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Russian President Vladimir Putin (left) presents a state award to film director Emir Kusturica at the Kremlin in 2016.

Soccer's World Cup kicks off in Russia in less than two weeks, and one of the warmup acts is the Art-Football festival from May 25 to June 3.

That latter Moscow event -- staged to raise funds for seriously ill children -- is in its eighth year. Artists and performers slated to appear include award-winning director Emir Kusturica, in his roles as both a humanitarian and an unapologetic supporter of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

He featured on a Serbian soccer team that defeated its German counterpart on May 27, having already taken the stage with his band, No Smoking, and attended a special event in his honor at the Moscow Conservatory titled Vivat Kusturica.

The Serbian director has twice been awarded the main prize at Cannes, the Palm d'Or (in 1985 for the film When Father Was Away on Business, and in 1995 for Underground).

However, before Kusturica was a Serbian director and a champion of Serbian and Russian brotherhood based on shared culture and history, he was much more closely associated with his native Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Born into a Bosnian Muslim family in Sarajevo, Kusturica chose to be baptized Orthodox Christian in 2005. He attended Putin’s third presidential inauguration in 2012 and attributed his lack of success at Cannes in more recent years to his support for Putin.

It seems that he reached a crossroads in 1992 with the breakup of Yugoslavia. Kusturica almost instantly went from hero to zero in his hometown when he gave his backing to the Serbian-led Yugoslav Army, which was then besieging Sarajevo and waging a campaign of ethnic cleansing in the rest of Bosnia.

Film director Emir Kusturica performs in Crimea’s Black Sea resort of Yalta, July 23, 2017.
Film director Emir Kusturica performs in Crimea’s Black Sea resort of Yalta, July 23, 2017.

He was a vocal supporter of Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic and reinvented himself as a Serbian director in subsequent years, endearing himself to nationalists in Belgrade. His endorsement of Putin’s Russia appears to be an extension of this adopted world-view and identity, as Kusturica considers the Russian president as not only the champion of Pan-Slavic Orthodox Christian culture but a bulwark against the West.

But for a brief moment in the midst of the Bosnian War, Kusturica seemed to waver between his commitment to the Serbian cause and the suffering of his Bosnian compatriots.

Kusturica was still revered in his native city when the war began -- he was in Paris at the time -- and so the disappointment was profound when, in a telephone interview with Sarajevo TV, he urged people to support the Yugoslav Army. This was the same army that -- as everyone could see -- was killing civilians and keeping Sarajevo under siege. Later, in an interview with the French newspaper Le Monde, Kusturica claimed that the European Union was responsible for the shelling of Sarajevo and he blamed Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic for starting the war.

It was beyond comprehension to many that Kusturica, who was worshiped by most people in Sarajevo before the war, had turned his back on his city. Many held out hope that it wasn’t true -- that it couldn’t be true. Perhaps, being so far away, he was simply unaware of what was happening on the ground.

And then, suddenly, confirmation arrived that the hope may have been justified.

It was March 1993, and Sarajevo had been under siege for almost a year. My newspaper, Oslobodjenje, was continuing to publish under the barrage of Serbian artillery, but paper supplies were running low and we were continually being forced to reduce the page count of our daily edition. We reported on the war and the events in the city, but all news from abroad was brought to us by foreign journalists. One day, the Oslobodjenje news desk received a fax from Paris: Kusturica had sent a story that he wanted to be published in our newspaper.

It was a cold March day, and every member of our wartime editorial board was bundled up to stay warm, as there was no heating. Kusturica’s piece was on the table in front of us. The title of the article was Rasim’s Horseshoe. It was about his random encounter with a Bosnian refugee, a miner from the village of Lopare, who had been tortured by Serb forces. They had nailed a horseshoe onto his foot. Kusturica had written a passionate account of his meeting with Rasim at the airport in Amsterdam. Rasim was on his way to some European hospital for surgery to repair his foot.

Around half of my colleagues were against publishing Kusturica’s piece, citing his earlier statements about the war and his public support for Milosevic. I was with the other half, as I believed -- or wanted to believe -- that after meeting Rasim, Kusturica perhaps finally understood that Muslims in Bosnia were seemingly being targeted -- killed, tortured, expelled from their homes -- simply because they were Muslims. I defended his right to have a late change of heart, faced with such compelling evidence. We prevailed, and Kusturica was published in Oslobodjenje. Here's an excerpt from Kusturica’s story:

“I had to see the sufferer Rasim from the [concentration] camp to reach that emotional tipping point, and to forget in an instant all the politics and history of the world.... I had to look into those gentle eyes that were asking me, 'Why, Emir?' to understand that there is no historical or other justification for nailing a horseshoe onto a man’s feet.”

However, although we were under siege, the story eventually made it to the outside world, and provoked immediate reaction from Belgrade. Kusturica, as a film director acclaimed throughout Europe, was a useful propaganda tool for a regime that was widely condemned for its actions and atrocities in Bosnia. The horseshoe story thus upset Milosevic’s backers in Serbia; Kusturica furiously backtracked, even denying that he had written the story in the first place.

That story is still invoked in regional media as a turning point in Kusturica’s affiliations. Since then, that narrative goes, the director has only redoubled his political commitments to Serbian nationalism and, by extension, Putin’s Russia.

In 2016, Putin presented Kusturica with the Order Of Friendship for his contributions to strengthening the friendship between the peoples and for the promotion of Russian language and culture abroad. Kusturica thanked Putin in Russian, recalling that at their first meeting he did not speak Russian:

“Dear Mr. Putin, when we met for the first time, I did not speak Russian; the second time, very little; and now I would like to thank you [in Russian] for this award.”

As Kusturica sings and plays in Moscow this month in the name of charity and humanitarian causes, and to lend his fame to Russia and its president, will he also recall the story of Rasim’s horseshoed foot?

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

Sasa Cvjetan arrives at the Court of Justice in the Serbian town of Prokuplje on October 9, 2002.

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 Bogujevci, a survivor of the massacre who was shot 16 times, is now a deputy in the Kosovar parliament.
Saranda Bogujevci, a survivor of the massacre who was shot 16 times, is now a deputy in the Kosovar parliament.

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.

Fatos (left), Saranda (center), and Jehona Bogujevci in Belgrade in December 2013
Fatos (left), Saranda (center), and Jehona Bogujevci in Belgrade in December 2013

"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.

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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