More than 10,000 persons are still missing after three and half years of war in BiH. Avdo Palic, a Bosnia and Herzegovina army officer from Zepa, who disappeared in 1995, is among them. His wife Esma Palic continues her search for the truth about her husband.
Avdo Palic, a colonel in the Bosnian army, disappeared in 1995. He was last seen in the United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) base in Zepa, where he went to negotiate the destiny of remaining locals from Zepa with Republika Srpska army officials. Ratko Mladic was also at the negotiations. What happened to Palic after he entered the base is not known.
Commission was formed by RS government at the order of Chamber for Human Rights, determined that Avdo Palic was arrested in July 1995. In more than a year they have still not discovered what had happened to him, where he was detained and, if he was killed, where his remains are.
“Avdo and I met when we were students, in 1987, in the Trade Union building in Sarajevo. We were both scholarship holders of Tito’s fund and came from the same area, Podrinje. But, simply, worrying about school, college, we didn’t stay together. We separated sometime in 1989, even though we had talked about living together.
When Avdo graduated from college 1990, he went to Vlasenica, his birth town, to teach in high school. He was a professor at the School of Engineering and Technology; he graduated from Faculty of Engineering and applied for a post-graduate degree before the war. I stayed in Sarajevo until 1992.
On March 29, 1992 I went to my parents’ house in Zepa. Bajram was coming up. Avdo also came to visit his father in Vlasenica. The war started soon after. Avdo was able to avoid the tragic events that took place on April 4, 1992 when Vlasenica fell, and he came to Zepa. We met there again and our joint story starts there.
Five to six months later, when we realised that the war would last for a long time, we decided to get married. In May 1993 Zepa was pronounced a UN safe heaven. We wanted children then, I wanted to feel a new life. So we had two daughters.
Avdo’s love, Avdo’ make me feel precious, he give me a feeling of being complete. He perfected my dignity.
At the time when our children were born, what we both felt is something impossible to explain. We forgot that there was a war. Of course, we felt it because we didn’t have everything a child should have, but we were also feeling stronger because we knew that someone needed us. That is something really impossible to describe.
He tried to spend every moment at home. We tried to make sure that the time we spent together was happy. And so, 2.5 years of marriage and 4.5 years of knowing each other went by. That is the best part of my life.
Still, when I remember some of the things from Zepa, I could still cry. It was hard to accept such a life at the beginning. It was a detention camp where you didn’t see guards and soldiers every day, but they were around on the hills and they shot when they felt like it. It was very difficult at the beginning, but onece you menage to adapt, life goes on. I think that we all somehow raised our sensitivity threshold and in a dignified and courageous manner accepted what they served us.
However, in March 1995 I noticed in Avdo that something was changing. He was worried, didn’t sleep at night. He would say: ‘Are you awake? Turn around so we can talk!’ He talked about every-day things, not the things that bothered him. He wanted to escape that which was bothering him.
There was some sort of telepathic energy between the two of us, so I started feeling his anxiousness as well.
Provocations, attacks, murders in suburbs started in May. Such a situation had already disturbed the deceptive feeling of a protected zone. Every night in June when Avdo came from the headquarters, had he talked to Sarajevo before that, he just sat for a long time, thinking. I know that he was tortured by troubles. He would take a long breath, but did not want to talk. I had plans for the next month, a longer time period. Avdo would say, “don’t, wait a little, wait ’till we see”, and so constantly postponed things.
I started fearing that something would happen. I know that once while we were sitting, I started crying and said to him: ‘Avdo, I feel that something terrible is going to happen. Please be careful! I’m so afraid. I couldn’t live without you’.
He said to me: ‘My princess, (that’s what he called me), don’t worry, nothing’s going to happen’.
When Srebrenica fell in 1995, people were in panic. It is hard to even describe what it was like. We knew that Zepa would be next. Our house was destroyed in an attack. We then went to a hidden village where I spent some ten days, while Avdo was in front lines and negotiations to save the people.
I was constantly in fear. I was awake for nights. Every time cars came to the hospital, I was afraid that he was wounded and they were bringing him.
During those months, I started begging him to take care of himself. I would say to him: ‘Take care of yourself, forget the others’.
Avdo would say to me: ‘Don’t worry. Whatever happens to me, you and the kids will have everything. Don’t worry, my princess, I have to do this job to the end’.
I think that even if someone offered him to be the master of the entire world at the time, he would not leave that territory. His position was that he is the last person with the right to leave and he stuck to that. I have to admit, that position hurt me.
The children and I left on a convoy that left on July 24, 1995 at 7pm; our older daughter was 17 months old and the younger one turned four months on the day we left Zepa. They drove us all night. I know that we came to the division line, somwhere between Kladanj and Vlasenica territory at 4am.
Avdo escorted the convoy, in the front in a car with Zdravko Tolimir (author’s note: now a Hague tribunal indictee and still at large). They were driving in a Golf. It was summer, hot. Our children were babies and I carried them. But I kept looking where the car was and what was going on with it.
When we came to Borike, the horse stable up there, we stopped for about half an hour because, allegedly, the Golf had a flat tyre. Then they let us continue. Somewhere between Sokolac and Han Pijesak, Avdo came to our bus.
I said to him then: ‘Avdo, please, take care of yourself. Watch yourself’. And I knew that he knows that he will not be well, that he knows that he is the one who will have it most difficult. He said: ‘My princess, don’t worry!’
We came to Kladanj. We said goodbye there. He went back. I received a message that he came to Zepa safely. We went to Visoko.
FIGHT FOR TRUTH
On July 28, 1995, around 10pm, while I was doing something in the kitchen, I heard on the radio that Zepa commander Avdo Palic had been detained. All I know is that I sat down and started crying.
Perhaps what I’m about to say is not nice, but in 1995 when everything happened to Avdo, at that moment I was aware that I have children, but I didn’t think so much as a mother as I did as a wife. All my attention was focused on fighting to find out where Avdo was, to get him released, to get the government to do something, to get the UN to do something to release him.
I was like that until my daughters got sick. Then I realised that I had to focus my attention on the children. They became all my love and care, everything I valued at that moment was the two of them – nothing else was important to me.
Actually, the only way to survive it all ,was knowing that I have children, that they need me, that they were born out of true and great love. Children whom their father loved so much, whom I loved and wanted so much. The children were the centre of all my care and thoughts, what kept me alive. What other reason would I have to live?
Avdo was detained and they claimed that he was dead. I kept saying that he is not dead. Nobody wanted to help me. Not even the Bosnian army to whom I turned. They also said that he was dead. And I was sure that he wasn’t.
The list of those to whom I turned for help is really long, but there was no use of any of them. I wrote to Bosnian army general Enver Hadzihasanovic and Rasim Delic, Alija Izetbegovic, various organisations. I even wrote to Hillary Clinton and Slobodan Milosevic, Biljana Plavsicâ€¦
Finally, I spoke up in the media. Some people suggested to me not to talk too much, they said that the more I speak the worse it can be for him. That was huge pressure on me because I was afraid of making things worse for him. They scared me in a very perfidious way. Today I think that nothing hurt him more than silence.
I first heard that Avdo was alive from a Ukrainian soldier who was in Zepa during the war. He told me that Avdo is in Rogatica, that everyone is lying, that they didn’t kill him. At the time I tried to get the attention of BiH Army leaders, but nothing happened.
In 1996, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) pronounced Avdo missing. I constantly went to see whether they had any information. Once when I went there and when they again said to me that they don’t have any data, I told them that they are incapable. So I started my own search. I wanted to go to Bijeljina myself and look at those detention camps.
The ICRC called me on the same day and said that a certain Edward Joseph (author’s note: in 1995 was in BiH within a UN monitoring mission) wants to see me. They said that he witnessed Avdo’s arrest. I was shocked.
At first I blamed him, but then I saw that he wants to help. He said that he admired Avdo. Just the fact that someone saw him was significant to me. He said that he was talking to Zagreb in 1995 and immediately let them know that Commander Palic was arrested and requested that they do something.
After a while he contacted me again and said that he discovered that Avdo was taken away for no reason. He even went directly to Ratko Mladic and asked him what had happened to Avdo. He responded that he tried to escape and that they had to kill him. He became close to me, someone in this world who admits how things were. He became an human being to me at that moment.
I didn’t give up. I continued searching for him. When a Swiss TV crew heard about my case in 1997, they wanted to make a documentary. While we were making the movie, we reached witnesses, people who were in a secret detention camp in Bijeljina.
I touched bottom on that day. They told me that they were in the basement of the secret detainment camp and that one of them was in the hallway when Avdo was taken away.
When the puzzle came together, the fact is that he was in Rogatica for 15 days, as Joseph said, where he was questioned. Then he was kept for 15 days in the apartment of a local officer, after which he was transferred to Bijeljina, where they kept him in a secret prison. Dragomir Pecanac (author’s note: Ratko Mladic’s adjutant, according to witnesses last seen with Palic) took him from the secret prison.
I did everything I knew to do. I pressed charges at the Chamber for Human Rights were it was proven in a process that Serb forces detained him, that they kept him, and took him away. The Chamber made a decision according to which, among other things, I was to be paid compensation for suffering. And it was paid. But was asking for Avdo.
Since nothing was resolved by the Chamber’s decision, I got an application from the internet and filed a complaint at the Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. They told me that the case is received and taken over. As soon as it comes to turn, they will begin considering it. I hope that at least one step will be made, even though I cannot be sure since I’ve been deceived so many times before. The fact is, though, that I will not stop. I hope to see justice, to see that everyone will be held responsible for the crimes they committed.
LIFE WITHOUT AVDO
I hoped for a long time that he is alive. I believed until 2001 that he is alive. I came home every day believing that I will find him there. Sometimes if I saw a man in uniform that resembled the way he walked, I would follow him.
I had all the possible arguments so that I could hope for as long as possible that he is alive. Although, perhaps part of me knew that it’s an illusion.
I often dream of Avdo today. I had a dream about him the other night. I dreamt that he is alive, again. I feel it again.
Just remembering Avdo, what he was, gives me enough strength to fight for the truth my entire life.
If he is dead, I would most want to know where my husband’s grave is, where the remains of my children’s father are, where should my children go, if nothing then to spiritually establish contact with him because they do not remember him.
The kids ask me why didn’t he escape when he had the chance, why didn’t he save himself, what does he care about the people?
I tell them had he done that he would not have peaceful dreams his whole life. That’s how he is!
I keep mine and their memories of Avdo as that of a man who never put himself first. He lived like the others, starved like the others, walked barefoot like the others during the war. I am still very proud of my Avdo.
Every situation can be difficult for a while, but it is what it is. What I cannot change, I accept, and what I can change, I change.
I wish Avdo wasn’t what he was. But, those were the circumstances. The people trusted him. He simbolised safety to the people. He always used to say, ‘when the war’s over I will never put my life at disposal of others. Things are like this now, this is an extraordinary situation, this is war and this is how it has to be’.
Just remembering Avdo, what he was, gives me enough strength to fight for the truth my entire life – although I hope that it will happen earlier.”
Esma Palic’s story was recorded by Aida Alic, Justice Report reporter