Unimaginable there are those who don't want to find missing

The reconciliation of Croats and Serbs would guarantee a longterm peace and prosperity to the whole region. I attended commemorations on Varivode and Gosic, and I intend to do the same in Vukovar and Ovcar.

Suzana Lepan StefancicSource: Vecernji list
(Photo by: Srdjan Ilic/Pixell za Vecernji List)
(Photo by: Srdjan Ilic/Pixell za Vecernji List)

Founder of the legendary Belgrade Radio B92 and anti-war activist from the nineties, Veran Matic, was appointed special envoy to the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vucic for dealing with the issue of missing persons between Croatia and Serbia.

From Croatian side, this difficult assignment is given to Ivica Vrkic, commissioner of President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic. Matic is known for the series of humanitarian campaigns, as well as longtime editor in chief and CEO of Television B92 where he gained an enviable media and social reputation. He is the holder of prestigious awards, among which is the French Order of Legion of Honor. He was proclaimed the best manager in Serbia in 2012. Beside being B92 President of the Board of Directors, and he is also the Head of the B92 Fund Board of Directors, a humanitarian institution. He served military service in Zagreb in 1981. He also worked as a correspondent for Radio 101, from 1986 to 1991. He is well known today in Zagreb bookstores because he buys a massive amount of new publications. He is a frequent guest in Istria, Opatija, Lovran.

Why did you accept the invitation of President Aleksandar Vucic to be an envoy for missing persons? Many were surprised by this, given the conflicts since the time when Vucic was the minister of information during the reign of Slobodan Milosevic.

As far as I understand, President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic and President Aleksandar Vucic agreed that it is necessary to speed up the search for the missing and they are ready to add the authority of the presidential position to the existing mechanisms. When I received the offer, I was guided first of all with a noble commitment, thinking first of the families of the missing and the burden that our societies carry. Another important aspect for me was that on the other side was the person I trust, with no political ties or agenda. Practically, I am the Special Envoy of the President of the Republic of Serbia who has a sincere desire to solve all cases of missing persons. If we want to help, it must be unconditional. It would be calculated for me to wait for another president to be elected. Certainly, if I do not get adequate support for my work, I will retire because I accepted the job on condition that I do not receive any compensation and privileges. Therefore, I have nothing to lose. We are aware that the past is difficult to forget in our region, but it is necessary to build the future. The reconciliation of Serbs and Croats would guarantee lasting peace and prosperity to our common living area.

Both you and Ivica Vrkic point out that you "do not seek for Serbs, nor for Croats, but for the missing persons". How likely is that the issue of the missing people will be truly free from politicization and become exclusively humanitarian?
First of all, the issue of the missing is a humanitarian issue, then technical, and not political. I cannot imagine that there is someone who would have anything against the fact that war victims in the conflict that ended up 23 years ago finally find their peace. This is our biggest role is our role, and the biggest one is to ensure that, even in times when political circumstances are not so good on the Belgrade-Zagreb route, the process of searching for the missing remains very active. I am not a political figure, a member of a party, I do not have a political position, my existence does not depend on politics, so I can completely deal with humanitarian issues, putting aside political relations. Certainly, this engagement represent an experiment, but I hope that we will find ways to make progress, despite everything.

How are you planning to fight against politicization?

One way is to create a unified list of missing persons. The victims are Serbs, Croats, Yugoslavs, Bosniaks, Albanians, and others, but victims have no nationality. We should dedicate ourselves to the each case individually and do everything in order for the other party to accept the answer. You know, there are many ways to politicize everything, to ask for something already delivered or something that does not exist, and to accuse the other party of not cooperating. We have to stop using the process of searching for the missing for other purposes, except with the aim of finding them, and thus they will find their peace. Transparency of the process is one of the ways of preventing politicization. I would like to use politics as a means of finding missing persons and preventing the disappearance from being exploited in political quarrels.

How much will the "cold" relations between Zagreb and Belgrade affect your assignment?

Of course, it can have bad affect, but the question is, can something be done to make those relations warmer. It is important to find common interests around which the stable, productive relations of the two countries will be built. The whole region depends on the relations between Croatia and Serbia. Often in Belgrade, I meet experts from Croatia who are in the consulting teams of international organizations, helping in establishing standards that will help Serbia join Europe. I see teams that help increase the number of transplants. Why would not it be Croatia's state policy, proactive, instead of being limiting in terms of blocking Serbia's accession if this or that does not happen. On the other hand, there is plenty of room for Serbia to help open the market in countries with which Serbia has trade, customs or other preferences. Numerous Croatian companies are already using it. We at B92 Fund cooperate with Nenad Bakic, who, I believe, was the person of the Year of the Vecernji List. He helped us implement his Croatian Makers project to Serbia and gave a personal donation for the education of children and the introduction of informatics and robotics in schools. And indeed, the state has quickly supported this project. If there were more such co-operation, bridges, there would be much more understanding, positive energy to solve difficult issues. I know stereotypes are a big burden, but I love Croatia, and I'm sure there are many people who have the same feelings on both sides.

How will you work, do you have resources? How will you "make the institutions" help you?

Institutions are doing their job. I have not encountered any obstruction in Serbia. On the contrary! I do not have any special resources. I am still at the stage of establishing facts and space where I could make a step forward. I have the support of the Commission for the Missing of the Government of the Republic of Serbia. I will strive to increase the capacities of the Commission both in manpower and in the financial support. I have met with an expert team consisting of representatives of all departments: BIA, VBA, War Crimes Prosecutor's Office. It is disturbing, however, that my colleague Vrkic will not have such kind of support in Croatia. At the conference in Sarajevo, Mr. Sucic, who leads the Missing Persons Department in the Ministry of Defense, has negatively declared himself on establishing the position of special envoys on the part of both presidents. For him, this will disrupt the existing processes of search for the missing persons and he only recognizes the Commission for the Missing of the Government of the Republic of Serbia. He told me that I was "the wrong man", accusing Vucic that, since he came to power, there is no progress. I guess this should be a compliment, because I think he meant to say that I'm really going to do my best in searching for the missing. Our roles as envoys is not a substitute for the Commission and the Trust, but rather a complement to it, empowering the whole process. Gestures are very important, attending commemorations, stating regrets, offering apologies. At the conference in Sarajevo, I apologized to the families of the victims that were present, as well as to Mr. Sucic, whose parents were killed, I was at Varivode and Gosic, and I intend to come to commemorate Vukovar and Ovcara.

Time takes its toll, witnesses of war crimes die. How to specifically speed up the search for the victims?

Creating a single list and sifting through it is one of the ways, then campaigns that family members give their DNA samples in order to identify the victims already found, and check on the ground on any lead that there are mass graves. One of the locations in Croatia, where about 200 people are suspected of being buried, has not yet been investigated. It's unclear why it takes six years for doing it. If the problem is in resources, I believe that there are international funds waiting for us to offer projects for implementation. In addition, I think that the topic should be thematically focused. For example, the anniversary of Vukovar is coming soon. We should completely single out this story and build a search for missing persons around it. According to the data of the Commission, Vukovar-Srem County is searching for 531 missing persons, out of which about 50 are Serbs. In the official records of the Commission for Missing of the Government of the Republic of Serbia, 58 persons in Vukovar are missing, not all Serbs. We would have achieved a lot at the local level, to work with journalists, representatives of local communities, churches, NGOs and families in search of missing persons information. To focus on specific cases. For example, it is not known where the bus left in which 47 people were taken in front of Borovo Komerc. When we gather as many witnesses as possible, they called for the help of the country that could give us satellite images, if we would collect all the documentation, not only our own but also the Hague archives, we would have more opportunities to discover where the bodies are. And that we do not allow drowning in large national numbers. We could do the same with the operations „Blaze“ and „Storm“, making them totally thematic, offering deep insight.

How did you perceive a unified list of missing persons and why is it important?

It is important in order to avoid politicization, the creation of some reciprocity mechanisms, and, on the other hand, with the consent of both commissions, we would have all the possible data on a missing person owned by both parties gathered in one place. Now we have only basic data in the Book of Missing Persons in the Republic of Croatia, the fourth edition. I would love to add to these data all the evidence collected from all sides, families, associations. Unfortunately, I recently heard that families are less and less likely to testify because they are afraid how the other side would treat their relatives in Croatia. Regarding the data on the Missing Persons Commission, the Government of the Republic of Serbia is seeking 662 Serbs from Croatia, 370 Serbian citizens, and 695 missing on the "operational list". There are about 1900 persons on the Commission's list. These 662 from the list of the Serbian Commission are among the 1900s on the Croatian list. There are valid arguments of both sides, as the victims are Croatian citizens, but they are registered in Serbia. That is why it is important to make a unified list without competition in the appropriation of the victims. At Salata and other morgues, there are currently 931 bodies or body parts that have not been identified yet. If they were, the number of missing persons would be significantly reduced. Also, when the exhumations start on about 70 already known grave sites, as for instance the exhumation started in Lika County these days, and nine bodies were exhumed in two days.

Do you have specific cases of missing persons that will be a priority?

We will only make priorities and plans when we pass the initial phase of the research. I just have to meet with President Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovic, which would be the beginning of my mandate.

Missing people were often victims of war crimes. Do you need to work on finding the criminals with equal engagement? Families seek justice for their dead.

These are two separate processes. Of course, the families of the missing should be given the satisfaction of justice. But there is a disagreement about jurisdiction. In any case, the close co-operation of the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor is extremely important. This is the right way to determine accountability and punitive policy. This process can help determine the destiny of the missing. The last large tomb in Sotin was discovered during the war crimes trial in Belgrade.

Due to your anti-war activities, they called you, as you said, both Ustasha and Balija, and for six years you were under police protection. How much do you have, in view of all this, a challenging new role?

I believe that this mission can present a threat to my safety. I have no problem with that, I'm used to it.

Are the conditions ripe for Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina to face the past?

Recently, Hrvoje Klasic said that 23 years went by, and calculated that we are living now in 1968, when it comes to facing the past in Europe. It is in this year that they began to talk more seriously about the Holocaust. Hannah Arent reported on the Eichmann trial and wrote the book "Eichmann in Jerusalem". Klasic concluded that instead of as Europe to finalise facing the past, it seems that we are facing new wars. I really think that we have a historical, civilized obligation to take the process of dealing with the past seriously, institutionalize it, design plans. RECOM Initiative alone has so far imposed itself with these ideas, I think that only Croatia hasn’t supported it yet. So many good people from Serbia and Croatia have done a lot that represent genuine dealing with the past. Many of them are still alive, productive, and should use those benevolent people, their credibility and experience, and involve them in the process at the highest level, to create a Serbian-Croatian, or vice versa, a fact-finding, responsibility and reconciliation commission with a clear mandate and powers.

It's been 23 years since the war, relations between Serbia and Croatia are bad. After the last elections in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the situation is quite tense. Why is there no normalization?

Permanent election cycles, with a lot of extraordinary elections and election campaigns, create a negative spiral when it comes to rhetoric, moves... The causes are rather complex, the specifics are very different in the regions, but what is very important is that we must work in "good faith". The Berlin process is intended to solve the problems of the region, respecting the wider picture. And then, many more activities focused on economic co-operation. But this is not enough... France and Germany have already started to build the European Union on these economic ties just seven years after the Second World War, but they have begun very quickly with other levels of cooperation in pacification of multiethnic wars... It is very important to implement such a process between Serbia and Croatia .
Vucic's and Dacic's rhetorics in Croatia is often perceived as a return to the past. How do you, as a journalist, look at their policies today towards the region?

In the whole region, we have different levels of conducting policy. We have a rhetoric that is related to political agendas, circumstances... On the other hand, we have a practice created by such an inadequate, unsteady rhetoric. Then, such practice produces political decisions. I was at a commemoration at Varivode, two days after the attack on Pupovac. I could hold a fiery speech like someone did, and thus exacerbate an already difficult situation. I decided to give honor and show piety to the victims without refilling the oil on the fire. The speeches of Vesna Terselic, Pupovac, the bishop Nikodim, were adequate and sufficient, and no further intervention was needed. My presence and discussions with the families of the victims, associations, is enough, and within my mandate.

How would you assess the state of media scene in Serbia?

The Serbian media scene in 2000 was one of the most productive and the most professional in Europe. However, owing to the rapid withdrawal of donors, unscheduled privatization, and the lack of understanding of the need for independent media in the new democratic authorities, the number of media quickly decreased, and then the monopoly of advertising agencies and their close relationship with the authorities established a series of subtle forms of media control that caused a strong weakening of the media scene. Today, it is very poor, vulnerable, strongly politicized. Journalists leave the media and go to PR agencies, set up production teams, living on donations. The safety of the journalist is troubling. International lists of media freedom and journalists witness fairly about it, a constant decline on the list of Reporters without borders, and others, precisely showing the state of media and freedom of journalists today in Serbia.

What is the real impact of the tabloids?
The influence of tabloids is remarkable, but not only because of their number and circulation, but precisely because they imposed their own culture. It was formed in the nineties by the estradization of politics, and vice versa, the politicization of the estrada. We made a series of shows on the establishment of Milosevic's policy with the help of turbofolk culture. The greatest strength of tabloids today is in the tabloid behavior of MPs, politicians at all levels, the perception that tabloid power is necessary to all who want a political rise. The problem is much more serious than it looks.


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