Our Hero, Your Killer: A Sarajevo Story
Public denial of crimes against Serbs by the Bosnian Army in besieged Sarajevo shows that rival interpretations of the wartime past remain hard to reconcile, historian Nicolas Moll tells BIRN.
|Musan Topalovic. Photo: YouTube.|
The story of Musan Topalovic, alias Caco, a criminal who became a Bosnian Army brigade commander during the siege of Sarajevo and was later feted as a hero despite his alleged wartime crimes against Serbs, is the subject of Nicolas Moll’s new study, ‘Sarajevo’s Best-Known Public Secret’.
Topalovic’s 10th Mountain Brigade is believed to have killed over 20 civilians, mostly Serbs, and then dumped their bodies in a pit in the Kazani area of Sarajevo.
He was shot dead by police who arrested him during an armed crackdown on criminal gangs in the city in October 1993 and buried in a secret grave, but later exhumed and given a hero’s funeral.
Moll, a citizen of France and Germany who has lived in Sarajevo since 2007, looks at public attitudes towards Kazani and other crimes against Serbs in the Bosnian capital during the war, as well as politicians’ and the media’s role in the debate about whether Topalovic was a hero or a killer.
BIRN: Do you think people’s opinions about Caco and his crimes are a good example of the ‘ours versus theirs’ attitude to victims in Bosnia and Herzegovina today?
Nicolas Moll: Many in Sarajevo don’t want or have difficulties to publicly recognise that crimes have been committed against Serb civilians by the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, or they admit it, but immediately continue with a “but…”, for example: “but the Serbs committed much more crimes”, “but Caco defended our city” or “but he killed not only Serbs”, etc. This refusal to acknowledge “our” crimes, or the will to downplay them, reflects a general tendency which we can find all over Bosnia and Herzegovina.
In the same time, there has been a continuous effort, and this since 1997, by different actors in Sarajevo to criticise this attitude and to recognise these crimes, and in this continuity and strength these efforts are quite remarkable, also compared to other cities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. One step in this process was that in January 2013 the municipality of Sarajevo signed an agreement to build a monument in Kazani: this is the first time in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and also in the wider region, after the wars of the 1990s that a city officially declared its willingness to build a monument related to crimes committed by its own military forces.
Building a monument in Kazani does not resolve all problems and might also for some have alibi-functions, in order to say that now we have done something and we don’t need to talk about it anymore. But building a monument related to the crimes of Kazani would mean that these crimes would be acknowledged officially, institutionally. Besides that, it would be also very important to create more opportunities for discussion about the committed crimes, so that also younger people in Sarajevo know more about them and have the possibility to discuss about them. Building a monument is not the end of a process, but a step in a wider process.
What role do you think the media played in the debate about Caco and the Kazani killings?
Concerning the process of dealing with Caco and Kazani, the role of media has been crucial, and among all actors they have been so far the strongest advocates against the glorification of Caco and for the recognition of his crimes. This started very early after the war, in 1997 when [Bosnian magazine] Dani disclosed the testimonies about the crimes in Kazani, and since then different media in Sarajevo have regularly brought up this topic and criticised attitudes of denial.