REPORT ON SFOR’S ACTIONS AGAINST SERBIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH IN PALE, APRIL 1 2004.
On 01 April 2004, SFOR units deploying the troops from USA England and Slovenia, in the most brutal way, at 01:10 a.m. , conducted an attack on Serbian Orthodox Church in Pale. SFOR soldiers blew off the door of parish house first. Then they broke down the doors of two apartments located above the parish house in which priests Jeremija Starovlah and Miomir Zekić live together with their families. The attack was conducted through the windows of the apartments as well, breaking down everything in front of them and using firearms. To that moment, members of both priests’ families were sleeping in their beds except the priest Miomir Zekić’s wife who was concerned about her son’s late return.
SFOR soldiers also broke down into the priest Miomir Zekić’s apartment located next to the apartment of the priest Jeremija. Seeing the SFOR soldiers walking up to the house father Miomir’s wife woke him up. Priest Miomir got out of bed and while getting dressed from the other side of windows he saw SFOR soldiers. One of them shot a rifle towards him. Window glass was broken down and very soon the priest and his wife were tied and left tolie on the floor with the faces toward floor. Soldiers were standing all around with the rifles aimed at them. Few times priest Miomir was unconscious and became conscious.
Priest Jeremija’s family was woken up by the phone call. His wife heard the phone call first and woke up her husband. He got out of his bed and went to answer the phone call. His wife and his son Aleksandar who was sleeping in another room got out of their beds as well. While mother and her son were standing in the hall they heard a horrible explosion and shooting. Frightened mother Vitorka told her son to move away from the hall but the soldiers were already in coming through the windows breaking the glasses down and everything representing an obstacle. They locked her in the sleeping room and brutally started beating the priest and his son. Aleksandar who was recovering from operation, under the soldiers’ strong blows, lapsed into a coma. The priest was sobbing and screaming with pains begging the soldiers to cease beating him. The whole time his wife was watched over by a soldier with the rifle aimed at her. Around 02.15 SFOR soldiers ceased the brutal mistreating and evacuated father Jeremija and his son Aleksandar at the stretchers from the apartment. They required the priest’s wife to write down names of the persons they evacuated as well as to answer the question in what relationships they were. Frightened woman asked them to tell her where they were taking away her husband and her son. The answer was they were taking them to Sarajevo hospital andthat they would be back to take her as well.
However, SFOR soldiers transported father Jeremija and his son Aleksandar by a helicopter to Tuzla hospital. Hal-dead bodies were carried into the hospital on the stretchers and put down to the floor in the entrance hall. Asked by the medical staff that those men were soldiers answered that they were N.N.1 and N.N.2. After that they quickly left the Medical Center. Medical staffs for a long time did not know who the patients were and who were they at all. They thought about possible traffic accident. True information was provided by the priest’s wife (read the statement given by the priest’s wife Vitorka).
During the operation SFOR soldiers also came in the house next to the parish one in which the priest Slobodan Lubarda and deacon Mladen live. Deacon Mladen was under stress because he was driven to the wall by a soldier who aimed his rifle at him while other soldiers were aiming their rifles at the bed in which Mladen’s wife and their child of 22 months were sleeping. He tried to tell them to do whatever they wanted just to spare the lives of his family members.
Priest Jeremija’s wife and other priests and their families were not injured, only the wife of father Miomir. A soldier injured her arm by a knife. All of them were frightened to the bone, and in shock. Priest Jeremija and his son Aleksandar are still in a very critical state of health. Physicians of the Medical Center of Tuzla managed to save their lives after numerous operations. On 27 April 2004 they were transported to the Military Medical Academy (MMA) of Belgrade.
Soldiers from USA , England and Slovenia participated in this operation. Broader security forces were from Italy. There was a lot of them. The entire operation was supported by helicopters and motor vehicles. SFOR soldiers used motor vehicles with the local license plates that were covered at the site upon their arrival. There were few helicopters landing very close to the church site, parish house and priests’ apartments. With themselves SFOR soldiers carried the ladders by means of which they went up to the terrace and windows. They were also medically equipped having few stretchers as well out of which two remained in the church yard. On the grounds of previously gathered information they precisely knew dimensions of the objects, arrangement of rooms, arrangement of interiors and who lived where, even where they slept. (Read the subtitle “SFOR PREVIOUS OPERATION IN PALE”) In subsequent assertions, provided through diplomatic sources, Italian soldiers and their commanding officers claimed that they were not informed on the nature of such an operation. According to those assertions they were ordered to secure territory around Pale at the last moment. They were surprised and got angry when they heard what had happened. The next day Slovenian ambassador accompanied by the ambassador from Serbia and Montenegro visited the scene of the crime. In his personal contact with the Metropolitan of Dabar-Bosnia Mr. Ambassador expressed his surprise and condemned this operation. According to his information, obtained from Slovenian soldiers, they did not participate in injuring father Jeremija and his son Aleksandar.
PARISH HOUSE AND APARTMENTS
Parish house consists of two floors. Parish offices are located at the first floor, as well as the church shop, big hall with a kitchen and toilets. There are four entrances at the first floor leading to the parish office, to the church hall and to the church shop. Forth entrance is separate, through the stairway leading to the upper floor where two priests’ apartments are located. That entrance door was broken down by explosive. Priest Jeremija Starovlah’s apartment is located on the right (west) from the entrance at the upper floor. Across from this apartment is the apartment of priest Miomir Zekic. Each apartment possesses two terraces.
Quick and violent invasion of the parish house and the priests’ apartments within the parish house, was conducted approximately around 01, 10 after midnight . At the moment when SFOR soldiers got close to the object the sensor lights were immediately on. Entrance door at the first floor was broken down by explosive. Detonation turned the wooden door into small leftovers that were mostly slapped to the wall in the corridor. A part of the wall was also crashed by detonation. Many window glasses were broken not only of this house but of the objects near the parish house as well. After that, soldiers came into the apartments of two priests from all sides, through the apartment’s doors, through the windows and over the terraces. Behaving that way, they broke down and demolished everything they met. They used firearms only while invading father Miomir’s apartment. Afterwards, shootings could be heard all around the object. Shock bomb trails are still visible in the apartments.The crime committed against the priest Jeremija and his son Aleksandar was carried out in the hall of their apartment. There are still many blood trails left everywhere, starting from the threshold of Aleksandar’s room, particularly at the site where his head fell down, then trails of Jeremija’s blood at the end of the corridor, in the right corner, etc. Walls were splashed with blood half a meter to one meter high, blood being not spread but in form of drops splashed on the walls. Leftovers of their hairs were found at these scenes of crime as well. Empty syringes with the needles were left besides both scenes.The operation lasted from 01,10 to 02,15. After 65 minutes of brutal torturing, SFOR soldiers put father Jeremija and his son to the stretchers and carried them out. Blood trails could have be seen even at the place where the stretchers were put while waiting for helicopters to transport them to the Medical Center of Tuzla. They reached Tuzla around 02,30.
LOCAL AUTHORITIES TOOK THE CASE OVER
After they had finished their operation SFOR soldiers, prior to their withdrawal around 03,30, brought the local police which took this case over. Investigators and various expert groups came to the scene of this crime. The same day they worked until 13,00. The whole complex, including the church, parish house and surrounding streets were enclosed by a yellow tape on which “the scene of crime” was written.
METROPOLITAN NIKOLAI AND THE OTHERS ARRIVED TO PALE
During this operation Metropolitan Nikolai was in Sokolac. At 04,30 priest Miomir Zekić informed the deputy bishop Milojko Topalović about such a horrible event. Archpriest-stavrophore Milojko Topalović then informed the Metropolitan. They both came to Pale at 05,10. In the morning many high representatives of Republika Srpska came to Pale. Around 13,00, and upon the completion of police investigation Metropolitan Nikolai visited the priests apartments after which he went to Tuzla to pay visit to the injured together with the priest’s wife Vitorka. They differentiated father Jeremija and his son Aleksandar only on the basis of the priest’s beard. They were back to Pale around 18,00. Until 18,00 Bishop of Šabac-Valjevo Lavrentije, Bishop of Zahumlje-Hercegovina Grigorije, both members of the Holy Synod of Serbian Orthodox Church arrived to Pale as well as the whole clergy of Dabar-Bosnia Diocese.
EARLIER ACTION OF SFOR IN PALE
In January 2004 the SFOR soldiers carried out the similar action in Pale. They arrived after midnight, around 1.00 when priests, together with their families were sleeping, but on that occassion they did not use force. Priest Jeremija Starovlah kindly opened the door and let them in his house. The were given the opportunity to ener each room, to see and find out all information they were looking for. They had all parish hause on their disposal, priests` apartments within the parish hause and the Church. Moreover, they were assisted by priest Jeremija on how to reach a certain room such as the upper flor, bell tower, etc. They were enabled to look at the altar of the church, without steping in. The SFOR sodiers recorded with cameras all rooms and plan of the hause. They were given all detailed information – who lives at which place, in which bed each person sleeps. They recorded even the smallest details in rooms they were looking at, from location of furniture to dimensions of each room.
At the end of this night expedition priest Jeremija kindly said that he will always be on their diposal when they wish to look at the premises of the Orthodox Church and other buildings because the Church has nothing to hide. Priest Jeremija also said that they should feel free to come whenever they have a need to do so, or simply when passing by the Church.
THE AIM OF SFOR ACTION ON 01 APRIL, 2004
The aim of SFOR troops action was not to capture people indicted for war crimes. On that night, they did not search other premises in parish house and around it, nor the Church right next to it. In certain rooms they did not enter at all. The exclusive target of their attack were Christian priests with their families – primarily priest Jeremija and his son Aleksandar. Attacking the most inner spiritual core of the Orthodox Serbs, their goal was to destabilize and radicalize that same people. In days to follow the action, SFOR helicopters were intesively flying near to the ground above the Church in Pale and the church in Sokolac.
INJURIES OF PRIEST JEREMIJA AND HIS SON ALEKSANDAR
Father Jeremija and Aleksandar were not injured neither of detonations nor the objects set in motion by detonations. There were no trails of objects in the their bodies – first of all, of the blown up door and its wooden leftovers or anything else that would suggest something like that. The council of high medical experts from Tuzla , Banja Luka and from the Military Medical Academy of Belgrade examined the sufferers and did not find anything that might seem to be injuries of detonations or rifle bullets. All of them were of the opinion that they had been injured by blunt weapons heavy blows. This coincides with the Church’s knowledge and relevant records that those two men had been beaten up. In the moment SFOR soldiers came into the priest Jeremija’s apartment and after the explosion, priest’s wife Vitorka was standing in the hall together with her son. She was not physically injured. (Read the Answer to SFOR) During the operation, no member of other priests’ families, present at the same place and at the same time, was injured by detonation and rifle bullets.
MEDIA CAMPAIGN AGAINST PRIEST JEREMIJA STAROVLAH IN DAILY NEWSPAPER DNEVNI AVAZ
(on which the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Paddy Ashdown, relies)
Daily newspaper Avaz (translated from Turkish means voice), couple of days after the brutal action of SFOR against the Orthodox Church, published a malicious article about priest Jeremija whith his photo. In the article some unthrutful statements were imputed to priest Jeremija, in which he allegedly explains that the duty of each priest is to protect Radovan Karadzic, and that it is necessary to renew Cetniks movement in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Daily newspaper Avaz took these false statements from Montenegrinian newspaper Publika that is considered in Montenegro as a “suspicios newspaper”, and against which a significant number of lawsuits were launched for publishing lies. Before publishing the article on priest Jeremija, Avaz did not contact him in order to check the accuracy of statements. Moreover, Avaz made its intentional negative comment. One day after, Avaz again published an article in which, on the basis of the previous article, made even more malicious comment. Priest Jeremija made a rejection that was published in Avaz, and again a malitious comment was added by the Avaz journalist.
After rejection made by priest Jeremija being published in Avaz, a lawsuit against Publika and Avaz has been prepared, but in the meantime, a crime against the priest and his family occurred.
More about Media in the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina:
Position of the High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Mr. Paddy Ashdown
The High Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina Mr. Paddy Ashdown justified the SFOR action. His first statement was based on the article from Avaz that the one could have expected something alike to happen having in mind the statements given by the priest.
After that, the excuse for SFOR action was based on comment that Republika Srpska is to blame because it does not cooperate with the Hague Tribunal.In order to restore his relationship with the Church, Mr. Ashdown sent messages through diplomatic channels saying that he felt sorry for everything that happened. He was suggested to state that publicly bur he did not do it.
Position of SFOR and Commander of SFOR General-Major Virgil Packet
Justification is based on SFOR mandate to take into custody individuals indicted for war crimes. Within its mandate in Bosnia and Herzegovina they are not responsible to any of the institutions in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and therefore they could not stand any sanctions or any appellations or criminal charges could be brought against them.
The official position of SFOR is that they carried out the action based on reliable acknowledgement that the person indicted for war crimes was there; That priest Jeremija and his son injuries were consequence of detonation (that is opposite to the Report of medical experts);
That consequences of the action could have not been anticipated because “they did not know plan of rooms within the building
Also, SFOR gave a statement in which it was said that their doctor paid a visit to the Medical Center in Tuzla, what was rejected afterwards by the personnel of the Center. Later on, the SFOR doctor visited the hospital but did not look at the victims.
Medical personnel was obliged to report every day to the SFOR Commander on the health condition of priest Jeremija and his son Aleksandar. There was another controversial statement of SFOR. The reason for undertaking the action was a strong belief that Radovan Karadzic was on that location, but had gone in armored vehicle to Zvornik, two hours before SFOR troops arrived. A logical question arises: if Radovan Karadzic went from Pale to Zvornik at 23.10, why SFOR troops did not go there? Some other scenarios were published in media that, having in mind the manners of media in Bosnia and Herzegovina, could not be accurate. But in case that those stories have come from SFOR, they are confusing and contradictory.
POSITION OF THE CHURCH
On the same day, on the occasion of horrible crime that occurred in Pale, the meeting was held between the Metropolitan of Dabar-Bosnia Nikolaj, members of Synod of Serbian Orthodox Church – Bishop Lavrentije and Bishop Grigorije, and all priests of the Diocese of Dabar-Bosnia. They jointly took the position to end all contacts with those from local and international institutions and organizations in Bosnia and Herzegovina who do not condemn the crime; That the crime committed against the Orthodox Church is equal to all other crimes that are taking place in Europe and worldwide; That rights on life, faith and property of Serbian Orthodox Church and its followers have been jeopardized in the worst possible way. (Reference: Press Release, Pale, 01 April)
THE GROUNDS FOR THE POSITION TAKEN BY THE CHURCH
The reason for the position of the Orthodox Church is primarily the horrible crime committed by the Peace Force in Pale.
However, this is not the first aggressive attack on the Orthodox Church in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Violent break in have happened before as it was in Celebici when the SFOR troops came into the altar space and broke some staff. The same people violantly broke in the house of the orthodox priest Novice Cebic in Spsko Gorazde when they searched his little daughter. They even took out the books from her school bag. SFOR helicopters often fly for a long time and near to the ground during the holy liturgy or some of services taking place in the Church, as it is the case now after the horrible event. Despite a lot of events alike, the Orthodox Church has always maintained good relations and contacts with Peace Force (SFOR), as well as with other international organizations. The Orthodox Church has been often asked by the same people to take part in calming down the situation among citizens, which was concretely done. It has been constantly emphasized that the Church does not want to be a part of politics nor to deal with it. It was often clearly stated that the Church does not protect those who were indicted for war crimes and does not provide them with shelter. On the other hand, all these years, on the request made by the Church in regard to the protection of human rights, only a few international institutions and organizations responded.