Who was Željko Sikora? A Czech perspective on the war in Bosnia
Despite the recent arrest and extradition of Mladic, the war in former Yugoslavia (1991-1995) has largely been forgotten. Fifteen years is, after all, a long time and many things have happened since; other wars have been waged, some are being waged at this very moment, we all have our own problems to worry about and who can think of the horrors in the world all the time?
Yet, many like to recall the splendid Yugoslavia in the times before its breakup, a country of friendly people and a captivating sea, where the Winnetou movie series was filmed; the country where people spoke a language similar to our own and where – when Czechoslovakia lacked goods – almost everything could be found.
That country dissolved as did ours, indeed as roughly the same time. Unlike our ‘Velvet Separation,’ the breakup of Yugoslavia has become notorious for its cruelty, ethnic cleansing and genocide accompanied by crimes against humanity such as mass murder, torture of civilians and the systematic deployment of sexual abuse and other forms of violence aimed at citizenry.
In this context, the concentration camps Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje established by Bosnian Serbs in northern Bosnia at the outset of the Yugoslavian conflict became known as ‘death camps.’ It is in such facilities that members of non-Serbian ethnic groups – especially Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) – were kept prisoners in inhumane conditions; where they were systematically beaten, tortured and, finally, killed. Besides Bosniaks, people of other nationalities were persecuted there, most of them Croats and also one Czech man.
I first heard of him in Sarajevo earlier this year when I spoke to one Satko Mujagić, a former inmate and survivor of the Omarska concentration camp. Life is full of coincidences that cannot be explained. Perhaps it was fate; who knows? How would you make sense of the fact that you have a long-lasting interest in crimes against humanity, especially those committed during the Yugoslavian wars in the 1990s, you even write your doctoral dissertation on the topic, and then you embark on a work-travel trip to Sarajevo that pertains to a completely different issue, and when you get there, your Bosnian colleague – a genuine, sympathetic and intelligent person, among other things – tells you that he had been imprisoned in the most notorious concentration camp during the war.
We discussed it for hours. He ordered a beer, lit a cigarette and started talking. If you didn’t hear his story, you would never be able to tell, that this man, 190cms tall with almost 100kgs in weight, had been in a concentration camp. But he had been there. At the time when Satko – only two years older than me – was tortured in prison and weighed less than 50 kilos, I was spending my summer with friends, worrying about beer and girls. He showed me a photograph of what he had looked like at the end of his devastating ordeal, when he was leaving Omarska; skeletal with eyes of a wounded animal. The same faces as those we know from the photographs taken some fifty years previously, at Auschwitz.
We were in the middle of our conversation and, out of a sudden, he said:
‘Did you know that when I was kept prisoner in Omarska, a Czech man died in one of the other Serbian concentration camps in the area?’
I was deeply shaken by this information. How did a Czech end up in a Serbian concentration camp and why did he die there? Knowing that a person with Czech roots died there kept me awake that and other nights.
Dr. Željko Sikora was born in 1957 and worked as a gynecologist in Prijedor hospital. He was imprisoned in the Keraterm concentration camp, together with other representatives of the non-Serbian intelligentsia during the so-called Prijedor Genocide (also known as Prijedor Massacre) which was, after Srebrenica, the second largest massacre committed during the Bosnian War.
What follows from Minka Čehajič’s testimony given on 14 May 2002, testifying in the case of Milomir Stakić charged by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia is that doctor Željko Sikora together with other scholars, doctors and prominent people of non-Serbian origin were incarcerated in Prijedor in a local police station at the end of May 1992. Subsequently, Mr. Sikora was transported to the Keraterm concentration camp. Several sources independently (of each other) stated that Dr. Sikora ‘disappeared’ following his detention and imprisonment, and it is therefore reasonable to presume that he and other doctors – Dr. Enes Begić, Dr. Osman Mahmuljin and Dr. Razim Musić – were beaten to death in the aforementioned concentration camp.
(Dr. Milomir Stakic in the court of The Hague Tribunal)
It is difficult to document precisely what had happened and how. Nevertheless, it remains certain that in 2001 a mass grave was discovered in the Jakarina kosa area, close to Prijedor, which held the mortal remains of some 372 consequently exhumed bodies. One of them was Dr. Sikora’s.
This alone is a horrifying story, but it does not end here. Not only was Dr. Sikora killed, but his name and good reputation were damaged too. The story of Dr. Željko Sikora is known as an example of intense abuse of the media for propaganda purposes during the Bosnian War with the intention of creating an air of fear, hatred and violence. Serbian propaganda deliberately produced such atmosphere, on both the national and regional levels. The aim was to produce a reason for the carnage against civilians which was later justified by the Serbian media that helped spread information which leaves us speechless even today.
The “news” of Serb civilians beaten to death in the Croatian town of Pakrac in 1991, of forty murdered Serbian children in another Croatian town, Vukovar, that same year, or of Serbian children being fed to lions in the ZOO during the siege of Sarajevo have never been confirmed. Neither has the “story” of Dr. Željko Sikora whom, prior to the Prijedor Massacre, the Serbian media portrayed – together with doctors Mujadžić and Mahmuljin – as a “Monster Doctor” who forced Serbian women into involuntary abortions if their newborn child was to be a boy, and who castrated Serbian newborn males. It is unnecessary to point out that such stories were purposefully construed pieces of fiction. In the atmosphere of deliberately stirred hatreds further fuelled by nationalist circles, this played a decisive role. The non-Serbian intelligentsia from Prijedor was stigmatized to legitimise what was about to happen. The article on a “Monster Doctor” published in Kozarski Vjesnik and the news broadcast in that same spirit on Prijedor Radio were doubtlessly used as a pretext for Dr. Sikora’s detention and they also contributed to the fact that he was then beaten to death in the Keraterm concentration camp.
I do not think it is important to know whether Dr. Sikora was Croat or Czech. What is significant is the fact that Dr. Sikora and hundreds of people of different nationalities were beaten to death in the Keraterm concentration camp, and until now there is only a small memorial plaque embedded in the grass at the site to remind the world of the camp’s existence. The same is true of the worst Bosnian concentration camp Omarska, even though since 2004 there have been attempts to raise a proper memorial there. The current owner of the property, Arcelor Mittal, now mines iron ore in Omarska and is thus reluctant to interrupt its industrial output to pay homage to those that paid the ultimate price so others would not have to. It is a sad commentary that so many people perished – in the worst conditions – for no more than an enflamed sense of national identity. It is sadder still that industrial output and quotas now prevent proper homage to the fallen.
Gastarbeider in Sarajevo