Can we come closer?
During the war years, violence in this municipality escalated on a number of occasions. With the start of the war in Croatia, which is separated from Novi only by the Una River, people from this area, mostly Serbs, were drafted into JNA reserve units. Many were killed. When the war moved on to BiH in 1992, a Golgotha began for non-Serbs, mostly Bosniaks, who were forcibly displaced. There were also war crimes, people were imprisoned, deported to concentration camps and killed. In September 1995, the Croatian Army carried out an attack against Novi and 57 Serb civilians, soldiers and police officers were killed.
Before visiting the memorials, we organised a meeting and discussion with representatives of local municipal authorities, the Deputy Mayor Zoran Starčević and the Vice-President of the Municipal Assembly Selim Ekić, who were supportive of our efforts because, as they said, “we gathered around a positive idea that leads to dialogue on difficult topics.” “It is important that twenty years later, we look each other in the eye, we talk about what happened, about what to do next, about the kind of future we are heading for,” Zoran said, adding that he was himself was a war veteran and as such felt the need to discuss events from the war with honest people from the other side. After our visit, he joined us “to talk from the perspective of a war veteran,” as he put it.
“We politicians should be the ones launching initiatives such as this, but your visit and your intentions show that you are above politics and should serve as an example for us,” Selim said, pointing out that the inhabitants of this municipality need all victims to be acknowledged in order to clear the way for better coexistence and reconciliation. He mentioned the idea of establishing the Day of Civilian War Victims which would feature a joint commemoration of all victims. This idea reminded me of a visit we made to Velika Kladuša, where a similar initiative was also mentioned. What bothers me is that these initiatives tend to come from representatives of minority communities, which is an indicator of their inequality in these areas. Those who are in the majority have no trouble marking their important dates, so they see no reason to step out of the standard scheme of the dominant narrative. Why not commemorate all victims, soldiers too? They are all people, ordinary, honest people for the most part, separated from their families and friends and taken off to war.
We started our visit of sites of suffering by going to the monument in the central town square. It is dedicated to the three hundred seventy seven killed soldiers of VRS from the Novi Grad municipality. Our hosts told us the details of the military activities of Novi residents in VRS and said that most were killed in battle outside their municipality, in the area of Bihać, Sanski Most and Bosanska Krupa. We then went to the memorial room at the municipal administration building, which was nearby. It is always difficult to encounter the faces on the photos arranged on the wall. Dates of birth and death show that these were people at their prime. Milorad, one of our hosts, indicates the members of his family among the killed. The emotional weight is difficult to bear, it’s hard to stand there and listen. You feel the other’s pain, it becomes your own.
Our next destination was Ekići and Alići. These are hillside hamlets in the valley of the Japra stream, some fifteen kilometres from Novi. They had been populated by Bosniaks. Now, there are just ruins of houses and fields overgrown with weeds. We took a bad macadam road to the local cemetery where the memorial is located. It marks the site where a mass grave with six bodies of killed residents of these hamlets was found. A total of twenty seven were killed in 1992 and their names are inscribed on the memorial plaque. The imam spoke about those events, saying that eighteen bodies have not been found yet. Every year in June, a commemoration takes place here to honour these victims. To date, the Prosecutor’s Office of BiH has raised an indictment for this war crime against one person, a VRS veteran Milenko Karlica.
We then went to the nearby Blagaj Japra. The local cemetery there has a shahid monument as the central memorial for all killed Bosniaks from the Bosanski Novi municipality (from 1921 until 1992, the town and municipality were called Bosanski Novi, today, both names Novi Grad/ Bosanski Novi are in official use). The imam pointed out that this includes the residents of Novi who were killed in the area as well as those killed throughout BiH, both civilians and soldiers, more than six hundred of them in all.
Continuing our visit, we reached Svodno on the road to Prijedor. A memorial was put up right by the roadside to commemorate those killed when the Croatian Air Force bombed a convoy of Serb refugees fleeing what was at the time the Republic of Serb Krajina, on 8 August 1995. The inscription on the memorial plaque indicates that it is dedicated to three killed and eight wounded on that day as a direct result of the air raid and two other persons who were killed that day and the previous day under other circumstances. Our hosts explained that since these were refugees from Krajina, it was decided that they too should be commemorated, because they were killed as a result of events unfolding at the time.
The final site of memory we visited was the monument in Tunjice. From this site, on 18 September 1995, the Croatian army launched its attack against Novi Grad. Fifty seven names are inscribed on the monument. Thirty seven civilians were killed, in addition to eighteen soldiers and two police officers. Milorad, our host, who was in the VRS at the time and participated in the event, told us about the course of the battle, the units that took part in it from both sides. He showed us the house where he was stationed at the time, and it still stands today, riddled by bullets and shrapnel, an ominous reminder of the immensity of wartime violence. The HV veteran in our group, who had also been stationed nearby at the time, told us how it was not easy for them either and how his brigade suffered significant losses, there were both killed and wounded fighters. “I now know part of the story from here and from the other side and the picture is more complete,” he added.
At the end of our visit, talking to the participants, it was evident that they were emotionally shaken but glad to have participated in this action. Our hosts pointed out that the visit was important for their town and that it contributes to efforts for better coexistence. As one of them said, it is time to change our attitude towards the wartime past and stop thinking of each other as enemies. “We have our three or four truths here, the least we can do is try to bring them closer together,” he added. Our hosts also expressed their desire and readiness to participate in our future actions, so we will be reinforced with new members. We hope that our visit to Novi Grad “was a positive disturbance” as my colleague Nedžad from CNA puts it, and that it will initiate other activities that contribute to peacebuilding and reconciliation.