Home > Essays > Good People in Times of Evil
Translated from the BCMS by Zorica Stoilović and Ellen Elias-Bursać
Published: Mon Oct 15 2001
Eva Lundsager, We are quiet (nowhere to hide) (detail), 2021, oil on canvas
Good People in Times of Evil


During my last year at the Belgrade School of Medicine, in 1979, I was studying for my general surgery examination, which included surgery on war wounds. I must confess that at the time I was deeply convinced that such a branch of surgery was anachronistic and not of great importance, but I was completely wrong. Twelve years passed, and trumpets blared the beginning of the war in Yugoslavia.

From the outset, one heard horrible tales from the battlefield, as well as reports from various journalists about atrocities. Those rare reporters who wrote objectively were as preoccupied with these atrocities as were their warmongering opponents. I myself witnessed the breakup of long friendships, occurring because it was impossible to determine which side’s nationalism was more evil-and this in the cosmopolitan city of Belgrade. It seemed to me that this idle European city had turned into a beehive in which each “bee” created its own honeycomb, its own world into which he or she brought not pollen but hate, carefully nourished by the unfortunate conversations of deaf people-ex-friends.

I could not believe that in this general madness there was nothing human. So I set out on a journey to the war zone, first as a doctor, in hopes of helping at least one unfortunate victim. In the beginning, the people I met in cardiac care were too shy to tell me their sufferings, but later I realized that they needed to talk about what had happened to them. From their brief confessions, I felt their thirst for the truth, colored by their experiences in places that had been shelled and different from the black-and-white pictures we got in Belgrade and from around the world.

Those first rays of hope inspired me to put away my stethoscope, get out a cassette recorder, and set off to gather authentic stories from people belonging to our three different religions. The working title of my book, Good People in Times of Evil, served as the most succinct expression of my quest during my conversations with my interlocutors.

I must confess that it was very difficult to gain people’s trust under the awful conditions in which they lived-in destroyed houses and damp cellars-with shelling echoing nearby. Later, in strangers’ houses and unknown hamlets, we talked amid the frightening rhetorical cannonades of national leaders calling for national homogenization. My interviewees feared everything: the publication of their names as well as the names of people of different faiths who had helped them to survive.

Many of those I spoke to wanted to remain anonymous in order to protect those who had saved them. That was a stunning indication of their awareness that they were surrounded by intolerance and conformism. The great majority of my interviewees were telling me about experiences with people of different religions. Under such conditions, no story bearing witness to good deeds should be subject to doubt. The truth of each story rests on the conscience of the one who told it.

The languages they spoke depended upon the level of their education. Although I have normalized the language here and there, all the facts are authentic and true.

A careful reader will not miss the lack of emotion in this storytelling. In fact, there were no such feelings. As I listened I had the impression that these people had hidden all their feelings somewhere deep in their minds, perhaps in their subconsciouses. A trembling voice, interrupted at times by a soft or barely audible groan, great gaps between words as they gathered their strength to go on, a flood of feelings depriving them of the power to speak, and curses-the escape valves of the emotions-remain recorded on my audio cassettes. Their eyes, their faces, the trembling hands with which they held a glass or lit a cigarette remain forever in my soul. I purposely didn’t describe such feelings in my book: I left it to the reader to determine the depths of their suffering, and happiness, in accordance with his own sensitivity.

Human kindness, under normal living conditions, is taken for granted, so it is often not even noticed. In cruel times, when one’s survival depends on the moral and ethical norms of another, and against the background of innumerable horrors to which we can apply the Latin proverb Homo homini lupus est (Man is a wolf to man), the expression of readiness to sacrifice oneself for the sake of another crystallizes, as a pearl forms on a grain of sand in a shell at the bottom of the sea.

Someone had to dive for those pearls and make them into a necklace. Without it, a black cloud of crimes, no matter how many or few individuals committed them, will shroud in absolute darkness all of us who were born in this region, where even today many honest and noble people live unnoticed. I believe that each perpetrator will answer for his crimes, no matter how long the process takes. The question is whether or not deserving people will get recognition for their goodness and courage. How will people be rewarded who were killed at the hands of their neighbors because they wouldn’t countenance bestiality and insanity but instead protected neighbors of another religion? That kind of goodness is heroism, but these heroes are anonymous. On such people, no army, no government will ever bestow recognition. No street, no square will be named after them, and their names will endure only in the memories of the people whose lives they saved, and perhaps in the memories of their children. Future generations must be made aware of what happened and must know that such people existed and still exist.

One cold wartime winter I drove about 7,500 kilometers along the icy roads of Republika Srpska, looking for people who were willing to tell me their life stories. My persistence was rewarded: I managed to record over a hundred painful tales, while the most thick-skinned supporters of the ethnic enclaves remained silent. The manuscript of the book was finished in 1996. There were some who did not want the book published but who did nothing to me while I was in the field, even though I expected them to. However, it was in the middle of Belgrade that they stole from my house the greater part of the materials I had gathered. This delayed publication, but it did not prevent it. On the contrary, it was yet further proof that the “raw” material had value, even greater value, because someone had felt it necessary to steal and conceal it.

The final autumn of the war I traversed over six thousand kilometers of territory in Bosnia and Herzegovina and finished gathering the necessary materials.

In this book you will find an equal number of stories from Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats interwoven, as are their lives and destinies in Bosnia and Herzegovina. This is a collection of individual human confessions from the area I managed to visit. The tragedy of all the nations in that region during the war is too great to be described in any book. Any generalization on the basis of this material would represent an abuse of the sincerity and suffering of those who had the strength to talk about it.

The basic motive that started me and guided me, even as I stumbled forward, was the desire-under conditions of universal evil and destruction, when human life was worth a single bullet-to reaffirm human kindness as the supreme postulate on which rests the future of all three religions in the land of my forefathers.

It has been nine years since I started digging into this so far inexhaustible mine. Yet, having found all these testimonies about goodness in the face of great evil, I have realized that a very large number of victims who experienced such atrocities are now ready to talk about them openly. For me that was the first sign that people have become sick and tired of that evil, and that they are looking forward to the opportunity to publicly point out that such good people really existed. But I will never forget what a friend once said to me: “If all people were evil, then even the sun would refuse to shine.”

Good people, those who in the most terrible of times had the strength to talk about other people’s kindnesses, as well as those who—without asking the price—had the courage to do a good deed, were the most impressive confirmation of the validity of such a motive.

Svetlana Broz, M.D.
Belgrade, January 1999

Introduction and testimonies from the Serbian by Zorica Stoilovic, except “Known and Unknown Friends” and “Captain Mica” translated by Ellen Ellias-Bursac.


“Known and Unknown Friends” #

Told by Zora Udovcic, a refugee from Novska Kozarska
Dubica, January 1996

I used to live in the town of Novska with my husband and two sons. When the war broke out my husband and I had jobs, and our eldest son was in Bilea completing his obligatory military service, while our younger son was fifteen and in secondary school.

The situation in Novska was getting worse every day, so I sent our younger son away to stay with my sister in Zenica over his summer vacation.

The way the boundaries were laid out in Socialist Yugoslavia, Novska was part of Croatia. As Serbs, my husband and I felt more and more unsafe there, and this came to a head in October, 1991, when a neighbor, a Croatian woman, came terribly worried to our apartment to tell us, “You must leave Novska right now. They’ve started taking Serbs away to a camp! They’re arresting people in their own homes!”

I started packing the essentials, but my neighbor stopped me, saying, “It’s better if you don’t take anything. They’re stopping people and arresting them on the street if they suspect they are trying to get away. You’ll be too obvious if you carry a suitcase.”

“If I leave everything behind I don’t know what I’ll do,” I said. “We have no money for the trip.”

My neighbor hugged me, and while she sobbed and kissed me, I felt her push a rolled-up bill into my hand.

“I can’t help you more than that,” she said as we parted. “I wish you all the luck in the world.”

We walked out of the apartment, terrified. I had nothing but my purse and in it all our documents. I clutched the fifty-Deutsch-mark note she’d given me.

We managed to get out of town unnoticed and made it all the way to Baranja, where we lived as refugees in a village until April 1992. Our younger son spent that whole time in Zenica because we thought he’d be safer with his aunt, since we had no income.

As soon as we realized, what with the experience we’d already had, that war was about to break out in Bosnia as well, my fear for our younger son became unbearable. Whenever I pleaded with my husband for him to go and fetch the boy, he’d tell me, “There is no way that I, as a man eligible for military service, can go. I’d never make it to Zenica or back here with our son. They’d pick me up somewhere along the way.”

My maternal instinct overrode my fears: I myself set out for Zenica to bring my son back. I managed to hitchhike to Tuzla, but from there I couldn’t go any further. Busses were no longer running to Zenica, and taxi drivers refused to go. Desperate, I sat down on the sidewalk and burst into tears. A stranger came over, a middle-aged man, and asked, “What’s wrong, ma’am? May I be of help in some way?”

“I can’t believe there’s no way for me to get to Zenica. My son is there. He’s only fifteen and I have to get him out of there,” I told him, looking up with hope.

“Well, I have to say, ma’am, that you’re really asking the impossible! There are barricades up every few miles from here to Zenica, and there are armed men at every checkpoint. That’s why no one dares drive you.”

I sobbed miserably. The man walked slowly away, his head bowed.

At least a half-hour passed. I was still sitting there. Who knows what I was waiting for. I just knew I couldn’t go back without my boy.

Right then a car pulled up in front of me, at the wheel the same stranger who’d explained to me just a half-hour earlier that I was asking the impossible.

“Ma’am, get in,” he called to me. “I’ll do what I can to help you.” I sat in the car as if hypnotized. Tuzla fell further and further behind. I listened to the stranger’s voice.

“I’ll try to get us through on special transport roads that run through the woods. Maybe they don’t have barricades up in there yet.”

All I could say, over and over again, was that I had to reach my son. I never even asked the stranger for his name or where he worked.

Early that evening we pulled up in front of my sister’s house. When they saw us at their front door they were overjoyed. My sister said, “Have a seat and tell us how you got here. I’ll put on some coffee.”

I looked over at the stranger, who, shaking his head, answered, “We haven’t the time for that, ma’am. We’ve got to get back to Tuzla before dark. Take your son’s things and let’s go!”

In the car my son and I talked about everything that had happened in the year since we’d last seen each other.

Every once in awhile I’d remember that the stranger was there in the car with us when I’d catch sight of his kindly eyes as he drove without saying a word. I didn’t even notice when we’d already driven straight through Tuzla. Intoxicated by the joy of being with my son, I was startled by the stranger’s voice.

“Ma’am, this is as far as I can go. The Serbian barricades are just beyond the next curve in the road. You’ll have to do that part on foot. I’ll be heading back to Tuzla.”

Getting out of the car I thanked him and asked, “How much do I owe you?”

“Nothing, ma’am. Your happiness and your son’s are all the payment I need.”

As my son and I walked toward the Serbian barricades, I turned to watch the car speed back toward town.

It was only much later that I put two and two together and realized that the stranger had had to stop before the barricades because he was not a Serb.


We lived in Baranja until the moment we heard the tragic news: our older son had been killed in the fighting in Knin.

We had no kin anywhere in Serbia, and we needed to bury our boy. They’d sent us his body. We decided to bury him in Kozarska Dubica and move there ourselves.

After the funeral all my days were the same: I’d stand from early dawn until late at night next to his grave.

My husband stayed with our other son in Baranja so the child could finish the school year, but I couldn’t tear myself away from the graveside.

My next-door neighbor, a Muslim woman named Esma Arslanovi, would come up to the cemetery every evening, take me by the hand, and tell me, “Come on, Zora, come down to the house to rest. Tomorrow you’ll come back.”

She’d take me down quietly, respecting my grief. When we got to the house I’d find dinner on the table, Esma having made it for me. When I stubbornly refused to eat, her husband, Daud, would tell me, “You have to eat. You’ll lose your strength and get sick.”

Life had lost its meaning for me. In desperation, I tried three times to hang myself in the stable. Each time, Esma and Daud stopped me. Like shadows they kept watch over me and followed me everywhere. The third time, as Esma was taking the noose off my neck, she said, “Zora, you must think of your younger son. He needs you. I know the pain must be terrible, but you have no right to leave your boy with no mother!”

The terrible war lasted so long that my son, who had turned eighteen in the meantime, was called up to serve in the Army of Republika Srpska. He fought in western Bosnia until September 1995, when Muslim and Croatian forces occupied that territory.

His fellow soldiers who returned weren’t able to tell me whether my son had been taken prisoner or had been killed. There wasn’t a single word of news. Then one morning they called me into an office in the municipal building where I was working and said, “Zora, there’s someone on the phone for you from Vienna.”

I didn’t know a soul in Vienna. The first thing that came to mind was that it was some kind of mistake. When I picked up the phone a woman asked me, “Hello, is this Zora Udovi?”


“I’m calling from Vienna. You don’t know me but I have a message for you: your son is a prisoner in a camp near Mostar. He is not wounded; he is well, and he says hello.”

I don’t know how long it took me to get out the words, “I’m sorry, but I must ask you: how could you know all this from Vienna?”

“I wanted to give you the news of your son first because I know what it’s like to be waiting in expectation. Now I can explain the rest. My brother who lives in Mostar gave me the message for you because he’s working now at the camp. He got to know your son, who gave him your phone number at work and asked him to let you know he’s alive. My brother couldn’t call you from Mostar because there are no phone lines working between Mostar and Dubica, so he asked me to call you from Vienna. What matters is that your son says he loves you and that you should wait for him!”

Both of these strangers were Croats.

The war is over, and I am waiting for my son to come home from the camp, and I’m feeling better now.


“Captain Miça” #

A story told by Stjepan Bradvic from the village of Krizani near
Tuzla, November 1998

I lived with my family in the village of Krizani near Tuzla until the war broke out. I was fifty-nine when it started. In May 1992 young people from the village organized and, armed with hunting rifles, kept watch as civilians. My son was with four other boys on May 21st in the morning near the village of Ivanovii, right next to our village, when they stumbled on some fifty Chetniks [fn 1] who took them prisoner.

I went with an older relative of mine to ask the men to release our children. As soon as we showed up they took us prisoner, too, saying: “Now we’ll slaughter you, too. You are Croatian Ustasha, all of you.”

That same afternoon they had the seven of us walk under an armed escort to Simin Han. When we got there they beat us. They called Pozarnica and reported, “Send a truck and five soldiers. We’ve taken seven Ustasha fighters prisoner.”

Young men leapt from the truck and kicked and punched us and hit us with their rifle butts. Then they loaded us, bruised, into the truck like cattle. We had been so badly beaten we were barely conscious. That evening they took us to Pozarnica, where they chased us down off the truck and beat us again, then dumped us into a room. I kept passing out from the blows to my head. For the next fifteen days I could hardly eat. Armed soldiers guarded us every night until 11:00. Then a man named Captain Mia Jovi came in, wearing a uniform. It was the first time I’d ever seen him. He looked us over and turned to the soldiers.

“What have you done to these people?”

“Nothing. They beat themselves.”

“You get out of here!” he ordered. When he was alone with us, he said, “Get up. On your feet.”

We pulled ourselves up somehow, except me. Two others helped me stand. He gave us chairs to sit on.

“What’s wrong with you?” Mia asked me.

“They beat me. I’m having trouble breathing.”

He wouldn’t let anyone near us that night so they wouldn’t beat us. The next morning he had us moved to a cellar in Pozarnica where we spent twelve days. During that time Pozarnica was being shelled from Krizani, our village, so they beat us every day because of that. The Chetniks would come in and say, “Here we are, holding you alive, and your people are shelling us!”

Seeing that they’d kill us soon if they kept this up, Mia had us moved to Priboj, near Bijeljina. As soon as he left they started beating us there, too. We lay there bloody and broken on the floor when Mia stopped by to check on us.

“What’s wrong?”

“They keep beating us and beating us. They won’t give us anything to eat.”

He had us moved to Ugljevik, near Bijeljina, to a school building of some sort, where we were better off. We had food there and beds. There was a special Croatian fighter held at the camp with us named Mijo Brki, from Brcko. He was about fifty. I was standing fourth from him in line when they asked him, “Why did you rape a Serbian woman?”

“I didn’t, I swear I didn’t! I speak four languages. I was training Croatian troops, but I don’t know anything about rape.”

Three soldiers started beating him right in front of us at 6:00 that evening. They took turns. When he couldn’t get up any more they shouted, “Stand up!” Since he couldn’t stand, two of them lifted him and the third kept clubbing him with his rifle butt. When they took breaks, they smoke, drank brandy, and talked about all sorts of things. They tortured him until midnight.

In the morning one of the three soldiers who had beaten him walked in.

“Stand up, you Ustasha!”

Mijo didn’t budge. The soldier kicked him and saw he was dead. He took out his billy club and screamed, “Why did you kill him, you bastards!” He beat us with his club. We ran outside to get away from him. It was raining. . . .

When a committee of three Serbian officers came to investigate the case, the soldiers reported, right in front of us, “He killed himself. Bashed his head against the wall.”

A truck came to take the body away and bury it. They chose my son and two other Croats to bury him.

When my son came back he told me, “They took us to the place where they dump refuse from the factory, to bury him there. We’d dug up a layer about the depth of the shovel, and I was digging deeper when I heard a voice behind me: ‘Throw him in and shovel some dirt over him.’

“‘I haven’t got enough dirt to cover him. Shouldn’t we dig a little deeper?’

“‘Cover him over with what you have. Otherwise I’ll kill you and bury you there with him!’

“We sprinkled a little dirt over him and came straight back.”

We were guarded at Ugljevik by a young man from Pozarnica who was certainly no older than twenty-five. I knew his father and his grandfather, Andrija.

When two drunken soldiers, one of whom I knew from Simin Han, barged into our room one night and wanted to beat us, Andrija’s grandson wouldn’t let them. “Don’t you dare touch them,” he said. “I’m on guard here. Captain Mia ordered that no one has permission to hit them.”

“I am going to slit their throats,” said the bloodthirsty boy from Simin Han whose father used to work with me. I thought they’d kill Andrija’s grandson, they were so infuriated, both of them. They only withdrew when he took out his gun.

The young man would bring us bread he hid under his uniform, and cigarettes, canned food, whenever it was his turn to guard us. He talked normally with us. He knew that our only fault was being born Croats.

Busses kept bringing in new prisoners. Women and children were separated and taken away somewhere. There were about fifteen hundred of us in the warehouse, and there was nowhere near enough room. We had to crouch next to each other: there wasn’t even enough space to lie down. We spent about a month there. The horror started again: they beat us daily. I didn’t think any of us would survive.

We weren’t beaten by the sentries who watched to make sure we didn’t try to escape. Once I asked one of them if I could go out to the bathroom, and I saw ten people with their throats cut lying on the ground behind the warehouse. After that I could barely walk back in.

At night they’d take out the Muslims they meant to kill: they’d come along and kick someone and say, “Stand up!” None of them were ever seen again. By morning, when the sun came up, they’d already been taken off somewhere.

Every morning three or four men had to be carried out who hadn’t survived the beatings. I don’t know where they buried them all. They never shot anyone. All those young people were always drinking while they beat us. When they wanted to beat one of us Croats they would blindfold us so we couldn’t see who it was beating us. I didn’t know any of those people.

A committee inspected the prisoners, Muslims, in Batkovi, and one of the members of the committee was a doctor. When he got to us Croats, bloody and swollen from our beatings, the doctor said, “No point in examining you. After all, we’ll kill you because you are Ustasha.”

“Doctor, please, couldn’t you give us something for the pain?” I moaned.

“No medicine for Ustasha. All of you deserve to die!” the doctor answered and walked right by. He gave medicine to the Muslims.

They brought in a Croat from Jablanica who had been beaten and had some twenty knife wounds. I bound his wounds with my own shirt, which I tore into strips. When they saw me helping him, the soldiers chased me away.

“Anyone coming near him will be shot. Let him suffer and die.”

I crept over with water and washed him. While I was at the camp he recuperated a little. I don’t know what happened to him after I left.


Once they designated thirty-five prisoners in the camp from Batkovi for an exchange. The seven of us from Krizani were among them. We got as far as Caparde in the bus and waited there for three hours, but no one showed up from the other side.

One of them ordered me, “Hey you, old man, go walk toward the other side. Here’s a white flag. Go about a quarter of a mile and see whether any of your people from Tuzla are there.” He gave me a scrap of paper with someone’s name written on it. “If they brought this man from Tuzla for the exchange, I’ll give all of you for him.” He punched me in the head a few times until I was all bloody. “Now you have your chance to make a run for it. Go ahead. We’ll slit your son’s throat if you don’t come back.”

I made it over to the Bosnian-Herzegovinan Army’s trenches. They called, “Come over this way, man, now that you’ve made it this far alive! Surrender to us!”

“I don’t dare! They’ve got my son up in that bus. They’ll kill him!”

“They’ll kill all of you no matter what. At least this way one of you survives!”

“I can’t, they’ve got my son! If they have to kill them all, let them kill me, too!”

When I refused to surrender, one of them shot at me. Bullets zinged all around my feet. It’s pure chance I wasn’t hit. I heard them shouting, “We’ll be the ones to kill you, then. You’ll never make it back alive!”

I ran back to the bus carrying the white flag. When I made it back an officer asked, “Are you alive?”

“Yes,” I could barely answer. Then he turned to his soldiers: “Put him on the bus and no more beatings. Tell the driver to turn the bus around. We don’t want our own men slaughtering them.”

I heard the Chetniks shouting: “Are you kidding? An exchange? Forget it, get them off that bus, let’s kill them right here in the woods.”

As soon as I got up into the bus, the soldier told the driver, “Hurry, turn the bus around and make it snappy! Captain’s orders. Get out of here with these people. The Chetniks are going to kill them!”

At Glinica, near Zvornik, the officer caught up with the bus and stopped us.

“People, get out here. There’s a water fountain. Have a drink, relax.”

He pulled out two packs of Drina cigarettes.

“Anyone who smokes, have a cigarette. Catch your breath, cool off, then we’re going back.”

It was St. Peter’s Day and really hot. They took us back to Batkovi. Dinner had already been served. Hungry, exhausted, and scared, we lay down, wordless…

Ten days or so after that first, aborted exchange, just as they were serving us lunch, someone called me and my son from the door. The Chetnik who gave the worst beatings led us out.

“Come over here,” he said. “A guy from Tuzla wants to see you.”

We found Captain Mia there with six soldiers. He told them to leave the room so he could speak to us alone. He got up and shut the door and windows.

“I had to get out of the hospital to check up on how you’re doing,” he said. “Just so nobody kills you.”

After a brief pause he asked us, “Do you want to go home?”

“Of course we do! How could we not want to go home? But what about the other five?”

“Ivan, your son from Tuzla asked me to get you there no matter what it takes.”

I was speechless. I had no idea that Mia and Ivan knew each other.

“If you can let all of us go, then fine. But if not, we won’t go by ourselves. Let them kill all of us,” I answered.

“Fine, old man, if that’s the way it is. I’ll see to it that you all get out tomorrow.”

The next day, July 15th, Mia called all thirty-five of us. They took us up over Caparde and Brcko to Raic by bus, and he rode with us. We stopped in Rai in front of a checkpoint barricade and waited in the bus. The Chetniks from Brcko showed up and wanted to beat us.

Mia ordered his soldiers: “Guns at the ready! If anyone comes close, shoot them. I have gotten these folks this far, and I’m not going to let anyone hurt them now. I must hand these people over alive.”

No one dared come close. He had no idea what had happened to us in Batkovi.

On the other side the Serbs to be exchanged were already waiting in trucks. Mia released us first so we could go over to the other side, before their men had started to cross over toward us.

“Go now to your own army. Let them look after you. I can’t protect you anymore,” he told us when we said good-bye.


“Seven Days Later” #

A story told by Ramiz Delic, a refugee from Bratunac
Sarajevo, November 1998

Mr. Delic was telling me his story very excitedly:

Mehmed was born in the vicinity of Bratunac, but he lived in Belgrade, where he got married. We set out from our village for Belgrade in Luka’s car, but we were arrested as we were leaving town. They took us to the police station, and, after checking our identification cards, they separated us. I was kept for questioning, but as Luka was a Serb, he was discharged.

He didn’t want to leave me, and so he lingered, telling them: “Release this man. He lives in Belgrade. He’s only going to see his family.”

Mehmed was questioned for twelve hours. When he was released, one of the men grabbed Luka by the chest, saying, “We’ll have a special conversation with you,” and then slammed him against the wall.

“I think it would be a better idea to spend the night here, because at night they could kill us very easily,” continued Luka. “We’ll get up early tomorrow morning and cross the Drina [River]. It’s too dangerous here.”

[They themselves were aware that every morning the bodies of people who had been “interviewed” the day before were found along the banks of the Drina.]

In the morning, Luka arranged to have Mehmed transported across the Drina. Mehmed then went on to Belgrade, while Luka returned to Bratunac to try to free yet another person

. . . At about five o’clock in the morning we were driven out of the stadium. At the stadium exit there were men from Bratunac and “Arkan’s men,”[fn 2] who were separating people: Old people, women, and children had to go to the right, towards the buses and lorries, and those who were considered able to fight were sent to the left.

Men were lined up along the wall of the stadium. Some tried to sneak into the women’s group with the children but were unsuccessful. Children were grabbed from their fathers and thrown into the group with the mothers, while men were pushed to the left-hand side.

Children were taken in buses and lorries, while we men were lined up in a column and taken to the gym of the Vuk Karadzic Elementary School.

From the hallway I could see the locker rooms and bathrooms, full of dead bodies from which there spread a horrible smell.

On the left half of the gym floor lay about thirty-five people with their faces down. I thought they were dead, too, when suddenly the guards shouted at them and made them get up. Some I barely recognized, their faces were so disfigured.

Four hundred and fifty of us were pushed to the right side of the gym. They ordered us to empty our pockets, take off our wedding rings, necklaces, and all jewelry, as well as our watches, cigarette lighters, and cigarettes. Everything that hadn’t been taken at the stadium had to be left on the pile, which gradually grew higher and higher. Then there was a roll call. A group of five men was selected and then killed outside. Luka was brought into the gym the same evening.

“This is what happens to anyone who helps the Muslims,” they said angrily, then fired a pistol bullet into his head.

We who had to watch all that had to wash away the blood and brains spilled on the parquet floor, and to take out the dead bodies and load them onto the lorries, which took them God knows where.

Nine people suffocated in the gym that night; among them was a friend of mine, a good athlete who was only twenty-eight.


“If Your Balija Won’t Do It, I Will” 3 #

A story told by Sead R., a refugee from Bratunac
Tuzla, November 1998

​​​​​​Certain Serbs called a few people at a time and took them out of the gym in Bratunac. One of the men from Vihora, local company, saved several people, while we thought he was taking them to be shot. . . .

Soon one of my neighbors called my name. I thought, “It’s my turn, finally, to be killed.” Those who left the gym were either killed or beaten up and returned to the gym with terrible bruises. Their faces were covered with blood, and they had socks stuck in their mouths.

There were four soldiers on each side of the corridor. I closed the door and leaned against it. All of them had iron bars which they had ripped from school desks. While I was imagining how they were going to kill me with those bars, Pera opened the door and cocked his rifle, saying, “No, no, not him. Leave him to me!”

I was completely confused, thinking, “A friend is going to kill me. Maybe that’s my destiny.”

“Come this way!” he cried. “Hurry up, you motherfucker!”

I was moved past them, but nobody hit me, and he was still shouting at me: “Motherfucker! Don’t try to escape, because I will kill you!”

He brought me to the passenger side of his car and pushed me onto the front seat. “Sivi” (“Grey-hair”), whom I also knew, was sitting at the wheel. He put his rifle between me and himself. I was of two minds, and I didn’t know what to do. He closed the door and started the engine, but Pera stayed outside and banged on the car window with his rifle.

“Take him away.”

Only then did I realize they were trying to save me.

“Where should I take you?” asked Sivi.

“I don’t know. It’s dangerous everywhere. Can you get me out of Bratunac?”

“It’s impossible now. Bratunac is full of ‘man-hunters.’ Where should we go?”

“Take me to the shop where I used to work,” I said, wondering whether I would find Braco there.

As I got out of the car, Sivi said, “I did what I could. Good luck!”
Braco took me into his car: “Sead, where shall I take you now? If I take you to my house they’ll kill you and me.”

” Take me to the [Drina] River. I’ll swim across and get to Serbia.”

“Look, buddy, you can’t even get to the Drina. There are lots of soldiers there.”

A long convoy of prominent Muslims from Bratunac had formed in front of the mosque. They had received passes with Serbian names from the Bratunac town office so they could get into Serbia. Later, some went to Tuzla and others to Macedonia.

Halfway into town we met Ibro, a Muslim, who was driving his wife and mother-in-law. Braco flashed his headlights at him, and when Ibro stopped his car Braco asked him, “Where are you going?”

“We’re going to Zvornik. I got passes.”

“Will you give Sead a lift?” asked Braco.

“Believe me, I don’t dare. I barely managed to get passes for us.”

“Give him a lift. You have one seat free.”

“I don’t dare, I can’t!” he answered, his voice trembling. He started his car and drove off.

Braco sat in his car and said angrily, “If your Muslim balija won’t take you, I will!”

When we got close to the bridge we saw a policeman who knew us. Through the open car window, he asked Braco, “What’s new? What have you been doing? Where are you going?”

“To Ljubovija,” he whispered, too frightened to talk loudly.

At that moment the policeman bent down and saw me.

“Where are you taking him? Are you out of your mind?!”

“I’m taking him across to the other side.”

“Do you know what you’re doing?”

“Let me through, please, I have enough problems already.”

“I’ll let you through, but you won’t get by the control office on the Serbian side.”

“Just let us pass, and we’ll manage somehow,” said Braco quietly.

“Go, but I haven’t seen a thing!” concluded the policeman, turning away and telling his colleague to move a car that was parked in the middle of the bridge.

As soon as we left the bridge we were stopped by the Serbian police. I couldn’t tell who was more frightened as we stood outside the car while they searched us. Braco was relieved when he heard the familiar voice of a friendly policeman.

“Braco, is that you?”

“Yes, it’s me.”

“Release this man. I know him very well. He’s been to Ljubovija a dozen times today.”

As we got back into the car, the policeman added, smiling: “Don’t you ever try, Braco, to take any Greens across!” [4]

“Where would I be taking them? Don’t you see the situation? I can’t give them a lift-I can only kill them!” he answered resolutely.


Sleep in Peace  #

A story told by Ahmet Gobeljic, Sarajevo
Grbavica, November 1996

Four Chetniks wearing black fur hats with cockades [5] on them came into our flat one night in the beginning of October 1992. It was forbidden to lock the door, and even if we did lock it they would break in simply by kicking the door in with their boots. I lived alone with my mother, whereas my brother was out on his work detail. [6] They introduced themselves as soldiers of Knin krajina [7] who had come to Grbavica to help the Serbian army. The last soldier who came in locked the door. I didn’t know why they had come, but they searched the whole flat without saying anything. As they found no money or jewels or weapons, one of them attacked me with a knife, while the other one told him, “Don’t kill him. Let’s take them to the top of the building and throw them off. That’s how Alija’s soldiers deal with the White Eagles [8] when they catch them.”

All our neighbors heard the noise and the uproar, but nobody dared come out to protect us. Only one, Milan, was brave enough. He put a cardboard box on his head so none of our neighbors could recognize him, and he ran straight to the police station.

“Some fools are attacking my neighbors!”

He didn’t say “my Muslim neighbors,” but simply “my neighbors.”

We had a “close call”–it was a matter of seconds. The Chetniks couldn’t make up their minds whether to kill us with a knife or throw us from the fifteenth floor. They had just about decided when, luckily, the police arrived and pounded on the door.

We owe it to our friend Milan that we were able to leave Grbavica alive. He helped a lot of people in this war. When he heard what had happened, he said, “Regardless of the fact that I am on the Serbian side in some things, I would never permit anybody to abuse or kill my neighbors, friends, and fellow citizens for the sake of ‘ideals.’”


“A Flash of Light That Shines Still Today” #

A story told by A.S.
Mostar, November, 1998

The horrible conflict in this town between the Croats and Muslims started for me on June 30, 1993, although objectively speaking, it had already started one and a half months earlier. On that day in June, on the west side of town, all the Muslim population from the ages of sixteen to sixty-five were transported to a camp. Due to my first name and surname, which couldn’t be identified as belonging to a particular religion, as well my place of birth, I wasn’t included in this “round-up.” I stayed in my flat, but I didn’t know whether to be relieved or not. That was the most horrible night of my life. Screaming and moaning could be heard throughout the neighborhood all night long as children and wives were left without their fathers, sons, and husbands. I don’t know how I managed to get through the night. When I woke up in the morning I was thinking of going out into the street and telling them to take me to the camp, too–although, on second thought, as with any normal person, I wasn’t eager to experience such horror.

I left my house in the morning, hoping I could reach the hospital: I knew I couldn’t stay hidden in my flat waiting for another knock on the door. I thought my white doctor’s coat, which I had put on, would serve as a kind of protection. In fact, I was only hoping for that to be true. At such moments, a man sometimes clings to irrational details: for me, it was my white doctor’s coat. But as soon as I was outside my building, I came upon a painful sight—I was surrounded by members of the Croatian Defense Council Forces.

Many of them were my next-door neighbors, young men whom I saw every day. I stood in my tracks, numbly waiting to be arrested by one of them. Nothing happened.

It seemed like an eternity before I saw a neighbor who was putting his key into his car door. He noticed me and took the key out, as though he were coming over to me; but then he turned around and started unlocking the car door again. I stood speechless, watching him, without giving him any sign that I expected help from him.

He made the decision himself: he approached me and said, “What are you doing here?”

“I’m going to work,” I muttered.

“Get in the car. I’ll give you a lift,” he said with a trembling voice.

“Do you know what you’re doing? You have daughters. You may get into trouble. Think carefully!” I warned him in a low voice.

“I’m doing this for my daughters’ sake! My children and yours grew up together. If I don’t help you now, I won’t be able to look into their eyes as long as I live.”

For me that offer of a ride was a flash of light stronger than the flash of any artillery shell. It shines still today.


“Hang Me, Let Him Go”  #

A story told by Hamid Dedovic
Ilidza, October 1998

I stayed in Ilidza when it became Serbian territory, because I didn’t think that what happened could happen. Many Muslims were badly treated and some even killed. My neighbors, the Serbs, or better to say the Bosnian Serbs, saved me. It was the Serbs who came from Serbia who did the evil.

Six bearded men, Chetniks with the badges of the White Eagles, came into my house. As soon as they came through the door they started beating my wife, our two daughters, and me. Soon a neighbor, a Serbian woman, ran into the flat, too.

She said, “Don’t touch that man. He’s good!” They attacked her and started to beat her.

I was taken to the gate where they were collecting the Muslims who were being sent to Kula and Pale. There many of them were beaten and slaughtered. Bora, a Serb, red-faced, breathless, and despairing, ran towards me and stood in front of me:
“Here, take me instead of him. Hang me, and let him go.”


“One Man and the Writing on the Wall” #

A story told by S. M.
Mostar, November, 1998

Although I was born in Mostar, when I needed help because of the war, very few people were ready to make the kind of sacrifice necessary. This is more understandable if you know that I’m Muslim and that I used to live in what is called today “the western part” of the city.

My daughter, after coming of age, was taken in 1993 to a prison, which was not registered as such.

I begged a friend, a Croat, to save her in August of that year. He promised he would introduce me to a man who would be able to do that. He didn’t make it to our meeting place. His brother came instead and asked me if I knew where the man was.

“I don’t know, I’ve been waiting for him myself,” I answered, very worried.

His brother went to the front lines to look for him and found him dead beside a trench. We never found out who killed him. He was a man who had helped a lot of people.

In the fifth month of the clashes between the Croats and Muslims, when the fighting was most intense, I saw a neighbor, a Croat, sitting in front of our building, and I went out to talk with him a bit. Some ten meters beyond the entrance, Mika, another neighbor, was busily repairing his bicycle. He had taken upon himself the task of informing the Muslims when danger arose, so he sat in front of the house the whole day, repairing his bike. Suddenly a car stopped in front of the house and three young men jumped out holding knives:

“Do any Muslim balijas live here?”

Mika glanced at me and said, “No, we’ve locked them all up at the Heliodrom Camp.”

It was evident to all of us that they were looking for me. I passed by a Croatian neighbor, secretly threw him the keys to my flat, and hid out in his place. I was able to watch through the curtains as Mika saved my life with just a few words. In saving me, he could have easily lost his own life, for when they couldn’t find a Muslim, a Serb would suffice. They took a vote. Two of them were against taking the Serb. One of them even said, “We don’t need a Serb. Just being Serbian means that he’s seen plenty of troubles in this life. I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes for anything. We need a Muslim balija.”

They went into another building to look for a balija on whom they could vent their hatred. It was then that I realized the meaning of a line of graffiti I’d seen written in large letters on a building in Rondo: “Thank you, Mother, that I am not a Serb.” That graffiti is still there today.

This unfortunate man helped many Muslims during the course of the war. He had the bad luck of always being in the wrong place at the wrong time. He had also seen a lot and knew a lot. He was there when they killed his wife, the sister of a prominent man from Mostar. They took him away and nobody saw him again. Even today no one knows what happened to him.


“Kill Me and Them as Well” #

A story told by Sevda Porobic, a refugee from Srebrenica
Tuzla, November 1998

The following morning they separated out all the men. They came to collect attractive young girls, those with long hair, and took them into the woods. I was frightened for my daughter Fuadina, who was only fifteen and had long blonde hair. As I didn’t have any scissors, I laid her long pigtail on a flat stone and with another stone managed to cut it off. I found a piece of canvas to cover her, but it was no good. When they came to her, they took off the canvas, and my mother-in-law started to cry, hugging her and saying, “Either kill me or take me with her!”

A soldier pulled my mother-in-law’s arm away, so hard that it dislocated her shoulder. Another grabbed Fuadina and started to drag her away, and she resisted.

At that moment General Mladic appeared and said, “Here, the buses have arrived. Whoever wants to go, may go! Don’t take anything on board. Just give the children something to eat.”

If a mother had some food and put it in front of her child, the soldiers would kick their mouths with their boots, so that their little teeth would come out. The soldiers even put their boots into the children’s mouths.

“Here, eat this. This is meat. You don’t know what meat is. You don’t know what bread is, either.”

General Mladic was there and told us, “Don’t worry about anything.”

But he had already given his army orders what to do.

Then he said to his soldiers, “Two buses can go to Tuzla and twenty to Ljubovija Bridge. You know your orders, don’t you?”

I immediately said to my mother-in-law and the children, “Let’s go, come what may!”

People started moving towards the buses, but some women and men were taken aside and not allowed to get on.

I walked back to a spot where they’d killed a woman. She was wearing dimije, the baggy Turkish-style trousers Muslim women wear in the countryside. I took them off the dead woman and put them on my ten-year-old son, Ramiz.

As we stood in front of the bus, they took one boy aside, just two meters away from us. They stripped him naked and, cutting off his testes, ordered his mother to eat them.

When they came to us they asked me, “Is he a boy?”

I hugged Ramiz tightly and said, “No, she’s a girl.”

I grabbed him and took him onto the bus.

Two buses headed to a place called Kravice, and the other twenty headed towards the Drina and the Ljubovija Bridge. Even today no-body knows what happened to those people. I lost eleven members of my family, and my mother-in-law lost twenty-two. My father-in-law was killed, my husband, my brother, my sister, and her two children; my brother-in-law also disappeared.

We arrived at Bratunac. The army stopped the bus.

Our driver told them, “Don’t hurt me any more. The more you hurt these people, the more you hurt me. Let me drive through. If you wanted to hurt them so badly, why didn’t you kill them at Potocari, so nobody would survive and nobody would suffer!”

He sped off towards Kravica.

Along the way we saw piles of dead people. Some were tied, some were hanged. Some they placed on spits to be roasted, while others they were roasting. Some were making fires, others were killing people, and a third group were digging up the ground with a bulldozer.

Two troop carriers stopped us at Kravice. A man came out of one carrier and ordered our driver to come down, but he refused:

“I won’t leave the bus, and I won’t give these people to you! If you try to do anything to them, I’ll drive the bus into the river. Better that they die that way than you torture them!”

Then another man approached, and they grabbed the driver by the arms and, pulling him by the ears, nose, and head, tried to drag him off the bus.

“I won’t come out alive. Kill me and them and finish this horror forever!”

He managed to get free of them and drive away. A few meters farther on we were stopped by a Serbian army unit.

“Get out. Your sons are above in the woods-call them to come out and join you!”

The driver shouted through the window, “I’m moving on, and whatever Serbian soldier tries to stop me, I’ll run him down!”

We didn’t stop again until we reached Kladanj, and there he advised us:

“Walk along the middle of the road. The edges of the road are full of mines.”

We thanked him for his kindness.

He started crying and said, “Well, people, good luck to you, and watch your step.”


Cicko #

From the story of Serafina Lukic
Sarajevo, October 1998

On one of the worst and most difficult days, I saw a potato in the middle of the street. I bent down, in disbelief that someone could have lost such a treasure, and picked up this potato, which had been half-crushed by a wheel. A stranger passing by noticed me doing this. He stopped and invited me to come the next day to the Jewish Community Center.

The next day he introduced himself: “I’m Albert Abinun, called Cicko. I work in the kitchen. Please wait a moment for lunch to be rationed out, so I can see what I can do for you.”

Every day after that, at the end of their lunch, Cicko gave me whatever was left, and I was able to take cooked meals to my family in different places. Nada Levi gave me milk for my granddaughter whenever there was some. Ela Kabiljo gave me clothes for the child. Nobody at the Jewish Community Center ever asked my name. I believe that to the very end they didn’t know I was a Croat. It didn’t matter. . . .


“Don’t Give Me Away, Mom, Please” #

A story told by Senad Mehmedovic, a refugee from Visegrad
Sarajevo, November 1998

Until the war started, I lived with my husband, Esad; our son, Edin; and our daughter, Azra, in a place called Sase, near Visegrad.

One May morning in 1992, when the war started, I looked out the window and saw a number of uniformed people in my yard. When I went outside, the soldiers cursed me, and one even swung his rifle at me, hitting me with the butt and knocking me to the ground. When he got tired of beating me he left the yard, while I, almost dead, managed to drag myself back into the house. I realized that a great calamity had come upon us, so I told Esad, “You run with our son into the woods-our daughter and I will stay here.”

“I don’t want to leave you!” he said firmly.

“You have to. The soldiers from the Uzice corps are catching men and taking them away.”

At two in the morning I managed to persuade them to leave the house. I stayed with Azra, who was only fourteen. I knew I had to hide her somewhere. Our potato pit seemed the best place.

Lukic came the following morning with four other men, looking for my daughter. Lukic hit me first. They hit me with their rifle butts again, and when I fell to the ground, they started kicking me, stomping and cursing me. I suddenly lost consciousness. When I came to, I was in the woods, covered with blood. I didn’t know what had happened. I tried to crawl back home, but I couldn’t, because my entire body was in pain. Suddenly, Stanko, our Serbian neighbor, who was also hiding, ran up to me. He didn’t want to participate in that evil, which is why he had hid. I could hardly speak because my lower jaw had been broken.

“What did they do to me, Stanko?”

“You were raped by Lukic and three other men. Please, forgive me, I watched from behind a bush, but I couldn’t help you. If I had come out, they would have killed me.”

He helped me halfway home, but he couldn’t go any farther, because he was afraid of being seen by somebody. Then he ran back into the woods.

Lukic was looking for Stanko, too, as a traitor. Lukic made no distinctions among people, and he’d beat up the Serbs who didn’t join him.

Lukic came to my house again the next day. He beat me again, cursing me. I groaned after each blow. They cut off my hair, down to the scalp, and they cut a cross into my scalp with a knife.

They beat and abused me for the next five days. Then I managed to get to my sister-in-law’s house, where I saw what they had done down by the banks of the Drina River: They were slaughtering people, gouging out their eyes, and cutting off women’s fingers when they couldn’t get their gold wedding rings off.

One of the soldiers recognized me and said, “Hey, you, stop! Come with me! Lukic wants to see you.”

When we got to Knezina on a bus, a militia man told us we had to stop and wait for the Vojvoda (Captain). He was a big, tall man with a long beard, wearing a uniform with a cartridge belt around his waist and a sajkaca (a special Yugoslav military cap) with the Chetnik cockade shining in the sun.

He spoke to a Serb from Uzice in a harsh voice: “Take all the young boys and girls from the bus!”

“It’s easy for you to take them now, when I bring them to you,” said the Serb, a man named Mladja. “You go and catch them in the woods yourself if you want to, but you aren’t taking any of them from my bus.” He jumped into the bus, cocked his rifle and pointed it at the Vojvoda. Sveta and the militia man also cocked their rifles.

“Watch yourself! You’ll have to come back this way,” the Vojvoda threatened angrily.

“I will! Then we’ll face each other,” said Mladja from Uzice, and drove off.

The next convoy for Knezina was stopped. They took fifty-six people off and killed them. They killed sixteen-year-old boys. They even killed my brother-in-law, who was thirty-five.

When he returned to Visegrad, Lukic killed Mladja and his three brothers because they were protecting and saving a lot of Muslims. They were members of the rich and famous Pecikoza family who owned saw mills.



1. Chetnik: Serbian fighter from Serbia or Bosnia. Popularly referred to as Chetnik to avoid the term “Serbian,” which would be too inclusive.

2. Zeljko Raznatovic-Arkan, an infamous “vojvoda” (captain) of Serbian paramilitary troops, assassinated in 1999 in Belgrade.

3. Balija: pejorative term for Muslims, meaning an uncultured peasant or “scum.”

4. “Green”: a Muslim.

5. Kokarda: Chetnik insignia worn on a Chetnik’s fur hat.

6. Radna Obavesa: “work duty”-people had to do various humiliating jobs in order to survive.

7. Knin krajina: border area between Knin and Croatia.

8. Beli Orlovi (White Eagles): a Serbian paramilitary group.

See what's inside AGNI 54

Svetlana Broz is the author of Good People in Evil Times, published by Prelom in Serbia in 1999 and by G Plus G in Prague in 2001, and soon to be translated into Polish, English, and German. In 2000 she moved to Sarajevo and is now President of the Board of The First Children’s Embassy in the World. In 1998 she started work on a new book devoted to inter-ethnic marriages during the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. She has lectured at Harvard University, Tufts University, Boston College, and the International Institute of Boston. (updated 2001)

Zorica Stoilović is a teacher, freelance translator, interpreter, trainer, textbook writer, and poet. He has lived in London and has traveled extensively throughout Europe. He now lives and works in his native Belgrade. (updated 10/2001)

AGNI has published the following translations:

Good People in Times of Evil by Svetlana Broz (translated with Ellen Elias-Bursać)

Ellen Elias-Bursać has been translating novels and nonfiction by Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian writers since the 1980s. Her translation of David Albahari’s novel Götz and Meyer won the National Translation Award, given by the American Literary Translators Association, in 2006. She is now vice president of ALTA. (updated 4/2019)
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