The Skočić massacre
“Against all odds—story of Zijo Ribic”
God wanted me to survive, to have someone tell the story.
During the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina 1992-1995, several massacres and mass murders were committed. The most horrendous massacre had happened in Srebrenica in July 1995, when the members of 10th diversion squad of the Army of Republic of Srpska killed more than 8 thousand Muslims.
Three years before, in the night between 12th and 13th July 1992, Serbian paramilitary forces committed another massacre in the village of Skočić, near Zvornik, only about 50km away from Srebrenica. They killed 27 members of the local Roma community, among them 9 children and abducted three women who were raped and kept as sex slaves for more than six months. However, one boy of the age of nearly eight years survived the massacre.
“I was almost eight years old when it all happened, in ‘92. We lived in Skočić, worked and all. We were all equal, there weren’t these nations like today. We even had our own land, we were into agriculture and all…”
Zijo Ribić, whose childhood was cut short by war and loss, starts his story with those words.
Before the war, in Skočić lived Roma, Muslims and Serbs together. However, already with the start of the war, in April 1992, units of the Territorial Defense and Serb paramilitaries started to attack people of Muslim belief in the municipality of Zvornik and established a terror regime. Many people were killed, others were tortured in camps while others could flee or were expelled.
The small Roma community in Skočić remained and was hiding in the village. On 12th July 1992, a paramilitary unit by the name “Sima’s Chetniks” arrived in Skočić. The unit was under the patronage of the Territorial Defense of Zvornik municipality. The members of the paramilitary unit had decided to come to the village mosque in the center of the village and blew it up. However, that wasn’t enough for them. They proceeded to enter the yard of one of the houses, where all Roma from the village had hid. They killed one man in the yard, beaten the others, raped the women, and stole their belongings .
The 30 Roma were put on a truck and driven to a neighboring village.
There, they separated the three girls, and took the remaining 27 men, women and children to a place named Hamzići. An already dug pit had been waiting for them.
The 27 men, women and children were forced to get off the truck and members of “Sima’s Chetniks” shot them, stabbed some of them, and threw the bodies into the pit.
Zijo remembers the most horrifying time of his life: “When we arrived at the pit, they took us out of the truck, one by one, and there they also beat us, and did other stuff too. My mom came out, also with my brother, and I was crying, begging for my mother, and then they said: “Okay, now you will go to her, “and one specific blonde woman, that everyone called Dragana, she took me by the hand and said: “You’ll go to your mother now, don’t cry”. She put me in front of the truck and told me to stay still. Then I heard a gunshot and felt a stab of a knife to my neck. I don’t know how… To this day I still wonder how and why, um, but simply, at that moment, it was like I was dead. They also thought I was dead. Then they took me and threw me down with the corpses. A minute passed, two, five maybe, I got up, saw I was on the corpses, I think, it was dark, I felt and saw the people there. I heard commotion up there. A gunshot”.
In this night Zijo’s father, his six sisters, his mother who was 9-months pregnant, and his two-year-old brother, Sabrija, who was held in his mother’s arms, were killed.
He, to this day, still wonders how he managed to climb over the dead bodies, out of the pit and to run away.
“But I managed it to climb over the corpses, to make it out and, through the little patch of the forest that was there, I escaped and came upon a house that was run-down, looted. There I slept in a box. Once I woke up, in the morning, that’s when I noticed that my hair was bloody, already stiff, and that my left arm was wounded.
I got out of the house and walked through the village, where I saw smoke and started going to where it came from. I stumbled upon two soldiers, back then still from the Yugoslav People’s Army, who took me in, gave me food, and took me to wash up. They asked me what had happened, I was silent. Then, we left for the ambulance.”
Zijo was transported to the hospital in Zvornik, where he stayed for almost two years, before he was transferred to a children’s home in Montenegro. Zijo stayed there until 2001, then he moved to Tuzla.
However, trauma and horrors he endured, even with many years of therapy, have stayed as constant companions. He was tortured most by the fact he didn’t knew where the remains of his whole family are, as well as knowing the people guilty of mass murdering his family and neighbors are still not brought to justice.
“In 2006, I heard about Mrs. Nataša Kandić from Humanitarian Law Center based in Belgrade. Mrs. Nataša came, took a statement from me and so on. In 2010, I received that summon to court there, and then I said—here is some hope for the fight for justice”.
The War Crimes Chamber in Belgrade indicted eight members of the “Sima’s Chetniks”, The leader of the group, Sima Bogdanović died during the court proceedings that seven members had to appear in front of court.
Three Roma women who survived the captivity and the abuse appeared as protected witnesses in the court proceeding and testified.
In February 2013, the court convicted the 7 defendants. Two maximum sentences of 20 years each were imposed, two sentences of 10 years each, one sentence was 5 and one was 2 years.
However, in 2014, the Court of Appeals overturned the verdict of the first instance, even with racist statements against Roma and returned it for retrial.
At that moment, Zijo had a feeling it was all over. No chance left for justice. Still, with help and support from the Humanitarian Law Center attorneys, he made the decision to keep fighting for justice.
“Mostly because of my relatives, because of my friends, neighbors… I thought that some of them also found that peace, but, here, they were convicted and that’s it. However, unfortunately, when I received the second invitation to come, to see … But I said, here is hope”.
During the retrial, the Court of Appeals again wanted to hear the aggrieved, 3 protected witnesses and Zijo. They finally received the second first instance verdict in 2015, which was a shock… It was a verdict that acquitted all the accused on all counts of the indictment.
After this verdict, the prosecution filed an appeal. In 2018, the Court of Appeals ruled again in a way that found three members of Sima’s Chetniks guilty of rape and sexual humiliation and abuse of the injured Alpha, Beta, and Gamma. They released the other three accused, so they were acquitted, this time legally, as it was only a confirmation of the acquittal in relation to the murder of all 27 Roma. This is for now the court epilogue of the trial for this horrific crime that took place in Skočić. So nobody has ever been convicted for the killings of 27 Roma from Skočić.
Zijo felt indescribable disappointment and sadness. It seemed to him that all he endured and presented in the Court, in the presence of his family’s executioners, meant nothing. They’ve received a sentence regarding raping and violence, but there was no proof for killing that many Roma.
As if the massacre didn’t take place. But it did, right before his eight-year-old eyes. He doesn’t give up hope. And he is still looking for justice for his family and all Roma killed in Skočić. He considers go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, but would need assistance for this step.
His only solace was managing to find the remains of almost all members of his family, except for one sister.
“When they first found the bodies of 4 of my sisters, it was hard for me, but I’m glad they were found. And that I will now know where they are buried, because now I can go whenever I want, because I know where they are. So, when they found my sister and brother, my heart was, no matter how sad, it was so happy, because I found them too. Another sister has not yet been found, but there is hope. I hope that they will find my last sister and that they will find their peace up there, and I will also find my peace, because I will know that everyone is there, and that I know where they are”.
Now, Zijo works in kindergarten, as a cook. He cooks for children and as he says, “I am now a happy man. Thank God, I now have a daughter and I will do everything I can to bring her up in a way that she can decide who she wants to be. Before that moment, she has to respect another to respect herself, her own people”.
No matter the horror he lived through, Zijo has dedicated his life to promote reconciliation. He emphasizes he doesn’t want to live in hate, in the past.
“When I think of forgiveness, I think there is no more room for hate speech. It doesn’t matter who prays to which God, who wears a cross, who likes the star. We have to try to live in harmony.”
Zijo forgave, but did not forget. He hopes people responsible for the massacre of his family, Roma in his village, but also Roma all over Bosnia and Herzegovina during the war will be brought to justice. Not for his sake alone, but for the eternal peace of the killed.
The graves of Zijo’s family. Pictures by Zijo Ribić and Ramiza Ribić Begić.
Interview/text by: Gordana Nešović
The war in Bosnia and Herzegovina is a term for armed assault which took place in the territory of today's Bosnia and Herzegovina from spring 1992 until fall 1995. It is estimated that more than 2.2 million people were displaced during the war, in the most ethnically diverse former Yugoslav republic, and the bloody conflicts ended with the Dayton Peace Agreement in 1995. The Demographic Service of the Hague Prosecutor's Office gave an estimate of human victims in the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina. According to this estimate, almost 105,000 people lost their lives as a result of the war. According to the national structure, most of the victims were Muslims, more than 68,000, followed by almost 23,000 Serbs, around 9,000 Croats and almost 5,000 others. Among these 5 thousand others, there are also members of the Roma community, whose number, even after three decades, has not been determined.