It barely made the news in Serbia when Sasa Cvjetan was released from custody in late April, having served just over two-thirds of his 20-year prison sentence.
Cvjetan had been a member of a notorious Serbian paramilitary unit known as the Scorpions, linked to atrocities committed during the wars in Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990s. The specific crime for which Cvjetan was convicted was the 1999 murder of 14 Albanian civilians in Podujevo, Kosovo.
The decision to grant Cvjetan early release has been severely criticized by the Belgrade Humanitarian Law Center, an institution that frequently appeals to Serbia's collective conscience. Its lawyers have worked to prevent the wartime past from being swept under the carpet or war criminals from being treated with kid gloves. They have argued that the decision to release Cvjetan on parole downplays the severity of the crime against civilians and denigrates the victims.
On March 28, 1999, a Scorpions unit including Cvjetan shot dead 14 Albanians in the backyard of a family home -- seven children, aged from 2 to 15, and seven women. Five children survived the massacre with severe wounds.
The crime in Podujevo had an inconvenient witness. A Serbian military policeman happened to pass the scene of the massacre and realized that there were survivors among the dead bodies. Thanks to him, the children were transported to a nearby hospital that was still under Serbian control.
When NATO troops arrived, the children were evacuated to Manchester, England, where they spent a long time recovering from their wounds.
One of the survivors, Saranda Bogujevci, had been hit by no fewer than 16 bullets. But Saranda did more than survive. Almost immediately, she dedicated herself with extraordinary energy and zeal to tracking down the killers and bringing them to justice. She was only 19 when she traveled to Toronto to appear as a witness at the trial of Dejan Demirovic, one of the other members of Cvjetan’s unit, who had emigrated to Canada in 2001. He was extradited on a Serbian warrant but was freed after agreeing to testify against his accomplices.
Saranda and two more of the surviving children traveled to Belgrade for the trial of a member of the Scorpions unit in 2003. They made history as the first children to appear as witnesses in a war crimes trial.
They again testified as witnesses in a separate trial of four other Scorpions sentenced in 2008.
Those surviving children’s next trip to Belgrade, in 2013, had a different purpose. They came to open an art installation based on the Bogujevci family’s life, funded by the Open Society and the Swiss Embassy in Serbia. The exhibit was titled Bogujevci: Visual History, Honoring All Families Victims Of War and was the creation of Fatos, Jehona, and Saranda Bogujevci. It was hosted by the Podroom gallery of the Belgrade Cultural Center.
"From the moment we conceived the project, we felt that it would be important to tell our story in Belgrade, in the hope that what happened would not be forgotten," Saranda Bogujevci told RFE/RL’s Belgrade bureau at the opening. "[We wanted to show that] we were a family like any other. My mother had dreams for all of us."
There was little display of public enthusiasm in Belgrade for a documented history of the Bogujevci family’s tragedy at the time. A headline in the Vecernje Novosti newspaper went so far as to assert "Albanian Propaganda In The Heart Of Knez Mihailova!" -- a reference to Belgrade’s main street.
But many politicians showed up to see the exhibition and to meet three survivors of the Podujevo massacre. And other visitors included then-Serbian Interior Minister Ivica Dacic, who has since become foreign minister. Dacic told reporters at the time that all victims of the Kosovo conflict deserved to be remembered: “It would be bad to speak here about their, or our, war crimes. Victims are victims.”
Dacic's attendance at the Bogujevci exhibition and the sentiments he expressed seem far from the current, deeply frayed relations between Belgrade and Pristina. Last week, a karate team from Kosovo was denied entry to Serbia, costing it an opportunity to participate in a European competition hosted by the city of Novi Sad. Also last week, members of the Kosovar parliament previously invited to a conference in Belgrade were abruptly disinvited.
In the context of ongoing antagonism between Serbia and its former province, the Podujevo children’s exhibit was surely historic.
Visitors to the exhibition included Spasoje Vulevic, the commander of Serbia's antiterrorist police unit who arguably saved lives after coming across those five wounded children by ensuring that they made it to the hospital. (In 2008, he also testified about the massacre.)
Cvjetan spent a total of 16 years and four months in custody but was not due to be released until 2021. His prison term was reduced for good behavior, and he was released on parole in April.
The Humanitarian Law Center has argued that courts should not make such decisions without considering the specifics of the crime, including remorse (or lack thereof), as well as the victims' suffering and the consequences still faced by the survivors. Cvjetan has never publicly expressed any remorse over the Podujevo massacre; on the contrary, he has referred to the case against him as "politically motivated."
Saranda Bogujevci currently lives in Pristina and is a member of the Kosovar parliament as a deputy of the Self Determination (Vetevendosje) party. Having helped bring her family’s killers to justice, she now faces the challenge of protecting the rule of law in her own country, whose postwar recovery has been undermined by corruption at home, among other problems.
But relations with its larger neighbor to the north might well be determined by the extent to which Serbia -- including its politicians and the public -- is prepared to face up to the actions of their government and military forces in Kosovo during the 1999 war.
If Sasa Cvjetan's conviction for the massacre of the Bogujevci family was a positive sign in this respect, his early release on parole arguably reveals the limits of accountability for war crimes in Serbia. For Saranda Bogujevci, it means that the fight for justice on all fronts continues.