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Esma Palic - truth about a captured hero


If at some point someone decides to write the truth about the Palic family, that will be a book about everything that disappeared on July 27, 1995, when Avdo was taken into the unknown. That will be the story about thousands of individuals swallowed by the darkness of Something that is these days celebrating the tenth anniversary of existence. And although it would reflect fates of thousands, as every other story, this one would also have main characters. Two young people, a teacher of a high-school in Vlasenica, a reserve officer of the Yugoslav People's Army, and his wife. The woman that seeks the truth

by Ermin CENGIC

Dani, Sarajevo, Federation Bosnia-Hercegovina, B-H, January 18, 2002

A book should be written about the fate of Avdo Palic. but how? How can one write that the life of this man is worth $25,000? How can one write that the price for six and a half years (two thousand three hundred fifty and a few days) long spiritual anguish of his wife Esma Palic is - $7,500? How can one write that there are rules based on which the judges of the Human Rights Court decided that the fate of the missing hero of the defense of Zepa is worth precisely $32,500 that will be paid by the Republic of Srpska? How can one write that the officials of the OHR are positively ecstatic with happiness because the authorities in Srpska have demonstrated "respect for fundamental human values" by paying this sum? How can one write a story about love, courage, faith, patience, hope... without sullying it with paragraphs, political pressure, the United Nations, paper-thin human rights, false promises, treason?

Bus called destiny: If, however, someone, sometimes, decides to write the truth about the Palics, that will be a book about everything that disappeared on July 27, 1995, when Avdo was taken into the unknown. That will be a story about thousands of those that were swallowed by the darkness of Something that is these days celebrating ten years since its founding.

And even though it would reflect fates of thousands, this story would have its heroes. Two young people, a teacher at the high school in Vlasenica, a reserve officer of the Yugoslav People's Party, and his wife, a student.

On Bayram of 1992, she, Esma, and he, Avdo, by chance decided to visit their parents. They caught the last bus leaving for Zepa. On that day, or much earlier, the hellish war for the conquest of eastern Bosnia and extermination of local Bosniaks started. Avdo stopped being a teacher and, as one of the best artillery officers of the former YPA, became a commander of a brigade of the Bosnian Army, an army without weapons and strategy and with only one goal - survival. A canyon near Avdo's house became a grave for an unknown number of enemy soldiers buried under stones and logs. That defeat was the main news and bounty was put on Avdo's head. Enemy soldiers did not manage to enter Zepa, but it was instead occupied by Hunger and Sickness. Esma continues the story...

"Avdo was really the only force among the soldiers. He gave them self-confidence. Even when it was silly to claim that we had a chance to survive, he would argue otherwise." In early 1993 hunger became a problem because of fierce attacks of the Conquerors. In May of 1993, the United Nations placed Zepa under its protection. Demilitarization followed, and Avdo also played a political role. He maintained balance between U.N. forces and Serb forces which frequently blocked humanitarian convoys and did not allow evacuation of wounded and sick.

Srebrenica fell in July 1995. The Conquerors butchered everything in sight. Zepa was in panic. Loudspeakers placed on nearby hills were howling, calling for Surrender. Avdo was calm. That calm was spreading to panicking residents of Zepa. "He tried to keep the residents calm and kept telling them that we had to fight until an agreement was reached in Sarajevo. Zepa held out for 13 days, and then a sort of agreement was reached to evacuate civilians."

Esma left carrying in her arms two babies. One was seventeen, the other four months old. "We saw each other the moment I joined the convoy and it left. It seemed to me, but I could be wrong, that he was optimistic. That optimism was betrayed both by his expression and his moves. He even talked about what we would do once he joined us. I now know that he was trying to fool me, because I was starting to panic."

Daring and courage: Avdo's calm and courage saved lives of hundreds of civilians from Zepa. It was respected even by his opponents. Even by the infamous General Mladic. The only place where it was not respected was Sarajevo... "I am really hurt that, even if they could not do anything for him, then at least they could have refrained from trying to discredit him. Those who were in Zepa know what it was like and I know how persistently we waited for assistance from Sarajevo." According to the military leadership in Sarajevo, Avdo was mentally unstable!? "After the civilians left, Avdo held out. However, incessant bombardment, lack of sleep, death of closest collaborators, lack of cooperation by UNPROFOR... All he got from Sarajevo was the message to keep fighting. One of our senior officers said: 'What are you complaining about? You are being attacked by a lousy company of Chetniks...' And of course, that makes you mad and you feel like saying, 'if you're so brave, why don't you get in a helicopter, come here and lead us?'. If they consider that for insubordination, then it is true that he was cheeky. He insisted that both civilians and soldiers be saved, and he knew that that was possible. However, our side had its own agenda."

Witnesses who, unlike the Army BH commander at the time, Rasim Delic, saw Zepa and Avdo those days, told that Avdo did not ask for anything. That he was proud. That, unlike Serb officers, he was civilized and dignified. And abandoned by all.

After Esma's departure, Avdo stayed in Zepa for another three days, organizing the defense, because soldiers could not leave the frontline until all civilians were evacuated. Then a convoy with 806 civilians was captured and the Serb forces issued an ultimatum: either negotiations about surrender of soldiers or civilians would be killed. Avdo sent a report to Sarajevo. He asked for an intervention by the UN. The same United Nations that a few days before left Srebrenica and thousands of Bosniaks to the knives and bullets of Ratko Mladic's soldiers. The United Nations [forces], blocked by a live wall of civilians, did not manage to leave Zepa on time. Thus Avdo managed to force the arrival of the UNPROFOR commander, Rupert Smith.

Early in the morning on July 27, a message arrived that negotiations regarding the evacuation of the soldiers were to be held at the UN base. A day before Avdo said that "whoever goes to these negotiations would be captured." He went, nevertheless.

Smith left Sarajevo and reached the entrance to Zepa, the base occupied by Mladic's soldiers. Smith stopped. A few kilometers further, at the UN base, on the territory of safe area Zepa, Serb soldiers arrested negotiator Avdo Palic. "That was a trap." Immediately they received news that Avdo tried to escape and was killed. Then, that he was held in Rogatica. Then he was also seen in Bijeljina. Several months later Abdurahman Malkic and Sado Ramic were released from a secret prison in Bijeljina and confirmed that Avdo Palic had been brought to the prison fifteen days after the arrest. This was the last time he was seen.

Who issued orders for captain Pecanac?: Amor Masovic, Hasan Muratovic, Alija Izetbegovic, Momcilo Krajisnik... Negotiations about the truth. About the fate of Avdo and his closest collaborators Mehmed Hajric and Amir Imamovic. Tactical games. Stakes.

Esma did not negotiate. Esma searched. This was the beginning of her difficult struggle for every information about Avdo's whereabouts. Or his fate. Negotiations failed. The war ended. The Republic of Srpska became a legal state entity. Bosnia-Hercegovina stepped on the path towards European integration. Human rights moved from graves and dungeons to papers, articles and clauses. Esma filed a lawsuit. The Human Rights Court decided in the case. The Republic of Srpska kept quiet. Wolfgang Petritsch begged for money. Mladen Ivanic tried to clear soiled conscience with a payment from the state budget. Esma responded to the OHR: "If you think that this payment will shut me up, you're wrong!"

Information about Dragomir Pecanac surfaced. He is the commander of the Army of Srpska in Rogatica, a captain. In November 2001 the Ministry of Defense of the Republic of Srpska announced that on September 5, 1995, captain Pecanac came to the Varunekov's Mill prison and demanded to be handed over prisoner Avdo Palic. He talked about higher interest. The prison warden obeyed the lower ranking officer or the Army of Srpska?! Pecanac took Palic away. The authorities of the Republic of Srpska do not know where Pecanac is at this time. "He was merely a commander of a unit stationed in Rogatica. Therefore, someone had to give him orders. Who? With whose signature he took Avdo from the prison warden?"

This information came from Beriz Belkic a member of the BH Presidency. The only person who heard Esma Palic's pleas. "It would not be true to say that no one understood the problem, but it is true that hardly anyone did anything in practice. If they did, we would not be now where we are." The OHR, OSCE, UN, Srpska government, Council of Ministers... No one did anything.

The Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina? "I asked for help, to find out what happened to Avdo." The answer was: "Why don't you write to us what you know, so that we know what you've done so far." "They never responded to my pleas, never. That was a done deal as far as they were concerned.".

Oops, sorry, the command of the First Corps at the time of commander Nedzad Ajnadzic assisted in finding accommodations for Esma and her children. "Yes, and we got a card for Bayram from the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Thank God, I do not need humanitarian assistance. But I wished they at least offered legal assistance, that they offered to participate, because Avdo was their officer... Avdo did not fight just to defend his family. He defended the whole Bosnia-Hercegovina."

Esma searches and lives. For Avdo, their two girls, and for love. How? "Thank God, I can say we are doing well. The moment you end up in the situation when you have nothing, and manage to get back on your feet, you get hold of life, because no one else is willing to do that for you. My two wonderful girls are my inspiration in life. On the other hand, everything is almost the same as in 1995. I've said it many times. For many the war ended in 1995, but for me it started that year. While others fought, I lived in a happy marriage. The war ended, but it started for me, because I am fighting a battle for the truth."

Last: The truth. About Avdo, Amir and Mehmed, imam from Zepa, captured while he was seeing off groups of civilians. He was registered by the International Red Cross. Tortured and maltreated. The man who was mentioned in a message sent from the prison in Rogatica. The man eaten by the lie that he escaped from that prison.

"When the news about Avdo came, Mehmed Hajric's mother called me from her deathbed and said: 'I am afraid that I will die and will not learn what happened to my son.' He is a great man, a person always prepared to help. He was an imam, but also the president of the wartime presidency in Zepa. He was also a soldier. It is really sad that these men did not try to save themselves and I feel real bad realizing that no one has done anything for the two of them. They were Avdo's closest collaborators and they also could leave and abandon Avdo, if they were cowards. But no, all of them were united, they all worked together...".

The story about the Missing ends here with the first paragraph of the unwritten novel: "Avdo was a special creature. There are very few men who think like him: 'everyone, then me last.' If other people went hungry, he also refused food. If other soldiers did not have boots, he did not want them. He was always in front of his soldiers. He always had that... I'm not sure, perhaps Tito's, or socialist attitude towards people. Simply all of them were more valuable and more important than him. It's not that he disparaged himself, but his last words were: 'people, don't be scared. I'll be the last one to leave Zepa. All of you will leave before I do.' And he kept his word..."

Translated on May 16, 2002