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A young man’s death in Bosnia

Krsto Lazarević on a death that sparked the biggest wave of protests in Bosnia since the end of the Yugoslav wars.

3. January 2019
Magazine > Feature > A young man’s death in Bosnia

When the body of a 21-year-old man was found in Banja Luka, it triggered the biggest wave of protests that Bosnia and Herzegovina had seen since the end of the Yugoslav wars.

Davor Dragičević’s new home measures just six square metres. It’s a tent pitched on Krajina Square in the centre of Banja Luka, the capital of Republika Srpska in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Davor looks athletic. With his broad shoulders, stubble and youthful features, the 49-year-old could easily pass for ten years younger.

Inside his tent he has a set of shelves filled with snacks and drinks. He reaches for a bottle of water, opens it and takes a big gulp. In his other arm he’s carrying his flatmate: Luna, a small dog with fluffy white curly hair. Davor begins to explain why he’s staying here day after day, night after night. He tells me how he gave up his job as a waiter to devote his life to a new mission, one that started 200 days ago on this very square.

For 200 days now, Krajina Square has been known by another name: David’s Square. It is the name whispered between all those who have finally lost faith in Republika Srpska, a state within a state, where the official Bosnia and Herzegovina has very little influence.

David is the name of Davor’s son. On 24 March, his body was found in a river not far from the Banja Luka fortress. The police say he drowned. David’s family say he was murdered.

“If you don’t know how to play the game / the night will swallow you up”*

The police claim that David broke into a flat under the influence of LSD and then staggered down to the river, where he fell into the water and drowned. But then photos emerged showing David’s body covered in bruises. Lacerations that sliced deep into the muscles on one arm suggest he might have been tortured. Tests on a hair sample showed that the 21-year-old had taken small amounts of cannabis, but there was no sign of LSD in his blood. And not a single trace of him was found in the house that the police say he broke into. Videos from CCTV cameras that must have recorded him on the evening he disappeared have vanished.

Family, friends and journalists began to ask questions. And they weren’t alone. Just one day after David’s body had been found, the first protestors joined David’s father on the square. Since then they have been coming every day. They are calling for answers: Why did David die? What are the police trying to cover up?

Every month, the protests grow. In early October, 40,000 people took to the streets. It was the biggest demonstration the country had seen since the war ended in 1996. Every evening, old people and young people, academics and blue-collar workers, bikers in rocker vests and long-haired sociology students all come together for a dead boy with dreadlocks, on a square that they have named after him. They’re demanding justice for a young man who could have been their brother, their son, their boyfriend, or even them. Every evening, they rap Boy from the Ghetto, a song that David wrote when he was 15. Even the pensioners join in.

For them, David’s death represents everything that is broken – that has always been broken and may never be fixed – in Republika Srpska.

“Banja Luka’s my town / I’m not going anywhere”

David was born on 31 January 1997, in a country that had just emerged from a war. A country in which half of the population had been displaced and 100,000 people had been killed. A country where, in Srebrenica, genocide had been carried out on European soil for the first time since the Second World War.

David was born in a town where Serbs had bombed Catholic churches and mosques, and had expelled Bosniaks and Croats. A town to which Serbs had fled after being expelled from other parts of Bosnia. A town that to this day has not processed what happened.

And there, on a small hill overlooking the centre of Banja Luka, was where David grew up. This part of the city is called Lauš. It is home to some 10,000 people. The number 6 bus connects it to the city centre. The streets are lined with detached houses, mostly two-storey. Many of them aren’t plastered, and some are just half-built homes that were never finished.

At the protests on David Square, Sofija Grmuša’s hand is balled into a fist. Photo: © Dejan Skipina

Sofija Grmuša is sitting on her terrace with her dog. The 29-year-old with long dark-brown hair and a rose tattoo on her forearm was David’s neighbour. At the protests, she always stands at the front and raises her fist high in the air. She photographs the gatherings on David Square, and also took a lot of pictures while David was still alive.

She scrolls through them on her camera. David has the same sincere expression as his father, and a mole on the left side of his face below his lip. In some photos he has long dreadlocks, on others an afro with an undercut. From his clothes, you can tell that he was a fan of hip-hop and reggae. A number of pictures show him wearing tracksuits – he went to the gym two or three times a week. Sometimes he’s wearing a Serbian national football shirt or one from Partizan Belgrade, the team he supported. David also features in a music video for the track Reprezent by hip-hop group BLokada. His afro makes him stand out from the other rappers, who all have close-cropped hair. When Sofija watches the video, she laughs a little because everyone in the group is acting tougher than they really are.

Sofija works as an illustrator. She designed the portrait of David that appears on the T-shirts now worn by the many protestors. It shows him wearing sunglasses and with a bandana around his head. In the most recent pictures of David, he has short dreadlocks. He wanted to grow them long again, but never had the chance.

Sofija and her family fled to Switzerland in 1993 to escape the Bosnian war. They ended up in Rupperswil in the canton of Aargau. When she returned in 1998, David was one year old. She looks at the pictures of him, then becomes serious and sad: “During the war, we knew that people could just be killed. But we never thought it would continue once the war was over.”

“Growing up in my hood’s not easy”

She gets up from her chair and we leave the terrace to walk the 200 metres to David’s house. We pass small detached houses and a few unfinished buildings. David’s nickname, djakac, is written on one of the walls in black. She stops at a yellow house with a balcony that’s missing the railings. The neighbour’s dog barks when we step onto the property. He’s called Vik, and when he stands on his back legs, he’s taller than Sofija. It’s been a long time since anyone took care of the lawn.

Speaking on his son’s square, David’s father once said: “Before the first quinces fall, my son’s murderers will have been caught.” But the quinces have long since fallen, and the case still hasn’t been solved.

David’s room is on the first floor of the yellow house. It’s small. There’s a wardrobe, a desk, a computer and a small bed. He collected drinks cans. There’s a poster on the wall that says: “I’ve only got one life that I’ll die for.” It’s a line from the lyrics of Boy from the Ghetto.

The refrain goes like this: “Looks like I won’t get far / ‘cos I’m just a pawn in this game / I’m going nowhere / I’ve made a mistake / I’m just another boy from the ghetto”.

Sofija smiles: “When he says ‘ghetto’, he’s not talking about our neighbourhood but about the city. He really understood everything that’s going wrong here.” When David first showed his classmates the lyrics, they laughed at him. He was ashamed. After that, he would only let his closest friends read his lyrics. Today, hundreds of people recite them every evening on the square that they have named after him.

“I learned on the streets what love is / and found my first real friend there”

Dajana Pantić also goes to David Square every evening and sings. The 21-year-old wears a sweater bearing the portrait of David that Sofija designed. Dajana and David spent a lot of time together. He called her “Panda” because of her last name. When they went clubbing, their favourite song to dance to was Hypnotize by Notorious B.I.G. Instead of the actual lyrics, David would sing: “Panda, Panda, Panda, can’t you see, sometimes your words just hypnotize me.” Everyone thought they were a couple, but Dajana brushes off the idea: “We were best friends, nothing more.”

Dajana Pantić hugs David’s father. David reworked the lyrics of a Notorious B.I.G. song for her. Photo: © Dejan Škipina

David liked Tupac more than Biggie, but he liked Bob Marley the most. He loved to turn him up loud at home. Sometimes David and Dajana would skip school and go to her house. They’d make beats in FL Studio, and David would rap the lyrics that filled the pages of his school books. Dajana was one of the few people who were allowed to read them. He helped her out with her maths homework so that she would pass her exams. David was interested in anything to do with computers.

“The sirens wail / my heart stops beating”

But many people didn’t see that. They just saw a young man with dreadlocks, which as far as they were concerned made him a junkie and a dealer. The police would often stop him because of his hair. An officer once asked him: “Hey, kid, what’s that shit on your head?”

David didn’t take it lying down. People in Banja Luka don’t normally talk back to the police. Officers here are less reserved with their batons than in other parts of Europe. David did talk back. His friends say he had a habit of looking officers straight in the eye and making it clear that he didn’t think much of them.

The police say David was a junkie who got high on LSD, broke into a house and then drowned in the river. Everyone who knows him dismisses this. They say he sometimes drank and smoked a bit of weed, but always stayed away from chemicals and never even took painkillers.

Dajana shakes her head. “David should have stayed in Vienna,” she says in a serious tone. David’s parents are separated. His mother, Suzana Radanović, lives with David’s 13-year-old sister in Vienna. David spent a few months there after finishing school, but never really managed to settle. He missed his friends and moved back to Banja Luka, where he began a degree in electrical engineering and computer science.

Dajana vigorously shakes her head again: “Moving back here was his biggest mistake.” She has lost all faith in Banja Luka, in Republika Srpska, and in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Right now, she’s working in a pharmacy and selling cosmetics, but that should all change soon: “The only reason I’m still here is so that I can go to the gatherings for David. It would feel wrong not to be here, but I’m going to leave Banja Luka soon.” Dajana is planning to leave the city and study abroad.

“Only the strongest survive / and there aren’t many of them”

Every year, tens of thousands of young Bosnians make the same decision. They’re fed up with living here, in Republika Srpska, an autonomous entity that legitimises itself solely by the government purporting to protect Serbians against the Bosniaks and Croats who they fought in the 1990s. President Milorad Dodik has been playing that nationalistic tune for eight years. But now David’s death is making it hard for him to perform because (so the protestors suspect) a young Serbian man has been killed by the Serbian police. This was no ethnically or religiously motivated murder. The very people who are supposed to be protecting the public are killing them – that’s the way many people here see things.

David’s death doesn’t fit into Republika Srpska’s narrative. So, by hook or by crook, it must be kept out. That’s why the government and state-linked media are vilifying the protestors, calling them “Soros lemmings” and “foreign agents” who are out to topple the Serbian entity. The activists in the group calling itself Justice for David say that plain-clothes police officers shadowed them for months. Other protestors say that they’ve either lost their jobs or can’t find employment because they go to the gatherings at the square.

One man was prevented from casting his vote during an election because he was wearing a Justice for David top. Television journalist Vladimir Kovačević was beaten up in the street. He suspects that the attack was linked to his reporting of David’s case.

“I don’t want to die young and rot in the ground”

And yet they still come. Every evening, they brave the cold to gather on the square. Today, a Wednesday, there are 300 of them. Davor just stands there, looking around. Wearing a Bob Marley sweatshirt, he looks like a man who wouldn’t even step aside if a tank was rolling towards him. He scans the corners of the square and seems to know everyone here. Occasionally, people start to cry. “It will all be okay. We’ll find the killers,” he says, as he hugs an elderly woman.

At 6 p.m., it’s time for the speech Davor gives every evening. He stands in the centre of the square, takes the microphone and calmly begins his accusations – against the police, the politicians and the entire state. He holds all of them responsible for his son’s death. He went to war for this country in 1992, he says, but now he wants nothing more to do with it.

Davor reaches the end of his speech. He looks battle-weary, exhausted. His voice trembles but he summons what strength he has left. He wants everyone – his allies, but above all the people at the top who bluster about their proud Republika Srpska – to hear this one more time: “We will not live with murderers. We will not be their neighbours,” he says. “We will build our own country, here on David’s Square.”

* All subheadings in this article are from the song Boy from the Ghetto by David Dragičević.

Original in German. First published on 12 November 2018 on republik.ch. Translation into English by Jen Metcalf.

This text is protected by copyright: © Krsto Lazarević. If you are interested in republication, please contact the editorial team.
Copyright information on pictures, graphics and videos are noted directly at the illustrations. Cover picture: © Dejan Škipina.


What happened since then

On 25 December, the police in Banja Luka arrested Davor Dragicevic, his ex-wife, several other demonstrators, a Member of Parliament and the opposition leader. Later all were released. But these arrests, the crackdown on protesters at the end of December and arrest warrants in the new year have not intimidated the citizens: they are announcing further protests.

The European Union said it was “deeply concerned” at the events: “We have asked the RS Ministry of Interior for an immediate explanation of the ongoing arrests of different persons associated with the ‘Justice for David’ movement,” said a statement from the EU Delegation and the Office of the EU Special Representative in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Read the detailed article in German here.