to cause chaos, since people, apart from those extremists, still wanted to stay on their own land and live with their neighbors. Look, they are coming back now.
It is true that many more Muslims were on the other side. But they were not on their own. They fought within HVO. They had to obey orders. Every Muslim unit in HVO had a Croat "advisor", and we all know what that means. I was completely independent, had full trust of my superiors; I had no advisors in my company. That also applies to my successor.
CRIME IN SIJEKOVAC: The crime in Sijekovac took place on March 26 1992. I was at the time in Derventa, in my unit as an operative in the Brigade headquarters. I was the first person in Derventa to receive information about what happened. I know that the then crisis staff of Sijekovac decided to attack and disarm a part of the village; there are written documents about that. That order was signed by Smajo Havic, the then president of the crisis staff in Sijekovac; soon afterwards he resigned, probably after realizing what he had done. Obradovic's HOS troops and Nijaz Causevic Medo's intervention platoon participated in that attack. The members of intervention platoon were extremists from Sijekovac, Muslims and Croats. Eight Serbs were murdered in that attack. They were all innocent people, some of them were even retarded. I got the news in Derventa about the crime from late Miso Bacic; I hope that he will be rehabilitated, since the manner in which he died is shameful for everyone here.
Before the war Muslims held the largest share in the population of Sijekovac, then Serbs and then Croats. If it wasn't for extremists, and criminals, Sijekovac could have kept the status of a neutral village, although at the time it was hard to remain neutral.
This incident was used as an excuse to continue the war and definitely strongly influenced that. That was one of the events which indicated that there was no going back. If it weren't for that crime, many people would not have escaped when we arrived. Many of them did not want to leave, but were afraid of revenge.
PIKLOVIC SHOOTS A MOVIE: HVO [Croatian Defense Council, the "official" Bosnian Croat militia; HVO absorbed HOS members after an unsolved murder of their leader in Hercegovina] was in charge in this region. For example, 102nd Brigade from Bosanski Brod had a battalion from Sijekovac; Adnan Ramadanovic (killed later by his neighbors) was the commander of the battalion. He was the first commander of military police in Sijekovac, at the beginning of March 1992. All orders came from HVO. Ivan Brzic was the president of the crisis staff, Armin Pohara was some sort of his top executor, but all orders came from Slavonski Brod. There is a movie, filmed by the people from HVO, which shows how villages were burned down after Serbs had withdrawn, starting with Lijesce and so on. Piklovic personally went in a car and watched as these villages were set on fire; the film was shot from his car and he was at the time the president of the executive council of the Slavonski Brod Municipality. I think that Tudmanpersonally gave free hand to Ante Prkacin to do as he pleased in Posavina. HVO burnt down all Serb villages towards Doboj. That was probably done to prevent Muslims from Kotorsko and Modrica to more into those Serbs villages and change the ethnic composition of the population in the region.
There are documents, with names, that show that members of the so-called Sijekovac battalion, a lot of them Muslims, were paid from Croatia. In that case, who was the aggressor? Several formations of the Croatian Army fought in this region. One of them was the 108th Brigade, the first brigade of the Croatian Army, which, as they say, liberated the YPA barracks in Slavonski Brod. It experienced a debacle in Kostres and Novo Selo, where some 60 to 70 percent of its soldiers were killed. I captured their documentation. The command of the Brigade was in a restaurant near Ukrina. I remember that the commander's name was Martin, I did not remember his surname, but do remember that he had been a reserve officer of an engineering company of the YPA in the Derventa Brigade.
They came here from Croatia, they were in charge. The Bjelovar Brigade and some other brigades of the Croatian Army also fought here. When we liberated Brod and captured some people, they told us that they had been taken to Posavina [region next to the Sava river in northern Bosnia] by deceit. They told them they were going against Okucani and then took them to Brod.
I was on duty in the barracks in Derventa when HVO captured Fikret Abdic in Radic. I picked up the phone and someone said: "You can have Abdic, just give us Vencelovka and Stanic". Those were Croats whom we had captured, but we immediately released them. I called the commander of the defense of the barracks, major Stajcic. We did not want to discuss an exchange.
WHAT EVERYONE KNOWS: A mass grave of Serbs murdered by HVO before October 1992 was discovered in Brod, but that was not publicized. There is some documentation about the actions of Nijaz Causevic Medo, there are statements by witnesses, there is filmed evidence. Causevic filmed a three-hour movie about his unit. His group raped a Serb woman from Sijekovac, cut her up in pieces and threw her flesh to dogs. There were other rapes and so on. A member of Medo's unit killed a man who had sold a horse, a Croat. All of that has been processed, both by the Army and Police. On March 26 the following people were murdered in Sijekovac: three Zecevics, Milan, Vaso and Petar (Milan was a driver in the Refinery), then Luka Milosevic and his two sons. Sreto Trivic, my good friend, and elderly man, a pensioner, was slaughtered while sitting in an armchair. That was proven. They came up to him and slaughtered him.
Mustafa Kovacevic, an electrical engineer in the Refinery and a world famous expert, and his wife Mirsada were murdered while HVO and Medo were in power. Their corpses had been burned, but we found their remains and they were buried. My friend Mustafa Alic was murdered in his own house, but his corpse was never found. Some other people, mostly Serbs and Muslims, disappeared without a trace. The Croat part of the extremist leadership used to say: "First get rid of Communists. You know who they are, here are the lists. Then, get rid of the Serbs".
That is the truth. Everyone knows about that. These days, some of the culprits are walking around free.
MEDO IN ASSEMBLY: That went on until October 7 1992, when we entered Brod. I said "we" because I was one of the commanders who participated in, as we say, the liberation of Bosanski Brod. Somehow, we ended up in the region of Sijekovac, we returned home. We were in a hurry because we knew that there were honest and good people here and that some of them would wait for us. That's how it was. Unfortunately, some stayed and lost their lives. That is what happened, that is the way the war was, that is our misfortune.
I am pretty dissatisfied with what has been done to resolve crimes. Some work was done by our authorities, some by IPTF. Quite a few of those people, such as Nijaz Causevic Medo, who is definitely responsible for many crimes in this region, and especially for Sijekovac, were never charged. Obradovic has been killed, he is gone, but many of his people who participated in everything are still around. For example, there is Zeljko Barisic, who was here at the time as a General of HVO. There is a film which shows Barisic leading the so-called group for fighting against snipers near the post office in Brod. That film was forged. Blazen Kljajic is another one of that sort.
Nijaz Causevic Medo currently lives in Slavonski Brod, but he is the leader of the coalition of representatives from the Federation B-H in the Bosanski Brod local assembly. He even summoned enough courage, or madness, I do not know which one it was, to show up at a session of the local assembly with SFOR escort. There was trouble and SFOR had to quickly take him back to Slavonski Brod. Causevic is a member of MBO [Muslim Bosniak Organization] and Muhamed Filipovic [MBO leader] has visited his home.
Life is slowly returning to normal in Sijekovac. About 70 percent of Serbs have returned, there are some refugees, and lately, we've had about ten-twelve Muslim and one Croat family of returnees. Most of them are elderly people, youngsters come to take a look and leave. But, even after all that has happened people want to again live together.
Translated on 3/22/2000