Milica STOJANOVIC | BIRN, Belgrade
It was August 21, 1998 when a team from Radio Pristina was deployed to Zociste in western Kosovo on an assignment.
In the car was radio journalist Djuro Slavuj and driver Ranko Perenic.
They had both worked for Radio Pristina for years: Perenic started in 1980 and Slavuj in 1995, and both of them lived and worked in Kosovo at the point when the conflict between Yugoslav forces and the Kosovo Liberation Army intensified. By 1998, there had already been a dozen murders and kidnappings of civilians in Kosovo.
Perenic and Slavuj’s assignment that August 21 was to cover the return of several monks who had been abducted from the Sveti Vraci (Holy Healers) monastery in Zociste. They left the newsroom in Pristina in the morning, got into a blue Zastava car and drove off.
The editor-in-chief of Radio Pristina at the time, Milivoje Mihajlovic, who is now the deputy general director at Serbian public broadcaster RTS, said that the two men had also been in the same area the day before.
“They went the next day on the same assignment, the editor sent them because they needed to add something to that report they were working on and when I came back in the evening, I was notified that night that they had not come back from the field. Of course, I knew it wasn’t something innocent,” Mihajlovic told BIRN.
Perenic and Slavuj did not make it back to the office. They were stopped when coming back from the village of Velika Hoca/Hoca e Madhe in the Orahovac/Rehovec area by a group of armed people who had KLA insignia.
The armed group who stopped the car threatened the two Radio Pristina journalists with weapons and then took them away to an unknown location.
These details were established during an investigation conducted in Kosovo, which resulted in the dismissal of a criminal complaint in the case because of the lack of evidence.
That decision was made in October 2013 by Kosovo’s special prosecutor, but Perenic’s wife Snezana only received it in 2017, via the Higher Court in Belgrade.
“It was a shock in the sense that the investigation had been dismissed. That was my biggest shock. The man [at the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office] offered me a chair when I opened it and when I saw what [the decision] was,” Snezana Perenic told BIRN.
No dividing line
Ranko Perenic was born in Kosovo, where he was living with his wife and two sons. Perenic was a driver at Radio Pristina, where Mihajlovic, the editor-in-chief, met him.
“Perenic was a family guy, very attached to his family… An incredibly hard-working man, reliable, stable, calm, a great worker, a good friend,” Mihajlovic told BIRN.
“So, that [the disappearance of Perenic and Slavuj] was a serious loss both for Radio Pristina and for all of us who knew them,” he added.
Djuro Slavuj came to Kosovo in 1995, one of more than 200,000 Serbs who fled Croatia as a result of the Croatian Army’s Operation Storm. A radio reporter, he asked for a job in Radio Pristina and got it. He was still there when more journalists started to visit in 1998 as the conflict between Belgrade’s forces and the guerrillas of the KLA escalated.
One of them was Davor Lukac, then a journalist at Serbia’s Tanjug news agency.
Jovo Bjedov, a former technician at Radio Knin, introduced them.
“You know, when someone is in the field, on an assignment, when you are done with your daily duties, you don’t have anywhere to go in the evening, so you find someone you know so you can talk. I, for example, met Jovo and talked to him, or Miki [Milivoje] Mihajlovic, and that is how I met Djuro,” Lukac told BIRN.
He described Slavuj as hard-working and a good journalist. Two nights before he disappeared, a group of reporters was sitting in front of a store near Radio Pristina and drinking beer. Slavuj was among them.
Lukac said that he talked about the differences between reporting in the Krajina area of Croatia during the war there and in Kosovo.
“I told him, ‘You see how in Krajina we had a dividing line [between the opposing forces], so you knew how far you could go, and you don’t have that here,’” he said.
He heard what happened to his colleagues the same evening when they did not came back, and published a news report about what happened.
“I published the news that they disappeared but you feel guilty that you cannot do anything… And no one could do anything,” he recalled.
The disappearance of Perenic and Slavuj was reported to the local authorities immediately. Their colleagues also informed various journalists’ organisation whose representatives were in Kosovo. But the men were not found.
“That night and the whole of the next morning I was on the phone, with the then chief of police in Kosovo, general Sreten Lukic… We wrote a letter to the Committee to Protect Journalists [US-based NGO], called the wife of [UN envoy Richard] Holbrooke, [Kati Marton], who was the head of that committee; in some way we mobilised the whole world about that disappearance,” Mihajlovic said.
Mihajlovic said he also called Adem Demaci, who at that time was a high-ranking Kosovo Liberation Army official. He also asked New York Times journalist Mike O’Connor to go and check the spot where Slavuj and Perenic were last seen.
O’Connor told him: “I found the car, it was in a village called Bele Crkve.” The New York Times journalist also spoke to Kosovo Liberation Army commanders on the spot, but told Mihajlovic: “They claim that they do not know anything about [the two journalists.” The KLA men said that they found the car by the road.
Meanwhile, the families of Perenic and Slavuj were told no more about what had happened.
Ten months later, Yugoslav armed forces withdrew from Kosovo after NATO’s military intervention, together with more than 100,000 Serb civilians. Perenic’s family was among them.
“We fled on June 17, 1999, when everyone was running away, my brother took us, he did not want to leave us there,” Snezana Perenic recalled.
She added that during the first year after the kidnapping, she remained in communication with local police, Kosovo Albanian officials like Adem Demaci and international diplomats like Shaun Byrnes, who at that time was head of the United States Kosovo Diplomatic Observer Mission. But no more information about the fate of her husband and his colleague emerged.
In June 1999, the UN’s Kosovo mission, UNMIK was deployed, then ten years later, the EU’s rule-of-law mission EULEX mission. Neither mission made any progress with the case of the two missing men from Radio Pristina.
Data from the special prosecution in Pristina shows that EULEX did conduct some kind of investigation into their disappearance, but the EU mission declined to answer BIRN’s questions about the case, saying that all of its “police, prosecutorial and judicial case files, including missing persons’ case files, have already been handed over to the Kosovo authorities”.
The special prosecution in Kosovo did not respond to BIRN’s questions that were sent via email.
The Journalists’ Association of Serbia, UNS, has conducted investigations into what happened with cases of missing journalists in Kosovo. Journalist Jelena Petkovic, who worked on these stories for years, said that the conclusion was that the official probe into what happened to the men from Radio Pristina was inadequate.
“The reason why a journalist could come to that conclusion is, firstly, because neither the Slavuj family nor the Perenic family was contacted by the EULEX investigators, nor people who were friends of our colleagues Ranko Perenic and Djuro Slavuj,” Petkovic told BIRN.
In 2013, Perenic’s wife Snezana was summoned to Belgrade Higher Court and told to bring a document “in a criminal case against unknown perpetrators for the criminal act of a war crime against civilians”.
The document was the decision by the special prosecutor in Pristina to dismiss the criminal complaint about the disappearance of Perenic and Slavuj.
Snezana Perenic said that this was the first time that someone said officially that the two men had been kidnapped.
The document reveals that, when Perenic and Slavuj were coming back from Velika Hoca/Hoca e Madhe, they were intercepted and then abducted by an armed group who had Kosovo Liberation Army insignia.
Snezana Perenic had three days to appeal the decision about the dismissal of the criminal complaint. She managed to send the appeal, but never got any further information from the court.
Since then, she has heard nothing more.
The Journalists’ Association of Serbia, UNS, marked the place in Kosovo where Slavuj and Perenic were last seen with a memorial plaque in 2012, but the small memorial was then vandalised.
After UNS reinstalled the plaque, it was vandalised again. This happened a total of seven times.
Police only arrested the perpetrator of the most recent incident in February this year – a man who said he had damaged and displaced the plaque while he was working with a mechanical digger nearby.
UNS put up a new plaque commemorating Slavuj and Perenic at the same spot for an eighth time in May 2019.
Ahead of the 21st anniversary of the kidnapping, Snezana Perenic was still mourning her husband.
“You know, it’s hard. All this goes on and on and on,” she said.
“There’s no conclusion to any of it, that would let you light a candle [for the dead], you know, and somehow calm down.”