Bosnian militiaman Marko Boskic was named by witnesses at the International Criminal Court in the Hague as one of the executioners of an estimated 7,500 Bosnian Muslims from the town of Srebrenica in 1995. Nine years after that crime, Boskic was found living in Boston, hiding his past as he hung out with family members of his victims. His story underscored how many alleged or confirmed war criminals from the collapse of Yugoslavia remained untried for the brutal acts of “ethnic cleansing” in those wars. The U.S. extradited Boskic to Bosnia in 2010, where a court sentenced him to 10 years in prison.
Newsday — 13 September 2004
By JAMES RUPERT — STAFF CORRESPONDENT
EVERETT, Mass. – Hassan is trying to forget the summer nine years ago when a Serb militia surrounded the Bosnian town of Srebrenica and killed 7,500 Bosnian Muslims, including 29 of Hassan’s cousins and a brother.
Now a construction worker in Boston, Hassan gathers often with Bosnian friends at a suburban cafe called Klub Sarajevo to play cards, drink and chat about their efforts to build futures and families in America. “All of us are in the same boat, and we want to help each other out,” he said.
So when another Bosnian, Marko Boskic, landed here as a refugee in 2000, the friends at Klub Sarajevo welcomed him to their fraternity, helping him get an apartment and a driver’s license. Hassan got him a construction job where they worked together and Boskic came by often for dinner at Hassan’s apartment.
Two Fridays ago, “I stopped at Dunkin’ Donuts on my way to work,” and in the newspaper vending boxes outside, “I saw Marko’s picture looking at me from the front pages,” Hassan said. The papers said FBI agents had arrested Boskic, naming him as one of the executioners at Srebrenica.
Suddenly for Hassan, the unknown killers of his loved ones have a face – that of Marko, his buddy of recent years. It has revived old traumas in a way that Hassan prefers not to revisit, and he insists that his real name not be published in a newspaper. He has felt sick and skipped work, hanging close to his other friends. “How could this happen?” he asked.
Marko Boskic’s arrest on Aug. 25 dramatizes how, after nearly a decade, Bosnia’s wartime atrocities remain unbandaged wounds, its mass murders barely touched by laws or courts.
For years, Boskic has been named in the press and in war crimes trials as one of eight triggermen in one of Europe’s most murderous acts since World War II. On July 16, 1995, the Bosnian Serb Army bused an estimated 1,200 Muslim men and boys from Srebrenica to a farm where the gunmen lined them up in the fields, group after group, and shot them dead.
But Boskic, a hard-faced man of 40, has lived half of the years since then under his own name in Boston’s northern suburbs. Even now, he is under arrest not for the killings, but, prosecutors say, for lying to conceal his military role in his applications to live in the United States.
As Boskic sits in a federal prison awaiting trial, important questions about him remain unanswered – how he might have become a mass executioner and how, in America, he came to seek shelter among the friends and loved ones of his alleged victims. Boskic and his court-appointed attorney have remained silent about his case.
Bosnia is a verdant, rugged land at the center of the former Yugoslavia, where centuries of rule and war by Europe’s empires left a patchwork society of Muslims, Orthodox Christian Serbs and Catholic Croats, all scattered over the mountains in farming villages and a few industrial cities. While communist Yugoslavia suppressed divisions among the groups for decades under the rule of Josip Broz Tito, ethnic nationalism revived after his death and brought war in the 1990s.
Marko Boskic, a Croat, was the son of a relatively poor coal miner in a mountain village near the city of Tuzla. He told friends he attended a construction trades school as a youth.
When war came in 1992, he reportedly joined a local unit – the 115th Brigade – of the Bosnian Croat militia. The Croats were a minority around Tuzla and the brigade did little fighting, but guarded a sensitive line between the Muslim-dominated city and surrounding Serb-ruled areas, said Almasa Hadzic, a Tuzla-based journalist for the Bosnian newspaper Dnevni Avaz.
A frontline checkpoint in Boskic’s village, Gornja Obodnica, offered the 115th’s soldiers “a great chance to smuggle people, cigarettes, food, etc., across the lines, all for money,” in cooperation with nearby Serb fighters, Hadzic said. In 1993, pressed by the Bosnian government to submit to its command, the 115th instead dissolved itself.
When the soldiers dispersed, “the ones who had been involved in smuggling and crime joined the [Bosnian] Serb Army,” Hadzic said. Boskic and another Croat, Drazen Erdemovic, wound up in the Serbs’ 10th Sabotage Detachment.
After the war, Erdemovic pleaded guilty at the United Nations war crimes tribunal at The Hague and testified about crimes committed by the detachment. In trials, including that of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Erdemovic said he was one of eight men sent to the Branjevo collective farm to receive about 20 busloads of Muslim men and boys sent from Srebrenica on July 16, 1995. He said his squad led men off the buses and stood them in groups of about 10, facing away from the gunmen, before shooting them dead. He named seven fellow executioners, including Marko Boskic.
At least twice, Boskic has reacted to that accusation with violent rage.
In early 1996, Boston Globe reporter Elizabeth Neuffer tracked Boskic to the Bosnian town of Bijeljina. “Like any city tough, his hands are jammed into his pants pockets and his muscular shoulders strain at the seams of his cheap black leather jacket,” Neuffer wrote in a subsequent book. “His eyes are as empty of expression as pure glass.”
When Neuffer asked about his role at Branjevo “a flush appeared on Boskic’s cheeks,” she wrote. “His hands, when he raised them, were trembling, even as he held them out toward my translator and me as if he would strangle us like chickens whose necks he’d break with a wrench of their heads.
” ‘Would you like to get whacked?’ he hissed. ‘I want you to forget this street and this restaurant. It doesn’t exist anymore for you. Don’t come looking for me anymore. I cannot guarantee the safety of your lives.'”
Signs of trouble
Soon after Boskic arrived in Boston, friends recalled, he met a refugee at a backyard barbecue who began questioning him suspiciously about his story that he had missed the Bosnian war by fleeing to Germany. “The man said, ‘I don’t believe you,’ and accused him of working for the Serbs. Marko began shaking, and we had to break them up to stop a fight,” said Enver Custovic.
Within four years of the war’s end Boskic had left Bosnia for Germany, but like many refugees could count on only a short stay there. He applied to go to the United States. Where an official questionnaire asked about his military experience, he omitted his role as a fighter in the Bosnia war, according to the U.S. attorney in Boston. If convicted, he could face 10 years in prison and deportation to Bosnia.
Boskic’s ability to hide in plain sight dramatizes the world community’s failure to prosecute more than a handful of Bosnia’s alleged war criminals, Bosnians and human rights advocates say. And it highlights a challenge to the United States in keeping war criminals from seeking refuge here.
Nearly a decade after the end of a war that killed an estimated 250,000 people – many of them in waves of brutal atrocities that spawned the label “ethnic cleansing” – only 59 war crimes suspects have been tried by the UN war crimes tribunal at The Hague. Radovan Karadzic and Gen. Ratko Mladic, the political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serb campaign to “cleanse” much of the country of non-Serbs, remain free. So do scores of lower-level commanders and gunmen accused of crimes.
Indictment never issued
Even though accused in court and in print as a mass murderer, Boskic has never been indicted for the killings. The UN court, officially called the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, says it has such limited money and time that it can prosecute only the most prominent defendants, such as Milosevic. Under its UN mandate, the tribunal must end its investigations this year and wind up its trials by 2008.
Bosnia, which is now a federation of its Serb and Muslim-Croat republics, remains so bitterly divided that it only recently established a war crimes court that would have jurisdiction over Boskic’s case. The court has not yet begun operations, according to Bogdan Ivanisevic, a researcher in the region for the New York-based group Human Rights Watch.
The lack of a criminal indictment helped Boskic avoid scrutiny by U.S. authorities. The Boston Globe quoted U.S. officials as saying the State Department failed to note published accounts of his role in the war when it vetted his application for entry in 1999. Claude Arnold, who heads the Department of Homeland Security’s unit that investigates alleged human rights violators, said Boskic escaped notice in part because much of the U.S. investigators’ work is based on the Hague tribunal, for which “Boskic is not a target.”
‘Some kind of justice’
U.S. officials say the investigation of Boskic, which ran for more than a year, began with a tip, but decline to say whether it came from the United States or Bosnia. U.S. Attorney Michael Sullivan told the Globe that the reporting on Boskic by Globe correspondent Neuffer, “actually deserves a lot of credit for our investigation.” Neuffer, who wrote in her book that she wanted “some kind of justice for Boskic,” was killed last year in a car crash while reporting from Iraq.
A court affidavit filed by Sullivan said investigators identified Boskic as the man who served in the 10th Sabotage Detachment by comparing his photo with a video obtained from the Hague tribunal that showed him armed and in uniform at a military ceremony.
In the days before his arrest, Boskic seemed to know that something was up, friends said. “He was very nervous,” said a neighbor, Arthur Liaperdos. “I saw him walking to his apartment, and stopping by the corner of the building to check the parking lot, like he expected someone to be waiting for him.”
For a man with something to hide, he had trouble lying low. Police in Peabody, Mass., the suburb where Boskic lived, said they were called repeatedly to his condominium apartment in the past 15 months for fights, often between him and various girlfriends. He was charged three times each for assault and for motor vehicle violations, including an April crash in which he allegedly had been driving drunk.
Despite his volatility at home, he was calm at his job as a tile-setter for a Boston-area contractor, JAJ Co. “He was always in control and very respectful,” said Vincenzo Penta, his supervisor. “If he couldn’t make it to work, he always called me.”
Boskic called Penta after the April crash. “Vinnie, I drink too much, and then I forget what I did,” Penta recalled him saying. It was one of few times that friends in Boston recalled Boskic saying anything at all about himself.
Boskic was controlled, too, when he was with other Bosnians, said Ado Karo, owner of Klub Sarajevo. “When people get drunk, they say things they might be trying to hide, but even when he drank, Marko never said anything” about his past, the war or his alleged, once murderous enmity for Muslims, Karo said.
At Klub Sarajevo, the heavily Muslim crowd spends a lot of time talking about Boskic these days – especially about why he sought them out for friendship and help after having allegedly massacred Bosnians like them years ago.
“Criminologists have a theory that murderers return to the scene of the crime,” said one man who asked not to be named. “Is that what he was doing with us? Or was he watching us, trying to think of a justification for trying to wipe out Muslims?”
© Copyright Newsday, Inc. 2004