Spotlight is a newsletter about underreported cultural trends and news from around the world, emailed to subscribers every Monday. Sign up here.
“It is our generational duty to write about the genocide and fight against this evil. We owe that to those before us and to those we are parents to. All the pain of the world is still in Bosnia.”
So wrote the renowned Bosnian-Australian social anthropologist Hariz Halilovich to me in one of our recent email exchanges, where we often discuss life, news or fresh scholarship of interest to us both. His words stuck with me even more than usual as I read about the controversial and horrifying documentary film “Sarajevo Safari” by the Slovenian director Miran Zupanic. This 75-minute film, which premiered on Sept. 10 at the fifth annual international documentary film festival in Sarajevo, addresses shocking allegations that small groups of wealthy, influential foreigners paid dizzying amounts of money to members of Serb nationalist forces in the 1990s to “hunt” civilians in besieged Sarajevo. These macabre weekend tours reportedly started at the beginning of the war in 1992 and continued for at least several months in 1993 and 1994, as the aggression against Bosnia and Herzegovina continued to ravage the country.
While this phenomenon was little spoken of in the past, it was not unheard of. Zupanic’s film is the most comprehensive and high-profile effort yet to present witness testimony as evidence for these war crimes.
No one in Bosnia’s capital forgets how the siege of Sarajevo, which began on Apr. 6, 1992, ended four long years later, on Feb. 29, 1996. Over 1,425 days, more than 10,000 soldiers and civilians were killed. During the war, one of the main boulevards in the city was infamously known as “Sniper Alley.” A U.N. report made clear the reason for the nickname. The report stated: “Skilled marksmen often kill their targets with a single shot to the head or heart, and it is clear that they have exercised the specific intent to hit obvious civilian targets with no other purpose than to cause death or serious bodily injury.” The report confirmed that snipers operated in teams around the city and deliberately targeted civilians, noncombatant targets and rescuers who tried to help victims, as well as U.N. Protection Force (UNPROFOR) and other U.N. personnel and facilities.
Like trophy hunting for big game on safari in Africa, individuals paid to partake in expeditions to kill defenseless, unarmed civilians with snipers during the siege of Sarajevo. While the exact sum of money required to take part is not known, for some foreigners, killing Sarajevans was clearly a source of fun and an adrenaline boost. The activity was welcomed by their enablers among the Serb nationalist forces, both for the money and for the objective in itself. Bosnians have now been left to wonder whether more information will come to light about the perpetrators of this grisly violence, who allegedly shot their family members, friends and neighbors for sadistic pleasure.
At the end of September, Sarajevo’s Mayor Benjamina Karic filed official criminal complaints against the unknown perpetrators of this violence as well as members of the Army of Republika Srpska who were responsible for coordinating it. “I consider it right and my duty to react in this way to the facts presented in the documentary film ‘Sarajevo Safari,’” said Karic at the time. On Nov. 1, Karic shared the official response from the prosecutor’s office: “The acting prosecutor in the War Crimes Special Department has been appointed, who, in the coming period, together with partner institutions and agencies, will take the necessary steps to verify the allegations from the complaint.”
As to his motivation for making the film, Zupanic has explained that after hearing about the civilian hunting expeditions from a friend, the Slovenian film producer Franci Zajc, his initial skepticism and astonishment transformed into determination, particularly after long conversations with one Slovenian man.
This man, a former intelligence officer, appears in the documentary with an obscured face as a protected and unidentified witness. Speaking in a steady voice, he claims to have been in Bosnia about 35 times between 1992 and the end of 1994 and to have witnessed seven sniper shootings. Another intelligence officer, the Bosnian Edin Subasic, shares what he knows about these “safaris” in the documentary. At the time, Subasic was in the analytical service of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina. There was at least one more witness who had agreed to testify for the documentary but then changed their mind for fear of repercussions. The film also contains numerous archival video clips of daily life in besieged Sarajevo and features two further interviews: one with Faruk Sabanovic, who was wounded by a sniper, and another with Stana and Samir Cisic, the parents of Irina Cisic, a baby girl who died from the consequences of sniper wounds several days after her first birthday.
In the documentary, the protected witness describes the scenes from various sniper shoots he attended, after local Serb forces took him as an observer to the designated locations in Sarajevo. Though there were no verbal exchanges with these men, he noted their remarkable hunting skills. Judging by their looks and demeanor, these foreigners were not “average people,” the witness said. He describes the scene in detail; their adrenaline, excitement and anticipation before the repugnant deed was palpable:
We come inside, to the two rooms that were prepared. Everything was concealed. There were several positions, so they were taken in turns. After they shot from one, they would go to another position. When you shoot from one position, there is a great chance that you will be shot back from the other side, because the position of the sniper is revealed. Later I saw that, in fluent English, the one from the army told the other two that he would do the preparation. But I thought anyway that he would lie down there, next to where the binoculars were, and that he would look through the binoculars. I couldn’t believe that he laid down, that the rifle was handed to him — everything was prepared — and that he fired. I will honestly admit that … I was a little in awe, despite the fact that from my previous positions I was used to seeing filthiness, but despite that. It happened and one person was shot and fell. After that I looked through the binoculars and saw that person had fallen. Then the people scattered.
The unnamed witness and Subasic describe how the “tourist shooters,” who included Russians, Canadians, Americans and Italians, made their way to Sarajevo. One option, according to the unnamed witness, was to come first to Belgrade by plane from Trieste, Italy. From there, helicopters from the Yugoslav Army (VJ) would transfer them to the town of Pale on the territory controlled by the Bosnian Serbs. They would then travel by vehicle to nearby Sarajevo. An alternative route described by Subasic, based on the interrogation of a Serbian prisoner of war, was to travel by bus with Serbian volunteer fighters from Belgrade to Pale. The Serbian prisoner confirmed that three Italians admitted they had paid to come to the battlefront. Once they reached Sarajevo, members of the Army of the Republika Srpska introduced the foreigners to their sniper positions around Grbavica and other neighborhoods, where victims would be shot from the rooftops of tall buildings and the hills above the city.
Subasic also describes how the Bosnian army tried to confirm these claims, asking for help from the U.N. peacekeeping forces stationed at the time in Sarajevo and Italy’s Military Intelligence and Security Service (SISMI). Three or four months after making their inquiry, Italy’s domestic intelligence agency (SISDE) confirmed they had located the point of origin in Italy and told the Bosnian army it would not happen again, since it had been “neutralized.”
There have long been rumors about such “hunting” of civilians. People in the city, including journalists, have spoken and written about it in the past. Among the first to do so publicly was Luca Leone, an Italian journalist, author and co-founder of the publishing house Infinito Edizioni. In his book, “The Bastards of Sarajevo,” first published in 2014 and updated in a second edition in 2018, Leone mentions some foreign tourists who correspond to the descriptions of tourist shooters from “Sarajevo Safari.” In a statement to ANSA, the leading news agency in Italy, published on Aug. 31, Leone said: “Foreigners from all over Europe, including Italians, paid at checkpoints managed by Serbian paramilitaries in both Croatia and Bosnia and then spent a weekend shooting civilians” in Sarajevo. He added that “there was a circle of rich Italians coming mainly from the Triveneto,” recalling that, both during and after the war, groups of Italians belonging to the mafia and criminal gangs of northeastern Italy were known to have purchased weapons in various parts of the former Yugoslavia.
Another person who has gone public with information about this extraordinary violence is the Bosnian writer Haris Imamovic, who wrote about it in his book “Vedran and the Firemen.” It includes the testimony of John Jordan, a former U.S. marine and international volunteer firefighter who was in Sarajevo from November 1992 to October 1995 with a group that worked with all sides during the war. He described his experiences while testifying in The Hague at the trial of Gen. Dragomir Milosevic, a former commander of the Sarajevo Romanija Corps of the Bosnian Serb Army who was later convicted of murder, inhumane acts and terrorizing the population of Sarajevo and sentenced to 29 years in prison on appeal. In his testimony, Jordan answered questions about “tourist shooters,” whom he said were sometimes dubbed “burgermeisters.” (In German, the word means “town master,” or mayor.) Jordan explained this was a reference to “Croatia, being allied, friendly, i.e., Germany; that’s where the tourists came from on that side.” He admitted seeing these people while “visiting the Serb firemen in Grbavica” and on several other occasions, including in the Bosnian Serb Army’s territory as well as different “over-watch positions.”
Jordan said the men wore “civilian/military combination-type clothing.” As for the weapons they carried, “Anyone can go to a surplus store and outfit himself to look like anybody else’s army. But the locals carried certain weapons, and when a guy shows up with a weapon that looks more like he ought to be hunting boar in the Black Forest than in urban combat in the Balkans, you know, when you see him being handled and you can obviously tell he is a novice at moving around rubble, you know, if it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, it’s a duck.”
While Jordan stated that he never saw one of these men shoot, he said they moved around already-known sniper positions in Sarajevo, while some of his personnel noted the same in the Mostar area in the country’s south. Jordan was already familiar with the expression “tourist shooters,” which he said he knew from Beirut where, he added, “we saw the same thing happening around the green line” — the sniper-filled no man’s land that separated Beirut into two halves during the Lebanese civil war of 1975-90.
What has been established — through theoretical and empirical evidence throughout history — is that horrific consequences result from hateful ideologies, making fellow human beings seem subhuman and excluded from the human community.
Dave Chester, a social psychologist and expert in human aggression, spoke with New Lines about the allegations in the “Sarajevo Safari” documentary. “It’s very important that light is being shed on these events and very understandable that even folks with a good understanding of how people can be at their worst might still be shocked, raged, disgusted and confused,” he said.
Chester’s team at the Social Psychology and Neuroscience Lab at Virginia Commonwealth University studies whether sadistic people have empathy and whether they use it differently than others. “Whereas non-sadist people might use empathy to feel compassion toward someone to be motivated to help them,” Chester said, “a sadistic person might use their empathy … to draw satisfaction from the pain that the person is feeling.”
To questions about a potential profile of wealthy “tourist shooters,” Chester said, “They are just as self-controlled as anybody else apparently. … I am sure there is a significant proportion of these folks who are very adept at hiding their sadistic impulses, waiting for an opportunity to do so in a way that they can’t get caught or get in trouble, because the problem with sadistic impulse is they’re very costly. … Sadists are happy to kind of realize their base impulses and pursue them.” So it would seem that sniping at Sarajevans was an opportunity to satisfy sadistic drives with impunity.
At a basic level, many find it difficult to comprehend, if not unbearable to learn, details of “civilian hunting” from the documentary, including that the fees charged for murder varied and were even higher if the target was a child. The unnamed witness saw seven people fall by snipers’ bullets and admitted to feeling particular horror at the shooting of a child, who was holding its mother’s hands in the moment of bloodshed.
For survivors of the Bosnian genocide and Sarajevo’s siege who dared to watch the documentary, the experience has forced them to relive their traumas.
People have come together on social media platforms to process these horrific allegations. There have been calls for “Sarajevo Safari” to be taught in history and psychology classes. Some Bosnians said they were incapable of watching or of even suggesting that others watch the documentary, fearing the consequences of being triggered. They shared the famous video excerpt from the documentary “Serbian Epics” by the Polish director Pawel Pawlikowski, made on June 22, 1992, in which the late Russian writer Eduard Limonov uses a machine gun to shoot at Sarajevans from the surrounding hills, while accompanied by the former Bosnian-Serb leader and war criminal Radovan Karadzic. Old stories with more regional dimensions resurfaced, such as the Serbian army bringing cadets from the artillery military school to Mount Tara, close to the eastern border of Bosnia and Serbia, to practice shooting at “live flesh,” that is, Bosniak civilians near their homes on the Bosnian side of the border. In a recent message, Halilovich shared photos of destroyed villages from his native region and told me that the favorite tools to target civilians were anti-aircraft machine guns (PAM) and anti-aircraft cannons (PAT).
All this notwithstanding, that certain private individuals — rather than mercenaries, volunteer fighters or paramilitary forces — paid from their own pockets to kill civilians for sport adds a new layer of atrocity.
Whether expressing sorrow, pain or rage about the recent allegations, most Bosnians’ reactions were followed up with questions: What drove these people to do this? Who were they? Where are their local helpers who facilitated their actions? What will happen next?
Conversely, critics of “Sarajevo Safari” pointed to the lack of concrete proof provided in the documentary, such as names and the specific dates on which the alleged events took place. Such criticism was generally accompanied with vitriolic anti-Muslim sentiments and common genocide-denying conspiracy theories.
On Oct. 14, Ljubisa Cosic, the mayor of eastern Sarajevo in the Republika Srpska entity of Bosnia and Herzegovina, filed a lawsuit against Zupanic for spreading racial, religious and national hatred. The president of the Republika Srpska Veterans Organization, Radan Ostojic, condemned the film as an attempt to “satanize the Serbian people,” even asserting that “the real truth” is that, during the war, “hunters came to Sarajevo from Islamic countries to hunt Serbs for jihad, and on safari — the NATO soldiers.” Such rhetoric was echoed by several other leaders of local organizations in Bosnia’s Republika Srpska entity, who called the film “a sick fabrication.”
Zupanic has rejected the claim that his film is “anti-Serbian propaganda,” stating that it focused on a very small, clandestine circle of people, including those who knew about it on the Serbian side. He has emphasized in media appearances that the intention of his team, including his friend Zajc, was not to identify specific people, adding that such information was not even available to them. At the documentary’s screening in Ljubljana, Zupanic said: “In the film, I just arranged the facts as spoken by those who had direct or indirect connections with the events. These are stories that are credible, and I left it to the audience to draw conclusions. … In fact, with this film, I tried to explore the phenomenon of evil and that we all together think about the limits to which it can reach.”