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Balkan Blood Ties: Children of The Hague's Accused Deny the 'War Crimes' of Their Fathers

Sons and daughters of men indicted for Balkan war crimes reveal how the accusations affected them — and why they remain loyal to their fathers.

by Tanja Matic
Feb 17 2015, 5:30pm

Image via Tanja Matic

One spring day, 26-year-old Biljana arrived at her family's Belgrade home eager to share exciting news with her parents. She had discovered she was pregnant a few days earlier and had just secretly married her boyfriend. Although Biljana knew this would be a shock, she expected her family to be pleased and looked forward to a day of celebration.

But her father, Mico Stanisic, had news of his own. That morning in March 2005, the Hague tribunal for the former Yugoslavia announced that he had been indicted for crimes against humanity. He stood accused of responsibility for atrocities committed by Serb forces in 1992 during the Bosnian war, when he was the Bosnian Serbs' police minister.

"That was the most traumatic day of my life," Biljana recalled.

That evening, Biljana sat at home in tears while her father spent his first night in a cell in the Netherlands, charged over the persecution, murder and torture of Muslims and Croats. According to the final indictment against him, he failed to prevent war crimes that led to more than 1,700 deaths.

Eight years later, he was sentenced with another senior ex-official to 22 years in jail, found guilty of taking part in a "joint criminal enterprise" by Bosnian Serb leaders to "permanently remove Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Croats, and other non-Serbs from the territory of a planned Serbian state." He is awaiting the result of an appeal against the verdict.

Like Biljana, children from dozens of families across the Balkans have seen their fathers charged by the tribunal for atrocities committed during the wars of the 1990s. 

As socialist Yugoslavia was torn apart, Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks and ethnic Albanians all took up arms in a series of inter-related conflicts which killed more than 130,000 people and forced millions from their homes.

The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in the Dutch city of The Hague was established by the United Nations in 1993 to deal with the most serious crimes committed during those wars. The first international war crimes tribunal since the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals after World War Two, it has indicted 161 people, including presidents, prime ministers, army chiefs-of-staff, interior ministers and many other senior and mid-level political, military and police leaders. So far, 74 people have been convicted and 18 acquitted. Twenty cases remain ongoing, including the trials of former Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic and appeals against previous convictions.

The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN) sought out the adult children of more than 20 men indicted by the tribunal to find out how they were affected by the charges against their fathers. The families of five, three Serbs and two Bosniaks, agreed to talk on the record.

Some of their views reflect broader attitudes in their ethnic groups. Serbs say the tribunal is biased against them; Bosniaks say it has unjustly indicted members of their community in a bid to counter such criticism. But each family's story is different.

Shock and disbelief

Biljana and her younger sister Bojana did not follow their father's case at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia — on his instructions.

"We never attended the trial, since our father didn't want us to," said Biljana, a slim, dark-haired straight-talking journalism graduate who is studying for a PhD. "He told us to do the best we can in our own lives and forbade us from ever using his case as an excuse for personal failure."

Biljana says she cannot reconcile the image of the war criminal presented in The Hague with that of the father she knows.

But Biljana and her mother watched a live video stream from The Hague when the judgment was delivered in Stanisic's trial on March 27, 2013.

Biljana said she took the verdict in her stride, knowing it was not final as her father would appeal. Her mother fainted, despite being an experienced psychotherapist with a reputation as the toughest member of the family.

Bojana, then 19, did not watch the judgment. Her sister told her later on of their father's 22-year jail term. Her first thought was that the sentence was about as long as her entire life at that point.

Born at the height of the Bosnian war in 1993, Bojana bears a strong resemblance to her father and has an especially close relationship with him. With a sentimental smile, she described spending hours sitting on his lap in the tribunal's detention center as he cuddled her to sleep.

"It's like they're talking about a different person in The Hague," she says, sitting in an armchair in her sister's apartment. "What the judges say he did to other people is completely the opposite of what he's taught me — to be a good person."

Mico Stanisic and his daughter Bojana, now 19.

The tribunal has its own detention unit at a prison complex in the Dutch city. At the moment, it holds around 20 detainees. Ironically, in a remand center for people on trial for ethnically motivated war crimes, nationality is apparently no barrier to friendship.

"We watch the judgments of other people we met there. Whatever their nationality, we feel compassion," Biljana said.

The Stanisic family and other relatives of detainees told BIRN they make up stories to explain to their own children why they have a grandfather in The Hague. The youngsters embellish these tales with their own imagination.

In their minds, Grandpa owns a hotel with a playroom or moved abroad to paint in peace. Some believe their grandfather is an actor, a judge or working for the Dutch king.

One young boy loves playing endlessly with the candy machine in the visitors' lounge at the detention centre and greeting all the detainees including "Grandpa Mladic", as he calls Bosnian Serb wartime army commander Ratko Mladic.

Father as fugitive

While Stanisic and others turned themselves in after being indicted, other war crimes suspects went on the run. Among them was Goran Hadzic, the former political leader of Serbs in Croatia who rejected the newly independent country's government.

Hadzic is charged with responsibility for the murder, torture and deportations of Croats as part of a campaign to create a Serb-only enclave.

The Hadzic family.

At a family lunch in July 2004, Hadzic left the room to take a phone call. He returned to announce that he had been indicted by the tribunal, said goodbye to everyone and was gone within about an hour, his son Srecko related.

"He told me and my sister to take care of ourselves, said everything would be alright and from that moment I didn't see him or hear from him until 2011, when he was arrested," said Srecko, a quiet 27-year-old law student.

Sitting on the balcony of the family home in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad, Srecko and his chatty mother Zivka recalled the years when Hadzic was a fugitive.They told stories of secret police disguised as waiters at Srecko's sister's wedding, and of early morning raids by armed police who warned them they would never get jobs as long as Hadzic was at large. The family was also banned by the European Union from traveling to member states.

But Srecko said he never wished for his father's arrest.

"We gritted our teeth and we got through it," he said. "I had to support his decision because I'm his son and he thought it was for the best."

Srecko and his mother say they do not know where Hadzic hid. The last of the tribunal's 161 indictees to be apprehended, he was finally arrested on Fruska Gora, a hilly area about 18 miles (30km) from the family home.

Srecko Hadzic says he has never entertained the idea his father Goran might be guilty. 

Prosecutors have spent a year and half setting out the case against Hadzic, who has been indicted on 14 counts of crimes against humanity and other war crimes. He is accused of responsibility for the deaths of more than 300 people.

Yet Srecko said he has no doubt his father is innocent. He has never even asked him if he is guilty; he considers the idea "an absurdity," he said.

Bosnia and balance

In a bar in the small Bosnian town of Visoko, Adnan, a government official in his mid-30s, sayid he lost his best friend when his father died in 2010. Adnan remembers spending lots of time playing basketball and talking with him.

His father was Rasim Delic, former chief of staff of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina — the official army of the Bosnian state during the war, composed mainly of Bosniaks, although some Croats and Serbs also served in its ranks.

In 2008, Delic was acquitted of responsibility for the murder of dozens of Croats but sentenced to three years in prison for cruel treatment of Bosnian Serb prisoners by forces under his overall command.

Watching through the glass screen in the tribunal's public gallery as the verdict was delivered, Adnan plunged into shock, he recalled. He had been expecting to collect his father after a complete acquittal and take him back to Bosnia.

"It's crazy to sentence the head of the army to three years. He can either be acquitted or get a very long sentence. Three years is like he stole a bicycle in the Netherlands," Adnan remembered thinking as he wandered the streets of The Hague in a daze.

Delic died at home while his conviction was being appealed so the initial verdict was declared final. Adnan, a lawyer, is convinced he would have been cleared.

"If he had only lived until that moment, just to hear the acquittal, and if he had died even a minute after that, it would have made my life easier," he said.

He is bitter about how the Bosnian state treated his family. He said authorities offered no financial or logistical support during his father's trial in sharp contrast to the extensive aid the Serbian government gives Serb indictees. His father, Adnan contended, was let down badly by the very state he fought so hard to defend.

"The state abandoned its hero," he said.

Adnan's dissatisfaction extends to the tribunal, which he believes charged his father due to pressure to have an ethnic balance among the indictees.

Roughly two thirds of the tribunal's indictees were members of Serb forces or associated with them. For others in the region and many outsiders, this reflects their view that Serbs were responsible for more atrocities. But for years, Serb leaders have complained it shows the court is biased against them.

Semir, a young writer from Sarajevo, said he believes his father, Sefer Halilovic was indicted because the tribunal felt obliged to charge more Bosniaks.

"Whoever signed the indictment in The Hague probably needed a high-level Bosniak at some point," he says. "I absolutely believe it was about ethnic quotas."

Sefer Halilovic was the founding commander of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. His wife was killed in a bomb blast in 1993, leaving Semir and his sister living in army barracks as teenagers with their father.

In 2001, Halilovic was indicted for crimes against Croat civilians in two Bosnian villages eight years earlier. For the next four years, Semir says, life was on hold.

"We stopped functioning like a normal family," he recalled over lunch in a smart restaurant in downtown Sarajevo. "We put all our savings into our father's defence. We really turned into a small defense support staff."

Semir echoed Adnan's complaints about the attitude of the Bosnian state. He said Halilovic's lawyers had to ask the tribunal to order the Bosnian authorities to give the defense some official documents.

"Ordinary people could only pat you on the shoulder to offer support. The state, which could actually have helped, didn't want to help," said Semir, dressed fashionably in a T-shirt and suit jacket with a silk handkerchief in the pocket.

Semir said he doubted foreign judges could understand the war and felt prosecutors were not interested in finding the truth, only in winning the case. But the tribunal acquitted his father in 2005 and dismissed an appeal against the verdict.

Guilt and responsibility

Milan Koljanin, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Contemporary History in Belgrade, has spent years studying war crimes from an earlier erathose committed in Serbia during World War II.

For more than 10 years, he has been helping Beate Niemann, the daughter of a Gestapo chief in Belgrade, to find out more about her father.

Koljanin said that World War II and the conflicts of the 1990s cannot be directly compared in scale and impact but Niemann and the children of those indicted at The Hague still have a common experience. They have all lived with a father who was put on trial for war crimes.

He suggested that every son or daughter in that situation should take time to consider what their father did and what the court found to be the truth.

"Whether you want to or not, sooner or later, you have to take a stand because it's part of your personal and family history," he says.

On a hot Berlin day, on the terrace of the German Historical Museum, Beate Niemann at points seemed on brink of tears as she talked about her life as the daughter of a convicted war criminal, Bruno Sattler.

While searching in the 1990s for documents she hoped would clear her father's name, she discovered he had been involved in many horrific crimes, including ordering the use of a poison gas van that killed between 700 and 800 Jews who had been held in the Staro Sajmiste concentration camp in Belgrade.

"I am not guilty. I do not think a child can inherit guilt, but I do have the responsibility to find out the truth about my family's involvement and to talk about it," Niemann said.

Niemann argued that even in the event of an acquittal, the children of those indicted in The Hague should undertake their own search for the truth.

"My story is a great example," she said, explaining that a West German court declared her father innocent after he was convicted and jailed in East Germany.

Niemann lamented that she did not begin her own research sooner and said she hopes children of those accused in the former Yugoslavia will not wait as long.

"Grown-up children should know, and they should be interested in the stories of what was going on inside their families," she said.

"I found out at a very old age, more than 50 years of age," Niemann added. "It was too late because all my life I lived a false life."

At the age of 72, Niemann is still researching her father's actions during World War Two.

Vladimir Petrovic, a researcher who has closely followed the work of the Hague tribunal, says he is not surprised that children in Serbia have chosen not to question whether their parents were responsible for war crimes.

He points out that Serbian authorities have long portrayed the tribunal in a negative light, "first as an anti-Serbian inquisition, afterwards as a necessary evil" — cooperation with the court seen as a price that had to be paid to allow Serbia join the international mainstream.

Surveys show Serbs are not well informed about the tribunal's work yet express very negative views about it, Petrovic noted. He said the courts, the media and the education system have all failed to challenge popular views of the wars and war crimes.

"If we add to all of that the traditional model of not questioning authorities, both the state and the family, we get to where we are," said Petrovic, who has worked at the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in the Netherlands and is now at the Institute for Contemporary History in Belgrade.

Jovana Mihajlovic-Trbovc, a researcher at the Peace Institute, a non-profit organization in Slovenia, said polls show Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks all tend to see themselves as the biggest victims of the wars of the 1990s, making it hard for any of them to accept that their forces committed war crimes.

It is even harder for the children of those charged with such crimes to come to terms with this idea, given their close relationships to the accused, she says.

Seeking Srebrenica answers

Unlike the children of other indictees interviewed for this story, Maja, a dentist from Belgrade, asked her father directly if he was guilty of the charges against him.

Her father Radivoje Miletic, a general in the Bosnian Serb Army, was indicted for crimes related to the notorious mass killing of thousands of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, which the tribunal has ruled was an act of genocide.

Sitting in a noisy cafe in Belgrade's Sumice Park, Maja used a whole pack of tissues to dry her many tears as she recalls that her father's indictment came shortly after her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

Maja said the indictment brought to mind a film about a woman who, just like Beate Niemann, finds out about her father's Nazi past years after World War Two. But she was reassured after her father told her he was innocent.

"I trust him completely," she said.

Maja even appeared at her father's trial, telling the court he had been at her 18th birthday party on July 10, 1995, and was still at home the next day when Srebrenica fell to Serb forces. After her testimony, she collapsed in the witness room.

But the indictment against Miletic covers a longer period than just the days of the Srebrenica operation, which he was also accused of helping to plan. Maja's evidence did not prevent her father from being found guilty.

In June 2010, she was in The Hague again when the judgment was delivered. Maja had been so certain her father would be acquitted that she brought along her two daughters, one aged three and the other eight months.

"When they read out 19 years for my father, I thought it was a mistake," she said, describing the effect of the verdict as like an electric shock.

Miletic was found guilty of murder, persecution and inhumane acts. The tribunal found that he had helped implement a criminal plan, known as Directive 7, to attack UN-protected areas and create "an unbearable situation of total insecurity with no hope of further survival or life" for Bosniaks living there.

He appealed against the verdict but on January 30 this year his conviction was upheld and his prison term was reduced by just one year.

Maja said she repeatedly asked his lawyers after the judgment in 2010: "Tell me that he really was guilty! Give me proof that he knew what was going on!"

When the lawyers insisted to her that there was no evidence against her father, she said she "exploded."

"Then I wanted to kill all three of them because if there's nothing, why did he get 19 years?" she said. "I can't accept that."

In some ways, she continued, it would be easier if she believed her father was guilty.

"I'd really be able to live with that. If you're guilty, you serve your sentence."

Main image: The detention unit for the ICTY.

Tanja Matic is a reporter for the SENSE news agency who covers the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.