interview by Medina DELALIC
SLOBODNA BOSNA: If you were to summarize the ten most difficult years and reach back to 1990, what were your gains, and what losses, "in manpower and technology" since then?
If someone told me in 1990 to give my son Bajazit to Alija Izetbegovic I would have done that. I would have done anything I was told! I was as if entranced. There was a crisis in Kosovo, after that the yogurt-revolution, then rallies in Belgrade and threats by the Yugoslav Peoples' Army (YPA). Izetbegovic seemed like the only person who cared about interests of Bosniaks, like a man who would protect us and help us to organize in case of war. Eastern Bosnia suffered from Chetniks in WWII. The Drina flew bloody and we needed someone who could guarantee that something like that would not be repeated... What happened in the meantime? Huge treason happened, we lost half of the country. I owned four shops in Visegrad, and today I have none. Today my late father Saban Sabanovic has been baptized. He has been baptized thanks to the policy of SDA.
What do you mean?
In order to regulate some papers in Sarajevo, I asked that my father's "death notice" be sent from Visegrad. The notice arrived and in the letterhead there was a cross and a two-headed eagle [Republic of Srpska coat-of-arms], and below that it said Saban Sabanovic. Our birth certificates never before had crosses. And today, if you are from eastern Bosnia, these are the only valid documents in the Federation. I now have a birth certificate with a Serb eagle. It wasn't like that in birth registries in the past. Our children who attend school there start every day by singing "Boze Pravde" [God of justice, the Republic of Srpska anthem].
Was your son named after sultan Bajazit?
Yes he was.
That was something like emperor Murat and sultan Bajazit?
That is correct. When I went to the city hall to register my child's name, that was during Tito's time, my friends told me that they would refuse to register such a name. I did not believe them. If they accepted the name Murat, who was an emperor, they would accept the name Bajazit, who was a sultan.
Then, this is like some sort of a continuation of the battle of Kosovo, but moved to Visegrad. Before the war, you toppled the statue of Ivo Andric and publicly claimed credit for that act. How did that take place?
In Visegrad, I first took a flag from the mosque and took it to Novi Pazar, to a huge election rally of SDA, since I was then a member of the closest escort of Alija Izetbegovic. I was full of spite because at that time Vuk Draskovic said that those who "carry Turkish flags through Sandzak would be left both without the flag and the arm". The imam sued me for taking the flag from the mosque. Later, Serb Orthodox priests were angry with me because I stopped their procession which went to the opening of a church in Knezina. They came from Serbia, through Visegrad, in busses with Chetnik symbols. They were singing Chetnik songs. I beat the shit out of that scum and sent them back to Serbia. After that I was invited to Sarajevo to a meeting in the Crisis Headquarters of SDA, located at the house in 4 Danijel Ozma Street. Ejup Ganic and Omer Behmen were in the office. At that time I was surprised that Ganic, although a Yugoslav, was in SDA, but was later told that we Muslims should vote for Ganic to prevent Cerenjes from being elected to the Presidency. We were also instructed to vote for Biljana Plavsic, Nikola Koljevic and other candidates of the Serb Democratic Party (SDS). The Islamic Community was at the time allocating commercial spaces. Ganic and Behmen told me that if I toppled the statue of Ivo Andric in Visegrad, I would have preference in a tender for a shop in the center of Sarajevo. The statue was located on the bridge, built by Mehmed Pasha Sokolovic and that's why it was in the way. They ordered me to topple the statue of Ivo Andric since he was "a culturological hater of the Muslim people", that's how they put it. Since at the time I already had four shops in Visegrad, I told my sister Zuhra Sabanovic to make a payment for the shop, since I did not need another one. A contract was signed on February 18 1992 and it states that "investment in the construction of a store" in Dzenetic Cikmo street will be made. The contract has the seal of the Islamic Community of Bosnia-Hercegovina Board for Sarajevo, and signatures of Zuhra Sabanovic, as investor, and Omer Behmen, as the contractor. I smashed the statue with a crowbar and everything was taped by Fadil Hajdarevic, who gave that videotape to SDA. They later showed that videotape on their visits to Arabic countries, when they sought financial help, as a proof that Bosniaks demolished a monument to their Salman Rushdi.
Did you at least have some doubts when you decided to destroy the statue?
I carried out the task with pleasure since I was convinced that I was doing a huge thing. Ganic and Behmen did not incite me to do that, they gave me an order to do so. They said that Andric was a huge enemy of Bosnian Muslims.
Well, is he?
They are much worse enemies of this people. If Ganic, Bicakcic, Sacirbegovic are Muslims, then I am not a Muslim. Then I am multicultural. They promised to find lawyers if I was to be sued for toppling Ivo Andric's statue. However, when it happened, both they and lawyers disappeared. A court in the Republic of Srpska sentenced me in absentia to five years in prison. Now I know that I was merely an instrument of politics, since I blindly followed people in SDA. I am not politically educated and they abused that as much as they could.
What has happened with the shop that your sister was supposed to get?
My sister never entered the shop and some Kurds today work in it. The Islamic Community now wants to return the money to Zehra, but based on the old exchange rate, without devaluation. We want the shop. Zehra still can't believe that she was swindled by a supposedly ethical institution such as the Islamic Community.
We had the task to set explosive devices on the Montenegrin coast. The task was given to us by the SDA leadership, and the intent was to "take pressure off the Croatian front". We were told that we would defend the border on the Drina together with Croatia. On April 20 1992 Ilustrovana Politika published an article under the headline "Two hundred jihad warriors". Although that newspaper published pure fabrications most of the time, this article was pretty accurate. It stated that there was an organization which was active in eastern Bosnia and it listed the names of its members. On August 15 1991, while numerous tourists were sunbathing on the beaches of Herceg Novi, at about 1:00pm, in the First Boka Brigade St., there was a horrendous explosion. A white Lada, with Gorazde number plates, 30-141, turned into a fire ball. Inside Ibro Dervisevic and Medo Kulovic died in flames. Kulovic was driving and Dervisevic was on the rear seat preparing an explosive device with a timing mechanism. It seems that he made a mistake while he was putting the device together so that it exploded in his lap. Montenegrin Police then conducted an investigation and arrested Lidija Tokic and Mirsada Tvrtkovic. The two of them had arrived to Herceg Novi with Dervisevic and Kulovic, but were not in the car at the time the bomb exploded. I personally, never did such things but, there you go, Dervisevic and Kulovic met a tragic end.
Who could have issued such an order to them? Political leadership or perhaps someone from the Patriotic League?
Political leadership of the party! The Patriotic League only dealt with strictly military business. Visegrad had the strongest Patriotic League in eastern Bosnia. Two months before the war we booby-trapped all the bridges on the Drina river, based on the orders of the Patriotic League. We wanted to prevent the entry of the units of the Uzice and Niksic Corps and their vehicles and weapons to Bosnia-Hercegovina. The order came from the Patriotic League. After that Sulejman Vranj and late Meho Karisik Kemo came together with my brother Avdija Sabanovic, who was a vice-president of SDA in Visegrad. They ordered that the explosives be removed from the bridges. They said that Izetbegovic had issued that order because Bosnia-Hercegovina was not internationally recognized as an independent state and it would not get the recognition if the war started before the independence was recognized. We demined all the bridges except one tunnel and the dam.
How were weapons for eastern Bosnia obtained?
Weapons for eastern Bosnia were obtained by Senad Sahinpasic Saja from Mato Boban. We were convinced that we would defend ourselves on the Drina, rather than in Sarajevo. Boban's nephew Zlatko was married to Saja's sister. Therefore the acquisition of weapons went along that family line. Saja is my friend, and we even now say hello to each other when we meet in the street. He gave me my first rifle, for free. I cannot say anything bad about him, although I do not know how he acquired all that wealth. Others can explain that. Before the war I owned four shops and he had one, which, perhaps, worked better than my four.
How did you end up on the Visegrad dam? During your famous media duel with general Kukanjac, were you bluffing when you threatened to blow up the dam?
The attack on Visegrad took place on the first day of Bayram. The whole political leadership pulled out of the town based on the orders of SDA. The first group of refugees left Visegrad on April 8 1992. On that day I was on the dam. The town had emptied up: half of the people left because of the fear of the Serb army, and the other half because of the fear of a water wall that would be released after the demolition of the dam. I was ordered not to demolish the dam. That was a strict order from Sarajevo. After the occupation of the town, a civic forum was founded and it invited the population to return. Several thousands did return and all of them were killed. Those who did not return, left for Gorazde, Zepa, Srebrenica, where a lot of them also lost their lives.
Were you able to destroy the dam at all?
If Meho Obradovic [the director of the Federation Electrical Utility company who opened flood gates on the hydroelectric dams in the Neretva river and caused enormous damage downstream] managed to flood half of Hercegovina without a gram of explosives, than I could have destroyed the dam with the explosives I had.
I arrived to Sarajevo on April 17 1992, and Halid Cengic was my guide. He told me: "Murat, you are the first general of our army!" Since I led United Armed Units of Vogosca, during those first days of war I went to get orders from the Chiefs of Staff at the Presidency building. Bakir Izetbegovic and Kerim Lucarevic were in the office. They told me that a woman had arrived, that she was a British spy and that her task was to kill Alija Izetbegovic. They gave me her address, 3 Albanska Street. Bakir said that I should arrest her and kill her if she resisted. I brought along another five men. When I got there and knocked on the door, a woman, covered in black, opened the door.
Did you think that a British spy was masked under a nikab?
I did not think about that, since she surprised me at the door. When I told her that I had an order to arrest her, she responded that she would not go and spit on me. Then I slapped her. She began to recite a prayer and I realized that she was a Muslim. I asked her for her name and she said: Melika Salihbegovic. I remembered that I had read in the papers that she had been tried in the case against "Muslim intellectuals" in 1983 and that she couldn't be a British spy. I realized that this was some sort of their internal struggle and I decided to simply take her to the Presidency building. When we reached the entrance she got out of my hands and ran upstairs, straight to Izetbegovic's office. She screamed: "Alija, they want to kill me..." And now, I do not know how Alija and Melika sorted that out. I went to the office to look for Bakir and figure out what to do next, but Bakir wasn't there anymore. The office was empty. Then I also "disappeared". He today claims that he never had any connections with politics, but I remember very well when he came to our brigade to improve our morale and told us: "If we get a state, even if it only reaches to Visoko, we should be more than satisfied".
Perhaps that was his method for improving morale. By the way: why would Bakir want to murder Mrs. Salihbegovic?
I later found out that that was some sort of their family fight. Now, when I think about that, I think that he did that behind his father's back and that he chose me counting that I would do anything he told me, without any questions. Besides, maybe he thought that I would not remember to ask her for a name.
This is a very serious accusation. Are you afraid of consequences?
I would be afraid if I lied. I am telling the truth, and I doubt that anyone would try to deny this. They may, perhaps, cut tires on my car. In any case, people who went with me to 3 Albanska Street for Mrs. Salihbegovic can be my witnesses.
I remember that well. It was said that Murat Sabanovic murdered the Ristovic family with a group of men from Sandzak. That was even officially stated by the then Minister of Defense, Jerko Doko. Such information was then given to the then Chief of Staff, Sefer Halilovic, and he sent the Military Police to arrest me. Dzevad Topic Topa came to arrest me and I told him that I did not kill the Ristovics and that I would not surrender my weapons. The Ristovics were murdered by the Police. That was a political murder. The goal was to demonstrate to the Serbs that there was no life for them in Sarajevo. Then Topa called Sefer from my office to ask for further orders. Since in the meantime Sefer obtained the true information, he ordered them to get back to their base. That was lucky because I certainly would not have surrendered alive. After that, the Police started spreading rumors that the murderer, Murat Sabanovic, was on the run. I think that Bakir Alispahic was involved in all that. I went to the Police and asked: are you looking for me? They said: "No..." I asked: "Why, then, are you saying that I am on the run?" They said:"Let it be." The formulation that I was on the run in practice meant that any police officer could have shot at me on the street. Therefore, I would be gone, a dead mouth does not speak, and the real murderers of the Ristovics would get away. Fortunately, the truth was soon found out. Five men who killed the Ristovics were arrested, and one of them was a body guard of Bakir Alispahic. Three of them were declared insane, and two were allowed to escape. Therefore, the murderers again got away.
Who told Minister Doko that you were involved in the execution of the Ristovics?
When I asked Sefer about that case, he told me that six hours after the crime had been committed, Fikret Muslimovic told him that Murat Sabanovic was the murderer. The Chief of Security in the Ministry of Defense, Enver Mujezinovic, was Muslimovic's collaborator. I assume that the information thus made it to Doko. Only when Kerim Lucarevic, the leader of the Military Police of the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina, concluded his investigation, he sent the real information to Sefer, Jusuf Pusina, and the then head of the Center for State Security, Alispahic. Therefore in the same day both a misinformation and the true information were disemenated and Kerim Lucarevic found out the truth.
Why were you chosen for the "culprit"?
Because today I would not be able to tell you all this... about the toppling of the statue of Ivo Andric, about removal of explosives from the bridges on the Drina over which the YPA entered Bosnia, about the order to kill Melika Salhbegovic...
At that time you were hurt in a traffic accident. There were various stories regarding how that accident took place?
The most widespread one, coming from influential political circles, was that Murat deliberately drove into a UN armored troop carrier in order to obtain damages.
I've heard that. That's what they are like. When a man figures out what they are like, they immediately start spreading rumors that he is insane, or an alcoholic, or a coward, or a wife cheater... We had a crash with the Ukrainian UN troop carrier. Ibro Sadikovic, Sejfudin Efendic, the commander of security in the First Drina Valley Brigade, and I were in the car. I didn't drive, but even if I did, the accident was unavoidable. Efendic died on the spot, Ibro Sadikovic had many fractures, but he also died later... The Ukrainians took me to the hospital in Pale, but the people from Ramiz Salcin's brigade, who held a front nearby, managed to snatch me away from them. The Ukrainians said that they thought that I was a lost Serb soldier and that's why they wanted to take me to Pale. I was taken to the State Hospital, and later to Zagreb. After three months I was brought back to Sarajevo. My condition worsened. I had cancer which began to destroy my leg. I was treated for two years in the US, and had a metal hip replacement and a metal bar put in my arm. While I was in the US, my family kept telling me not to come back, because I was on some sort of a "black list". I returned to Bosnia and obtained 36,000 German Marks as compensation from UNPROFOR. I invested that compensation in the repairs of my apartment.
All Bosniaks who spent some time abroad claim that they were very nostalgic for their homeland, but you are one of few with an actual proof for that. In the letter sent by Mary R. Fabri, the director of the Institute for Assistance to Bosnians with Psychological Problems, from the US, she writes that your "body is recovering well, but the mind is constantly suffering".
Doctor Fabri was the director of the program for mental health of Bosnians in America with headquarters in Chicago. She begged in that letter, sent in May 1997, president Izetbegovic to reply to me and many other Bosnians who were victims of war. She wrote, I quote: "He and many others will never be the same people as before. Their lives have been changed forever. I assume that the same can be said for you as well. I plead with you to reply to Mr. Sabanovic and your people in the US. They still look up to you. I know that. They told me that." And that was really true. I couldn't cure that suffering until I returned to Bosnia. When I came back the local authorities for Visegrad in June 1998 sent a request to the military and political leadership of the country to adequately resolve my status. The initiative was signed by: Fikret Cocalic, Ismet Segro, Redzo Jelacic, Avdo Hebib, general Meho Karisik, general Hamid Bahto... They requested that I be given a military rank, then allowed to retire, decorated and given a financial incentive since I was disabled 70%... Today, I receive pension of 350 German Marks a month.
Is Murat Sabanovic today a happy man "in his faith, in his land"? [SDA slogan]
I am deeply, deeply disappointed. Please, write down everything I told you, since anything you can tell to those from SDA is too little. And everything I told you is nothing compared to what they did and still do. Aleksandar Rankovic [Yugoslav communist official in the forties and fifties] was a big enemy of the Muslims and he forced tens of thousands of Muslims to leave Sandzak, so that Tito finally removed him from politics. Thanks to microeconomics of Edhem Bicakcic [Federation Prime Minister] 250,000 Muslims have left and everyone is silent.
What would have happened if Bicakcic also took care of the macroeconomics?
Then he would send us to the outer space... Recently I attended a public panel in Kladanj. They brought an eight-year-old boy who was born on the day I was on the Visegrad dam. They named the boy after me, Murat. That day remains in the memory of our people, as an important day when we at least tried to demonstrate that we had enough pride to confront the darkness which came later. It is time to rise. It is time to get rid of these advocates of darkness.