Ljubiša Diković - Responsibility, Impunity, Denial

 

During the war in Kosovo in 1999, approximately 1,400 Albanian civilians were killed in the area of responsibility of the 37th Motorised Brigade of the Army of Yugoslavia. General Ljubiša Diković was the commander of that brigade at the time. Neither he nor any members of the brigade have been held accountable for these crimes; instead, General Diković performed high-level military roles and received the highest medals of honour of the Republic of Serbia.

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LJUBIŠA DIKOVIĆ AND THE 37TH BRIGADE IN KOSOVO

The 37th Motorised Brigade of the Užice Corps of the Second Army was deployed in several locations where killings of Albanian civilians took place between March and May 1999. Around 1,400 civilians were killed within the area of responsibility of the 37th Brigade in Kosovo in 1999. Ljubiša Diković was the commander of that brigade.

Ljubiša Diković, source: Profimedia

Izbicë/Izbica

On 27 and 28 March 1999, around 119 Albanian civilians were killed in a joint army and police operation in the area of Izbicë/Izbica. The operation was preceded by an order of the joint command for Kosovo and Metohija to the Army of Yugoslavia and the Ministry of Interior on 22 March 1999 to join forces in clearing the area of Drenica/Drenicë of Albanian terrorist forces. This area encompasses two municipalities where the stronghold of the KLA was situated: Gllogoc/Glogovac and Skënderaj/Srbica, where Izbicë/Izbica is.

On 27 March, VJ forces shelled the Albanian village of Izbicë/Izbica, forcing the locals to flee to the field at the borders of the village. On the next day, men were separated from women and children, taken away in two groups and shot. The victims were mostly older men, between 60 and 70 years old. The KLA members buried the bodies. However, when the locals returned to the village, they did not find the graves, as the army and police had moved the bodies to Kosovska Mitrovica and to Serbia. Milazim Thaçi and Mustafa Draga were among the few men who survived the executions.

Testimonies of Milazim Thaçi and Mustafa Draga before the ICTY

Documents prove the presence of the 37th Motorised Brigade in this area

Rezallë/Rezala

The Serb forces executed at least 41 Albanian men in the village of Rezallë/Rezala. Early on 5 April 1999, the Serb forces entered the village accompanied by tanks and armored vehicles. The army and police forces first drove the local Albanians out of their houses, including those who had taken refuge in the village. The perpetrators gathered the locals at one place and took their money and valuables. The army then moved the women and children to a nearby village. The Serbian forces gathered the men near the village cemetery, lined them up and shot 39 of them in one execution. Two other Albanian civilians were killed in a forest nearby. Among the victims were three boys, the oldest victim was 97 years old.

Members of the Yugoslav Army covered the bodies of the victims with earth and rubble. They returned a week later and dug up the remains, loaded them on a truck and drove away. While 10 victims are still reported as missing, 27 out of the 41 bodies of victims who had been killed in Rezallë/Rezala were found in the mass grave at Rudnica in 2007 and their families in 2015 rebury them.

The village of Rezallë/Rezala is located in the region of Drenica/Drenicë where the 37th Motorised Brigade was deployed at the time when the massacre took place. In an interview for Vojska magazine, members of the 37th Brigade mentioned Rezallë/Rezala as one of the locations where the brigade undertook military operations in that period.

"Everything happened so quickly, we didn’t even have the time to look at each other or to somehow say goodbye to each other and to this life." - M. D.

Misin Deliu was one of two survivors of the massacre. Two of his brothers, Ibush and Aziz, and five cousins were executed that day. Deliu and another victim who later died were seriously wounded but managed to flee the scene before the soldiers returned to remove the bodies.

Testimony of Mislin Delilaj given to HLC

Qirez/Ćirez

In the village of Qirez/Ćirez, the Serb armed forces murdered eight Kosovo Albanian women and girls in April 1999 by throwing them into water wells. The 37th Brigade was active in the area in and around this village at that time.

On 17 April 1999, a unit of about 100 soldiers and paramilitaries entered the village of Kozhicë/Kožica. The soldiers went from house to house, demanding money, taking jewellery and other valuables with death threats. They detained around 115 Albanian women and girls in one of the houses. Two days later, several VJ soldiers transported 27 women and children to the village of Qirez/Ćirez and handed them over to a group of 10 men dressed in “brown, dark uniforms”. Threatening to kill them all, together with their children, the soldiers took their personal documents, money and jewellery, and locked them in a barn.

Uniformed men removed several girls and younger women from the barn where they were held captive. They raped some of the women, abused and harassed them sexually. On the same day, five women who had been raped and three elderly women, Miridije Dibrani, Tahir Shalaku and Fahrije Ademi, were separated from the group and taken out of the barn. They never returned. They were killed and thrown into three wells in Ćirez/Qirez, where their bodies were found and identified in July 1999.

Testimony of Xhevahire Rrahmani before the ICTY

Shavarinë/Šavarine

On 1 May 1999, more than 170 Kosovo Albanians were detained and 43 of them were executed in Shavarinë/Šavarine

Testimony of Abdullah Salihu before the ICTY

The report of Diković’s 37th Motorised Brigade from 1 May about the completion of Operation Kamenica confirms that, during the previous day, the Brigade had detained 172 persons as part of the operation conducted in villages around Gllogoc/Glogovac and Skënderaj/Srbica. The report corroborates to a great extent the witness statements collected about the killings. The report was signed by Ljubiša Diković.

The same report signed by Diković further states that the villages of Dashec/Doševac and Vërbovc/Vrbovac were also attacked in Operation Kamenica. On 30 April, 8 civilians from Dashec/Doševac and 92 civilians from Vërbovc/Vrbovac were executed.

STATE-SUPPORTED IMPUNITY 

High state officials statements - Newspaper headlines

Ljubiša Diković has not been held accountable for the crimes that took place within the area of responsibility of the 37th Motorised Brigade during the war in Kosovo. Instead, the Government of Serbia has decorated him with medals of honour and appointed him to the highest position in the army.

Around 180 members of the Kosovo Liberation Army and more than 1,400 Albanian civilians were killed within the area of responsibility of the 37th Motorised Brigade. The original documents demonstrate that the Brigade was deployed in the proximity of a number of places where executions of Albanian civilians took place at the time when the crimes were committed.

Some of these crimes were addressed during the trials of former president of Serbia, Milan Milutinović, and other high-ranking officials at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia. No member of the 37th Brigade, however, has been prosecuted.

Ljubiša Diković held high-ranking positions in the Army of Serbia, including the position of Chief of the General Staff of the Serbian Armed Forces from which he retired in 2018. In 2015, he was awarded by the President of Serbia at the time, Tomislav Nikolić, with the Order of the White Eagle of the first class for his “outstanding contribution in constructing the system of defence and commanding army units”. In 2019, the President of Serbia Aleksandar Vučić decorated Ljubiša Diković with the Order of Karađorđe’s Star of the first class, the highest civilian and military honour awarded in Serbia, which was established by the Kingdom of Serbia and was reinstated in 2010.

'Investigation, not an order!', from the protest held in February 2015

Humanitarian Law Center

How Serbian institutions have treated General Ljubiša Diković is clear from their response to the evidence presented to the public by the Humanitarian Law Center. The research by the HLC was crucial in illuminating the links between the 37th Brigade and crimes against Albanian civilians in Kosovo. The HLC presented the evidence to the public in the form of two dossiers and a documentary film.

Ljubiša Diković dossier was published in January 2012, only a month after Diković had been appointed by President Boris Tadić to the position of Chief of the General Staff of the Serbian Armed Forces. The dossier presents the facts about the activities of the 37th Motorised Brigade in Kosovo and the ICTY evidence about the war crimes committed in their area of the responsibility.

The reaction of the Serbian state and judicial authorities was to provide immediate and unequivocal support for Diković. Instead of conducting a proper investigation into the allegations made by the HLC, state officials dismissed them as false. Within 48 hours of the publication of the dossier, the Office of the War Crimes Prosecutor issued a public statement that they had determined that there was no reason to suspect that General Diković was criminally responsible for war crimes. The Minister of Defence, Dragan Šutanovac, publicly dismissed the accusations made in the HLC dossier, calling them inappropriate and “truly monstrous”.

Rather than the dossier leading to the indictment of Ljubiša Diković, it was Diković who filed a lawsuit against the HLC and its founder, Nataša Kandić. Diković claimed damages for psychological pain and violation of his honour and reputation that he allegedly suffered as a result of the allegations made in the dossier. The court granted him 4,500 euros in compensation.

In 2015, the HLC published the Rudnica dossier that describes crimes and presents evidence about the involvement of Serbian military and police forces, including the 37th Brigade, in clearing and concealing the bodies of Kosovo Albanians. The grave in Rudnica is the first mass grave on the territory of Serbia that was discovered after the termination of the ICTY mandate to investigate atrocity crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia. All persons whose remains were found in the mass grave were civilians, killed or forcibly disappeared by army and police forces in Drenica/Drenicë region in April and May 1999.

High-ranking Serbian officials condemned what they viewed as HLC attacks on the reputation of the Army of Serbia and its honourable officer, Ljubiša Diković. This includes former President of Serbia Tomislav Nikolić, and former Prime Minister and current President of Serbia, Aleksandar Vučić.

Determined to continue to raise public awareness about the responsibility of Diković and the 37th Brigade for crimes and removal of bodies in Kosovo, the HLC used the evidence presented in the two dossiers to produce a documentary film, Ljubiša Diković and the 37th Brigade in Kosovo. The documentary presents testimonies and documents from ICTY trials and highlights the evidence gathered and published by the HLC in the Ljubiša Diković and Rudnica dossiers. The HLC reached out to television stations in Serbia offering them to show the documentary, including public broadcasters, however they either ignored to refused the offer. The film is freely available on Youtube in AlbanianEnglish and Serbian.

SERBIA’S MEMORY CULTURE AND POLITICS

Ljubiša Diković, a hero and a criminal

The celebration of General Ljubiša Diković as a military hero illuminates the current state of memory politics in Serbia. A new development in recent years involves large-scale commemorations of the wars of Yugoslav dissolution organised by the government led by the Serbian Progressive Party. The rule of that party since 2012 has been associated with a rise in authoritarian tendencies and democratic backsliding – and a proliferation of revisionist narratives about the wars of the 1990s.

These narratives are reminiscent of the discourses that dominated the Serbian public sphere during the wars. One reason is that many of today’s high-ranking officials were members of the Serbian Radical Party or Slobodan Milošević’s Socialist Party of Serbia during the 1990s.

The narrative that underlies Serbia’s state-sponsored memory politics glorifies the role of the Serbian armed forces in the war while criminalising other parties, and commemorates exclusively Serbian victims. The dichotomy of the Serbian heroes and victims represents the lens through which current political elites interpret the wars of the 1990s. Military commanders like Ljubiša Diković are celebrated as war heroes and their responsibility for war crimes is denied. The publishing house of the Ministry of Defense publishes and promotes memoirs of military commanders from the war in Kosovo, including those convicted by the ICTY. In these narratives, the victims of the Serbian armed forces are denied recognition and redress for their suffering.

The memory of the recent wars is a deeply contested issue across the post-Yugoslav space. Serbia’s memory culture and politics are far from settled. On the one hand, figures like Ljubiša Diković are celebrated as heroes by state officials, institutions and some parts of Serbian society. On the other hand, a different and more inclusive memory culture also exists in Serbia and other post-Yugoslav societies as social actors seek to counter these hegemonic narratives. Striving to come to terms with the past, there is a part of Serbian society that considers acknowledgement of responsibility for war crimes a critical step in that process. This is the sphere where the Humanitarian Law Center and other civil society actors operate. These critical spaces are increasingly threatened by surging populism and democratic backsliding. Nevertheless, the struggle over Serbia’s memory culture continues.