Written by: Dalibor Tanić
Being a fighter for human rights and truth in a country with fresh wounds that still have blood from a recent war is, in the least, dangerous. Nikola Kuridža, a young activist of the Center Kvart from Prijedor, realized this in the most brutal way. A few years ago, he was brutally beaten by two police officers. He was beaten by those who were supposed to protect his rights and freedoms guaranteed by the Constitution. No matter how meaningless it sounded, this brutality was quite meaningful. The event, which eventually ended up bloody for Nikola, had its genesis and was the final act of a crime that had been preparing for a very long time.
After Srebrenica which represents the paradigm of the suffering of Bosniaks in the previous war, Prijedor is the second city in which hatred towards different produced the most victims. Resistance to serious crimes committed during the nineties was manifested through silence or denial.
Any attempt to speak about this was brutally punished by public condemnation, hate speech, and threats.
After discovering Tomašica, it was no longer possible to keep silent. Just before the discovery of this mass grave in Prijedor, a group of young male and female activists launched the initiative called “Jer me se tiče” (“Because it concerns me”) in 2012 with the aim of restoring the dignity of civilian victims of war in BiH, but above all in Prijedor.
“As it began to speak publicly about it, so did the pressures. Initially, cooperation with the police was correct. We had a contact person with whom we communicated, because there were always some problems. We reported, he reacted. He was really correct”, recalls Kuridža.
There were various moments, says Nikola, and one of them was before the first White Armband Day commemoration in Prijedor. Precisely then, accidently or not, the skinheads stood in his street, wearing stitched emblems of merged Serbia and Republic of Srpska on their jackets.
“How was I supposed to interpret that”, asks Kuridža, who lived in a quiet part of Prijedor, in one-way street.
Immediately after that, the Kvart premises were broken into and a rainbow flag was stolen and burned publicly! The video was published on the Internet.
“What the perpetrators left after they broke into the premises of Kvart was the sign UBI PEDERA (kill the faggot), without letter J”, says Kuridža.
After that, signs were also written on social media. Nikola and his friends from the organization were publicly targeted and called on the street. People were called for punching and even killing them. Graffiti were written in the city in the most crowded places, in order for as many people as possible to see and read their names.
The ring around this group was slowly clutching. Such a public discourse was created that the Kvart became the enemy of the city and of the entire Republic of Srpska. Marko Pavić, who was the mayor of Prijedor at the time, as Nikola says, did not remain immune to such discourse. He called the first White Armband Day commemoration in Prijedor gay pride.
“I guess there was something that was similar to pride march to him, but we never knew where we were with him… What we realized was that we were constantly under some pressure”, says Kuridža.
The pressure was transferred from activists to their parents. Nikola says they met them, sent messages and advised them to “take care of what their children are doing.”
“At one point, we became an important political factor. A year after the White Armband Day commemoration, the site of Tomašica was discovered. Somebody decided to speak…”, says Kuridža.
The level of denial of the local population, he says, has experienced its maximum. Anyone who spoke the opposite was exposed to threats, insults etc.
The least dangerous thing that could have happened to Nikola and other activists those days was that people simply stop greeting them on the street.
One portal in Republic of Srpska went so far as to target the name and surname of all the actors who were close to Kvart.
“Dražena Lepir, one of the female activists, was pregnant at the time, but that did not bother them. They published all of our names”, says Kuridža.
For the activists of Kvart, Prijedor was becoming smaller and smaller. Such pressure on a daily basis was difficult to withstand. On the other hand, for Nikola and other people from Kvart, there was a very absurd situation present all the time.
“Regardless of that atmosphere, we trusted the police and were convinced that nothing bad would ever happen.”
In all that madness around them, Nikola says they have forgotten one very dangerous thing, that is, a large number of police officers participated in war in the nineties. There was no lustration that could possibly “cleanse the police”. Simply, people started working in state’s internal affairs right after the war.
“At that moment, we were not aware of what is going on. Only later, we became aware under what pressure we actually were. The mistake was that we did not talk to each other about it”, admits Kuridža.
Hatred and anger that male and female activists of Kvart had inflicted on themselves was a huge burden that all of them had to live with. Tension, fear and even paranoia has affected these young activists.
The benign situation that happened those days best describes the pressure under which these people were. During those days, under the window of one of the activists, Nikola recalls, somebody saw a drawn red arrow pointing right on the window of his room. They thought that this kind of marking had started. Thousands of thoughts, even the worst ones, passed through the heads of Kvart activists. Later, they found out that an arrow was drawn by someone from waterworks, marking some pipes…
The atmosphere in which these young people lived did not prevent them from socializing with each other. In one such gathering, in August 2016, Nikola Kuridža felt all the anger and rage that was created during the previous period!
“There were 12 of us in a private apartment. The police came because someone reported loud music. As they entered, they were unkind. They entered the apartment without a warrant, they were insulting us and were somewhat homophobic, but I cannot say that this was the main motive for what happened soon. They made us leave the apartment. They were saying really disgusting things all the time. While we were in the elevator, I said that they did not behave kindly to us and that the criminals are in power, what was my political conviction and right to freedom of expression. At that moment, one of the police officers began to beat me”, visibly upset, recalls Kuridža.
This was followed by the night that left visible consequences on Nikola, even today. All night, he was beaten, maltreated, stripped naked, interrogated and forced to sign offences he had never committed.
What was indicative, he remembers, was that he was constantly being told that “he talks too much and philosophize”, which Nikola interprets today as a much wider context than that which was that night.
“The next day, someone a little more intelligent realized what was done. Police commander, or a deputy, had a conversation with me that was very manipulative. He talked to me while I was in a state of shock and tried to correct what the two police officers had done the previous night”, explains Nikola.
Immediately after he was released, Nikola went to the doctor with his mother, where he was diagnosed with physical injuries, as well as the condition of acute shock, due to which the psychiatrist prescribed antidepressants.
Everything ended with the police officers being penalized in the disciplinary procedure in the internal control process with the fine, warning and 20 percent off of their salaries, claims Nikola.
Nikola then left Prijedor. He had to leave. He came to Sarajevo where he still lives. He says that he could not go to another town in Republic of Srpska. He had a terrible problem with that…
For now, he is not planning to return to his city from which he was literally expelled. In the end, we asked him whether he left or fled Prijedor… He says he needs some time to admit himself the real truth.
When we talked to Nikola, he told us that he is in the process of filing a lawsuit. Nikola did not want to tell us the details of the indictment his lawyer prepares. He says that, when the time comes, we will be among the first to know what is happening with the case.
A hate crime?
From this story, we could understand that the incident that was fatal for Nikola did not happen accidentally. The years of anathematization of a small group of activists to which Nikola belonged preceded it. They were different and louder in a city that was very quiet about the truth and very loud in its denial.
What was very specific in this case is that the perpetrators (brutal police officers who had beaten Nikola) were of different ethnicities, one Serb, the other Bosniak. Therefore, at the very beginning we can exclude any attempt to link this case to a hate crime.
Prijedor is a city that is big enough, but yet small enough to know everything, even the sexual orientation of each individual. Nikola has no problem with that and does not hide that he is gay. However, did the police have a problem with that?!
Now imagine a situation where gay activist speaks loudly against the denial of crimes committed in Prijedor during the 1990s, advocating for their recognition and dignity for the victims of those crimes.
Almost at the beginning, with the first public appearance, there was a matter of time when will something happen to Nikola as it happened in August 2016.
He thinks that it is completely contradictory to avoid the characterization of a crime as a hate crime when the whole country is structured in deep divisions and the society that is divided. Nikola also believes that a hate crime is hard to prove, and as such, it is avoided.
“A classification of a crime committed by someone due to someone else’s religious, national or sexual commitment is avoided. The case is almost always going to be classified as a crime against public order”, says Nikola, adding that the definition of a crime like hate crime is the last option and it takes a lot of time and evidence, regardless of motives.
He also warned that we have to be very sensitive to the situation we live in and that our first thought should not always be hate crime – but such a possibility always exists.
He recalled the case from Prijedor when, a few years ago, around Christmas, an old woman was attacked and robbed who, according to her name, was a Bosniak.
First reactions, primarily from the media, were such that the case was characterized as a hate crime. However, later it turned out that some teenagers robbed the old woman and that there were no elements for the original claim.
To remind you, in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, hate crime was regulated by the Criminal Code in April 2016. Republic of Srpska and Brčko District, through their criminal codes, regulated this criminal offense six years earlier.
The text was created as a part of the project “Protection of Marginalized Communities: Improving the Implementation of the Regulation on Hate Crimes in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, implemented by the Sarajevo Open Centre in cooperation with the OSCE Mission to BiH, financially supported by the Permanent Mission of the Kingdom of the Netherlands to the OSCE in Vienna.