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Sarajevo: Film explores sniper allegations

Gasper Andrinek
October 24, 2022

Much has been written about the horrors of the siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian War. A recent documentary probes new allegations that rich and influential foreigners paid to shoot at civilians in the besieged city.

A man and child run from sniper fire in Sarajevo on December 18, 1994
Sniper fire was a constant threat to residents during the siege of SarajevoImage: picture-alliance/ dpa

Slovenian film director Miran Zupanic was horrified when his compatriot film producer Franci Zajc told him in February 2019 how he had heard allegations that unknown foreigners had paid large sums of money to act as snipers and shoot at civilians in Sarajevo during the siege of the city in the Bosnian War.

The siege of Bosnia's capital lasted from 1992 to 1996 and was one of the longest sieges in modern history. In 1992, multi-ethnic Bosnia and Herzegovina declared its independence from the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia. This declaration, which was backed by the country's Muslims and Croats, was not accepted by most of the Bosnian Serb community. This led to an escalation in tension and then to war.

The Army of Republika Srpska (the Bosnian Serb Army) led by General Ratko Mladic surrounded Sarajevo, bombing the city and shooting at civilian targets from its positions around the city. Signs reading "Watch out for snipers!" were put up around Sarajevo to warn inhabitants.

Map showing the entities of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo

Zajc asked Zupanic whether he would be willing to make a film about the allegations. But the director was skeptical. "I couldn't believe it," Zupanic told DW. "I said it was unthinkable. That can't be true. And if it is true, then no one would be willing to talk about it on camera."

But Zupanic was wrong; Franci Zajc already knew of such a person. "This man was a Slovenian who worked for a very important American agency," said Zupanic. "I wanted to meet him and talk to him, mainly to prove to myself and also to Franci that this man was lying."

Although Zupanic mentioned this "very important American agency" to DW several times, he never actually named it.

Lengthy interview with source

Zupanic said he talked to the source in question "for a long time," quizzing him about the shocking allegations from a variety of different angles. In the end, he concluded that the source was credible and decided to make a documentary about the claims that foreigners had paid to act as snipers during the siege of Sarajevo.

Still from the documentary "Sarajevo Safari" showing the outline of an anonymous source
On condition of anonymity, a Slovenian man who claimed to have worked for a "very important American agency" during the war spoke in the documentary about the horrific claimsImage: Sarajevo safari, Arsmedia

The resulting documentary, "Sarajevo Safari," premiered in the Bosnian capital as part of the Al Jazeera Balkans DOC Film Festival in September this year.

But even before the premiere, the story sent shockwaves through the Balkans.

'A kind of safari'

Zupanic, the director and screenwriter of the movie, describes the alleged events as "a kind of safari, a hunt for people."

People take cover as a Bosnian soldier returns sniper fire, Sarajevo, April 6, 1992
The siege of Sarajavo lasted nearly four years and officially ended in February 1996Image: picture-alliance/dpa

"It looks like there are individuals who think they are above morality, beyond good and evil, beyond any human order, who in their actions seek — and for moments even achieve — absolute power comparable to the power of God," he said.

No Serbs willing to verify claims

Zupanic's original source appears in the film. Although he is not identified by name and his image is obscured, his real voice was used and was not distorted in any way.

The team behind the documentary also looked for sources on the Serbian side and did actually find some. However, the team said that these sources canceled their participation before filming began.

This did not surprise Zupanic in the least. "I think that a person who would talk about it on camera from their side would be seriously threatened," he said.

Backlash from Bosnian Serb media

Zupanic himself also experienced major backlash and hostile responses from some Bosnian Serb media outlets.

"I suffered human and professional disqualifications, which I have never experienced in my life.

"But I accept them as part of the process. If you reveal such a story, you can also expect negative reactions," he told DW.

Director Miran Zupanic
Director Miran Zupanic says he felt obliged to make the claims and the testimonies known to the general publicImage: Anze Koron

According to the Balkan Investigative Reporting Network (BIRN), Veljko Lazic — the president of an organization for Srpska families of captured or killed fighters and missing civilians — described the claims made in Zupanic's documentary as "an absolute and heinous lie" and called the film an "insult to Republika Srpska, its army and the Serb victims of the war."

Bosnian source went on the record

Two witnesses who claim to have had direct knowledge of the phenomenon speak in "Sarajevo Safari": One is an unnamed Slovenian and the other is Edin Subasic, a retired official and analyst with the army of the Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Edin Subasic, a former analyst for the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina
Edin Subasic said in the documentary that a Serbian volunteer captured during the war confirmed that there had been foreigners among the snipersImage: Sarajevo safari, Arsmedia

In the film, Subasic speaks about receiving a report during the war about a Serbian volunteer who was captured during the hostilities. Subasic said that during the interrogation, the volunteer confirmed that there had been foreigners among the snipers.

"I analyzed the information to the extent possible and wrote a summary, a conclusion that this was a new phenomenon on the Sarajevo battlefield. This was about a specific type of enemy, about foreigners who are not real enemies in the war [...] but they are a real danger," Subasic said in the film.

Snipers killed 225 people during the siege

During the siege of Sarajevo, more than 300 snipers shot at the inhabitants of Sarajevo, Zilha Mastalic Kosuta of the Institute for Researching Crimes Against Humanity and International Law at Sarajevo University recently told RTV Slovenia, the country's national public broadcaster.

She also said that snipers killed 225 people, including 60 children. To date, not one sniper has been brought to justice.

Three people who were victims of sniper bullets also appeared in the documentary. However, it cannot be verified whether the people who shot them were foreign snipers who paid to shoot at civilians.

After the film's premiere, the mayor of Sarajevo, Benjamina Karic, filed criminal charges against "persons unknown" who brought death to Sarajevo, along with the people who helped them and responsible people in the aggressor army.

"It is my duty to react in this way to the facts stated in the documentary film 'Sarajevo Safari,'" she wrote on Twitter.

'Important film'

"It is very important that this film is made. It will set the story in motion, someone will probably still deal with this dark topic, and then who knows what kind of information will come to light," Bosnian writer Faruk Sehic told DW, emphasizing that the documentary opens up new dimensions on the siege of Sarajevo.

"I didn't want to convince anyone of this story," said director Zupanic. "Quite simply, the film offers the testimonies of people who claim something — something so incredible that I, as a creator, felt obliged to make it known to the general public.

"And the public will be the ones to judge."

Edited by: Rüdiger Rossig and Aingeal Flanagan

Gasper Andrinek (DW-correspondent in Ljubljana, Slovenia)