On the main square of the quiet town of Čapljina, hundreds of candles on the paving stones outside the pastel-shaded municipal building spell out one name: Praljak.
The dramatic suicide of the Croat general Slobodan Praljak, swigging poison on live television moments after his sentence for war crimes was upheld on Wednesday, shocked the world. On Friday, Dutch prosecutors said Praljak died after taking potassium cyanide, citing the results of a preliminary postmortem. “This has resulted in a failure of the heart, which is indicated as the suspected cause of death,” they said.
But reactions in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Čapljina, his hometown, and Mostar, the city his forces besieged, are particularly fraught.
“It’s like life has stopped completely here,” says Miro Jovanovič, a middle-aged municipal official as he crosses the square, overlooked by a twin-spired Catholic church. “We want to honour him as he lived proudly, but couldn’t live with this injustice. He was one of us.”
In Čapljina, which lies beside the broad Neretva river between Mostar and the Adriatic coast, Praljak’s 20-year sentence is seen as a shocking miscarriage of justice. It lies in a region considered a heartland of Croat nationalism: a derogatory joke goes that in the rocky hills of western Herzegovina, nothing grows but snakes, stones and Ustasha – the second world war Croat fascist movement.
Croatian flags hang at regular intervals, graffiti declares local loyalty to Zagreb’s leading football club, and several cafes have posters of Praljak with the backdrop of the Croatian flag and the slogan “our hero”.
“We were together in the war when I fought. He wasn’t guilty,” says Ivan Buntić, 59, as he opened up his clothes shop on the edge of Čapljina’s old town. “He was a special man, like a Greek hero. Perhaps he knew that war crimes were happening, but he couldn’t do much – he was the one who was trying to restore order. Everyone had armies, everyone had [concentration] camps.”
Praljak was found guilty of war crimes in the 1992-95 Bosnian war, one of six ethnic Croats convicted by the Hague tribunal who, prosecutors said, were “key participants in a joint criminal enterprise to ethnically cleanse Bosnian Muslims”. He was involved in the siege of Mostar, during which the city’s 16th-century Old Bridge was destroyed by Croat shelling.
Croats make up around 16% of the population of Bosnia and Herzegovina and many feel both that the framework established at the end of the war disadvantages them at the expense of Bosnian Muslims and Serbs and that war crimes against Croats have gone unpunished.
Arranging flowers outside her shop on Čapljina’s main street, Marijana Vego, 29, says Praljak was “righteous”.
“As a Christian Catholic, this is the first time in my life that I’ve thought a suicide was heroic. I took my kids to light candles for him. I’m not saying there were no crimes, but there were crimes on all sides.”
The implications of Praljak’s conviction and suicide echo well beyond the starkly beautiful Neretva valley. The judges on Wednesday upheld the verdict that the late Croatian president Franjo Tuđjman shared the ultimate purpose of the “criminal enterprise” and his successors in Zagreb, now the capital of an EU member state, have been accused of sending mixed messages since Praljak’s suicide. The president, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, said Croats needed to admit “some of our fellow compatriots in Bosnia committed crimes” but acknowledged Praljak’s death had “deeply struck the hearts of the Croatian people”. The prime minister, Andrej Plenković, said simply that the UN court’s verdict was a “deep moral injustice”. Plenković leads the political party founded by Tuđjman, the HDZ, while Grabar-Kitarović was a member until her election as president.
In the Mostar head office of the HDZ’s Bosnian sister party, Vladimir Šoljić, who served as “defence minister” of the wartime Croatian statelet Herceg-Bosna, remembers Praljak as a charismatic and brave individual from their first meeting at secondary school.
“He always had a crowd of people around him at school, and later as a solider was always the first to lead. He spent every day in the war seeing Muslims, helping them with loans, support, calling their families – then they turned around and called him a war criminal. What he did was so him – some people act brave, but that really was him.”
Šoljić insists that Herceg-Bosna was not a land-grab driven by ethnic cleansing, part of a plan to divide Bosnia between Croats and Serbs, but a defensive move to protect Croats – particularly following massacres by Serbs – and that there were no orders from above for war crimes.
“It’s no secret that all Croats want to be part of Croatia, but we have to be realistic. There was never a plan to change borders. I attended many, many meetings with the defence minister of Croatia – if anyone can find a single order or instruction of any kind to commit war crimes, I’ll do the same as General Praljak.”
Others have less rosy memories of Praljak’s “defence” of the region. Nedim Ćišić, a 38-year-old Bosnian Muslim musician and artist, was sheltered with his parents and sister by Croatian friends in Čapljina after being released from a nearby Croat-run prison camp.
“One night we heard – Boom! Boom! Boom! Which was strange, as the fighting wasn’t close at the time. Then we heard it was the Muslim businesses being blown up. That’s when we knew it was time to leave.”
Armanj, a 37-year-old waiter, was wounded in the leg by a sniper as a teenager while out on an errand. “Fourteen members of my family died, all because of that monster, Praljak. His suicide was cowardice. They destroyed our bridge just because we had different names.”
Mostar today remains a divided city, with Bosnian Muslims mostly living in the east of the city, and Croats in the west. In the hours after Praljak’s death, police filled the streets around the “frontline” between the two. Not all Croats share in the glorification of Praljak, but his death has re-opened old wounds.
“Praljak’s suicide was his last grenade,” says Marko Tomaš, a poet. Son of a Serb and a Bosnian Muslim and born in Slovenia, Tomaš’s friends see him as epitomising the multi-ethnic mix of old Mostar, destroyed as neighbours turned on one another in the war. Like many Bosnians of all ethnicities, he is frustrated at political and economic stasis, presided over by politicians who trade on ethnic nationalism.
“There’s a psychosis here still – what we have isn’t peace, because war never ended, and our politicians are those who led us into this situation in the first place. The whole region has psychosis, and one spark could set it off again.”