In the world’s topography of mass atrocities, the town of Prijedor holds a particular place: in 1992, during the early months of the Bosnian war, more than 3,000 citizens of this city and municipality in northwestern Bosnia and Herzegovina were killed or disappeared.
However, twenty years later, Prijedor’s municipal government, led by Mayor Marko Pavic, refuses to memorialize the suffering of non-Serb citizens of Prijedor, while at the same time building numerous memorials to Serb combatants who died in the conflict.
Efforts to memorialize non-Serb victims of the conflict have been met with fierce political opposition from the town’s administration, and victims’ families and survivors have been targeted for organizing public events and using the word “genocide” to describe what they experienced.
These ongoing tensions provided backdrop for last month’s discovery of a mass grave in Prejidor, which is likely to contain the bodies of some of the estimated 1,200 civilians still missing after being held at one of the area’s notorious detention camps run by Bosnian Serb forces in 1992.
|The mass grave is the latest in several sites that have been found since the end of the war. However, authorities say this site is expected to be the largest mass grave ever to be found in this part of the country, and now the issue of memorializing Prijedor’s dead and missing is once again on the forefront of political debate.|
In recognition that all families and community members of Prjedor have the right to observe the memory of their loved ones, a group of leading world experts on truth-seeking and memorialization has called for the mayor of Prijedor, in Bosnia and Herzegovina, to publicly acknowledge and memorialize the non-Serb victims of atrocities committed in the city in the early 1990s.
In the letter sent to Mayor Pavic and various institutions, including the United Nations Secretary General, the Bosnian government, European Union representatives, and the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, the group of notable human rights advocates calls on the Prijedor administration to “uphold victims’ universally recognized right to the truth, which encompasses the basic right to grieve and honor their dead.”
The letter asks for Mayor Pavic to take immediate and effective steps to:
Initiate the building of a memorial to non-Serb victims in Prijedor, designed and built in consultation with victims and survivors.
Allow the construction of a memorial to the victims of the Omarska detention camp, designed and built in consultation with victims and survivors, and in cooperation with Arcelor Mittal, the corporation that currently owns the site.
Encourage accurate, constructive, and peaceful public education about the events of 1992-1995, and to withdraw any measure that targets victims’ associations and human rights activists in Prijedor for exercising their freedom of expression.
The letter concludes: “The discovery of a mass grave in Tomasica once again illustrates the dimensions of suffering endured by the citizens of Prijedor in the 1990s. The remains exhumed from its mass graves speak the difficult truth about atrocities and leave no room for denial.”
Co-signers of the letter include the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Torture, Juan Mendez; president of the International Center for Transitional Justice, David Tolbert; executive director of the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, Elizabeth Silkes; and leading activists on the right to truth and memorialization from Argentina, Cambodia, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Lebanon, Northern Ireland, Peru, and South Africa.
For the full text of the letter and the list of signatories, click here.
Background: Atrocities in the former Yugoslavia
Throughout the 1990s, as the former Yugoslavia broke apart, its territories—including Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), Macedonia and Kosovo—were battlegrounds for the worst violence in Europe since World War II.
|Violence included widespread attacks against civilians, population expulsions, systematic rape, and the use of concentration camps.
Between 1991 and 2000, more than 140,000 people were killed, and almost four million others were displaced.
The brutal crimes committed in Prijedor have been thoroughly documented in trials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and in Bosnian courts. More than 30 persons, including the town’s former mayor and camp commanders, have been convicted of crimes against humanity and war crimes.
The images of emaciated prisoners of notorious camps of Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje shocked the world, after Radovan Karadžić’s Bosnian Serb forces gained control of Prijedor in April 1992 and directed a well-organized campaign of “ethnic cleansing” against Bosnian Muslim and Bosnian Croat residents in the area. More than 1200 of those taken to the camps are still listed as disappeared.
Photo (Top):103 roses with names of children killed in Prijedor laid on the ground at the main square on 31 May 2013. There is no memorial in the city marking their death (JAMES MARSHALL); (Below) Forensic experts exhuming the Tomasica mass grave where dozens of bodies of Bosnian civilians from Prijedor are believed to have been buried by Bosnian Serb forces. Photo by Samir Sinanovic