The Murder of the Ribić Family

Just before Christmas 2015 Bosnian media reported that four young girls, sisters had been identified by forensics experts in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their remains had been exhumed from a large mass grave on a mountain called Crni Vrh (Black Peak) overlooking the town of Zvornik. According to forensics experts; 628 human remains were found in that particular mass grave. Prior to the discovery of the mass grave in Tomašica near Prijedor in the fall of 2013, Crni Vrh was the biggest primary mass grave found in Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to DW.com the mass grave, found in 2006, was over 40/5 meters wide and three meters deep. According to clothes and documentation, ID-cards found in the mass grave, the victims were mostly Bosniaks executed by local Serb forces between April and June 1992 in Zvornik.

However, the four girls identified in December last year were part of the small Roma community in Zvornik, as Muslims their names were enough to put them in the crosshairs of the local Serb forces carrying out the “cleansing of Zvornik”. The four sisters were part of a ten member Roma family from the village of Skočić executed by Serb forces. In the Ribić family, aside from the four identified sisters, two more sisters were executed along with one brother and their mother and father. The remains of the mother and father have been identified and they have been laid to rest. Only one member of the family survived the execution, then 8-year old Zijad (Zijo) Ribić who spoke to Bosnian media in a televised interview in December.

Zijad (Zijo) Ribić´s intreview with FACE TV in December

According to Ribić a group of Serb soldiers came to their house looking for money, gold, anything of value. The Serb soldiers started beating up members of the family and raping the female members of the family. Afterwards the family was loaded up on a truck and taken to Kozluk, a Bosniak majority area with several settlments in the north west area of Zvornik that was “cleansed” in the spring and summer of 1992. Once there, the Serb soldiers told them to get out of the truck. According to Zijad his mother was eight-months pregnant at the time. One of his sisters was raped at the execution spot and the last thing Zijad remembers was the gunfire and someone stabbing him in the throat with a knife. The next thing he remembers was waking up on a pile of bodies. Three years ago the bodies of his mother and father were identified by forensics experts, while two of his sisters and a brother, 2 years old at the time, remain unidentified. Aside from the nine members of the Ribić family, 20 more members of the Roma community in Skočić were murdered by Serb forces during the “cleansing” of that village.

The murderers of the Ribić family were identified as being members of a local paramilitary unit called “Simini četnici” (Sima´s Chetniks) led by Sima Bogdanovič. According to Slobodna Bosna; The unit had been part of the “Yellow Wasps” (  Žute Ose) paramilitary unit operating under the command of  Vojin Vučković in the Zvornik municipality when in the second half of May 1992, several members decided to seperate and form their own unit under the leadership of Sima Bogdanovič. Due to the killings taking place in the Zvornik municipality that spring and summer, the Bosniaks of Skočić decided to leave by the end of June 1992, leaving about 30 Roma civilians in the village.

Bogdanovič died during his trial which took place in Serbia, while other members of the unit were acquitted, their guilty verdicts overturned by the Serbian war crimes court claiming there was not enough evidence despite the testimonies over among others Zijad and other survivors from the village. As well as two members of the former JNA. ( Yugoslav People´s Army).

Marina Kljajić who monitored the trial for the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Fund said after the acquittal that the court established that all the acts of murder for which members of Sima´s unit were charged with  did indeed take place, but that the prosecution failed to produce sufficient evidence for a guilty verdict. That´s why the court ruled in favour of Sima´s Chetniks. The Serbian war crimes court squashed the first verdict, after the appeals court in Belgrade decided that there had to be a re-trial. During the first trial, two members of Sima´s Chetniks; Zoran Stojanović and Zoran Đurđević recived 20 years for the murders, while Tomislav Gavrić and Zoran Alić were sentenced to 10 years in prison.  Đorđe Šević and Dragan Đekić got five years and Damir Bogdanović got two years.

Zijad stands by the coffins of his newly identifed family members.
Zijad stands by the coffins of his newly identifed family members.

Kljajić believes that the prosecutors of the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor´s Office did a poor job, that they did not present concrete enough evidence regarding all the accused men, thus enabling the acquittal on appeal. According to Kljajić; “this also sends a bad message to the survivors who are expecting justice, justice isn´t that a court establishes beyond a doubt that the crimes did take place but that the prosecution failed to prove it.”

The unit entered the village, members of the unit destroyed the village mosque, while others were abusing the members of the Roma community in the village. Some were severely beaten; one person was killed on the spot while the rest of the village was taken to Malešići, part of the Kozluk area, and later to Hamzići where they were executed. Zijad Ribić was the only one who survived the executions. Three girls from the village were taken as sex slaves and forced into slave labour for the members of the unit. That charge was included in the indictment. The three girls later testified during the trial of the Sima´s men.

During his interview with FACE-TV Zijad also expressed disbelieve at the appeals court´s decision saying that both he and the girls were there and that they showed that they knew everything about the men indicted for the murders and sexual abuse. According to Zijad it´s as if his and the three women’s testimonies simply didn´t matter.  He was hit hard by the decision of the court and remembers the laughter of the accused in the courtroom once they heard the verdict.

Aside from the testimony of Zijo and the three girls, now women, two members of the JNA, former Yugoslav People´s Army testified at the trial. The two men had according to Zijad protected him from Sima´s Chetniks who were looking for him as he was the only survivor of the massacre. According to Zijad they refused to hand him over despite the requests from Sima and his men. Zijad says that the JNA-men told Sima that they would hand him over to the proper authorities, thus protecting him from a certain death at the hand of the unit. According to Zijad the two men left the JNA after the Serb takeover of Zvornik.

As for Zijad, he was transferred to a children’s home in Montenegro where he stayed until 2001 when he returned to Bosnia and Herzegovina, moving to Tuzla where he still lives and works as cook after completing a cook training program. He´s deeply disappointed in Bosnian institutions whom he doesn´t believe anymore after all the failed promises that they would do something about his case, to try to get some justice for his family. He´s also deeply disappointed in the local Roma representatives who he says have visited him making promises as well but not being able to help him in any concrete way.

A total of 3,936 people were killed or went missing in the Zvornik municipality between 1992 and 1995, according to the Research and Documentation Center. Zvornik was attacked by JNA ( Yugoslav People´s Army), members of Serbian State Security, The Red Berets, as well as various paramilitary units working under the auspicious of Serbian State Security, including Arkan´s Serb Volunteer Guard, Vojislav Seselj´s Chetniks and other units including Radovan Karadžić´s Bosnian Serb extremists. Zvornik was the second town in Bosnia (after Bjeljina) to come under attack.

According to Edina Bećirević´s critically acclaimed study: Genocide on the Drina River, “the calvary of Bosniaks  in Zvornik manifested itself in different ways, from torture, to rape, to mass executions to mass exodus” (page 22,) According to Bećirević as a border town it was Zvornik´s fate to be attacked by Serb forces on the other side of the Drina river. Despite being in the overwhelming majority the Bosniaks of Zvornik were not prepared for war, Bećirević says, and were surprised by the soldiers and the cannons attacking the town from the other side of the Drina river, in Serbia as well as the hatred of their neighbours who did not stand idly by, on the contrary, many played an active role in the genocide.

According to Bećirević a large portion of the Serb population took an active role in the crimes being committed, some offered logistical support to the attackers, other simply by looking away, which as Bećirević notes is a form of passive participation when it comes to the crime of genocide. She cites survivors from villages around Zvornik who say that “local chetniks” as well as their Serb neighbours took part in looting their homes, sexually abusing them, beating and murdering non-Serbs.

The initial attack on Bjeljina (1th of April ) was according to Bećirević a warning to those championing Bosnian independence, and the activities of the JNA and other units from Serbia were intended to deter Bosnian leadership from further seeking independence. (The killing spree by Serb forces under Željko Ražnatović-Arkan in Bjeljina was captured by then young photographer Ron Haviv ) while the attack on Zvornik came few days later (April 8th 1992) taking place two days after the international community had officially recognized Bosnia and Herzegovina as a sovereign state. Bećirević notes that one of the six strategic goals of the Bosnian Serb leadership was the removal of the river Drina as border between “Serb lands” (page 25, 26, Genocide on the Drina River)

Another aspect of genocide is the physical eradication of cultural heritage. As American journalist and political commentator Chris Hedges noted in his book ( War Is a Force that Gives Us Meaning ) when it came to Zvornik, the town had once had a dozen mosques, and 60 % of the population was Bosnian Muslim ( Bosniaks), by the end of the war, it was 100 % Serb. Hedges writes that in Bosnia, The Serbs desperately trying to deny the Muslim character of Bosnia, dynamited or plowed over libraries, museums, universities, historical monuments and cemeteries but most of all mosques. Hedges recalled how Brano Grujić, the Serb-appointed mayor (The Bosniak mayor of Zvornik was removed after the takeover) telling him and other journalists how “there were never any mosques in Zvornik”.

Hedges wrote that “no doubt Grujić didn´t believe that. He knew that there had been mosques in Zvornik, but his children and grand-children would come to be taught the lie. Serb leaders would turn it into an accepted historical fact. There are no shortages of villages in Russia, Germany or Poland where all memory of the Jewish community is gone because the physical culture has been destroyed”. (page 76)

Excerpt from the documentary Death of Yugoslavia, dealing withe Serb attack on Zvornik with commentary by among other Vojislav Šešelj, leader of the Serb Radical Party who´s paramlitary unit, at the request of Slobodan Milošević  took part in the attack. As well as Spanish writer and politican Jose Maria Mendiluce´s comments, Mendiluce as a member of the UN Refugee Agency witnessed the attack, including the JNA artillary firing into Bosnia from across the border, as well as seeing several lorries full of bodies being taken away from the streets of Zvornik.

This post has been uppdated and edited 2016-02-02 & 2016-02-04

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