“ Had it not been for this Omarska, my husband would probably be still alive, my nephew and many others. ”
Minka Čehajić, a Bosnian paediatrician, speaking about her quest to find out what happened to her husband after she last saw him in May 1992. She testified on 14, 15 and 16 May 2002 in the case against Milomir Stakić.
“ Minka Čehajić spent the months after she last saw her husband inquiring about his whereabouts. She tried twice to speak to the accused, Milomir Stakić, who had worked with her husband as his deputy for over a year, and who was responsible for all of Prijedor's citizens. ”
By 1990, Muhamed Čehajić had entered the political arena as a member of the predominantly Bosnian Muslim Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and was elected mayor of the Prijedor municipality at the multiparty election that year. The accused, Milomir Stakić, a member of the Bosnian Serb dominated Serbian Democratic Party (SDS), was elected as Mr. Čehajić’s deputy.
During her testimony, Minka Čehajić recalled that the Serb takeover of Prijedor on 30 April 1992 occurred “without a single bullet having been fired.” When she went to work that morning, the SDS flag had been put up outside the hospital and there were soldiers and guards standing outside the entrance. The same morning, her husband received a letter informing him that his functions had ceased. His deputy Milomir Stakić had taken his place.
A few weeks later, in the afternoon of 23 May 1992, Muhamed Čehajić was taken from his home to the police station for questioning, and held overnight. When Mrs. Čehajić went to see him the next day, she was initially denied. After she ran into ICTY accused Milan Kovačević—also a doctor, as well as an SDS member and high-level Prijedor municipality official—and he intervened, she was able to see her husband. She told the court that he had been suffering from heart problems and that when she saw him he seemed tired.
When Mrs. Čehajić went to visit her husband again, on 25 May 1992, he was in even worse shape. She brought him his glasses because, she explained, he was always reading books. “I don’t need my glasses,” he told her, “Take them back home. It’s all over with me.” Mrs. Čehajić told the court that this was the last time she saw her husband. When she went back to the police station on 27 May 1992, her husband had already been transferred to the Keraterm detention camp, a former ceramics factory located on the outskirts of Prijedor, where she was not allowed to visit him.
The next day, Mrs. Čehajić found out that she was not to return to her position at the hospital. She later learned that soldiers stopped everyone who showed up for work on that same morning. “Those who were Serbs were allowed in. But also some Muslims who were obviously needed. But in general, Bosniaks and Croats were sent to go home,” said Mrs. Čehajić.
Some time after her husband had been taken away, police came to search Mrs. Čehajić’s house. They took all her husband’s documents and family photographs.
“I asked them to leave the pictures of my children, that these were something for me to remember. But they didn’t want to listen to me. They took everything… [including] the photographs when my daughter graduated. So maybe it is … not a very important thing in life, but for me, a part of my life has been erased because I don’t have a photograph of my child when he was small… I want to apologise because I’m crying” Mrs. Čehajić told the court, “because you cannot compare this with what has happened, but this is also something that is important to many people, as it is important to me also.”
Minka Čehajić spent the months after she last saw her husband inquiring about his whereabouts. She tried twice to speak to the accused, Milomir Stakić, who had worked with her husband as his deputy for over a year, and who was responsible for all of Prijedor's citizens. Both times, she was told that he was unavailable. She also tried to contact ICTY accused Milan Kovačević. “I thought that I was close to him,” she said, “But at that moment, it didn’t mean much.” She was unable to reach him as well.
“ Throughout the war, whenever I saw someone, I asked questions, thinking that my husband might be alive until the end of the war. Then I realised that if he had been somewhere, that he would have come, and this was the end of my trying to find him, to locate him. ”
It was through chance encounters and talking to people who had been detained in different places, that Minka Čehajić learned that her husband had been moved to the Omarska detention camp, also located in Prijedor. Through talking to former Omarska detainees, she discovered that one night, around 27 or 28 July 1992, her husband and other detainees were called out and taken away to an unknown destination: “…there were buses in which they were taken, nobody knew where to. But afterwards, he never came back,” said Mrs. Čehajić. A journalist, whom she had asked to help her find out about her husband’s fate, reported to her the version of the officials in Prijedor, which was that on 27 July 1992, there was no electricity in Omarska and some detainees, including her husband, had taken the opportunity to escape.
After the Omarska camp closed in early August 1992, Minka Čehajić continued looking for her husband. Some time around then, Mrs. Čehajić heard the accused Milomir Stakić on Prijedor radio deny that the Omarska Camp existed. She told the court how insulted she felt when listening to him: “It was strange that he should be denying the existence of the Omarska camp, whereas everybody knew about its existence. But I realised that it meant more to me than the others. Had it not been for this Omarska, my husband would probably be still alive, my nephew and many others who perished.”
Mrs. Čehajić said that “throughout the war, whenever I saw someone, I asked questions, thinking that my husband might be alive until the end of the war. Then I realised that if he had been somewhere, that he would have come, and this was the end of my trying to find him, to locate him.”
The last piece of information she received came shortly before her departure from Prijedor in September 1992. It was a letter from her husband dated 9 June 1992. Minka Čehajić told the court that she thought he had written it in Banja Luka and had brought it with him in Omarska, where he met a young man from Prijedor who told him he had seen her. “So after a while, perhaps later on that day or some other day, my husband gave him the letter that I still have. And he said: ‘Please, I know that you will leave this place one day. Please, give this letter to my wife, because I don’t think I will ever leave this place.’”
This is the letter, which she read out to the court on the second day of her testimony:
"My dear Minka,
I am writing you this letter, though I'm not all certain that you will get it, but I still feel the irresistible need to talk with you in this way. Since my departure, since that 23rd of May when they came to our house to get me, I have been living in another world. It seems to me that everything that is happening to me is just an ugly dream, just a nightmare and I simply cannot understand how something like this is possible.
Dear Minka, Amira, and my son: You know how much I love you. You know how much I love you all. And because of this love, I have never done anything, nor would I ever do anything, that would cause you any pain. I know that you know that what they are trying to put on me has nothing to do with me whatsoever. I just keep wondering whom and how much I have offended so that I have to go through all this. But I still believe in justice, and I believe in truth, and I believe that this will all be cleared up.
Otherwise, I keep thinking of you constantly, and your faces are always before my eyes. But I have to admit that it is Amir's image that emerges most often before my eyes, and then an occasional tear flows. I know how hard this will be for him, because I know how much he loves me. I especially ask you, Minka, if you talk to him, please, try to comfort him. Time is passing with dismal slowness, and I can hardly wait for the day when I will be with you again. And you will be sufficient for me for the whole of another world. I would be happiest of all if we could go together far away, where there's no one else.
Dear Minka, I'm terribly worried about Sejdo, about Nasa, Biha, and others. I have heard some terrible things, so please, if -- I say so please let me know, if you can, what's happened to them. Safet Mustafa brought me cigarettes, some underwear, and the essentials, and I thank him for that forever. If it hadn't been for that, I would have thought I was completely alone in this world. I keep wondering, where have all the good friends gone? But so be it. And how's my Benjo doing? Does he ever ask about his grandfather? I missed him so much. Today's the 18th day since I was deprived of my freedom. But to me, it seems like a whole eternity. I don't even know how many times I have been interrogated, and now the investigation is conducted by a judge, Zivko Dragosavljevic. I also asked the lawyer Bereta to attend the interrogations. And I beg you also to engage Sefik Trozic or Emil Kulenovic, whoever wants to. I don't know how much longer they're going to keep me here.
If you can, please try and get me some cigarettes somewhere, some soap, toothpaste, two or three pairs of underpants, and an undershirt, a track suit, a shaving set, and some shaving cream. Don't bother to send me any food, because I cannot eat anyway. But if you can, please send me some ground coffee. As for Amir, tell him to stay with Orhan. And if, God providing, all this settles down one day, then you should go to him. Tell him to just keep studying. And for the hundredth time, tell him that daddy loves him much, much more than he loves himself. I don't even think about myself any more. But he must be an honest and an honourable man.
It is inconceivable for me all this that is happening to us. Is it to be that life is so unpredictable and so brutal? I remember how this time last year we were rejoicing so much over building a house, and now see where we are. I feel so empty. I feel as if I had never been alive. I'm trying to fight it. I'm trying to resist it by remembering everything that was beautiful with you and the children and all those that I love. That's all for this time because I don't have any strength any more. Give my love to all who ask about me. And to you and the children, I love you very, very much."
Mrs. Čehajić told the court that she attended exhumations in Bosnia and Herzegovina in the hope of finding her husband. “Every time I went there, I knew that there was nothing to recognise him, that that was impossible. But still I had a need to go every time for this identification. And every time, I went through a terrible thing. It was very difficult for me, but I had to do it for my husband. I had to go and see. But it wasn’t possible to recognise him, and I only hope - - the DNA … might make it possible to find him.”
At the end of her testimony, Minka Čehajić thanked the court. She asked the judges to take her testimony into consideration in an unbiased manner and to judge those who contributed to what happened. “Who is not guilty should be freed, and who is guilty must suffer the consequences of what he [has] done. I do not consider anyone guilty, and I do hope that whoever is not guilty ought to show to this honourable court that that is the case.”
On 22 March 2006, the Appeals Chamber confirmed the convictions against Milomir Stakić and sentenced him to 40 years’ imprisonment.
Milan Kovačević, a high-level Prijedor Municipality official in 1992, was indicted for various crimes committed in the municipality. He died in custody on 4 August 1998 before the beginning of his trial and proceedings against him were terminated.