Survivor recalls 1993 atrocities in his own Croat village, and also speaks with regret about killings in nearby Bosniak settlement.
By Aida Mia Alic – International Justice – ICTY
A marble monument dominates the small hill overlooking Krizancevo Selo, a Croat village near the town of Vitez in central Bosnia.
The memorial bears the names of more than 100 villagers – both soldiers and civilians – killed during Bosnia’s 1992-95 war, some of them victims of crimes that have yet to be prosecuted.
Not far away from the site, the trenches which separated the warring sides – the Croatian Defence Council (HVO) and the Bosnian government army – are still visible, a reminder of just how close the village was to the front line.
About four kilometres away from Krizancevo Selo lies the Bosniak village of Ahmici, where on April 16, 1993, over 100 people including women, children and elderly people, were killed by HVO soldiers. Houses in the village were torched and the local mosque was destroyed.
Eight months later, the Bosnian government army attacked the village of Krizancevo Selo.
Drago Plavcic, a grey-haired man in his seventies, recounts the events of that day.
“When the front line was broken through on December 22, 1993, around 30 people in this village were killed. Their corpses were right here,” Plavcic said, pointing to a meadow near the memorial. “It was the bloodiest day for the village. The sad thing is that no one has yet been held responsible for this crime.”
Plavcic’s house was among those destroyed in the assault.
“I couldn’t extinguish the fire, I couldn’t do anything. Everything I owned disappeared before my eyes that day,” Plavcic said.
According to Plavcic, 30 villagers were taken away as captives by the HVO. After a month, he said, their bodies were exchanged for those of Bosnian government soldiers killed while fighting the HVO in the area around Vitez.
“They [villagers] were beaten and I don’t know what else. They were killed two days before the exchange. They arrived here in bags and we placed them in the school so that they could be identified,” Plavcic said.
Plavcic lost three children during the war in Bosnia, and their names are among those inscribed on the Krizancevo Selo memorial.
One of his sons, Blaz, died aged 22 while serving in the HVO near Mostar in late 1992, while another, Marinko, also an HVO soldier, was killed in Vitez in 1993, aged 32. Plavcic’s daughter Ivanka, 21, died in a grenade attack on Krizancevo Selo in 1993.
Plavcic says he has forgiven both those who attacked the village and those who caused his children’s deaths.
“My house was set on fire by somebody’s hand, but I forgive him that. I also forgive those who killed my children. Jesus forgave, and I forgive, too,” he said.
Before the war, the wider Vitez municipality was inhabited by an almost equal percentage of Croats and Bosniaks. From January 1993, when hostilities began between the Bosnian government army and the HVO, local Bosniaks and Croats turned against each other.
The Bosniak-Croat conflict ended with a peace agreement signed in Washington in March 1994, while the wider Bosnian war ended only with the Dayton agreement signed in December 1995.
Since then, many people have returned to the Vitez municipality, including the surviving villagers of Krizancevo Selo. Most have repaired their homes or build new ones and found work in nearby Vitez, today a predominantly Croat town.
Relations between Bosniaks and Croats in the area remain difficult, though. Their children may attend the same schools, but they go in through separate entrances. Some sports clubs and cultural associations are divided by ethnicity, and two volunteer firefighter units are on call – one Croat and one Bosniak.
Plavcic recounted how much better relations were before the war.
“I still often mention [Yugoslav leader Josip] Tito and Yugoslavia. It was such a great country, far better than what we have now…. But I wouldn’t leave my home. I won’t do that. Bosnia belongs to all of us,” he said.
Standing in front of the memorial above Krizancevo Selo, where the names of his three children are written one after the other, Plavcic talks with sadness about the crimes committed in neighbouring Ahmici.
“When I heard what happened in Ahmici, I thought about it every day. Some of my friends were killed there. We went to school together, we played football together – we were all like brothers. It was very hard for me,” he said.
The Ahmici killings resulted in seven former HVO members being sentenced either at the Hague tribunal or at the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina, to a total of 100 years in prison.
No one has been prosecuted for the deaths of dozens of villagers in Krizancevo Selo, although the special department for war crimes of the Prosecutor’s Office in Bosnia is currently investigating a number of suspects.
Every year, on April 16 and December 22 – the anniversaries of the killings in Ahmici and Krizancevo Selo, respectively – families of the dead and government representatives attend memorial ceremonies in the two villages.
In April 2010, Croatian president Ivo Josipovic, together with Muslim and Catholic clerics, visited both sites and paid his respects to the victims, saying that such crimes must never happen again.
The residents of Ahmici and Krizancevo Selo have never held a joint commemoration.
Pavic says that although he has forgiven those who killed his children and destroyed his property, he has not yet gathered the strength to visit Ahmici.
“Whoever has the strength, willpower and love to pay respect to the victims in both villages is a good person and must be respected,” he said.
Aida Mia Alic is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.
This article was produced as part of IWPR’s Tales of Transition project funded by the Norwegian embassy in Sarajevo. IWPR is implementing the project in partnership with the Sarajevo Centre for Contemporary Arts and EFM Student Radio.