04 March 2008

Fifteen years since the crimes in Štrpci

On February 27, 2008 I joined a group of Women in Black activists on a bus from Belgrade to Štrpci to commemorate the crimes committed there fifteen years ago. There were Women in Black activists from Leskovac, Velika Plana, Belgrade, and Niš on the bus. We were joined by activists from other human rights organizations including the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, the Humanitarian Law Center, and the Youth Initiative for Human Rights. We were also accompanied by journalists from print, electronic, and televised media.

We were all travelling to visit the site of the crime committed on February 27, 1993. Fifteen years ago 19 people were kidnapped from a train at the Štrpci Station and subsequently murdered. According to documentation of the Belgrade office of Serbian Railways (formerly Yugoslav Railways), representatives of Serbia, Yugoslavia, and Yugoslav Railways knew of the plan to kidnap non-Serb travelers who were citizens of Yugoslavia.

Republika Srpska soldiers stopped train number 671 which was traveling from Belgrade. There was an armed group with Chetnik insignias aboard. In the Štrpci train station, 25 masked men entered the train and, with the help of the Chetniks already on the train, took some travelers. They tied them up with wire, took them off the train, and led them to a garage in Sasa, not far from the banks of the Drina. Many shots were heard, enough to kill every person in the garage.

This was my first trip with Women in Black to visit a site where crimes were committed. As we sat on the bus, I wondered what it would be like. I tried to prepare myself for the onslaught of emotions I was sure to feel. First, we stopped along the way at the town square where we were joined by family members of the victims. Many of the family members and activists warmly greeted each other – it was obvious that a relationship of trust and solidarity existed between them. We stood at the town square with the signs we had brought. Among the signs were ones proclaiming that “We will not forget” and a sign in which the names and ages of the victims were written. I read the names on the sign letting them wash over me as I tried to grasp the enormity of the events that took place fifteen years ago: Esad Kapetanović, Ilijaz Ličina, Fehim Bakija, Šećo Softić, Rifet Husović, Sead Đečević, Ismet Babačić, Hail Zupčević, Adem Alomerović, Rasim Ćorić, Fikret Memetović, Favzija Zeković, Nijaz Kajević, Muhedin Hanić, Safet Preljević, Džafer Topuzović, Jusuf Rastoder, Zvjezdan Zuličić and Tomo Buzov. The youngest person killed was only 16 years old.

After the vigil in the town square, we went to place a flower wreath at the construction site of the monument being built for the victims. We then headed to the Štrpci train station. We got off the bus before reaching the train station so that we could walk the 2 kilometers up the mountainside on a winding dirt road leading us to the train station. We made the walk in silence carrying our signs and the second commemorative flower wreath. When we arrived at the train station, we began to assemble ourselves and distribute the signs. We waited for the train to pass by at 3:58 pm just as it had 15 years ago. Today it passed by the train station without stopping. The Štrpci train station is now abandoned; it is rarely used.

The emotions of the day were overpowering. As we stood on the mountainside, I couldn’t help but be struck by the natural beauty that surrounded us. It seemed wrong for there to be so much natural beauty in a place where such tragedy occurred. The contrast between the beauty and the tragedy was overwhelming. The beautiful day and scenery did not fit the occasion. My first experience visiting a site where crimes were committed with Women in Black was a powerful one. It is something that will never leave me. The experience only cemented my belief in the importance of these trips and Women in Black’s mission. The media coverage brought by Women in Black’s vigil and commemoration service served as a reminder to the general public of the crimes committed amongst a society eager to forget. However, I felt the most important impact of this event existed in the support and solidarity Women in Black offered to the victims’ families. The relationships established and cultivated gave me hope amidst the current turmoil in Serbia.

-- Katie M. (Belgrade)