Milica STOJANOVIC | BIRN, Belgrade

On the morning of April 8, 1994, Radislava ‘Dada’ Vujasinovic did not show up as previously arranged to meet her colleague and friend Vesna Malisic in Belgrade.

Both women were reporters at Duga magazine, where Vujasinovic had started working full-time in 1990. Soon after that, the Yugoslav wars broke out, and by 1994, there were already thousands of people dead in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina and street killings had become a commonplace occurrence in Serbia.

Vujasinovic’s reporting covered both the situation on the frontline and in her home country, and her work had attracted threats from officials and other powerful figures in Serbia.

But Malisic told BIRN that initially she was not too worried when Vujasinovic did not turn up to meet her that morning.

“Since she was very responsible, we thought maybe she went somewhere on some trip, or fell asleep or did not feel well,” Malisic said. “My colleague said that someone called on her the phone but that she did not answer and then we assumed she might have gone somewhere…”

During the day, Vujasinovic’s parents, who lived in Berlin at the time, raised the alarm that their daughter had not been in touch.

“And then panic ensued, some kind of icy fear crept into all of us, and of course, at that moment we all remembered those threats as well and somehow began to fear for her terribly,” Malisic said.

Later that day, Vujasinovic was found dead in her apartment in Belgrade.

But even now, 26 years later, there is still no official conclusion about whether she was killed, committed suicide or died accidentally.

1990s Serbia was ‘like Casablanca’

“No one has the right to be angry that such times have come in which people of Arkan’s calibre are getting on best,” Vujasinovic wrote at the beginning of 1993, after Zeljko ‘Arkan’ Raznatovic, a convicted criminal and paramilitary leader whose ‘Tigers’ unit became notorious in the Croatian and Bosnian wars, was elected a member of the Serbian parliament.

At the start of the wars, Vujasinovic was reporting from Croatia and Bosnia. She “applied [for the deployments] herself and wanted to go”, Malisic said.

“That was time when journalists who favoured one side of the story mostly went to the frontline,” she explained.

Such journalists, like those for Serbian state broadcaster RTS, were partisan, often echoing the official Serbian line, according to Malisic.

“They were, in a way, the extended arm of policy, let’s say. Dada Vujasinovic was a different kind of journalist,” she said.

“That means she did not see the war just as ‘our side’ and ‘their side’; it was not just ‘us and them’, she simply wanted to see what kind of people we are and what we were doing in that war, and very quickly she began back to bring stories from that battlefield that were very depressing, and she herself was very disappointed in the actions of the military and political leaders and commanders who were there,” she added.

But in 1992, Vujasinovic ended her reporting trips to the conflict zones.

“I stopped going to the frontline when those people who understood the war as a good time and an adventure and portrayed like that came to the front, knowing that they had somewhere to go back to when they got bored with the war,” she wrote in Tiker magazine in April 1993.

“The only luck in the misfortune of my sacrificed generation is that they will not be able to lie to us this time because we are witnesses. We will not allow them to falsify things again,” she added.

Malisic said that the features that Vujasinovic wrote in Belgrade sparked even more threats.

“She wrote about how a criminal connection had actually been established between political structures, so-called businessmen and criminals,” she said.

“She was constantly saying that Serbia [in the 1990s] looks like Casablanca [during World War II], on the periphery of war, but actually all the dirty things that can happen in a war were happening here: smuggling, murders, horrible things, betrayal… That’s what she wrote about, and I think that’s when the greatest threats actually began.”

Malisic said that initially, the threats were sent by post to the office. Then they started coming by phone, first to the newsroom, then to Vujasinovic’s home number.

“And then there were symbolic gestures, so to speak, that were supposed to scare her, like leaving a dead bird on the bonnet of the car, on the windshield,” she continued.

The threats continued right up until her death in April 1994.

“I remember the last day I met her, we were coming back from the newsroom together and I remember her hug and those tulips she took home and that smile of hers and being proud that she was going to prepare some lunch for tomorrow, because her boyfriend was coming back in a day or two from a trip, so I remember her, that smile and that image of her with the flowers in her arms,” said Malisic.

‘Murder cannot be excluded’

The police’s first conclusion about Vujasinovic’s death was that she shot herself. However, her family and colleagues continue to insist that there is evidence that rules out suicide.

Her family argues that Vujasinovic’s apartment was in mess when she was found dead, there were trails of blood on the furniture, and there was no possibility that someone would kill herself in the way the police investigation described. Her clothing was not preserved as potential evidence, and prints from the shotgun that she allegedly used were not taken.

In 1998, the District Court in Belgrade agreed to re-investigate and to allow a new reconstruction at the scene of her death, but the results were never published.

Meanwhile Vujasinovic’s parents spent their time finding new evidence and medical experts to prove that their daughter did not kill herself.

Ten years later, in 2008, expert Vladimir Kostic filed a report to the court saying that according to the evidence, it was not possible for Vujasinovic to have committed suicide because the gun was fired twice.

At the beginning of 2009, the prosecutor’s office ordered a murder investigation, and then, in 2013, the new government led by the Serbian Progressive Party set up the Commission for Investigating Killings of Journalists.

The commission’s first task was to look into the cases of Vujasinovic and journalists Slavko Curuvija and Milan Pantic, whose deaths at that point were still were unresolved. Over time, the commission also began to look at the deaths of other journalists during the 1990s.

The same year, the Higher Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade took over the official investigation into Vujasinovic’s death, and then in September 2015, the entire case was sent for analysis to the Netherlands Forensic Institute, one of the world’s top forensic labs.

However, as BIRN reported in 2016, when the results came through from the lab, the question of whether it was murder, suicide or an accident remained unresolved.

“In this examination there were only indications found to one shot being fired. The indication to murder based on the suggestion of two shots being fired because of the two wad-parts [from the shotgun shell] can be refuted,” the report said.

But it also said that it could not rule out the possibility that Vujasinovic was murdered, based on the distance from which the shot was fired: “In the case of murder, any shooting distance is possible. Therefore, based on the results of the shooting distance estimation, murder cannot be excluded,” it explained.

On the 26th anniversary of Vujasinovic’s death, the investigation at the Belgrade Higher Prosecutor’s Office remains open.

“The Higher Public Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade, together with officials at the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the Republic of Serbia, is continuing to take action to determine whether there was a criminal offence and a perpetrator, and to secure evidence,” the prosecutor’s office said in written answer to BIRN’s inquiry.

Veran Matic, the head of the Commission for Investigating Killings of Journalists, said that he does not have any new information about Vujasinovic’s death.

“The prosecution has not been heard from in the past year on this case. The case is certainly open but we have not been informed about the prosecution’s activities,” Matic told BIRN.

Malisic said that she still believes that Vujasinovic was killed because her journalistic work upset someone in power.

“It is my belief that she was killed by the state; that is, the secret services. That shot came from the heart of the system,” she said.

Those responsible for shooting Vujasinovic “are still somewhere in the shadows of the system”, she believes.

“I think that is the reason why the truth about Dada Vujasinovic is not fully known, even though we all know it.”

The Last Despatches series is part of BIRN’s Transitional Justice Initiative, co-funded by the Kingdom of The Netherlands and the European Commission.