by Slobodan RELJIC and Ljubica GOJGIC
He requested more time to respond why the collection was given to the museum, and that questions be sent via e-mail. We sent him thirteen questions. Then, the first surprise. Cunny did not send any answers before the agreed deadline. When his message finally arrived it included exactly 12 rows spent on gratitude for our interest in the museum and the fate of the collection. We called. Was there a mistake? No, that was the official answer by the museum.
What had actually taken place?
Late last year (October 27), just before the elections, the then RS Prime Minister and a candidate for the President of RS, Milorad Dodik, signed in Cyrillic a contract with the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. The Jasenovac collection, which was at the time stored in the RS Archive in Banja Luka, was transferred to the Washington Museum and the "Republic of Srpska gave up all claims and ceded care and control of the collection to the museum."
Even the public in Bosnia-Hercegovina, which these days is hardly surprised by anything, was consternated by the contract in which "the Republic of Srpska also gives up all rights to the material, on any basis". Dodik's government found out about the unbearable lightness of his responsibility for social and national values only a month later, on December 25, 2001.
The Jasenovac collection or, more precisely, remnants of the collection stored in the former Jasenovac Memorial Center were protected for ten years by Simo Brdar, the former deputy director. In November 1991 "the mixed commission of Military post 6797 and the management of the Jasenovac Memorial Center... collected the archive material and displays that had not been destroyed or stolen during the period when Croatian Police and Guard controlled the memorial center". Evidence about genocide [against Serbs] was collected in eight metal and nine wooden cases, plus four paper boxes.
The Jasenovac memorial Center covered 125 hectares in Croatia and 118 hectares in the Republic of Srpska. The offices and all objects of the center were on the Croatian side of the Sava river. The killing fields were on the other side of the Sava river, in Donja Gradina (described as "the biggest Jasenovac killing field and the biggest killing field in the south-eastern Europe" by Jovan Mirkovic, the former museum director). This is the source of dispute today. Croats believe that hey are legitimate heirs of Jasenovac, because the museum offices were on their territory; Serbs remind others that most of the object such as remnants of jaws, hair, clothing, letters written from the camp, and wedding bands, were excavated in Donja Gradina in Srpska.
It makes sense that this collection has continued to be of interest for the Croatian authorities, but it is still unclear how Americans got involved in the dispute.
By the way, Jovan Mirkovic, today the director of the Museum of Genocide Victims in Belgrade, believes that the transfer of the collection into the RS Archive was a mistake. "The material could have been stored in the RS Museum, which has the staff that is trained in museum archiving". Besides, the Archive is run by the government, while the museum is an independent institution and thus less dependent on the government decisions and agreements signed by the Prime Minister.
In Banja Luka, there was discussion about "the assistance provided by this world renowned institution". Papers and objects were supposed to be transferred to Washington to be restored and scanned, and some experts from RS were supposed to participate in that project.
Several days later, after the formalities were sorted out through "diplomatic channels", SFOR vehicles showed up in front of the Archive and loaded the boxes and drove them away. The "diplomatic channel" would have to be the American Ambassador in Sarajevo, Thomas Miller, who had the reputation in Bosnia of giving orders rather than trying to convince, which Dodik must have experienced personally. "I think that they (Americans) would have arrived, just like they had come to the central Police Station in Banja Luka, picked up the material and driven it away," Dodik told the investigative committee. "If you wish, I can list another ten examples in which SFOR units came to pick up material from the police stations and intelligence service headquarters in Prijedor, Banja Luka..."
The American Ambassador in Sarajevo, Thomas Miller, denied his reputation in a conversation with NIN. "Here many believe that I am responsible for many things in which I have not participated. You know, for 95 percent of deals I make, people think they are secret, and it is exactly the other way round, 95 percent of my work is public". Miller denied Dodik's explanation about the transfer of material to Washington. "The embassy was only an intermediary in the discussions between two interested sides, RS and the Holocaust Museum," stated the ambassador. This contradicts the claim of the museum, whose management claims that the institution is also an intermediary.
One is left wondering, if everyone is an intermediary, who made the decision? Even if the public exaggerates the power and influence of Ambassador Miller, it seems that Milorad Dodik was convinced that he had to cooperate. Otherwise, the documentation "would have been confiscated within 16 hours"(!?) But what pushed Diana Saltzman, the director and chief curator of the big museum, to sign the agreement, which is, to say the least, very unusual for museum practice, in which confiscation of the material is the condition for its restoration.
The only explanation is coming from Washington so far is from the Serb-American community. "It is certain that this is not the official policy of the American Administration, as we can see in the talks we had with the local politicians who deny any involvement in the whole case. Our assumption is that this is a private initiative, either Miller in Sarajevo, Holbrooke in New York, or someone else. It remains to be seen who is responsible," said Obrad Kesic, an analyst of American policy based in Washington.
The reason given, rather bluntly, by Sara Bloomfield, was, we quote, that "Serbs stole the material from Croats during the war". Consequently, the museum requested from the owner the right to take the material from another country. Having in mind that Ms. Bloomfield and the whole management of the Museum, as the members of the investigative committee had a chance to witness, displayed minimal knowledge about the problem in which they got involved (the permanent museum display mentions concentration camp Jasenovac, which, according to the museum experts was in Yugoslavia and in which the only victims were Jews), then it is not surprising that the director of the museum found it appropriate to prejudge the decision of a possible arbitration or an international court. "Our current plan is to return the material to the Republic of Croatia, to the Jasenovac Memorial Center, not before November 27, 2001. This is a part of our agreement with the Culture Ministry of the Republic of Croatia." A problem came up when the delegation of the investigative committee of RS requested to see a photocopy of that agreement. Although the agreement is not a secret, the museum management explained that they "need a permission from the State Department before they can show a copy."
Mistakes are quite likely in such an atmosphere, for example in the transfer of the material from Banja Luka. Croats boasted (HINA, January 3, 2001) that "boxes will be opened in Washington in presence of an official from the Croatian embassy and the director of the Jasenovac museum, Mate Rupic". "It is very likely, if the boxes are opened without anyone from RS that Srpska will be accused of the destruction or theft of the material that is missing, in comparison with the inventory," reminds Dr. Milan Bulajic, the director of the Museum of Genocide Victims in Belgrade.
By the way, the new authorities in Croatia are getting ready to rebuild the destroyed Jasenovac, seeing in that a possibility to "without any doubt, make both political and moral profit". In Zagreb it is claimed that the agreement with the Holocaust Museum will "dispel assertions launched by some circles in Belgrade that the Croatian authorities are trying to suppress the truth about that Ustashe camp". It has been also published that new documents about the number of victims in Jasenovac had recently been found in the Croatian State Archive: "recently discovered lists from 1946 and 1950 place the number of victims in that infamous camp at between 155,152 and 155,226".
Even though the former RS Prime Minister describes the rather forceful method used to get the collection from the RS Archive, the Holocaust Museum tirelessly, in all written material and contacts insists that it was "asked" to take something over and that the "initiative for the takeover of the material originated in Banja Luka, and the USA embassy in Bosnia-Hercegovina, respectively".
Therefore, the secret of American passion for Jasenovac becomes increasingly intriguing. And the Serb attempts to find any sense in all of that are directed towards a "transitional solution". These are series of verbal assurances according to which the renowned institution has taken an obligation to protect the artifacts (for at least one year!?) and after that assist "that this historical material be presented appropriately and with dignity in Croatia".
In pauses of official talks the management of the museum even complained to the Serbs regarding the unfortunate Tudman's appearance at the opening of the museum, but they made sure to emphasize that they "had nothing to do with politics", as "the museum is a government institution, but it is not a political institution and it wants to preserve the truth". Whose truth?
As history is the matter here, it does not hurt to recall the elementary principle of history, that the word of mouth is only a secondary source. Naturally, written sources are most important and in the only official paper signed by Milorad Dodik and a museum representative there is no mention of any good will services. The new RS government quickly learned that in practice only written agreements are respected when its demand that the material be returned was simply ignored.
Then the Parliament of the Republic of Srpska (session held on March 14) instead of a solution received a "transitional solution". "As the museum has been informed that the Archive in Banja Luka does not have infrastructure to make copies of the material, these will be made and provided, as promised. Copies will also be provided for archives in Belgrade and Jerusalem, upon their request."
Furthermore, the Serb-American community intends to force the museum to fulfill the given promise and display the obtained material. "A presentation on the museum's web-site, as they have proposed, is not a satisfactory solution for us. If the museum is not prepared to add this material to its permanent collection, we shall demand that the material be taken away from them and moved to a different institution, for example Simon Wiesenthal's Museum of Tolerance, where it would have different treatment. Besides, the construction of an Armenian museum is currently going on and we believe that they, in the museum bearing witness to their suffering, would display testimonies from Jasenovac."
Kesic adds that the cooperation with the Holocaust Museum is made difficult by "the enmity of the museum management with respect to the Serb community."
During my visit to the director general of the Museum, Dr. Weinberg, in June 1994, it was agreed that the Holocaust Museum show an exhibition about Jasenovac. He insisted that we organize a conference as well, show documentary films, explain the true Tudman's nature (Tudman wanted to transform Jasenovac into a memorial to victims and their executioners). I was elated. One of the Museum directors, Mr. Nowakowski, came back with us to check the quality of the exhibition material. Then, on November 10, 1994, Mr. Weinberg informed me that there is no space for Jasenovac in the calendar of the Museum.
During my visit in 1995, to the question why the exhibition was canceled, I was told that Jasenovac is politics. I asked him whether 25,000 Jews, who according to our information were brutally killed in Jasenovac, were also politics. He only lowered his gaze. I reminded him that president Tudman was invited to the opening of the Museum, and that neither a president of Serbia nor Yugoslavia were invited.
In 1998, the Museum organized an exhibition about genocide carried out by Serbs in Bosnia. I asked how it was possible to organize an exhibition about something that is not really Holocaust, while they were refusing to organize an exhibition about Jasenovac.
As the Holocaust Museum is a state-run institution, even though Dr. Weinberg wanted to organize an exhibition, he was told not to do so. The official Washington's interpretation was that by organizing a show about Jasenovac we were trying to absolve Serbs from responsibility for some crimes they committed between 1991 and 1995.
By the way, on behalf of FR Yugoslavia I negotiated with the Holocaust Museum about cooperation and exchange of documentation and I can tell you that FRY concluded a contract according to which the Museum of Genocide Victims, the Yugoslav Archive, and the Institute for Contemporary History sent some documentation to Washington. I even delivered some documents personally. I think that they have more documentation about genocide than any other institution, including the Museum of Genocide Victims in Belgrade. However, not even one thousandth part of that documentation is displayed in the museum.
When I became the Prime Minister, the issue of the material from Jasenovac was frequently mentioned in official meetings with the representatives of the Republic of Croatia. Representatives of the BH Council of Ministers, above all the Foreign Affairs Minister, Jadranko Prlic, mentioned that that issue should be resolved between Bosnia-Hercegovina and Croatia. I believed that we in the Republic of Srpska should decide about the fate and presentation of that material, which is important for the history of the Serb nation.
What did they base their demands for the return of the material on?
Croats' demands were based on the fact that a part of Jasenovac is in Croatia. They dismissed the fact that this material testifies about crimes against Serbs and others as irrelevant. They were trying to convince me that they wanted to reconstruct the memorial center in Jasenovac.
What was your motivation in approving the transfer?
My motivation was to ensure that this material receives international attention. Consequently, I believe that this is a good move in the long-term. I visited Washington on several occasions and learned about the work of the Holocaust Museum. I was impressed by what I saw there.
I believed, as the Holocaust Museum is a governmental organization, therefore under the direct control of the American administration, that that would be a way to exert pressure on Croatia to adequately reconstruct the complete memorial center in Jasenovac. I know that there were certain objections regarding the procedure, but I think that strong local reactions were unnecessary.
Do representatives of international institutions believe that the material should be eventually returned to Croatia?
On several occasions that was mentioned in talks with official representatives of the United Nations and the official representatives of the OHR. I am aware of pressure exerted by Croatia on those international organizations, especially after the change of government in January 2000. I was convinced that we were running out of time for a favorable solution of that issue.
Whose initiative led to the signing of the agreement?
I had frequent contacts with the American ambassador and the people who took over that activity in the final phase. Normally, everything that had been agreed on was not put in the contract. I requested their promise that they would fulfill their obligations. I am convinced that the Holocaust Museum will confirm everything I said; that that material will be preserved, exhibited, and will be protected with a lot of care; that copies will be made and sent both to us and Croatia.
If I understood correctly, you first had talks with the embassy?
Yes. And these talks were always initiated by the museum, never by me.
Did the ambassador and the representatives of the museum tell you that the material would definitely stay in Washington or that they were only transferring it [to Croatia]?
The story in the talks was that the material would be transferred to the Holocaust Museum in order to internationalize the problem. As this issue involves several problems, my first demand was to give the Jasenovac memorial complex extraterritorial status. If that was not possible, I demanded that the complex be placed under the auspices of an international organization as a special memorial complex. Therefore, that was a part of our verbal agreement and I am convinced that the Americans will fulfill their obligations.
Did you know about the agreement between the museum in Washington and the government of Croatia?
I've never heard of that agreement, but that was not a limiting factor.
Were you promised financial or any other sort of compensation?
It is impossible to bear that public lynch. Everything one does is always subject to all sorts of speculation. That is not true. Please, Srpska should have paid to have that material presented in this manner instead of asking for a compensation.
At this time, do you think that the Republic of Srpska has suffered damages?
There was no damage. My additional motivation was that this transfer can significantly influence the understanding of what happened here in the period between 1991 and 1995. In spite of the desire to prove illegal acts, I must say that my conscience is clear in this case.
Having in mind that the agreement was signed immediately before the elections, was this advantageous for you in the final phase of the election campaign?
I am now interpreting their (Americans) actions. Their motivation was to get that material in this way, or to pick that up and take it away before the elections. If I hadn't signed, having in mind the elections results, this material would have been by now in Croatia, and we would have been unable to have any influence on what would happen with it. They would have come, the way they came to the State Security Center in Banja Luka, picked up the material and taken it away. Perhaps you have the strength to confront them, but I tell you that we haven't confronted them so far.
Why wasn't the material copied, even though the government provided funds for that?
Most likely, those funds were insufficient.
(Excerpts from the testimony before the Investigative Committee of the RS Parliament)