Blood Ties

Tanja Matic Belgrade, Novi Sad, Sarajevo and Berlin

Sons and daughters of men indicted for Balkan war crimes reveal how the accusations affected them - and why they remain loyal to their fathers.

One spring day, 26-year-old Biljana arrived at her family's Belgrade home eager to share exciting news with her parents. She had discovered she was pregnant a few days earlier and had just secretly married her boyfriend.

But her father, Mico Stanisic, had news of his own. That morning in March 2005, the Hague tribunal announced he had been indicted for crimes against humanity committed while he was wartime police minister of the Bosnian Serbs.

"That was the most traumatic day of my life," Biljana says.

That evening, Biljana sat at home in tears while her father spent his first night in a cell in the Netherlands, charged with responsibility for the persecution, murder and torture of Muslims and Croats in Bosnia and Herzegovina by Serb forces in 1992. According to the final indictment against him, he failed to prevent war crimes that led to more than 1,700 deaths.

Eight years later, he was sentenced with another senior Bosnian Serb ex-official to 22 years in jail for taking part in a "joint criminal enterprise" to "permanently remove Bosnian Muslims, Bosnian Croats, and other non-Serbs from the territory of a planned Serbian state". He is awaiting the result of an appeal against the verdict.

Like Biljana, children from dozens of families across the Balkans have seen their fathers charged by the tribunal for atrocities committed during the wars of the 1990s, in which more than 130,000 people were killed and millions were forced from their homes as Yugoslavia was torn apart.

Biljana, daughter of Mico Stanisic, in Belgrade

Photo: Branimir Mliovanovic

How do such grave charges affect the lives of these sons and daughters, and their views of their fathers? The Balkan Investigative Reporting Network sought interviews with the adult children of more than 20 indictees -Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks. The families of five, three Serbs and two Bosniaks, agreed to talk on the record.

Some of their views reflect broader attitudes in their ethnic groups. Serbs say the tribunal is biased against them; Bosniaks say it has unjustly indicted members of their community to counter such criticism. But each family's story is different.

Shock and disbelief

Biljana and her younger sister Bojana did not follow their father's case at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia - on his instructions.

"We never attended the trial, since our father didn’t want us to," says Biljana, a slim, dark-haired straight-talking journalism graduate who is studying for a PhD. "He told us to do the best we can in our own lives and forbade us from ever using his case as an excuse for personal failure."

But Biljana and her mother watched a live video stream from The Hague when the judgment was delivered in Stanisic's trial on March 27, 2013.

Biljana says she took the verdict in her stride, knowing it was not final as her father would appeal. Her mother fainted, despite being an experienced psychotherapist with a reputation as the toughest member of the family.

Bojana, then 19, did not watch the judgment. Her sister told her later of their father's 22-year jail term. Her first thought was that the sentence was about as long as her entire life at that point.

Mico Stanisic, former Bosnian Serb police minister, celebrates his daughter Bojana's 2nd birthday in October 1995

Photo: courtesy of Stanisic family

Born at the height of the Bosnian war in 1993, Bojana bears a strong resemblance to her father and has an especially close relationship with him. With a sentimental smile, she describes spending hours sitting on his lap in the tribunal's detention centre as he cuddled her to sleep.

"It's like they're talking about a different person in The Hague," she says, sitting in an armchair in her sister's apartment. "What the judges say he did to other people is completely the opposite of what he's taught me - to be a good person."

Ironically, in a detention unit for people on trial for ethnically motivated war crimes, nationality is no barrier to friendship.

"We watch the judgments of other people we met there. Whatever their nationality, we feel compassion," Biljana says.

Children's stories

The children of war crimes indictees told BIRN they make up stories to explain to their own sons and daughters why they have a grandfather in The Hague. The youngsters embellish these tales with their own imagination. In their minds, grandpa owns a hotel with a playroom or moved abroad to paint in peace. Some believe their grandfather is an actor, a judge or working for the Dutch king.

One young boy loves playing endlessly with the candy machine in the visitors' lounge at the detention centre and greeting all the detainees including "Grandpa Mladic", as he calls Bosnian Serb wartime army commander Ratko Mladic.

Father as fugitive

While Stanisic and others turned themselves in after being indicted, other war crimes suspects went on the run. Among them was Goran Hadzic, the former political leader of Croatian Serbs, charged with responsibility for the murder, torture and deportations of Croats.

At a family lunch in July 2004, Hadzic left the room to take a phone call. He returned to announce that he had been indicted by the tribunal, said goodbye to everyone and was gone within about an hour, his son Srecko remembers.

"He told me and my sister to take care of ourselves, said everything would be alright and from that moment I didn't see him or hear from him until 2011, when he was arrested," says Srecko, a quiet 27-year-old law student.

Srecko with his sister and his father Goran Hadzic at their family home in Croatia before the war

Photo: courtesy of Hadzic family

Sitting on the balcony of the family home in the northern Serbian city of Novi Sad, Srecko and his chatty mother Zivka recall the years when Hadzic was a fugitive.

They tell stories of secret police disguised as waiters at Srecko's sister's wedding and of early morning raids by armed police who warned them they would never get jobs as long as Hadzic was at large. In March 2010, the family was also banned by the European Union from travelling to EU countries.

But Srecko says he never wished for his father's arrest.

"We gritted our teeth and we got through it," he says. "I had to support his decision because I'm his son and he thought it was for the best."

Srecko and his mother say they do not know where Hadzic hid. The last of the tribunal's 161 indictees to be apprehended, he was finally arrested on Fruska Gora, a hilly area about 30 km from the family home.

Srecko, son of Hague indictee Goran Hadzic, looks through newspaper stories about his father's time as a fugitive

Photo: Tanja Matic

Prosecutors have spent a year and half setting out the case against Hadzic, who has been indicted on 14 counts of crimes against humanity and other war crimes. He is accused of responsibility for the deaths of more than 300 people.

Yet Srecko says he has no doubt his father is innocent. He has never even asked him if he is guilty as he considers the idea "an absurdity".

Bosnia and balance

In a bar in the small Bosnian town of Visoko, Adnan, a government official in his mid-30s, says he lost his best friend when his father died in 2010. Adnan remembers spending lots of time playing basketball and talking with him.

His father was Rasim Delic, Commander of the Main Staff of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2008, Delic was acquitted of murder but sentenced to three years in prison for cruel treatment of Bosnian Serb prisoners by forces under his overall command.

Watching through the glass screen in the tribunal's public gallery as the verdict was delivered, Adnan recalls plunging into shock. He had been expecting to collect his father after a complete acquittal and take him back to Bosnia.

"It's crazy to sentence the head of the army to three years. He can either be acquitted or get a very long sentence. Three years is like he stole a bicycle in the Netherlands," Adnan remembers thinking as he wandered the streets of The Hague in a daze.

Delic died at home while his conviction was being appealed so the initial verdict was declared final. Adnan, a lawyer, is convinced he would have been cleared.

"If he had only lived until that moment, just to hear the acquittal, and if he had died even a minute after that, it would have made my life easier," he says.

He is bitter about how the Bosnian state treated his family. He says authorities offered no financial or logistical support during his father's trial -in sharp contrast to the extensive aid the Serbian government gives Serb indictees.

"The state abandoned its hero,” Adnan says.

His dissatisfaction extends to the tribunal, which he believes charged his father because it felt under pressure to have an ethnic balance among the indictees.

Semir, a young writer from Sarajevo, believes his father, Sefer Halilovic, was indicted for the same reason.

"Whoever signed the indictment in The Hague probably needed a high-level Bosniak at some point," he says. "I absolutely believe it was about ethnic quotas."

Sefer Halilovic was the founding commander of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. His wife was killed in a bomb blast in 1993, leaving Semir and his sister living in army barracks as teenagers.

In 2001, Halilovic was indicted for crimes against Croat civilians in two Bosnian villages eight years earlier. For the next four years, Semir says, life was on hold.

"We stopped functioning like a normal family," he recalls over lunch in a smart restaurant in downtown Sarajevo. "We put all our savings into our father's defence. We really turned into a small defence support staff."

The Hague tribunal

The United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 1993 to deal with war crimes that occurred during the Balkan conflicts of the 1990s.

The court in the Dutch city of The Hague was the first international war crimes tribunal since the Nuremberg and Tokyo tribunals after World War Two.

The tribunal has indicted 161 people, including presidents, prime ministers, army chiefs-of-staff, interior ministers and many other senior and mid-level political, military and police leaders.

The tribunal has sentenced 74 people and acquitted 18. Twenty cases remain ongoing, including the trials of former Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic and appeals against previous convictions.

The tribunal has its own detention unit at a Dutch prison complex in the Scheveningen neighbourhood of The Hague. The unit is termed a remand centre rather than a jail as it is only for indictees whose cases are still being considered by the tribunal. At the moment, it holds around 20 detainees.

Source: International Criminal Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia

Semir echoes Adnan's complaints about the attitude of the Bosnian state. He says Halilovic's lawyers had to ask the tribunal to order the Bosnian authorities to give the defence some official documents.

"Ordinary people could only pat you on the shoulder to offer support. The state, which could actually have helped, didn’t want to help," says Semir, dressed fashionably in a T-shirt under a suit jacket with a silk handkerchief in the pocket. 

Semir doubted foreign judges could understand the war and felt prosecutors were not interested in finding the truth, only in winning the case. But the tribunal acquitted his father in 2005 and dismissed an appeal against the verdict.

Guilt and responsibility

 Milan Koljanin, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Contemporary History in Belgrade, has spent years studying war crimes from an earlier era -those committed in Serbia during World War Two.

For more than 10 years, he has been helping Beate Niemann, the daughter of a Gestapo chief in Belgrade, to find out more about her father.

Koljanin says World War Two and the conflicts of the 1990s cannot be directly compared in scale and impact but Niemann and the children of those indicted at The Hague still have a common experience. They have all lived with a father who was put on trial for war crimes.

He believes every son or daughter in that situation should take time to consider what their father did and what the court found to be the truth.

"Whether you want to or not, sooner or later, you have to take a stand because it's part of your personal and family history," he says.

On a hot Berlin day, on the terrace of the German Historical Museum, Beate Niemann's eyes sometimes seem on brink of tears as she talks about her life as the daughter of a convicted war criminal, Bruno Sattler.

While searching in the 1990s for documents she hoped would clear her father's name, she discovered he had been involved in many grave crimes, including ordering the use of a poison gas van that killed between 700 and 800 Jews who had been held in the Staro Sajmiste concentration camp in Belgrade.

"I am not guilty. I do not think a child can inherit guilt, but I do have the responsibility to find out the truth about my family’s involvement and to talk about it," Niemann says.

Niemann believes that even in the event of an acquittal, the children of those indicted in The Hague should undertake their own search for the truth.

"My story is a great example," she says, explaining that a West German court declared her father innocent after he was convicted and jailed in East Germany.

Niemann feels sorry she did not begin her own research sooner and hopes children of those accused in the former Yugoslavia will not wait as long.

"Grown-up children should know and they should be interested in the stories of what was going on inside their families," she says.

"I found out at a very old age, more than 50 years of age," Niemann adds. "It was too late because all my life I lived a false life."

At the age of 72, Niemann is still researching her father's actions during World War Two.

The entrance to the prison complex in the Scheveningen neighbourhood of The Hague which houses the tribunal's detention unit

Photo: Jacob Gesink

Vladimir Petrovic, a researcher who has closely followed the work of the Hague tribunal, says he is not surprised that children in Serbia have chosen not to question whether their parents were responsible for war crimes.

He points out that Serbian authorities have long portrayed the tribunal in a negative light - "first as an anti-Serbian inquisition, afterwards as a necessary evil" to be accepted as the price for joining the international mainstream.

Surveys show Serbs are not well informed about the tribunal's work yet express very negative views about it, Petrovic notes. He says the courts, the media and the education system have all failed to challenge popular views of the wars and war crimes.

"If we add to all of that the traditional model of not questioning authorities, both the state and the family, we get to where we are," says Petrovic, who has worked at the Institute for War, Holocaust and Genocide Studies in the Netherlands and is now at the Institute for Contemporary History in Belgrade.

Jovana Mihajlovic-Trbovc, a researcher at the Peace Institute, a non-profit organisation in Slovenia, says polls show Serbs, Croats and Bosniaks all tend to see themselves as the biggest victims of the wars of the 1990s, making it hard for any of them to accept that their forces committed war crimes.

It is even harder for the children of those charged with such crimes to come to terms with this idea, given their close relationships to the accused, she says.

Seeking Srebrenica answers

Unlike the children of other indictees interviewed for this story, Maja, a dentist from Belgrade, asked her father directly if he was guilty of the charges against him.

Her father Radivoje Miletic, a general in the Bosnian Serb Army, was indicted for crimes related to the notorious mass killing of thousands of Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica in 1995, which the tribunal has ruled was an act of genocide.

Sitting in a noisy cafe in Belgrade's Sumice Park, Maja uses a whole pack of tissues to dry her many tears as she recalls that her father's indictment came shortly after her mother was diagnosed with cancer.

Maja says the indictment brought to mind a film about a woman who, just like Beate Niemann, finds out about her father’s Nazi past years after World War Two. But she was reassured after her father told her he was innocent.

"I trust him completely," she says.

Maja even appeared at her father's trial, telling the court he had been at her 18th birthday party on July 10, 1995, and was still at home the next day when Srebrenica fell to Serb forces. After her testimony, she collapsed in the witness room.

In June 2010, she was in The Hague again when the judgment was delivered. Maja was so certain her father would be found innocent that she brought along her two daughters, one aged three and the other eight months.

"When they read out 19 years for my father, I thought it was a mistake," she says, describing the effect of the verdict as like an electric shock.

Miletic was found guilty of murder, persecution and inhumane acts. He appealed against the verdict but on January 30 this year his conviction was upheld and his prison term was reduced by just one year.

Maja remembers repeatedly asking his lawyers after the judgment in 2010: "Tell me that he really was guilty! Give me proof that he knew what was going on!"

When the lawyers assured her there was no evidence against her father, she says she "exploded”.

“Then I wanted to kill all three of them because if there's nothing, why did he get 19 years?" she says.

"I can't accept that."

In some ways, she says, it would be easier if she believed her father was guilty.

"I'd really be able live with that. If you're guilty, you serve your sentence."


Tanja Matic is a reporter for the SENSE news agency who covers the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague. This article was produced as part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, supported by the ERSTE Foundation and Open Society Foundations, in cooperation with the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network.

Fellow Bio

/en/file/show/Tanja Matic_140x140.jpg

Tanja Matic

Tanja covers the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia in The Hague for SENSE news agency.


Topic 2014: Generations

This year’s annual topic is Generations. Think of a powerful story that you have always wanted to report, and link it to this theme while crafting your proposal. Remember, it is better to have a strong central idea that is loosely linked to the annual theme than to have a weak idea that is strongly linked to the theme.