In-depth | Serbia

Veterans’ sorrow is profound, but so is their hope

By - 14.01.2022

The Center for Nonviolent Action, preaching peace for two decades. 

In mid-December 2021, former belligerents in the wars of Yugoslav succession gathered in Vlasotinac, a small Serbian town 300 kilometers south of Belgrade, to honor one of their own. Former members of the Croatian Army (HV), the Croatian Defense Council (HVO), the Army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina (ARBiH), the Army of Republika Srpska (VRS), the Yugoslav Army (VJ) and the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) were there to lay wreaths at the grave of Novica Kostić and to sign and submit to city officials a petition requesting that the street Kostić lived on be renamed in his honor.

Kostić died at the age of 61. For decades he struggled with injuries he sustained in November 1991 as a JNA reservist fighting in the Croatian War of Independence. He was left disabled and as his health further deteriorated he underwent numerous surgeries.

In the petition, the veterans wrote that Kostić engaged in peace activism for decades and his visits to the locations of mass killings to talk about peace took him across what was once Yugoslavia.

“He never missed a chance to talk about the horrors of war and advocate for peace, reconciliation, cooperation and solidarity between people who live on the territory of former Yugoslavia,” reads the petition signed by more than 150 people, including Kostić’s neighbors and many other residents of Vlasotinac.

Kostić’s peace mission was part of the activities carried out by the Center for Nonviolent Action (CNA), which has been working in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Montenegro, North Macedonia and Kosovo since 2002 to build trust among people. As part of their activities, they bring people to visit sites of mass execution in order to honor the victims and call for the perpetrators to be brought to justice.

On the day of the commemoration in Vlasotinac, CNA screened a documentary featuring Kostić. In the film, he reflects on his activism and the war, and says that no war has a winner. “The direct participants are just ordinary people who fell for it and accepted to become victims of the war,” he said. “It now bothers me when someone says ‘loyal to the country.’ Why, for goodness sake? Is the country loyal to me? What has that country done for me?”

Danijel Kostić learned from his father Novica, who used to be a soldier, about the importance of peace, lessons Novica shared with colleagues from the Center for Nonviolent Action. Photo: Dejan Kožul.

Apart from the veterans, the commemoration was attended by Kostić’s son, Danijel, who learned about peace from his father. That day, the younger Kostić said that he was grateful that everyone got together to “honor Novica and my family as well as to show once again to the whole world, and especially to young people, what real principles are, what real values are, and what is more essential than life itself.”

Kostić recalled how for his father, engaging with CNA was an opportunity to tell everyone that many veterans were just ordinary people who were separated from their families and thrown into the fire.

“He wanted to hear the other side, to see what someone from Croatia who also fought in the war had to say, to hear from a Bosnian, to confirm his belief that these were all normal family men who were forced by fate into these circumstances,” Danijel Kostić said. “When he heard about the idea of peacebuilding, he embraced it as something sacred. It was something he was ready to get involved in. He wanted to give his best and make it a success.”

Challenging war roles

In many ways, Novica Kostić was the embodiment of CNA. He was one of their key people, having been involved in their activities since the very first training programs in 2004. Amer Delić, one of the leading people at CNA and an ARBiH veteran, said that Kostić was one of his role models and that his dedication encouraged him to become engaged in his local community in Zavidovići, Bosnia.

“My fear of speaking about my war experience disappeared, I could say that not everything that we managed to achieve in the war had the sweetness of victory or liberation to it,” Delić said in Vlasotinac.

“By getting involved [in CNA], I started challenging my role in the war, which up to that point to me was spotless. I was on my own turf, defending myself from an aggressor, so I could bask in that. However, I wasn’t thinking about what happened outside my immediate surroundings, what communities were affected,” Delić said.

Having given up on war, Kostić and other veterans now fight for peace.

“On the other hand, you’ve got people like us,” he continued. “I had the need to talk to someone after the war, especially about the crimes. I went out there looking for people from other ethnic groups to speak with, but no one wanted to. Closed subject. Everyone would just say, ‘Leave it.’ Then in these types of meetings, I got the chance to talk.”

Delić learned from Kostić how to talk about the war in a different way. He said he listened to Kostić at forums where he would openly discuss his military engagement and criticize the current Serbian government, sending a message to young people that they have alternatives. Delić remembers how Kostić called upon younger generations to never accept being sent to fight.

Having given up on war, Kostić and other veterans now fight for peace. This type of peace engagement is what CNA has been doing for years.

CNA was founded in 1997 in Sarajevo, Bosnia. After four years of work, they opened another office in Belgrade. The first activities run by the two offices were forums called “Four Views” and Kostić joined from the start. The idea was to bring together participants in the war, veterans, and help them talk about their experiences. The forums were open to the public and attracted other veterans, as well as victims of the war.

Colleagues and friends of Novica Kostić gathered in Vlasotinac to say their last goodbyes and to appeal for peace. Photo Dejan Kožul.

Other activities were born from these forums, but the focus remained on peace activism and working with veterans.

So far, according to CNA activist Davorka Turk, they have published more than 20 books in different languages, produced nine documentaries (most of which were aired on national television stations) and organized three international conferences as well as several regional seminars featuring historians, journalists and activists.

“We’ve marked 120 previously unmarked sites of mass killings. Moreover, we drafted a national strategy for peacebuilding in Serbia, which we — after it was rejected by the Serbian Government — gave to the people of Serbia; we strongly believe that it will be implemented at some point,” said Turk.

CNA has organized many commemorative visits across the years. In early 2020, for instance, CNA went to Prijepolje to lay flowers and pay their respects to the people abducted and later executed by the convicted war criminal Milan Lukić and members of his unit “Osvetnici” (“Avengers”), which were a part of the armed forces that fought in Bosnia.

The abduction took place in Štrpci, near the border of Serbia and Bosnia, on a train headed from Belgrade to Bar, Montenegro. Lukić and a group of armed men stopped the train, entered and checked the IDs of the passengers, after which they singled out 20 Bosniaks. They were taken to a town near Višegrad in Bosnia and executed. Some of them were from Prijepolje while almost all of the victims were from Serbia or Montenegro.

Nebojša Ranisavljević was given a 15-year sentence for this crime in 2002 by the Higher Court in Bijelo Polje, Montenegro. After reaching a plea agreement, Mićo Jovičić was sentenced to five years in prison in Bosnia. Since 2014, when 16 more indictees were arrested, court processes have been pending in Bosnian and Serbian courts.

By the end of 2019, the Prosecutor’s Office of Bosnia and Herzegovina filed an indictment against Milan Lukić, who is charged with commanding the forces that committed the crime. This trial is also pending.

Today, 28 years after the Štrpci massacre, the victims’ families are left without even symbolic compensation simply because their loved ones were killed on another country’s territory.

Among the veterans who paid tribute to the victims in March 2020 was Novica Kostić who cried out: “Never forget and never again!”

Đoko Pupčević from the Bosnian town of Šamac was also present at the commemoration. On the day of the massacre, the former VRS soldier and a friend of Kostić’s was aboard the train as a passenger. He gave a speech in Prijepolje, in which he recounted how men in uniforms stormed the train. 

“Some uniformed men entered our compartments and demanded that we show them our IDs,” Pupčević recalled. “The train didn’t move for 40 minutes or so. Eventually, the ticket inspector came, so we asked him what was happening. He told us they took off 15 to 20 people. I didn’t know the reason why until I arrived in Podgorica. I heard something on the news. It was only then that I found out what it was all about.” 

“It’s heartbreaking that bodies have not been found and it’s unlikely they ever will, given that they haven’t been located since,” Pupčević said in his speech. “However, I beg everyone who knows anything to reveal the location, so that those people’s bones and souls could finally rest in peace and so that their families have a place to pay their respects.”

Looking after the forgotten

The arrival of the veterans at massacre sites is not always welcome. Amer Delić recalls how they had to wait for the official delegations and the representatives of the Islamic Community of Serbia to visit Prijepolje before they were provided with an opportunity to do so. 

“Sometimes they would even tell us to go away. They didn’t want to have us at all,” Delić said, adding that at times they were even forbidden from laying flowers. “Today, there’s less of that. They invite us and trust us. They invite us without any ulterior motives. We are asked to come and be there in difficult times. We can feel it.”

Amer Delić, a former soldier, has dedicated his life to promoting peace and to remembering all those who lost their lives in the wars. Photo: Dejan Kožul.

One of the places they have gathered is at Bradina, a village near Konjic in Herzegovina. In May 2021, a commemorative event was held there in honor of Serb civilians who were killed in the ’90s. According to official records, on May 25, 1992, and in the following days, ARBiH forces murdered over 40 people, while dozens were taken prisoner and kept for months in the Čelebići camp where they were subjected to torture. 

The bodies of 25 people have been exhumed from a mass grave located near the local church, others have been found elsewhere and five people are still missing.

A total of 13 suspects are on trial for these crimes before the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The trial commenced on May 8, 2019, and the charges include the murder, rape and imprisonment of Serbs from Konjic as well as the ethnic cleansing of the area where they had been living for centuries.

Delić mentions that the victims’ families who still live in the area are lonely.

“The Republika Srpska government doesn’t care about them,” he said. “Even though Konjic enjoys the status of a ‘hero city’, the local government doesn’t want them. They are a nuisance. People are ashamed of having treated them the way they treated them, which they justify by saying that it was a time of war and that we had to do it.”

Peacebuilding is made much more difficult by the official narratives of the countries CNA operates in, narratives that are not easily given up.

“This group of people has a feeling that no one needs or cares about them, so they’re left on their own,” Delić said. “In the conversations we have with them, they say nobody recognizes their suffering. However, they recognize our commitment, so they say: ‘Welcome! It’s an honor that you feel our pain and want to join us on this day.'”

Delić notes that it was an impossible thing to do 10 years ago.

“At some places, we went through ceremonies where speakers would rant about enemies, adversaries, Chetniks, Ustashas and Mujahideen. But that has started to change, so speeches are a bit more toned down now,” he said.

Peacebuilding is made much more difficult by the official narratives of the countries CNA operates in, narratives that are not easily given up, Delić says, adding that “these narratives are built on solid foundations and are still greatly reinforced by those people for whom it is of paramount importance not to have narratives challenged or changed.”

CNA has taken small steps at first. “A lot of time is necessary to see progress in any process, but 10 years on you can take a step back and say it’s coming along. That’s how long it took us before we put into practice the idea of visiting locations of mass killings and attending commemorations dedicated to victims without any picking and choosing,” Amer said. 

He adds that they go to those places where there are people who can understand the meaning behind what CNA does. “The point is that we should no longer consider each other enemies,” he said.

“It’s important to hear from someone who was on the opposite side say that they’re sorry that someone committed a crime in their name. And it’s important to have a space where this is possible. It’s a big improvement,” Delić explained.

Because of CNA and the veterans who visit sites of mass killings some of the questions that used to be off-limits are now posed openly. But for this to happen, they had to start from their own communities.

“What we do must go step by step, trust has to be developed, but more and more the youth and people are getting involved through local communities or through the political office at the municipal level. Mostly we are met with support,” Delić said, adding that though there is always a need for caution in their work, they must always insist that all stories be told.

Each year, CNA activists publish a short story collection Biber (Pepper) with the aim of describing the horrors of war and highlighting the values of peace. Photo: Courtesy of CNA.

Another important part of CNA’s activities is the Biber short story collection series. Biber, which means “Pepper,” is published in Bosnian/Croatian/Serbian, Macedonian and Albanian and contributions are taken via public calls. “The number of stories grows with each cycle and we recently launched our fifth collection, which only goes to show how much it takes to be able to put our pain and loss into words, but also to dare to imagine what reconciliation looks like and in what way we can bring it about,” Davorka Turk said.

Novica Kostić’s passing may represent a turning point for CNA; with time there will be fewer and fewer war veterans. Those who are involved with CNA refer to themselves as “brothers by destiny.” They say that though they were once enemies, today they are in a common battle to build and preserve peace.

“I’m not sure if peacework can be discussed in the same terms with which success is measured in capitalism,” Turk said. “This kind of effort doesn’t bring any material gain and it doesn’t constitute a linear process. It requires nerves of steel and the ability to look ahead with one eye focused on the rearview mirror. For us, peace isn’t merely the absence of war, but the presence of freedom of movement, thought and action, the presence of safety, security and justice, and the absence of oppression, discrimination and injustice.”

Feature image: Courtesy of CNA.


This article has been produced with the financial support of the “Balkan Trust for Democracy,” a project of the German Marshall Fund of the United States and the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Balkan Trust for Democracy, the German Marshall Fund of the United States, or its partners.