“If I could, I would join the war again and fight today against the so-called Ukrainian state,” declares Vojislav Carkic.
The 79-year-old, who also goes by the nickname Pop Zuco, was a commander of the Chetnik division of the Serbian army from 1992 to 1995. He fought in the Bosnian war, where his battalion was stationed in Grbavica, near Sarajevo.
As an Orthodox archpriest, he didn’t only fight – he also baptised other soldiers and presided over their burials.
“I had to bury the dead under the snipers’ fire,” he recalls.
“Sometimes I had 20 burials a day. I’ve had enough with cemeteries.”
“Those were times of hunger, when only death was abundant,” he explains, sipping from a glass of the traditional Balkan spirit, rakia.
Sitting in his immaculately tended garden, the thin septuagenarian with glacial blue eyes wears a quilted jacket and holds a packet of cigarettes.
His calm demeanour gives little away about the brutality of his past.
|On top of the hills surrounding Sarajevo were damaged buildings from which Serbian snipers would shoot into the besieged city [Arianna Pagani/Al Jazeera]|
‘I blessed the arms of my people to defend them’
Grbavica was split from the rest of Sarajevo until the signing of the peace agreements in November 1995. During the conflict it was controlled by Serb forces and was the frontline of the besieged city.
When the war ended and the country was divided into two largely ethnically homogenous entities – Republika Srpska, with mostly Serbs, and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, which is predominantly Bosniak and Croat – Grbavica became part of the latter. The majority of the Serb population, including Carkic, fled.
As a priest in military fatigues, Carkic was in charge of blessing the weapons that would be used in the fighting – often to fire upon the civilian population of Sarajevo.
“I blessed the arms of my people to defend them from the Balia,” he says, using a derogatory Serbian word for Muslims that roughly translates as “primitive”.
According to a witness, who asked to remain anonymous, after the war ended, Carkic presided over the burial of the mother and brother of infamous Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic at Niglevick cemetery, in Vlaca, Republika Srpska. The witness says that Mladic attended the funeral despite being a fugitive at the time. When asked about this, Carkic refused to discuss it.
Mladic is currently standing trial in The Hague on charges of committing war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide during the conflict.
|Vojislav Carkic was in charge of blessing the weapons that were used in the fighting [Arianna Pagani/Al Jazeera]|
‘A soldier of Christ’
As the fighting priest chain smokes, he describes his role in the conflict, and his life. “In war and uniform, I have always been a soldier of Christ, a warrior of the Serbian people, an authentic Chetnik.”
The Chetniks were an ultra-conservative, Serbian nationalist paramilitary and political organisation, formed during the Ottoman Empire’s domination of the Balkans. Their overarching dream has been to rebuild the Great Serbian Empire, explains Ivo Banac, a historian and professor at Yale University.
“As their main concern was to restore the Serbian-dominated royalist regime, during World War II, they collaborated with the Italians and the Germans fighting against the communist partisans. For the length of the communist regime [in Yugoslavia] the Chetniks were a taboo subject and any sign of sympathy for them was sanctioned,” says the historian.
In the 1990s, Serbian ultra-nationalist leaders found in the Chetniks a model for their wars. Recreated by Vojislav Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party, they served as the group’s paramilitary force.
They terrorised the non-Serb populations and promoted the idea of an ethnically cleansed Greater Serbia that would include the whole of Bosnia and most of Croatia.
The followers were fanatically devoted to the Serbian Orthodox Church, which actively promoted their activities.
The history of the Chetniks is worn almost as a badge of honour by Carkic. “There is no difference between the Chetniks of today and before,” he says. “We are loyal to the monarchy, and we want our king back.”
|Vojislav Carkic makes the symbol of the Holy Trinity, which has also come to mean ‘Unity saves Serbia’ [Arianna Pagani/Al Jazeera]|
‘Of course we shot … This was war’
Eric Gobetti, an Italian historian who has written several books on Balkan history, explains how the term Chetnik changed during the wars of the 1990s to become synonymous with radical nationalism and, in many communities, with Serbian-perpetrated genocide.
The war was brutal with atrocities committed on many sides, but there’s substantial evidence of Chetnik’s perpetrating massacres and mass rape against civilian populations in Croatia and Bosnia.
Historian Sabrina Petra Ramet collected evidence of the crimes for her history of the conflict, The Three Yugoslavias: State-Building and Legitimation.
“These [Chetnik] forces sweep into villages in order to butcher Muslim and Croat civilians … Nor was the Chetnik terror limited to non-Serbs; on the contrary the Chetniks also terrorised those Serbs who were opposed to the Chetnik programme,” the historian says.
Esmuda Mujagic is a Muslim woman who survived the Trnopolje camp, a concentration camp established by Bosnian Serb military authorities and by Chetniks, located near Prijedor in northern Bosnia.
“I was deported with all my family in July 1992. We were forced to leave our houses and get into a convoy. The Chetniks and Serbs then burned all our houses,” she says.
|Esmuda Mujagic is a Bosnian Muslim and a founding member of ‘Heart of Peace’ which launched in 1996 when she, the victim of the war, returned to Kozarac [Arianna Pagani/Al Jazeera]|
Mujagic, who today runs the association Heart of Peace, an NGO that provides support to women who were confined in concentration camps and were victims of torture during the Bosnian war, describes that terrible moment: “Once we reached the camp, Bosnian men were separated from the women and children and many of them never came back, including my nephews.”
Male and female prisoners were held in Trnopolje. Most of the non-Serb women from the area of Prijedor passed through this camp, many having reportedly been raped, according to the United Nations Commission of Experts. A total of 52,811 people from Prijedor municipality were either killed or deported, according to the report.
Carkic responds to these accusations matter-of-factly. “Of course we shot, but we did because they [the Muslims] were shooting at us. This was war.”
Far from being repentant, he says: “Now I’m retired, but I’m still in a good mood to kill people.”
During the siege of Sarajevo, which lasted for more than three-and-a-half years and was one of the longest in the history of modern warfare, the city was surrounded by Serbian nationalists who lobbed artillery shells from the hills above down upon the civilians below. Conditions inside the city were difficult and squalid – for civilians and fighters alike.
“We drank day and night to endure this dreadful time,” the priest explains. “There were also soldiers taking heroin. I couldn’t believe that on the first frontline there was even an exchange of drugs between our combatants and theirs. Especially in Sarajevo, the consumption was very high. Drugs are hell during peace, but imagine it during a war.”
He didn’t always have such hostile feelings towards his neighbours. “Before the war, I was friends with an imam,” he says. “Today, we’re still in contact sometimes, but we’re not friends anymore. [This is] also because wherever there was a mosque, I would build a church. An identical copy of the one in Thessaloniki.”
Hram Svetog Velikomucenika Orthodox Church, built after the war in 1996, is a copy of a church in Thessaloniki, northern Greece, and stands in front of Carkic’s house in Vraca, in Bosnia’s Republica Srpska.
During the war, it’s estimated that more than 10,000 Muslim religious buildings were reduced to rubble. At the end of the conflict, there wasn’t one mosque standing in the whole territory of Republic Srpska.
“I’ll never forget the day that I carried the cross intended for the church in Grbavica on my shoulders. We carried it here to Vraca, where then I built the church,” he says.
“I do not regret anything of my life. Everything was made by God,” he adds, raising three fingers in the symbol of the Holy Trinity that is traditionally used as a Chetnik greeting.
“Whatever I have done so far, I would repeat again. But if you ask me if I have a soul, I’d say that I don’t anymore.”
|The Orthodox cemetery Niglevick, where the mother and brother of Ratko Mladic were buried, is located just outside of the city of Sarajevo [Arianna Pagani/Al Jazeera]|