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THU, 17 JAN 2002 23:15:40 GMT

RS Pays Damages to Bosniak Woman

Despite receiving compensation for her husband's disappearance six years ago, Esma Palic still does not know what actually happened to her spouse, who was commander of the U.N. protected zone in Zepa at the time.

AIM Sarajevo, January 9, 2002

A year after Bosnia-Herzegovina's House of Human Rights reached a decision, Republika Srpska authorities paid DM65,000 to Esma Palic as compensation for the disappearance of her husband, Avdo Palic, a Bosnia-Herzegovina army colonel, OHR spokesman Oleg Milisic announced on Jan. 8.

Last January the Bosnian House of Human Rights ruled to allow a motion filed by Esma Palic on Nov. 18, 2000 against Bosnia-Herzegovina and Republika Srpska over the disappearance of her husband, a senior officer of the Bosnian army who on July 27, 1995, was taken by Bosnian Serb army soldiers to an unknown destination while attending negotiations at U.N. facilities in Zepa. This happened despite U.N. guarantees for Palic's safety and before the very eyes of U.N. soldiers, and nothing has been heard of him since.

Thus ended a unique lawsuit which lasted six years. The house ordered Republika Srpska to pay Esma Palic DM15,000 in damages for mental pain, and DM50,000 in damages to her husband, if he is alive, or his heirs, if he is not alive. But the main issue still remains open: what did happen to this Bosnian army officer who was commander of the town of Zepa at the time of his disappearance. So far the RS authorities have offered just one explanation. They said that on Sept. 5, 1995, RS army Col. Dragomir Pecanac came to the Bijeljina military prison and took Avdo Palic with him. "He told the warden that a higher interest was at stake, and that this was what 'the parties' had agreed," explained RS President Mirko Sarovic to Bosnia-Herzegovina Presidency member Beriz Belkic.

And while this payment, albeit belated, is viewed by the OHR as a sign that RS "is beginning to act with respect for human rights," let us recall the perseverance shown by this young woman, who last year graduated from the School of Psychology in Sarajevo, in searching for the truth about her husband's fate. Maybe the best illustration of her determination is the fact that on the sixth anniversary of her husband's disappearance she called a press conference on her own. What was even more interesting is that this conference was a major event in the Bosnian capital that day. It was covered by all radio and TV stations, and every newspaper carried her picture and her story on its front page, much like what happened today, after the OHR press release. Back then Esma said that she would wake up each of the 2,190 mornings that had elapsed since her husband vanished with his face in front of her, and the question: "Where is he?" And she would recall his last words: "I will do my job to the end, regardless of what happens to me. Don't worry, you and the children will have everything you need."

Three days after their parting, two soldiers -- she would learn later that they belonged to Radomir Furtula's unit -- took her husband from the U.N. facility to a waiting jeep. This reporter had a chance to speak earlier with a companion of Palic's who, at the time, was also in the protected zone of Zepa, and was told that this was exactly what had happened, and that several days later Furtula went around showing off Avdo's handgun. Some say that he still carries it with him, as one of his dearest trophies! In her own words, Esma did not go public only because of the silence surrounding her husband's fate. She began her account by describing the atmosphere in Zepa, which she personally witnessed. Her younger daughter was two months old back then, and her older one was not yet two. "We were stunned with fear by the stories refugees from Srebrenica had told us. We began to lose hope, and the people started organizing a defense. My husband, who was their commander, used to tell the people: 'Don't be afraid, I'll be the last one to leave Zepa!'"

At that time the government in Sarajevo was negotiating with the Serb side, and the international community was mediating. Gen. Mladic was closing in on the protected zone and calling for a peaceful surrender. Finally an agreement was reached on July 24, and the first civilian convoys left Zepa for Kladanj. In one of them were Esma with her daughters. "Mladic blocked the last convoy with 806 old people, women and children. He demanded that and the army surrender, saying that otherwise all civilians would be killed. Ukrainian U.N. troops then attempted to leave Zepa but the people blocked them. Sarajevo was informed of everything that was going on, and U.N. commander in Bosnia, Gen. Rupert Smith, decided to go to Zepa. After he was informed of Smith's arrival, Avdo agreed to attend negotiations with the Serbs in Zepa. He was in the woods above Zepa, with his assistant, the night before the arrest. His assistant told me the whole story about their going down into town. When they approached the U.N. base, the car broke down. Avdo told him to go back to fetch some parts, and that he would enter the base alone. As soon as he did, the Serb soldiers appeared," says Esma, stressing the fact that everything happened in front of international observers and Ukrainian U.N. troops, or in front of the eyes of the entire world.

"Aren't negotiators supposed to be protected? Witnesses claim that the vehicle into which Avdo was taken left for Brezove Ravni, a location above Zepa, where a Yugoslav People's Army helicopter landed soon thereafter and immediately left. And what happened to Gen. Smith? He was stopped at Boksanica, where Mladic's headquarters were located, and from where he directed operations around Zepa, and where the vehicle with Avdo had to pass if he was not put on the helicopter. Why did Gen. Smith stop there? Was he forced to stop or stopped willingly for a chat with Mladic while Avdo was being arrested at the base where Smith was supposed to be? Was it a trap, and if so, planned by whom? Because if Smith was not where he was supposed to be, and was instead chatting with Mladic, why did not he demand that my husband be released? I cannot believe that he knew nothing of his arrest. I would like to know what he wrote in his report that day. Did anyone ask him to explain what happened? Was there any pressure from "this" side on the "other" side and the international community to secure the release of Zepa's commander, who, after all, was the highest Bosnian army officer to ever be arrested?"

Edward Joseph, a U.N. observer who witnessed Avdo's arrest, was stunned by what he saw and immediately sent a report to his superiors in Sarajevo and Zagreb. "Joseph testified to what he saw whenever I asked him to do so. He did that on his own as well, wanting to finally shed some light his (Avdo's) fate. He told me a number of times that he was not guilty but that he does feel involved," says Esma. She recalls that two figures, both playing important roles in what happened in Srebrenica and Zepa, Gen. Rasim Delic, commander of the Bosnian army, and Alija Izetbegovic, then chairman of the Bosnian Presidency, made contradictory statements about her husband. Esma was particularly embittered by what Delic had to say: "He (Delic), who was in touch with my husband from his office, and, I should say, a very well-guarded office at that, described him as a mentally unstable person, and said something else implying that it was his own fault that he was arrested. And some time ago, in a TV show, Mr. Izetbegovic, responding to a question asking him whether he could have done more to prevent Srebrenica, said no and stressed the example of Zepa. He added that the people of Zepa were saved by a well-organized defense: 'There were people there who coordinated the operation of saving the population. We had our great heroes there: Palic, Hajric.' How are then Delic's words of a year before to be understood? They did not harmonize their views? Or have unpleasant memories begun to upset them?"

"But this will not help neither me or my children. I don't care the slightest bit about anybody's conscience. I have memories of my husband and his conscience, like all other survivors from Zepa. It was never unclean, and because of that I must continue my search. Avdo had already been taken away when the news arrived he was a candidate for the Golden Lilly Medal (the highest decoration in times of war). What happened to that proposal? Why was it never accepted? Or, let me be cynical for a moment and ask, why did Zepa fail to share Srebrenica's fate? Whose plans, in fact, did Avdo disturb?"

This determined woman, which recalls the fact that over 11,000 inhabitants of Srebrenica and Zepa have confirmed in writing that they want to leave Bosnia and Herzegovina, received some sort of satisfaction today. But neither she, not the people she mentions, have received any answers to their questions. And she still doesn't know anything about what matters to her most: what did actually happen to her husband?

Edina Kamenica