Admir MUSLIMOVIC  |  BIRN, Sarajevo

“‘Hurry up, Sele. They are approaching the office,’ he told me over the phone. The line remained open for some more time, but then it was interrupted…”

Sevleta ‘Sele’ Ahmedinovic was working as a secretary at the Oslobodjenje newspaper’s office in Tuzla at the beginning of 1992, and this is how she described her last conversation with Kjasif Smajlovic, the Oslobodjenje correspondent from Zvornik.

“On that day and over the following days, we kept calling the number to see what was going on and find out what had happened to Kjasif,” Ahmedinovic recalled. They got no response.

Smajlovic’s last report, which he had dictated over the phone to Ahmedinovic the day before he disappeared, was published in Oslobodjenje on April 9, 1992.

“We are hearing gunfire in the town, particularly in the downtown and industrial areas, [and in] Karakaj, Vratolomos and Cemlja,” Smajlovic’s report said.

“The attacks are mainly being conducted by [Serbian paramilitary leader] Arkan’s men. Four of them were captured just out of town, in Vidakova Njiva last night, namely Miroslav (son of Milovan) Bogdanovic, a dentist born in Belgrade in 1959; Vojin (Milan) Vuckovic, born in Priboj na Limu in 1962, an electrical technician; Dusko (Milan) Vuckovic, a locksmith from Priboj na Limu born in 1963, and Milorad (Milan) Ulemek [later convicted of the assassination of Serbian premier Zoran Djindjic], a car mechanic born in Belgrade in 1968,” the report continued.

At the beginning of April 1992, the situation in the Zvornik area, which Smajlovic covered, was tense. Several paramilitary units, including the Tigers, commanded by the notorious Zeljko ‘Arkan’ Raznatovic, the White Eagles, Yellow Wasps and Red Berets, arrived in the municipality on April 5 and 6 and set up barricades, working in collaboration with local Serb police.

On the day that Smajlovic dictated his last report, April 8, there was an attack on local Bosniaks by the Serb police, the local Serb Territorial Defence force, the Yugoslav People’s Army and Arkan’s Tigers.

As the Serb forces seized control of Zvornik, dozens of Bosniaks were killed – among them Smajlovic, who was murdered at the Oslobodjenje office.

His brother Sakib Smajlovic said they first smashed the journalist’s skull with a typewriter and then fired a round into his chest.

“Three people stormed into the office. People who were hiding in the basement at the time said they heard Kjasif say: ‘Don’t do it, I have children.’ Then they killed him,” Sakib Smajlovic said.

“The identification of his body revealed that the right side of his skull was smashed and his fingers were broken. After beating him up, they shot him with five, six bullets in the heart and chest area. To my knowledge, they then dragged him out and left him in front of the office door. His skull was smashed because they hit him on the head with a typewriter,” he added.

Smajlovic was the first of a total of 76 journalists to be killed during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Sixty-five of them were Bosnian citizens, while 11 came from abroad.

‘Nobody could kill a journalist’

On April 9, Ahmedinovic began her search for Smajlovic. Using a telephone directory and the journalist’s address, she tried to contact his neighbours in order to find out what happened to him.

“I found the telephone number of his nearest neighbours and called them. The phone rang for a long time before a granny answered. She said she lived next door to Smajlovic. She was hiding in the basement with her family, but she promised to go to Kjasif’s and check if anyone was home,” Ahmedinovic recalled.

“I called her again a couple of hours later and she said she went to Kjasif’s, the door was wide open, but no one was home. The granny said the dining room table was set for four,” she added.

Ahmedinovic kept calling Smajlovic’s home number for several days, but no one answered.

“After I had been trying to get through for three or four days, a male picked up the phone. When I asked if I had reached Kjasif Smajlovic, the male voice cursed my Balija [derogatory term for Muslims] mother and threatened me, saying he would kill us all,” she said.

In April and May 1992, after Serb forces had taken control over Zvornik, hundreds of Bosniak civilians left the area, while others were detained, beaten up, tortured and killed.

In June 1992, according to court verdicts, more than 700 Bosniak men were killed at the Technical School in Karakaj. Another 190 Bosniak detainees were taken to a slaughterhouse in Karakaj and killed. At least 30 more were killed at the Cultural Centre in Celopek, while others were beaten up and sexually abused.

Smajlovic foretold these massacres in his reports at the very beginning of the war in Zvornik, when he wrote about the murders being committed in and around the town, and warned that the violence culd escalate.

One of the last people to speak to Smajlovic was his long-time Oslobodjenje colleague from Tuzla, Vehid Jahic.

Jahic said he used to speak to Smajlovic over the phone regularly, and that the Zvornik journalist often spoke about his fears, but said he did not want to leave the town or quit his profession.

“He was afraid they would kill him, but I would tell him: ‘No, they won’t, Kjasif. Don’t be afraid, you are a journalist,’” he recalled.

“I thought the Yugoslav People’s Army soldiers were civilised people and that the war was conducted on battlefields only. However, it turned out they were beasts. I was delusional, firmly believing that nobody could kill a journalist on assignment in a civilised society,” Jahic said.

No justice for murdered reporters

So far, neither Bosnia’s state and cantonal prosecutions nor the UN tribunal in The Hague have pursued the Smajlovic case or the murders of any of the 66 other journalists who were killed during the Bosnian war.

BIRN asked the Bosnian state prosecution if any of the journalists killed was the subject of an investigation, or if any of them had at least been mentioned as a victim in a case or an investigations, but received no response.

Courts in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia and The Hague have handed down convictions for war crimes in Zvornik, however.

Bosnian Serb officials Momcilo Krajisnik, Biljana Plavsic, Mico Stanisic and Stojan Zupljanin were found guilty by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in second-instance verdicts, while first-instance verdicts convicted Bosnian Serb miliyary leader Ratko Mladic and political leader Radovan Karadzic. Evidence about crimes in Zvornik is also being presented at the retrial of Serbian state security officials Franko Simatovic and Jovica Stanisic before the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals.

Crimes in Zvornik also formed part of the Hague court’s indictments of Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic and paramilitary boss Zeljko Raznatovic, alias Arkan, but both of them died before any verdict could be handed down.

Meanwbile the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre NGO has critisised the Serbian war crimes prosecution for not indicting “leaders of paramilitary groups from Serbia who reside in Serbia today” for committing crimes in Zvornik.

Not one of the verdicts handed down to date mentions the name of Kjasif Smajlovic. Those responsible for his death have never been brought to court.

Meanwhile his family searched for his remains for nearly two-and-a-half decades.

“I visited all the mass graves in the Podrinje [Drina Valley] area together with my brother’s children, but we did not find Kjasif’s body in any of them,” Sakib Smajlovic said.

“Information then emerged that they had carried him to Mali Zvornik and dumped him in a local limekiln. He was identified in the village of Kazanbasca, near Zvornik, in June 2016. In September that year, they informed me they had found his body,” he added.

His co-workers and relatives remember Smajlovic as a good man, and as an outspoken, courageous and honest journalist.

“I knew Kjasif for 20 years, since 1972, when I first started working at the Oslobodjenje office in Tuzla. He was a wonderful person, courageous, bold and humorous. He liked to write against the regime, against injustice; he was not afraid,” Ahmedinovic said.

“His wife told him before the beginning of the war to leave Zvornik because of the situation in the town, but he did not want to do it.”

Last year Sakib Smajlovic published a book titled dedicated to his brother. Its title asked the question: ‘Who Will Report the Death of a Journalist?’