The tireless defender of Banja Luka's Catholic community continues to fight for justice on behalf of his scattered and diminished flock, hundreds of whom perished in the war. Franjo Komarica, Roman Catholic bishop of Banja Luka since 1989, has for many years struggled to highlight the failure of the courts to prosecute cases of war crimes committed against Croats in the Banja Luka region. But, he says, his battle for justice has gone largely unnoticed.
‘I've met hundreds of people in this room, domestic and international, and brought our bitter truth and situation home to them,’ he says. ‘But no one wants the truth to come out of this room, which is why the story of the failure to prosecute crimes committed against Croats remains unknown: I'm a voice crying in the wilderness.’
According to the Banja Luka diocese, two-thirds of which lies in the Bosnian Serb entity of Republika Srpska, more than 400 Catholics were killed in the area during the war in the 1990s. Tens of thousands of others were expelled and have never returned. Of the 70,000 Catholics living in the Banja Luka region before the war, less than one tenth remains.
Bishop Komarica's own life was very much in danger during the war. But he does not want to speak about his travails, because, as he says, that ‘went with the terms of the job’. However, he remembers the sufferings of others in his city, talking of the harassment, disappearance and murder of priests and neighbours, one of whose bodies has not yet been found. ‘Crimes happened every day; every day was terrible,’ he says. ‘I used to pray: "God help me to forget what happened yesterday". At times I was on the verge of madness.’
One of the hardest things for him to endure, he says, is that no one has answered for the crime of the murder of one of his priests, Father Tomislav Matanovic of Prijedor, who disappeared along with his family in 1995. Their remains were found six years later. ‘Their bodies were found in a well in a village near Prijedor,’ the Bishop says, adding that he blames the murder on people now sitting in the government of Republika Srpska, who he says were ‘involved through their municipal representatives in Prijedor’.
Komarica has called on the Prosecutor's Office of the Republika Srpska to shed light on this unsolved murder. The culprits remain at large, however. In November 2005, the Supreme Court in Banja Luka acquitted 11 former RS police officers accused of the illegal detention of Father Matanovic and his family. ‘This was a court farce in which they judged the police officers who were only guarding the priest,’ the Bishop says. ‘The question is, where are those who gave orders to these officers?’ he asks, recalling his role as a witness in the trial.
Komarica is grateful they have at least managed to bury Father Matanovic and his family, unlike Father Ratko Grgic from Nova Topola, who disappeared on 16 June1992, and about whom nothing is yet known. ‘We only ask to bury his remains in the priests' grave. But to this day no one has done anything so that we can bury our pastor.’
‘Zupljanin told me to go’
During the war, though he was under house arrest and could not move around, the Bishop tried to keep in contact with his diocese, sending out priests to bring him information from the various parishes while endeavouring to make contact with Bosnian Serb officials. One tried to intimidate him into leaving. ‘I was told by Stojan Zupljanin: "Bishop, you are not safe here at all. What are you doing here? Go!". ‘ ‘I said I wouldn't go, as I was not guilty of anything… We didn't want a fight. We didn't want to take any weapons into our hands. We did everything to be peacemakers in time of war.’ Stojan Zupljanin, former chief of the regional security services centre (CSB) of Banja Luka, is currently on trial before the Hague Tribunal for crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war.
In addition to his contacts with Zupljanin, Komarica sent letters to a number of Bosnian Serb officials, urging them to stop crimes from being committed against Catholics in Banja Luka. The letters went unanswered. In 1996 they were published in a book In Defence of the Oppressed.
Although for years no one has been prosecuted for the crimes committed against Croats in Banja Luka, Komarica maintains that the apparent lack of witnesses and evidence is no excuse. There are ‘enough witnesses who have stayed in Banja Luka’, he says, and ‘local Serbs, too’, who have some knowledge about the killings and expulsions of Croats; it is only a question of whether they are willing to testify. The Bishop says they have a duty to do so. ‘If a righteous man lets injustice triumph, he does not have any right to call himself a righteous man because it is injustice that has triumphed. The truthful and good man who allows falsehood and evil to triumph no longer has a right to call himself truthful and good,’ he adds. ‘Where are the truthful ones, where are the righteous ones, where are the good people in Banja Luka? How many and how loud are they?’ Komarica asks.
Referring to whether Croats themselves are willing to testify about what happened to their community in the war, Bishop Komarica admits many are afraid; not ready to speak about what they endured. Komarica believes that the wartime feeling of fear among the remaining Banja Luka Catholics is still very much present. Less than a tenth of his former parishioners remain. During the war a large number fled to Croatia or other countries and never returned. ‘The people's spine was broken, they were destroyed from within,’ Komarica says.
In addition to the Catholics killed during the war, Komarica notes that about 95 per cent of the diocese's church buildings were damaged or destroyed, adding that this was a well prepared and thoroughly executed strategy of eradication. But little by little church buildings are being restored, and more importantly over 2,500 homes of Banja Luka Croats are being restored too.
Merima Husejnovic is a BIRN
Justice Report journalist. (email@example.com), and this report appeared in BIRN's online Justice Report, 14 June 2010