Croat town now a criminal haven

Author: Nick Thorpe - Stolac, Bosnia
Uploaded: Wednesday, 02 May, 2001

Nick Thorpe reports for The Observer how a senior British army officer, decorated for service in B-H, has taken the opportunity provided by his medal award ceremony to call for the criminals who ethnically cleansed Stolac of Bosniaks - and who still hold power there - to be brought to justice

A senior British army officer has called on the international community to bring Croat war criminals to justice in Bosnia.

Lieutenant-Colonel Hector Gullan of the Parachute Regiment and the SAS led an undercover investigation into the violent intimidation of refugees trying to return to Stolac, in south-eastern Bosnia, in 1998 and 1999. His report, delivered to the international authorities in Bosnia, called for the immediate arrest of 22 people suspected of violence, extortion and intimidation since the war, and for crimes against humanity during the expulsion of Bosnian Muslims from the area during the war in the republic in 1993. But the men his report accused are still free, and in many cases, still hold power.

He made his statement yesterday, after receiving an OBE from the Queen for his services in Bosnia. ‘Until those that perpetrated these appalling crimes, and who continue to rule the Stolac municipality by fear, are brought to account in the courts - either in Sarajevo or at the Hague [war crimes tribunal] - and made to stand responsible for what they did, this medal will never shine as it should,’ he said.

Before the war Stolac was a town of 8,000 Muslims, 6,000 Croats, and 4,000 Serbs. Dark red poppies stand out against the bare mountainsides and the scrub vegetation growing in valleys where the stones seem to outnumber patches of soil. The town itself, 40 minutes' drive south of Mostar, was a jewel in this wilderness - proposed for inclusion in Unesco's list of world heritage sites. Mosques, Catholic and Orthodox churches stood close by. But during the war, and even afterwards, every sacred and secular building belonging to Muslims was blown up, including three medieval mosques and 2,000 homes. The aim was to prevent non-Croats ever returning.

The town is still in ruins, and the ostensible nationalism has become a cover for hanging on to what was looted in the war, and present-day earnings from running guns to Kosovo, cigarettes to Italy, and stolen cars through the Balkans. Non-stolen goods can also be profitable. As no one dares to come from the capital here to collect taxes, even the sale of everyday consumer goods can line the pocket. Stark concrete crosses dot the valleys - with little pretence to religious significance. They are intended to mark territory, and keep out Muslims. Men with dark glasses watch for intruders outside bars and petrol stations. Within minutes, the whole network of war criminals and their protectors can be tipped off. Beside the road are stocks of building material in strategic places. If Bosnian police make another attempt to seize local criminals - they have failed twice so far - roads can be blocked in moments, and the police ambushed.

While a few war-crimes suspects are in hiding, many of those accused of being torturers at the Dretelj, Heliodrome and Gabela concentration camps are still at large. Returnees - 2,000 Muslims and several hundred Serbs so far - sometimes see in the street those who abused and expelled them, and now treat them as second-class citizens. Farida (not her real name) will return soon from Mostar, despite her fear of doing so. She and her family were among those driven out in 1993. She carried her mother on her back for several miles in the terrible heat of July, with Croat snipers shooting over the heads of those fleeing, to spur them on. On this death march from Buna to Blagaj, Farida had to choose between saving her mother, or her two young children. To her torment, she abandoned her invalid mother to die in no-man's land. Fuad (his name has also been changed) describes Dretelj concentration camp that same month. Crammed into a metal-roofed hangar in one of the hottest areas of Europe, some prisoners died in the oven, others went mad. The guards sprayed bullets through the door, for fun.

‘The victims are exaggerating,’ says the current mayor of Stolac, Zdravko Guzman. ‘It's time to forget about the past, and turn instead to the future.' A member of the nationalist Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) which wants to break from Bosnia, he laughs when I ask if it would help reconciliation if Croats apologised for destroying the Muslims' homes and mosques: ‘Why should we apologise? Perhaps someone should apologise to us.’

‘The people we would like to see arrested’ said Harry Leefe, head of the UN refugee agency in Mostar, ‘are the serious criminals, the ones who organised the concentration camps, the torture, the rape camps; the ones who forced women and children to walk through minefields’.

A bomb yesterday in Vitez - a central Bosnian town dominated by the hardline HDZ - destroyed the office of the Social Democratic Party, which leads Bosnia's multi-ethnic government.

This report appeared in The Guardian, 2 May 2001

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