The village of Ahmici is a small ethnically mixed village on the main road from Sarajevo to Travnik, located in Vitez municipality. It was the site of one of the worst massacres of the war, committed by Croat forces on 16 April 1993 against Bosniak civilians. Today it shows how much Central Bosnia has changed in recent years as a result of the large-scale return of displaced persons to their former homes.
While nearly all the physical traces of destruction have been removed, the memories of the massacre remain an ever-present reality.
When the war first came to Bosnia in 1992, for Bosniaks and Croats the Serbs were the common enemy. In the referendum in April that year Bosniaks and Croats voted for the independence of Bosnia and Herzegovina – they seemed to share a common vision of the future. But Bosnian Croat leaders, strongly supported by Herzegovinians in the Croatian Ministry of Defence in Zagreb, began establishing a separate state inside Bosnia. They called it the Croat Community of Herceg-Bosna. They made plans to grab territory in line with the international peace plan being devised by the US and British mediators, Cyrus Vance and David Owen. As the journalists Laura Silber and Alan Little have written:
"In the spring of 1993 the plan gave Bosnian Croat territorial demands a stamp of legitimacy they would otherwise have lacked."
(Laura Silber and Alan Little, The Death of Yugoslavia, 1996, p. 329-30)
A pre-emptive attack to create new borders in Central Bosnia was planned by Bosnian Croat local military commanders and political leaders at a fateful meeting on 15 April 1993 in the restaurant of Hotel Vitez, in the nearby town of the same name. At dawn the next morning, Bosnian Croat forces simultaneously attacked Vitez and its surrounding villages in the Lasva valley, including Ahmici, in a series of surprise attacks.
In Ahmici and the neighbouring village of Santici Croat soldiers went from house-to-house, killing and wounding Bosniak civilians, burning virtually every Bosnian Muslim-owned house, their barns and their livestock. 169 houses were destroyed. The mosque in the lower part of the village was blown up with four kilograms of explosives. Pictures of the Mosque's minaret lying shattered at its side became one of the most iconic images of the Bosnian war.
Ahmici's Mosque April 1993
After the attack, no Bosniaks were left living in Ahmici. 115 had been killed, including 32 women and 11 children. The rest fled.
British UN peacekeeping forces based in Vitez went to Ahmici to investigate. The local Commander, Colonel Bob Stewart, took a TV team along with him. Their pictures showed UN troops dragging burnt corpses of adults and children out of the smouldering remains of one house in the village. "I know not who is responsible for this, but whoever it was, they shall rot in hell", a visibly shocked Colonel Stewart was shown shouting at Bosnian Croat soldiers in the TV reports.
Colonel Bob Stewart - Photo of one of bodies taken by British Warrant Officer Roy Banwell
"We felt a sense of personal failure as a unit that this had happened in the area that we were responsible for," Lieutenant Colonel Bryan Brian Watters, the Second-in-Command said later.
Given the wide international attention that TV pictures from Ahmici had received, investigating the massacre was taken up as a priority by the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague. However, given the chaos of torching and killing that took place that early morning it proved very difficult to determine what exactly had happened. It was very difficult to establish beyond reasonable doubt the identity of any of the perpetrators, most of whom were wearing masks.
18 Croats were indicted by the ICTY for crimes in Ahmici or related to it. 5 cases were withdrawn due to insufficient evidence or death of the defendant, 5 were sentenced for crimes committed in Ahmici, 4 for related crimes and 5 were found not guilty.
ICTY's appeal judgment in 2004 concludes that the attack had been carried out by a Company of the 4th Battalion of Military Police of the HVO, and by a notorious unit within the Battalion, the "Jokers", whose members wore black shirts and built up a reputation as a "special operations force."
So far those convicted for the Ahmici massacre include Dario Kordic, the responsible political leader, Pasko Ljubicic, the commander of the 4th Military Police Battalion of the HVO, Vladimir Santic, commander of the 1st company of the 4th Military Police Battalion, Miroslav Bralo, a member of the Jokers and Drago Josipovic, a HVO soldier from Ahmici.
Dario Kordic (25 years) - Pasko Ljubicic (10 years) - Miroslav Bralo (20 years)
In Ahmici, life continues. The villagers have started their own reconciliation process, rebuilding their social relations with their neighbours, if yet rarely as friends – as one told us:
"Hate is a big word, to hate somebody. That really means something big. But there isn't love towards each other anymore. That is the nicest way to put it."
Some Bosniaks still hold their Croat neighbours responsible for not warning them in advance what would happen on that fateful Friday morning, assuming that they must have known something was going to happen.
In the years after the war, the return to their destroyed homes has not been easy for the Bosniak survivors. The older generation has been the most determined – as one told us:
"I was in Austria for five years. I have a son up there. I told him: 'I really want to go back to my birthplace! Either you bring me there or I will go home by bus!' When I arrived here, everything was overgrown. Everything had grown into a forest. But a little bit here, a little bit there: the house is rebuilt, and I am calm now."
For some it was particularly painful:
"It was the hardest for me to come back, with 20 members of my own family murdered. My father, my mother, my brother, uncles and so on were killed. I thought, I would come and know, that they are somewhere out here … but I have still not found them … That is the hardest feeling. And when you see all, that you once had – that you returned to a burnt pile. But nevertheless you are happy!"
But the two ethnic groups live again together. In the village assembly Bosniaks and Croats jointly plan the development of their village. Life has to go on – as one villager explains:
"Now, you know, it is difficult to forgive … There will be no revenge … But there is no forgiveness either … So, you have neither one nor the other. I am not going to take revenge. I won't forgive. You know, that is the way it is! And so we are living besides each other – just being here. We are passing every day the house of those who were in The Hague. Life is normalizing. Whoever greets me, I will greet him."
Drago Josipovic at ICTY - Drago Josipovic in Ahmici's Catholic cemetery
Drago Josipovic is one of the Bosnian Croat villagers who came back to his home after serving a twelve year jail sentence handed down by the International War Crimes Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for having participated in the massacre. He has always denied that he committed war crimes. Several of his Muslim neighbours do not think he is guilty either. There were petitions by Bosniaks from the village to the international court arguing that Drago Josipovic was innocent. His appeal against his conviction was rejected by ICTY. In the end his conviction was based on one single witness statement, underlining the difficulty of establishing after such a horrific event who actually took part.