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BALKANS: Prison Literature Blossoms

Vesna Peric Zimonjic

BELGRADE, Aug 14 2011 (IPS) - A new literary trend is gaining momentum in Serbia. It revolves around a phenomenon sociologists are describing as “prison literature”.

Dozens of books have appeared in the past couple of years authored by several notorious inmates of international and local prisons. The writers include those sentenced for war crimes in the 1992-1995 conflict in Bosnia, and for the assassination of Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic in 2003, but also those sentenced for smuggling drugs.

The common denominator for all is an effort to “tell the truth”, Milan Lukic, one of the most controversial authors, wrote in his book ‘Tale of the Hague Detainee’.

Lukic, 41-years-old, was sentenced to life in prison by the United Nations, Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in 2009. Lukic was convicted of playing a role in the abductions and executions of dozens of Muslims in eastern Bosnia, and the burning alive of 120 Muslim civilians in two houses in his native Visegrad in 1992.

The release of Lukic’s book, Aug. 4, caused broad public outrage among human rights activists, civil society organisations, and Muslim survivors in Bosnia for two reasons.

First, Lukic claims to be innocent and writes that he was not present in Bosnia at the times of the crimes he was sentenced for – he denies that any such crimes happened there at all. Second, the book was launched at the parish house of the biggest Serbian Orthodox Cathedral of Saint Sava in Belgrade – without any opposition from the influential clergy there. The church remains silent about the event, and attempts to obtain its reaction by IPS remained unanswered.

“This is an outrageous event, an insult to victims,” Bakira Hasecic told IPS over the phone from Sarajevo. Hasecic is a native of Visegrad and heads the association Women Victims of War, whose members include survivors of gang rapes perpetrated by Serbs in eastern Bosnia. “I’d love to see if he listed all the people he burned to death in Visegrad, as he listed the men who ‘defended’ the town from Muslims; he raped me there and many other women and girls.”

For the Humanitarian Law Fund, publication of such book also represents “an offence for victims,” its expert Aleksandar Obradovic, told IPS. “Courts have established what happened in Bosnia, but this is a scandalous event as it adds to distortion of views of the broader public.”

Obradovic was referring to the fact that Serbs are still deeply divided about the war in Bosnia, as many believe it was waged for protection of Serbs against aggressive Bosniak Muslims who allegedly aimed to exterminate them.

Another inmate – who wrote 10 books in prison – is Milorad Ulemek ‘Legija’, 46-years-old, who was sentenced to 40 years for the assassination of the first democratic prime minister of Serbia, Zoran Djindjic, in 2003.

Ulemek’s latest book ‘Through Water and Fire’ was released recently. Well known for his paramilitary engagement in wars in neighbouring Croatia and Bosnia, Ulemek writes about the unique bravery of Serb units in those wars.

The sentence against him reads that the assassination of Djindjic had the aim of, among other things, overturning the constitutional order of Serbian state.

Lawyer for the Djindjic family, Rajko Danilovic, told IPS that it’s high time the state “which said what it thinks about Ulemek by sentencing him to 40 years did something about his efforts to gain popularity in this way.”

Sources at the Serbian Prosecutorial Office say that “only if the books contain calls for overthrowing the constitutional order, some action can follow,” but experts disagree.

“There are ways to prevent denials of war crimes or further infliction of pain for families of victims, because these book have such an effect,” Dragoljub Todorovic, a Belgrade lawyer told IPS. “We can turn and look around, see how these things were done elsewhere – like the ban on denial of the holocaust… Otherwise, the books look like a slap in the face to all.”

Serbian prosecutors are more interested now to establish who helped another author publish his works while he was a fugitive from justice. Radovan Karadzic, 66-years-old, the wartime political leader of Bosnian Serbs, published three books while running from justice during the period from 1998 until his arrest in 2008. The books do not deal with war, but are a novel, a collection of poetry, and fairy tales.

“That would lead to uncovering his ring of support,” sources from prosecution say.

‘Prison literature’ also includes work by well-known ordinary criminals, such as Kristijan Golubovic, 42- years-old. Golubovic has spent the better part of the last decade in Greek and Serbian prisons due to drug smuggling convictions.

Golubovic wrote an autobiography ‘I’ about his “adventurous life”, as he described it, and is preparing a new volume to be released soon.

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