The culture of denial in Prijedor

According to the verdicts of the Hague Tribunal, this year marks the twenty-first anniversary of the ethnic cleansing of Prijedor’s non-Serb population. However, as the case of Prijedor’s memorial culture shows, a culture of denial continues to shape the past, present and future memories of the crimes against humanity committed.

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By Haris Subašić

Today, twenty-one years after serious crimes were committed in Prijedor, the rights of the victims remain largely denied through the use of uncommonly profound forms of political and cultural strategies of denial. Such strategies revolve around an official collective memory and narrative of the so-called “Serbian defensive-liberation war” in Prijedor during the nineties, and are most visible through the memorial culture of monuments and its associated propaganda.

The official narrative of the monuments contains inscriptions such as “the soldiers who died in the homeland war, 1991-1995. They courageously used their chance to die” (in Orlovci, Prijedor), they “courageously died for the fatherland of Republika Srpska” (the standard inscription), or they were killed by “Muslim extremists in the war of defence and liberation“ (Djapa Radenko monument).

A culture of denial of ethnic cleansing through the memorial culture of monuments continues to unfold – in terms of numbers, the spatial narratives of the monuments and the indifferent attitude of Prijedor’s citizens toward these issues.

The minimum number of monuments dedicated to the so-called “Serbian defensive-liberation war” in Prijedor totals 60, while the total number of monuments for non-Serb victims is around 10. Significantly, the mass production of monuments for Serb victims is disproportionate in relation to the marginalized representation of non-Serb victims in Prijedor. Victims assert that there is not a single monument dedicated to non-Serb victims in urban parts of Prijedor municipality because local authorities prohibit it.

Despite an already grim reality regarding the lack of memorization of non-Serb victims, the local government in Prijedor does not allow the construction of monuments for non-Serb victims in those areas where concentration camps were located (namely, Omarska and Trnopolje), due to various forms of institutional political manipulation that allegedly “provoke inter-ethnic hatred” or “legal manipulation”, such as “at the state level,where there must be a minimum consensus on this [the monuments]”.

To date, there is no law on monuments for the victims of war crimes in Bosnia-Herzegovina, nor any law against the denial of genocide and crimes against humanity. Adopting these laws at the state level has been obstructed by politicians from the Republika Srpska (RS), particularly the SNSD (the Union of Independent Social Democrats). According to independent media, these laws were opposed because RS politicians deem them as both a threat to the Entity’s survival and a chance for personal opportunism.

Referring to the monuments in Prijedor, Marijana Toma, an expert in transitional justice, argues that it is important to legally regulate these issues at the state-level so that, on the one hand, the denial of war crimes can be hindered by using monuments as a form of propaganda, and, on the other, “to prevent the manipulation of facts”. It is also essential for allowing an adequate representation of the truth through monuments – a crucial factor in dealing with the past and promoting reconciliation. Many transitional justice experts agree with her assertions.

The most controversial monument – one which stands as a denial of crimes committed – was erected on the site of the former concentration camp, Trnopolje, by the local government. “The monument for all Serb soldiers who were killed” was raised in 1999, like most of other monuments for Serb soldiers in Prijedor. Satko Mujagic, a former prisoner in Omarska camp twice wrote a public letter (Pismo bez odgovora) – in 2004 and 2009 – to the mayors of Prijedor, calling for “the monument to be removed” or that they “erect a collective monument that would symbolize reconciliation”. However, victim’s appeals continue to be ignored due to the prevailing attitude of denial propagated by the political elites and citizens. As a result, the victims feel humiliated and intimidated.

The monument for all Serbian soldiers erected in the area of ex-Trnopolje camp. Photo by Haris Subašić.

No memorial to the victims of the former concentration camp, Omarska, has been erected as yet. According to the mayor, Marko Pavic, a memorial complex in Omarska will disrupt inter-ethnic relations. Furthermore, the victims do not have the right to visit the sites of the crimes committed whenever they wish, being only granted access on the day of commemoration.

The Research and Documentation Centre (RDC) in Sarajevo claims that the number of people killed or missing in the period from 1991-1995 in the region of Western Bosnia and Prijedor is around 14,491 – 10,688 Bosniaks (73.91%), 3,340 Serbs (23.10%), 382 Croats (2.64%), and 51 people belonging to various other minority ethnic groups (0.35%).

According to evidence from the non-Serb victim association, ‘Izvor’, the total number of killed and missing people from Prijedor municipality totals 3,177 (3,015 Bosniaks, 138 Croats, 12 Albanians, 8 Roma, 1 Czech, 1 Pakistani, 1 Serb, 1 Ukrainian). Of this number, an estimated 2,078 people were killed and around 1,099 are still considered missing. Around 31,000 were detained in concentration camps, and 53,000 were deported from Prijedor.

The indisputable historical record of  the Hague Tribunal affirmed that ethnic cleansing against non-Serb civilians – mainly Bosniaks and Croats – occurred in and around the Prijedor area in the nineties; led by local Bosnian Serb political, police and other forces with the aim to create a pure Serb state. To date, these findings are interpreted differently in Prijedor.

Of 27 individuals prosecuted by the Hague, 13 were found guilty of mass killings, detention in concentration camps (Omarska, Trnopolje and Keraterm), rape, deportation, torture, destruction of cultural and religious heritage, and robbery of non-Serbs that occurred in Prijedor, primarily in 1992. Amongst those convicted of crimes against humanity in Prijedor area were Milomir Stakic, Darko Mrdja, Biljana Plavsic and Zoran Zigic, to name but a few.

Neither the respective mayors, political elites or citizens have as yet issued any public apology for the crimes committed in Prijedor. Furthermore, they refuse to participate in meetings organised with the aim of  working towards reconciliation, fail to provide full support to the ongoing search for missing persons and refuse to take part in camp commemorations.

Such denial of the fact-based truth established by the Hague Tribunal about the crimes committed in Prijedor – particularly through the memorial culture of monuments and moral responsibility – serves to legitimize war crimes and results in further injustices for the victims, both legal and moral. Furthermore, it sets the foundations for potential future conflicts, whilst leaving the process of reconciliation facing certain failure.

Haris Subašić is currently a PhD student in Human Rights at Hacettepe Üniversitesi (Turkey). Haris previously worked as a research assistant at King’s College London on a project entitled, “Pictures of Peace and Justice Documentation, Evidence and Impact of Visual Material in International War Crimes Prosecution”.

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21 Responses

  1. Ross Rutherford

    It’s very strange as an outsider to understand how the monument at Trnopolje and the cross sculpture in the middle of town don’t “provoke inter-ethnic hatred” while Keraterm is only marked by a small plaque on the ground and Omarska goes without a memorial.
    Is there a collective shame among the Bosnian Serbs of Prijedor that is so impossible to deal with that denial is the only way for them to go on living normal day-to-day lives? If so, what reconciliation approaches can there be that allow all parties to acknowledge the past and seek, together, to move forward?
    Abraham Lincoln’s words seem fitting. Oh, that this sentiment would find a place in the hearts of all the people of Bosnia.
    “With malice toward none, with charity for all, with firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right, let us strive on to finish the work we are in, to bind up the nation’s wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan, to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace among ourselves and with all nations.”

  2. Aleks

    ‘Concentration Camp’? Really? So much for this author’s credibility. If you want to find revisionism and interpreting the facts to suit your own opinions, there there is no need but to look closer to home. The rest of us have moved beyond the hyper sensationalist propaganda of the 1990s.

  3. sale

    I fully agree that, according to ICTY judgements, the Prijedor’s camps were detention camps and
    not concentration camps.

    Although, using the same term, concentration camp, to designate detention centres, work
    camps, even extermination centres is the source of much confusion and far too much
    relativism. Personally, I would not value author’s credibility merely upon the misusage of any
    interchangeable synonyms such as detention with concentration camp, as a merely revisionisitcal
    attempt sincerely in this case. Because, I think that the main point of the article is about the
    negation or denial of the committed war crimes in Prijedor today (e. i. Ethnic cleansing), and
    not about the whether the camps were detention or concentration camps. It is really important
    to prevent resurgence of the criminal ideologies from the 90’s by demistifications of the denial
    strategies, and I think this is the main point.

    If we take a look at the mentioned numbers, I think we clearly have a big picture about what
    happened and what is going on now in Prijedor, regardless of any political and national
    sentiments one could have respectively. I think the best example of what should bystanders,
    negators, deniers do today in Prijedor or elsewhere for the sake of a better future for all is
    mentioned in a book “Duty to Respond” by Nenad Dimitrijevic, as he stated: “We all must look
    back to the bad things that happened in the recent past, learn from our own moral catastrophe,
    and find in these lessons a guide for the transformation of the internal connections of a group.
    We are bound by a duty to publicly affirm the suffering of the victims, to tell them that what
    happened to them was wrong and unjust, and that we are sorry. We should have shown, as
    individuals, in a society and in a polity, that we deserve to have a second chance to return to a
    civilized community”.

  4. Nash

    500+ years of Muslim occupation and terror against domicile Christians in Bosnia and Herzegovina have no single memorial erected….let alone savage killings by the SS Handžar Muslim divission during the second WW….
    Naturally, all crimes by anyone against humans are not to be justified ever…..the same goes for the Bosnian Serbs and their doings during the last civil conflict in Bosnia.
    However, Bosnian Muslims have no moral credentials to which hunt b4 they clean their own house where a lots of skeletons still exist…….crying for justice…..
    Moral status and principle of human justice prevail to any political or social dogma…..history does not starts just from 20 years ago my dear Haris…..

    1. Osman

      When you mentioned “Muslims’ moral credentials” please do not forget to mention also the Christians’ moral credibility/credentials to put it correctly, particularly that history is full of examples of the Catholic Church extreme controversy, that surrounds any discussion of the Church’s role in genocide and crimes against humanity.
      This is an interesting topic about not national but rather religious role in crimes against the humanity and genocides, but it makes a significant difference in addressing moral credence issues properly.

      Several issues need to be highlighted in seeking to unravel this controversy.
      First is the allegation that the Church was directly responsible for the drive toward colonialism in issuing papal bulls that commanded states such as Portugal to spread Catholicism.
      One might argue that these declarations led European nation-states to believe that it was their right to acquire territories abroad. The fact that crimes against humanity were committed during colonial conquest is uncontested.
      Further, a second criticism often leveled against the Church is that it has failed in its moral duty to condemn or guide leaders and populations in curbing genocidal tendencies. Such an argument claims that the Church, by virtue of its proclaimed aim of spiritual guidance, ought to have played a more significant role in the prevention of crimes against humanity and genocide.

      The third and fiercest criticism of the Church, however, is that it has furthered genocidal tendencies. This remains the harshest criticism and goes beyond moral arguments to an examination of evidence suggesting that elements of the Church have colluded with forces perpetrating crimes against humanity and genocide.

      Similar happened with, the Orthodox Church’s moral credentials during the Bosnia war. It also did nothing to prevent resurgence of the Srebrenica Genocide, ethnic cleansing in Prijedor, or any other war crimes, but rather fueld the Serb ultra-national identity, through which mass crimes in Bosnia were rather justified against Muslims, etc. So much about the religious moral credentials unfortunately throughout history.

  5. Well, I do not agree that Bosnian Muslims from Prijedor are in any way guilty of terrorizing that happened with the Ottomans against Christians in any real sense a few centuries ago. In one’s imaginative reasoning it makes a sort of the real sense but not in any factual or real objectively. Because these were/are real people with their real lives in the 90’s, just like anyone anywhere, with dreams, hopes, jobs, and children etc. They did not defend Ottomans atrocities against the Christians in any real or well and wide known possible way so far. So, I do not buy the story about allegedly their fault in any real or reasonable sense for Otomans’ atrocities against the Christians that had happened a few centuries ago with respect. It does not make any real sense! I do not think that one’s “imaginative revisionism or a historical revenge-ionism” is also any reasonable common sense, academical or intellectual, or a real solution and means to these problems in the future time to come, because it will ensure us rather to creep in our own mud and make way for more revisionism, revenge-ionism and atrocities, because we decided to replace truth and facts with one’s imaginative historical revisionism, or with regime’s monumental propaganda, Ottomans with Bosnian Muslims in Prijedor in this line…this is real bad solution and reasoning! We should foster real intellectual means that we should embrace to create a better future for all of us, by truth, Conventions, and the reason, and not by the revision and one’s historiography or merely one’s ‘Historia magistra vita EST’ formula. The question is, whether Historia magistra vita EST, or revenge-ionism are reasonable approaches in dealing with the past atrocities like the one in Prijedor or elsewhere, and in relation to the creation of the better future of human kind? I do not think so. Especially if we take a look at what Nazi’s did in Europe in XX century, by their imaginative historical myths about their superiority and revisionism against Jews for instance, so no historical revisionism or revenge-ionism please, for God’s sake we live in the XXI century, we have reason, facts, freedoms and human rights, books, Conventions to prevent Genocides and Holocaust, like Srebrenica genocide was etc.! About the monuments regarding Otoman’s atrocities, it is not again any real guilt of Bosnian Muslims from Western Bosnia, why these monuments did not exist in any real sense, but it was up to Authoritarian political cultures and regimes, almost the same like Marko Pavic’s nowadays in Prijedor, that existed traditionally from Otomans onwards, that is until the mid-90’s in the Balkans, that denied these atrocities too for political and ideological authoritarian reasons. For example, in ex-Yugoslavia the ruling communists glorified Partizans and brotherhood by the official monuments, but it was up to the regime to make these Authoritarian imaginative and the official memories propaganda using monuments, and not up to Bosnian Muslims in Prijedor, why did not exist any real monument marking sufferings of Christians by Otomans long time ago now. So, I strongly believe that Pavic’s semi-authoritarian political culture in Prijedor today will be real and smart enough to embrace the real truth and facts about recent war crimes and erect monuments for innocent victims, the real people, not Ottomans, today in Prijedor. To allow victims freedoms and rights, and real democracy, and not criminology, etc.

  6. Endre Persson

    A very good post. My wifes familly comes from Prijedor. They were deported during the war but many from her familly died in Omarska. It is terrible that we can not visit Omarska. Would this ever be possible with the WWII camps, not allowing the jews to visit the camps where their famillies were killed?

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