The rugged back roads between Montenegro and the valleys of Bosnia and Hercegovina are not for the faint-hearted. Particularly in winter, with isolated checkpoints manned by unsympathetic militia whose discipline and sobriety could be questionable. But in wartime you go with what you’ve got. The brutal tide of “ethnic cleansing” sweeping the former Yugoslavia had finally reached a place that our team from the European Community Monitoring Mission had been watching closely. With a fellow monitor from Greece, along with our Montenegrin interpreter and French driver, we set out to do what we could. Thirty years later, my most enduring memory of the days that followed is of someone I never met – a decent, likeable and talented young man who made a split-second decision that cost him his life, but became a symbol of reconciliation for decent Bosnian Muslims and Serbs alike.
Trebinje is a historic little town which, during the Ottoman Empire, guarded the strategic route linking Rugosa (now Dubrovnik) on the shores of the Adriatic with the Turkish sultan’s capital in Constantinople (now Istanbul). By the end of the 20th Century, Bosniaks retaining Muslim identity made up 18% of the population, with a majority of 69% identifying as Serb Orthodox. Ultra-nationalists carving out their ethnically “pure” mini-state of “Republika Srpska” didn’t care about fellow “Christian” Catholic Croats or secular folk, but were determined to purge genetically identical Muslim neighbours, dismissing them as “Turks”. Located in the far southern corner of Hercegovina, Trebinje was one of the last municipalities to be targeted and had a reputation for neighbourly tolerance. The mayor had assured us that Muslims there would be safe.
Saint Sava’s Day
By mid-January 1993, amateur radio operators were reporting that Muslims in Trebinje were being given a deadline of Monday, 25 January to leave, but it took until the 27th to make arrangements to get there. As impartial international observers we were limited in our movements and had no authority other than moral; armed only with diplomatic passports, distinctive white clothing and the understanding that we were the eyes and ears of the outside world. But in this case we had one additional weapon. My predecessor was now in Geneva as an adviser to Lord David Owen, the European Community’s co-chair of an “International Conference on the former Yugoslavia” along with American diplomat Cyrus Vance, the United Nations Special Envoy for Bosnia. I had an unauthorized but invaluable “back channel” direct to the highest levels of the international community.
By the time we arrived, the minaret of the 18th Century Osman Pasha Mosque was no longer standing, smoke was rising from several locations and the sound of small arms fire was coming from within the old town’s walls. The atmosphere was palpably ominous, although we were blandly informed that the gunfire was simply celebrating the feast of Saint Sava, founder of the Serbian Orthodox Church. UN Military Observers from Lubinje, 60 kilometres away, had also just arrived so we invited them to join our meeting with the mayor and military commanders. That was intense to say the least, but I bluffed that Lord Owen knew we were in Trebinje and was expecting direct reports.
A delegate of the International Red Cross was already at the local Red Cross office, surrounded by Muslims carrying suitcases and pleading for help. Later in the day a representative from the UN High Commission for Refugees also arrived. That night, my report to ECMM headquarters (and unofficial copy to Geneva) recommended that Lord Owen, Mr. Vance and the UN Secretary-General be briefed, and that Radovan Karadžić, President of Republika Srpska, “be informed of the ongoing interest of the international community in this matter.” I learned later that this is exactly what happened.
Ultimately, about thirty-five hundred people were driven into exile. We attempted to account for them all, visiting the scattered Montenegrin communities giving them refuge. As far as we could determine, the only person to be killed had been Serb.
On January 21st, in a public square overlooked by the police station, while everyone else stood watching, a young man had stepped in to save a Muslim colleague from a savage beating by fellow reservists. So they turned on him with rifle butts as a message to any other Serb inclined to interfere. He was taken to hospital in a coma and died on St. Sava’s Day, just hours before we arrived. A relative informed us, and the mayor later confirmed the story, which spread locally but was also important for the world to know. The following month it was documented by the UN’s Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights based, I am told, directly on my reports.
Srđan Aleksić had been a likeable 27 year-old athlete and amateur actor with a strong sense of justice. Today, streets in Sarajevo and elsewhere have been named for him. He has been posthumously awarded a “Charter of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Bosnia and Herzegovina” for “exceptional contribution of protection of human rights and their promotion.” Serbia awarded him the Miloš Obilić Gold Medal, and even the Republika Srpska awarded its “Order of Honour”. The man he saved escaped to Sweden but now returns to visit his grave. The story has inspired a dramatic movie.
Although “hero” may be one of the most over-worked words in the English language, I have no qualms about applying it to Srđan Aleksić. We all like to imagine that we would stand up for justice, but I’m not sure that I would have had his courage in the face of what Winston Churchill called “armed and resolute wickedness”. But I defer to his father: “You often say Srđo is a hero” he said. “Don’t, because Srđo was an ordinary guy” but “he saved the face of his army and the city”. And to me at least, pondering a new year ahead, he remains an inspiration.