Accessibility links

Breaking News

Balkans Without Borders

Former Bosnian Croat Defense Minister Bruno Stojic (left) and former General Slobodan Praljak wait in court prior to the judgement in their appeals case on November 29.

Radovan Karadzic, the convicted Bosnian Serb war criminal, is said to be in deep mourning over the sudden death of fellow inmate Slobodan Praljak, the Bosnian Croat war criminal who took his life in front of TV cameras in The Hague courtroom on November 28.

"Radovan is very shaken and sad," his brother reported to the local media after talking to Karadzic over the phone. "I've met [Praljak] twice in The Hague and I could see how close he was to Radovan. They were like brothers."

Not much is known about the social life of the inmates at the Scheveningen prison. The thick walls of the Dutch prison guard many secrets. Over the past two decades morsels of information would emerge, usually through lawyers of the accused or those who had been released upon serving their sentence.

Prisoners are allowed to wear their own clothing. According to the testimony of a Macedonian tried at The Hague, Ljubo Boskovski, Croatian General Ante Gotovina -- who was arrested in the Canary Islands -- arrived at the prison in a short-sleeved T-shirt. Seeing that, former Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic gifted him a sweater. They may have been ideologically at odds, and may have held that Croatian and Serbian are separate languages -- but they clearly had no trouble communicating.

Gotovina was one of the key military commanders in charge of Operation Storm that in the summer of 1995 liberated parts of Croatia still under Serbian occupation. While in Croatia the victory is celebrated as a national holiday, in Serbia it is lamented as the cause of the mass exodus of ethnic Serbs from areas where they had lived for centuries. One cannot help but wonder whether Gotovina and Milosevic shed tears together over the exiled Serbs, and then celebrated the liberation of Croatia?

Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic enters a courtroom in The Hague in August 2004.
Former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic enters a courtroom in The Hague in August 2004.

Milosevic's generosity was legendary among the inmates. Apart from Gotovina's sweater, which the Croatian general is said to have worn often -- and not only on that day when he abruptly swapped Spanish sunshine for the overcast skies of the Netherlands -- Milosevic gave presents of blazers and ties to some of the other inmates so they would look presentable when they had to face the judges in the courtroom. It was all so very civilized. As much of the Croatian media gushed over former General Praljak, man of culture, a Zagreb-based analyst, Dejan Jovic wrote on Twitter, tongue in cheek: "A wonderful human being...too bad he's a war criminal."

In the wake of the official commemorations and laudatory editorials in the Croatian press that followed Praljak's suicide, the Sarajevo daily Oslobodjenje sarcastically proposed the formation of a "war criminals association" -- membership in which would be open to all regardless of ethnic or religious background, just as in Scheveningen prison. Perhaps it could eventually morph into an international organization. After all, the Oslobodjenje article continued, "great ideas often emerge from unlikely places." The legacy of The Hague could thus be the nurturing of the "brotherhood and unity" born in the Dutch prison.

Solidarity Behind Bars

"Brotherhood and unity" was, of course, the slogan that supposedly described the nature of relations between different peoples and ethnic groups in Tito's Yugoslavia. The wars of the 1990s were in fact fought against that very idea, and the aim of both Serbian and Croatian nationalist politicians and military leaders was the creation of contiguous, ethnically "clean" territories -- something that could only be achieved by force in a historically mixed region. More than 100,000 were killed in Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and Kosovo. Countless crimes against humanity and acts of genocide were committed, and 2 million people were displaced by the fighting, in many cases permanently.

Following this bloody divorce, those most responsible for the crimes on either side were reunited in The Hague detention unit. One might have expected sparks to fly between the ideologues of mutually exclusive nationalist and expansionist projects. And yet the contrary turned out to be the case. The Croatian and Serbian inmates played chess, exchanged books, and helped one another with their written appeals to the court.

One notorious example of the solidarity between The Hague inmates from former Yugoslavia was their collective reaction to Milosevic's sudden death in his prison cell in 2006, before the conclusion of his trial. The fond "last farewell" to a fallen brother -- published in the Belgrade daily Politika -- was signed by virtually all the inmates of Scheveningen prison. While this was hardly a surprise from Vojislav Seselj, the radical Serbian nationalist, it was jarring to many that Gotovina and other Croatian and Bosnian inmates also expressed their condolences.

The prison psychologist Zikica Simic told Radio B92 at the time: "This obituary only shows that we were all just pawns in a game played by a small group of individuals in positions of power, each with his psychological flaws. The rest of us paid the price, often with our lives. While Mladen Naletilic Tuta, Ante Gotovina, Slobodan Milosevic, and Vojislav Seselj played their games, countless people wasted their lives for nothing."

In July 2011, the warden of Scheveningen prison at the time, Timothy McFadden, said in an interview that prior to his death, Milosevic's next-door neighbor was a Bosnian Muslim general, and that the two men apparently became friends, playing chess together regularly.

Asked about this camaraderie behind the walls of The Hague prison, Zagreb based psychiatrist Dragan Pavelic found it unsurprising.

As he explained in a telephone interview with RFE/RL: "The extremes are within touching distance of one another. In the event, they [the Serbian and Croatian inmates at The Hague] happened to be on opposing sides, but they have plenty in common. For instance, they resemble one another in their pathological narcissism -- they all see themselves as grand historical figures. This narcissism combined with exhibitionism can take very malignant forms. They wanted to 'save' us all even though we never asked for it or needed saving. On the contrary, many people suffered and died as a result of being 'saved' by these men. This similar psychological profile explains the affinity they felt for each other which seems so strange to us."

Pavelic visited the tribunal and sat in the public gallery during one session of Milosevic's trial at The Hague.

"Milosevic's sense of his own grandeur was unmistakable. His mannerisms and speech suggested that he saw himself as a semi-divine being. He even magnanimously pronounced some words that sounded like sympathy for the victims. But above all he was a man on a mission. Milosevic, like the others detained at The Hague, was not someone who required psychiatric treatment. They may all be described as normal narcissists," Pavelic said.

It is this shared sense of being misunderstood, of being unjustly prosecuted for fulfilling the providential destiny of their respective peoples that no doubt explains the sense of brotherhood between the mainly Serbian and Croatians politicians and generals on trial for war crimes at The Hague. In retrospect, even in the midst of conflict, they had needed one another as antagonists, to feed their competing narratives of victimhood -- but they also understood one another, and their respective goals, quite perfectly. The warmth between Milosevic, Gotovina and the rest of the inmates at Scheveningen prison only underlined that obvious though profoundly unsettling fact.

The views expressed in this blog post do not necessarily reflect those of RFE/RL
Former Croatian General Slobodan Praljak was convicted in 2013 for the destruction of Mostar's Old Bridge. (file photo)

"Dear God, please spare me Serb heroism and Croatian culture," ("Sacuvaj me boze srpskog junastva i hrvatske kulture") was a famous quip of Miroslav Krleza (1893-1981), the greatest Yugoslav and Croatian writer of the 20th century.

Krleza did not live long enough to witness the destruction of Yugoslavia and the wars of the 1990s, but he unerringly identified -- and mocked in his typically acerbic style -- the nationalist conceits that played no small part in the breakup of the country. A major element in Serb national identity has long been their supposed martial spirit, while the Croats have sought to distinguish themselves from their Balkan neighbors by claiming to possess a superior, more authentically Western culture. Both of these national myths were given the lie in the war.

The Serbs showed little of their military prowess in the 1990s wars, contriving to lose ground in all the conflicts -- in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Kosovo -- despite enjoying overwhelming superiority in weapons and personnel. On the other hand, some of the most notorious acts of destruction of cultural heritage -- aimed at removing all traces of the Muslim population from areas of Bosnia that the Croats considered to be "theirs" -- were masterminded or carried out by men who before the war had built a reputation as "promoters of culture." The case of Slobodan Praljak is typical, and one of the crimes for which he has been convicted in the first instance at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) is the destruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar.

'Prlic Five'

Slobodan Praljak (72) is one of "the Prlic Five," a group of Croat political and military leaders tried along with Jadranko Prlic, the former president of the wartime statelet of "Herceg-Bosna." The six men were convicted in 2013 and given prison sentences of 16 to 25 years. They are awaiting judgments on appeal on November 29.

While the Bosnian Serb Army was busy carving out the borders of what became Republika Srpska, in the southwest, Bosnian Croat forces -- with significant support from Croatia proper -- turned on the Bosnian Army and set out to establish their own ethnically homogenous space, using some of the same methods of ethnic cleansing employed by the Serbs.

Before the war, Praljak had been a writer and film director. He had also been the director of various theaters, including in Mostar. With the outbreak of the war, the man of culture became a general and an adviser to Croatian President Franjo Tudjman. He was eventually accused of command responsibility for the destruction of the Old Bridge in Mostar, one of the most striking Ottoman monuments in the Balkans, and a jewel of Bosnia's Islamic heritage.

The Old Bridge in Mostar following its reconstruction in 2004. (file photo)
The Old Bridge in Mostar following its reconstruction in 2004. (file photo)

The 16th-century bridge over the Neretva River was commissioned by Sultan Suleyman the Magnificent and built by the Ottoman architect Mimar Hayruddin. Its construction is wrapped in myth and legend, but it became the symbol of the city of Mostar, which got its name from it. According to the 17th-century Ottoman traveler Evliya Celebi, the name "Mostar" means "bridge-keeper."

Celebi wrote that the bridge was "like a rainbow arch soaring up to the skies, extending from one cliff to the other.... I, a poor and miserable slave of Allah, have passed through 16 countries but I have never seen such a high bridge. It is thrown from rock to rock as high as the sky."

The graceful arch stood for more than four centuries, surviving not only the fall of the Ottoman Empire, but two world wars -- including the Nazi occupation of Yugoslavia. But like so much of Bosnia's Ottoman heritage, it was not spared by the merciless onslaught of Serb and -- in this case -- Croat nationalists intent on erasing the country's Islamic past.

Overwhelmed By Sorrow

During the trial in The Hague, Praljak denied all charges, and his defense lawyers spun conspiracy theories backed by "experts" who asserted that the Old Bridge in Mostar was "most likely destroyed by explosives rigged on the bridge [by the Bosnian Army], not when it was hit by a shell fired from HVO [Bosnian Croat forces] tank."

However it was not merely a stray shell, but over 60 projectiles that were fired at the bridge between November 8 and 9, 1993, from HVO positions before the Old Bridge collapsed. In a recent tweet, a resident of Mostar described the sorrow that overwhelmed him the moment the bridge collapsed.

There was a belief among Bosnians that only someone without education or culture -- a barbarian -- could destroy an ancient monument that preserves the footprints of past centuries. But that was far from the case. The Croatian group of six held responsible for the act was extremely well-educated, and it's likely that Praljak has more academic diplomas than any other member of the Prlic Five. He initially studied engineering and graduated with distinction from Zagreb University, but this was followed by degrees in Philosophy and Sociology. A year after that, he graduated from the Film Academy.

The day the Old Bridge was destroyed, the Sarajevo-based newspaper "Oslobodjenje" published an editorial with the headline: "They Have Killed The Oldest Resident Of Mostar."

The Old Bridge was rebuilt after the war, in 2004, thanks to foreign funds as well as expertise and backing by UNESCO.

'Extended Cease-Fire'

One of the traditions that became inextricably associated with the Old Bridge was the annual diving competition, organized every summer by the "Mostari" club. This year, they marked the anniversary of the destruction of the bridge on November 9 in a special manner. There was a gathering of students from Mostar schools, as well as residents and local politicians, but they were predominantly from one side of the Neretva, with Croat officials conspicuous by their absence.

Air-raid sirens were sounded, flowers were cast into the river below, and a single diver jumped off the bridge followed by silence, without the usual applause.

Mostar resident Zeljko Laketic was in the Bosnian military in 1993, and stood only a few dozen meters away from the Old Bridge when it was destroyed.

"I saw that everyone was in tears, as if a member of their family had been killed. I saw hardened men, veterans of two years of war who had seen everything, crying like little children," Laketic told RFE/RL.

Meanwhile, the Croat politicians only show up on the anniversary of the reopening of the bridge, preferring to ignore the circumstances of its destruction.

Apart from its beauty, the Old Bridge in Mostar had over the centuries become a symbol of this multiethnic Bosnian city, uniting the two banks of the Neretva River. Its destruction was thus not only about erasing the Islamic past, but symbolically breaking the bonds between the city's various peoples. The bridge may have been rebuilt, but the fabric of Bosnia's -- and Mostar's -- multiethnic society has not been stitched back together.

As a local RFE/RL correspondent recently lamented to me: "Here [in Mostar] we do not have peace, only an extended cease-fire."

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

Load more

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.


Latest Posts