On February 27, 1993, Nail Kajevic waited in the southern Serbian town of Prijepolje for his brother Nijazim to arrive by train from Belgrade. But when the train arrived after some delay, his brother was not on it and the other passengers had a gruesome story to tell.
The train had been stopped at a small station in the Bosnian town of Strpci, near the Bosnia-Serbia border, and uniformed men took several passengers away in an unknown direction.
“Out of the 20 who were taken, nine were from Prijepolje, so the families found out right away,” Nail Kajevic told BIRN.
The 20 non-Serb passengers were taken and killed by members of a Serb paramilitary unit called the Avengers, which was under the command of Milan Lukic.
Among the victims were 18 Bosniaks, one Croat and one unidentified person. The remains of only four of them have been found, while the others are still listed as missing.
Only two Bosnian Serb fighters have so far have been convicted of the crime -Nebojsa Ranisavljevic, who was sentenced to 15 years in prison in Montenegro, and Mico Jovicic, who received a five-year sentence after pleading guilty before the Bosnian state court.
The Avengers’ leader Milan Lukic was sentenced to life imprisonment by the Hague Tribunal in 2012 for committing war crimes in the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad, but not for the Strpci deaths.
The trial of ten suspects began in the Bosnian capital Sarajevo in October 2015 after their arrests in December the previous year.
In Belgrade, the trial of five more suspects officially began on January 29 this year, only to be postponed because one of the defendants was ill. The postponed opening hearing was rescheduled for March 4, but it remains uncertain if it will be held or not.
The Serbian prosecution has charged Gojko Lukic, brother of the Avengers’ chief Lukic, along with Ljubisa and Dusko Vasiljevic, Jovan Lipovac and Dragana Djekic.
But the victims’ families have little hope that any court will convict anyone except the direct perpetrators, and say that the authorities are not interested in finding the remaining victims or compensating the relatives.
Avengers unit leader Milan Lukic at the UN court in the Hague in 2006. Photo: Serge Ligtenberg/EPA.
Executions at a burned-out house
According to the Serbian war crimes prosecutor’s indictment, on February 27, 1993, a group of 25 to 30 Bosnian Serb Army fighters was formed with the task of abducting non-Serb passengers from a train travelling from Belgrade to Bar in Montenegro.
Around 3.30pm the same day, the fighters travelled to Strpci, where they forced the rail traffic controller to stop the train there, threatening the controller with weapons. The prosecution claims that Ljubisa and Dusko Vasiljevic and Jovan Lipovac were in this group.
After the train was halted, some of the soldiers positioned themselves on either side of the tracks, while others entered the train and checked the passengers’ IDs, in order to identify non-Serbs.
From the train they took Fevzija Zekovic, Halil Zupcevic, Ilijaz Licina, Rasim Coric, Nijazim Kajevic, Muhedin Hanic, Ismet Babacic, Esad Kapetanovic, Senad Djecevic, Safet Preljevic, Adem Alomerovic, Zvijezdan Zulicic, Seco Softic, Fehim Bakija, Rifat Husovic, Jusuf Rastoder, Tomo Buzov, Dzafer Topuzovic, Fikret Memovic and one unknown individual.
Two witnesses later described hearing some of the passengers shout to the paramilitaries: “Take them away, kill them!”
They loaded the victims onto a military truck and drove them to an elementary school in the nearby village of Prelovo, where they were joined by Gojko Lukic and Dragana Djekic.
At the elementary school, the victims were beaten, ordered to take off their clothes and robbed of money and valuables, according to the indictment.
Wearing nothing but underwear, with their hands tied behind their backs with string, the victims were driven a burned-out house in the village of Musici, where they were executed in groups of two or three. Two of the victims were killed while trying to escape.
What Belgrade knew about the crime
Belgrade Higher Court, where war crimes trials take place. Photo: BIRN.
In September 2002, Montenegro sentenced Avengers member Nebojsa Ranisavljevic to 15 years in prison for taking part in the abduction and killings.
During his trial, the Belgrade Public Railway Transportation Company, ZTP, delivered previously confidential reports to the court that showed how much the Belgrade authorities knew about the planned kidnapping.
A report signed by the director of ZTP’s sector for defence preparations and protection, Milan Mandic, said that he was informed on January 28 that Serb forces would stop a train and “take passengers away”.
“The action will take place on the section of the Belgrade-Bar railway that goes through Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Mandic wrote in a report to the ZTP General Manager on February 1, 1993.
In the report, Mandic also said that he had meetings on the issue with representatives of the police, State Security and the Defence Ministry.
According to the documents, the ZTP asked the Serbian Defence Ministry and Yugoslav Army to put pressure on Bosnian Serb forces to give up on the planned action.
However, a Montenegrin commission established to investigate the abductions obtained documents from the Serbian Public Prosecutor’s office showing that a Serbian train conductor was writing down passengers’ names on their tickets as the train left Belgrade, before stopping at Strpci.
The Montenegrin commission’s 1995 report said that there are suspicions that the kidnappings were “meticulously planned”.
Some of the victims’ families are convinced that the Serbian authorities were behind the planning and execution of the crime.
“This was the work of state leadership. It was not some robbery or vengeance, but a scenario designed in Belgrade,” Nail Kajevic said.
Ragib Licina, whose brother Ilijaz was among the victims, said that truth came out during the Ranisavljevic trial, but the courts have not acted upon it.
“That’s the reality, everything is known, but there is no justice, no punishment for the crime,” Licina told BIRN.
He added that the authorities are doing nothing to locate the remains of the 16 people who are still missing.
The remains of four victims – Halil Zupcevic, Rasim Coric, Jusuf Rastoder and Ilijaz Licina – were found in Lake Perucac, which lies on the Bosnia-Serbia border, in 2009 and 2010.
In a joint operation in 2014, Bosnia and Serbia arrested 15 people suspected of the Strpci abductions, among them Gojko Lukic and former Bosnian Serb Army officers Luka Dragicevic and Boban Indjic.
The trial of Dragicevic, Indjic and eight others opened in Bosnia in 2015 and is still ongoing, with only Mico Jovicic pleading guilty and receiving a five-year sentence.
In Serbia, the war crimes prosecutor filed an indictment against Gojko Lukic and four others in May 2018, almost three-and-a-half years after their arrest.
Ragib Licina, who lives in the Montenegrin town of Bijelo Polje, said that he would like to attend the trial, but he is afraid to travel in Serbia.
“We [the families] want the culprits and those who gave the order to be brought to justice and face adequate punishment,” Licina said.