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Vladimir Barovic (left) was a rear admiral in the Yugoslav Navy in 1989.

It's an honorable exception to the rule: An NGO's proposal has been accepted and implemented by the president of Montenegro. On July 13, a Montenegrin naval officer who chose to take his own life rather than obey an order to bombard Croatian cities in 1991 was posthumously awarded a high-level decoration by President Filip Vujanovic.

Vladimir Barovic was a rear admiral in the Yugoslav Navy. He was born in 1939 in Banja Luka, Bosnia-Herzegovina, to a Montenegrin father -- a general in the Yugoslav People's Army -- and a Slovenian mother. After World War II his father was appointed commander of the Pristina region, in Kosovo. He was dismissed because he opposed the policy of terror against ethnic Albanians. This prompted his son Vladimir's friends to remark, when recalling the younger Barovic's actions in 1991, that "the apple does not fall far from the tree."

Vladimir Barovic followed in his father's footsteps when he was appointed commander of the Pula military sector in the early 1990s. Shortly before the onset of war he took part in the negotiations over the withdrawal of the Yugoslav Army from Pula. I was in Sarajevo at the time. Convoys of military equipment were moved from Croatia to military barracks in Bosnia.

In hindsight it was obvious that war was coming our way, yet somehow I still shared the belief of my friends and colleagues that Bosnia would escape such a fate. I believed that we were protected by the fact that the country was a mix of nations and ethnic groups. I did not know that being mixed was precisely what made us the perfect target for the architects of ethnic cleansing. Our war is still referred to as a "civil war" by many. For me it was above all a war against civilians. I believe that Barovic saw it the same way.

During negotiations in Pula he made a promise: "There will be no destruction here while I'm in charge -- and if I'm forced to order the destruction of Pula and Istria, that will be the end of me."

On September 29, 1991, Barovic received an order from Belgrade to start bombing coastal towns in Dalmatia.

He did not approve of the military actions of the Yugoslav Army and Montenegrin reservists against Croatia. In his view, it went against Montenegrin honor and military honor. He refused to carry out the order.

That same evening, Barovic made good on his word and ended his own life. In a suicide note, he wrote that he had decided to die with dignity "because I do not want to wage war against the brotherly Croatian people." Furthermore, he did not want to "take part in the aggression of the Yugoslav Army against Croats, which would be an act contrary to Montenegrin honor -- because Montenegrins cannot fight and destroy a nation that has done them no wrong."

Barovic was buried in the Montenegrin town of Herceg Novi, his father's birthplace. An initiative by the Montenegrin Citizens' Alliance to have Barovic's actions officially recognized has been adopted by President Vujanovic. Barovic's posthumous medal came on the 75th anniversary of the Montenegrin uprising against Italian fascist occupation in 1941, celebrated as Statehood Day in the Mediterranean country. The NGO's director, Boris Raonic, told RFE/RL in Podgorica:

"This decision is also highly significant because Vujanovic was a minister of justice in the early 1990s, and later the minister of interior. So he was part of the regime whose policy drove Admiral Barovic to take his own life. With this, along with some other recent moves, including an apology issued to the city of Dubrovnik [besieged and bombed by the Yugoslav Army in 1991], Montenegro is on the right path to acknowledging its own role in the wars of the 1990s [as a junior partner in alliance with Slobodan Milosevic's Serbia] and dealing with that unpleasant past."

There is also an initiative afoot to have a street in Montenegro's old city of Cetinje named after Barovic. It was in Cetinje that the first antiwar demonstrations took place. The city was also the source of a sincere message of apology to Dubrovnik, in verse. ("From Lovcen Mountain the fairy cries, please forgive us Dubrovnik" -- Sa Lovcena vila klice, oprosti nam Dubrovnice)

Even a quarter of a century after his death, the official recognition of Vladimir Barovic is timely. In the first place it gives meaning to Barovic's life, which ended so tragically, but it also raises hope for the future. The legacy of the 1990s in Serbia and Montenegro is a lengthy catalogue of villains, and very few heroes. Until recently, the former were more likely to be celebrated, the latter forgotten. With the posthumous medal awarded to Barovic, that may finally begin to change, along with perceptions of that recent past.

A woman weeps as a mass funeral is held on July 11 for some of the victims of the Srebrenica massacre, which resulted in the deaths of thousands of Muslim men over the course of a few days.

Srebrenica was never meant to generate world news. A quiet provincial town nestled in a valley among mountains that rise from the banks of the river Drina, it was once famous for its ancient silver mines (“srebro” means silver).

By July 1995, however, Srebrenica had been a living hell for three years, besieged by Serb forces. When it fell, in the course of only four days, over 8,000 Muslim males, including boys as young as 13, were killed.

July 11 is the official memorial day of the massacre -- the worst in Europe since World War II. Funerals are still taking place in Srebrenica as more of the victims are identified. In the last 12 months, 126 new names -- and new graves – have been added. RFE/RL's ongoing Faces of Srebrenica project aims to find a photo of each victim. So far, there is an image for nearly half of them.

Srebrenica native Nezira Sulejmanovic, 60, is burying her nephew, her brother's son. She says that his body was almost intact -- "only the head was missing." Her own two sons have already been buried at the same memorial cemetery, a few of their bones identified.

"If I could only find a single one of my brother’s bones, I would find my peace," she told RFE/RL’s correspondent in Srebrenica.

WATCH: Bosnian Man Digs For Bones Of Srebrenica Victims

Bosnian Man Digs For Bones Of Victims, Peace Of Mind
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In an attempt to cover up the crime, Serb forces removed the bodies from the Srebrenica killing fields and scattered them at different locations in the vicinity. International and local forensic experts are working together in using DNA evidence to identify the victims. One person from Srebrenica, Ramiz Nukic, has made it his life mission to search for the bones. He has found the remains of 200 people so far.

Sulejmanovic welcomes all, Serbs and Muslims, to attend the memorial: "Leave the war behind. Let it be so that my two grandchildren, my two girls from my only surviving son, are able to come here -- do not allow anyone to sow conflict."

Vucic Controversy

Not listening to the voices of people like Sulejmanovic, who lived the full circle of the Srebrenica tragedy, Srebrenica Mayor Camil Durakovic said that the Serbian leadership is not welcome at this year’s commemoration, insisting that "whoever denies the genocide should not come to our memorial service."

These were the words of a man who last year invited the Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic to visit Srebrenica. At the time he extolled his friendship with Vucic and was angry when a group of hooligans threw stones, targeting the Serbian leader -- who escaped with his glasses broken, but without injury. Durakovic has since tried to temper his words, albeit unconvincingly, by giving different explanations for his unwelcoming stance toward Vucic. On one occasion he said that he was concerned that all the attention would be on Vucic, and that his presence would overshadow the entire ceremony. The fact that Durakovic is facing elections in October may suggest that his real concern is with how his friendship with Vucic might resonate among the local Muslim community.

In Belgrade, although Vucic has been unperturbed by the snub, his party has called for him to "stop talking to Bosniaks." Serb-Muslim relations are in the spotlight again for all the wrong reasons.

On the other hand, the Bosnian foreign minister has ordered his ministry not to cooperate with the organizers of this year's Srebrenica memorial because of Durakovic's unwelcoming message to Serb leaders.

'A Warning To Us All'

Adding more fuel to the fire is a countercommemoration organized by the Serbs in Bratunac, 12 kilometers north of Srebrenica, for Serb victims of Muslim forces. This is part of the competing narratives of war, and its function is to diminish the importance of crimes committed by Serbs in nearby Srebrenica without denying them outright. The Serb Republic's (Republika Srpska, a constituent entity of Bosnia-Herzegovina) Prime Minister Milorad Dodik used the occasion to criticize the international community for not paying attention to Serb victims.

There's something wrong here: One imagines that normal people do not enjoy the role of victims, and yet there is competition over who is a bigger victim. Why is it still so hard to see the pain of others?

In his book Postwar, the late historian Tony Judt described Srebrenica as "a war crime on the scale of Oradour, Lidice or Katyn." The difference is that the Srebrenica massacre was carried out in full view of international observers.

Last year, attending a service for the victims of Srebrenica at Westminster Abbey, Paddy Ashdown, who served as the European Union's High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina in 2002-2006, spoke about the passive complicity of the international community:

"Whether through error, misjudgment, an inability to comprehend, or just inattention, we stood aside when we should not have done. We should therefore remember Srebrenica, not just to bear witness to those who suffered, but also as a warning to us all of what happens when we turn our back."

In the context of competing memorial services, and the exchange of hostile words between Srebrenica, Sarajevo, and Belgrade, we would do well to heed Ashdown's warning -- it is still dangerous to turn our back on the Balkans.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL.

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About This Blog

Balkans Without Borders offers personal commentary on contemporary Balkan politics and culture. It is written by Gordana Knezevic, senior journalist and former award-winning editor of the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje, as well as the director of RFE/RL’s Balkan Service between 2008 and 2016. The blog reflects on the myriad ways in which the absurdities of Balkan politics and the ongoing historical shifts and realignments affect the lives of people in the region.


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