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ZIJO RIBIĆ: My Blood is Not Green, It Is Red – Like All Other People – And Red is The Color of Love (INTERVIEW)

English 26. јун 2024.
8 min čitanja

He was an eight-year-old boy when "Sima's Chetniks" killed nine members of his family: six sisters, a two-year-old brother, father and pregnant mother

Zijo Ribić (40) was an eight-year-old boy when members of the paramilitary unit „Sima’s Chetniks“ killed nine members of his family: six sisters, a two-year-old brother, his father and his mother who was nine months pregnant. The crime was committed in the village of Skočić near Zvornik on July 12, 1992.

They thought they had also killed Zijo, but he miraculously survived and managed to escape from the pit into which they were thrown. „God wanted me to survive, so that there would be someone to tell our story,“ repeats Zijo Ribić.

In 2018, the Court of Appeals in Belgrade confirmed the acquittal against the members of the “Sima’s Chetniks“ unit for the demolition of the mosque and the murder of 27 Roma civilians in the village of Skočić, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Court of Appeals convicted Zoran Alić, Zoran Đurđević and Tomislav Gavrić for inhuman treatment, violation of bodily integrity, sexual humiliation and rape of protected witnesses. Gavrić and Đurđević were sentenced to 10 years in prison each, while Alić was sentenced to six years. Nevertheless, not a single member of the „Sima’s Chetniks“ unit was convicted for such a grave crime of mass murder, the victims of which included nine children and a pregnant woman.

Today, Zijo Ribić lives in Tuzla, has a wife and two children, and works as a cook in a kindergarten. He travels around Europe and tells his difficult life story as a Roma peace activist. Zijo also speaks in Auschwitz, every August 2nd, on the International Day of Remembrance of the Roma Genocide in the Second World War. He told his life story in Italy too, he also spoke at conference in the Vatican, where the speakers included Angela Merkel and Pope Francis.

These days, Zijo Ribić was the guest at the Reconciliation Festival in Novi Sad, where he shared his life experience with the audience.

We asked him to say at the beginning of the interview for Autonomija if there is any progress in remedying the judicial injustice that was inflicted on him.

„Unfortunately, the verdict was that they were acquitted for the murder of Roma in Skočić, and they were convicted for raping and robbing Roma.“ Together with Nataša Kandić’s team, that is, the lawyers of the Humanitarian Law Fund, we requested before the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg that the trial be repeated somewhere outside the territory of the former Yugoslavia. However, to this day we do not have an answer.

After everything you went through, how do you feel when you come here, to Serbia, where some members of „Sima’s Chetniks“ originate from?

You know what, I don’t see any difference between people because someone is a Serb or a Bosniak or a Croat, I only see people in terms of good and bad. I used to work in Italy and I had two people working with me and until someone told me „Hey, those are black people“, I didn’t even notice that they were actually black people. They were simply good people and that’s all I saw. And whether one is black or white or some other color, I simply don’t care, I don’t notice that difference. I believe that everyone who saw me and heard my story is with me, because my story is about reconciliation. Especially for the generation that was born after the war, i.e. from 1995 onwards, I convey the message: „Long live love, long live peace“ and look at a person only for good and bad, don’t look at whether they wear a cross, crescent, star or some other sign.

I have many friends in Serbia. And here, as in all our ex-Yugoslav regions, I simply feel at home. I want to go to Kosovo, I haven’t been there yet, but I hope I will because I’m sure there are a lot more good people there, like everywhere else. And by the way, I believe that there are only one percent of bad people in the world.

„Look at a person only in terms of good and bad, don’t look at whether they were a cross, a crescent, a star or some other sign.“

You said that some Serbs killed your family, and other Serbs saved you…

That’s right. The paramilitary unit „Sima’s Chetniks“, the so-called patriots, came to my village, went up and demolished the mosque, came down and picked us up, killed, raped, did all kinds of things… But the next morning I encountered two soldiers of the then Yugoslav People’s Army, they were Serbs too. They could have killed me, but they were just human, because they saw that I was bloody and everything… They probably knew what happened. But they saved me, they took me to the infirmary to bandage me. And there was the same Dragana who previously took me out of the truck and took me to the execution ground, now she was bandaging me… Then I was taken to the hospital in Zvornik, where I stayed from July 1992 to November 1994. I and five other children. We were under the protection of the UN then, as Muslim children. And we had nowhere to go, it was Serbian territory, the war was raging. I felt at home in that hospital. Unfortunately, I couldn’t go out, but I was there, there were also wounded people. Everyone loved me, everyone knew about me, they called me „little Džej“, I used to sing those songs by Džej.

In November 1994, I was transferred to Igalo, to the Dr. Simo Milošević Institute, through some non-governmental organization. I was treated for trauma there. Then they transferred me to a children’s home in Bijela, also in Montenegro. So, in that period I grew up with the Serbian and Montenegrin nation. And I didn’t hear a single ugly word, nobody even once called me „Balija“, „Ustasha“, Gypsy“, „I won’t hang out with you“, „I won’t sleep in the room with you“… Generally, we were all together, and in 2001 UNICEF repatriated all the children from Bosnia and Herzegovina, and I came to Tuzla. After my story, which began circulating in 2006 with the help of Fadil Ferhatović, who at the time was with the organization Romani Brothers and had been struggling for years to reach out to me and discuss this with me, and who had generally been helping me as a friend, many realized that if you live with hatred towards any nation inside you, then you cannot truly live. Why? Because you harbor that hatred and pass it on to your children, and those children harbor hatred towards other children. And that creates a new war. And I don’t want that. We must think about the future of our children.

When our daughter Sara was about to be born, I was looking for a name that would be international, because here in the Balkans, your name says where you are from, who you are, what you are. I was in Italy at the time and a Catholic priest told me that the name Sara is in all three books. And I did a little research on it, and so it is: Sara is an international name. Now we also have a son who is one year old. We named him Enur. It is also an international name, but it’s Arabic. My wife also grew up in a children’s home, without parents. We also want to raise our children to see people as people, not by nationality or religious affiliation.

Our little girl has recently been in my village and saw the graveyard, the cemetery of my sisters, father and mother. She asked me: „But why?“ I told her that they were sick and died. Sarah is very, very mature, but I think I’ll tell her the story of what happened when she grows up. And I hope that I will be able to lead her on the path to see all people as good or bad, and not as wearing a cross, the crescent, the star…

Because hate eventually eats up the hater…

That’s right. Because hatred creates new wars, new misery, new orphans. I was left without both parents, without a family, without anyone. On the bright side, I lived with people who could have taught me to hate, but they didn’t.

I assume that one of the biggest trials and one of the ugliest episodes in your life was encountering Sima the Chetnik in the courtroom?

Everything went through my head at that moment, the worst thing a person could think of doing at that moment. But some greater force gave me the strength to say to that hatred: „Not! Don’t!“ And at that moment I said to hatred: „No, get away from me.“

By the way, we Roma lived together as children in the village, played together, had fun together, listened music and all that… We were brought up like that, to be happy and not think about the past, unfortunately that is a tradition of ours. Why do I say unfortunately? Because we see that throughout the centuries many Roma have died in every war, but no one talks about it. This is still the case in Bosnia and Herzegovina. These debates on Roma issues take place, but they are not organized by the Roma population or a Roma organization, but by some other non-governmental organizations. They organize debates, stories, and books.

Let me go back to that scene in the courtroom. I simply said at that moment: „I forgive.“ Why do I forgive? Because if you don’t forgive, hatred remains. And if you forgive, you move on, you fight for justice so that someone is held accountable. But, you forgive so that a person could live a normal life, without constantly going back to that year. I don’t want to live in that year, I want to move on. I am constantly asked “how can you keep talking about what happened to you?” I respond that I can because I feel better, because I got it out of me, but with a message for peace, so that others can hear it.

„Why do I forgive?“ Because if you don’t forgive, hatred remains.”

Despite the messages for peace and the good people who outnumber the bad ones, we are still locked in that cycle of hatred that we cannot seem to break?

Unfortunately, it’s all politics’ fault. Our people live in poverty, we fight for a salary, to put food on the table, to buy clothes… People sell themselves for a pittance. And then they tell you “here’s your package, here’s this, here’s that.” That’s what even the Roma do, those who run for councilors, they bring you a package, and tell you that your child will get a scholarship for education. Everything revolves in one circle.

I was in Italy, Germany, and Austria… There, they call us Yugoslavs. There are no Croats, Bosniaks or Serbs there. There are all Yugoslavs and we all eat and drink together. But as soon as one comes to his native country, one becomes a great Serb, a great Bosniak, a great Croat. It’s because it’s politics. Until the people rise up.

We in Bosnia and Herzegovina have two entities, ten cantons, a district, a bunch of ministers… And you need a million papers. For instance, I am registered as a refugee in my home country. Well, I can’t get an identity card for ten years, nor a passport, but for two years.

So, where were you exiled from?

From Zvornik.

But Zvornik is in Bosnia and Herzegovina!

Well, yes. That is pure madness. And that only exists in Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is such a law that I am registered as a refugee in my own country, they tell me that if I renounce that status, I will lose my rights. I don’t have a house, I don’t have a flat, I don’t have anything. Now, this apartment I got, it is social housing, just like a refugee. And if I renounced my refugee status, I would lose my apartment and be on the street. Maybe the City would help, but it’s all a big maybe, it’s all a risk. Where will I go with my two children? My wife doesn’t have a job. The people can’t do anything about it, “they” (the policians) shape our destiny.

But, I hope the people will realize one day that our blood is of the same color. My blood is not green, and it is not blue either. It is red like that of all other people, be they black, white, yellow or red. What does that red color tell us? It’s love. It means that we live for love and that we are all together.

Dinko Gruhonjić (Autonomija)

The interview was realized in cooperation with the organization forumZFD, and as part of the project “Suffering of Roma in the wars of the nineties and the possibility of Roma culture to contribute to reconciliation”.