Robert Frank on the day of the attack was to meet me in Split, where I investigated crimes collaborators UDBA (of Josip Perkovic) in the war in Gospić and Zadar, Šibenik and Split. That Frank was beaten near Mostar phone me from Gospić informed Milan Levar.
During the covering of the cases, the first thing we faced was the reluctance with which journalists agreed to take part in the project. Most of our colleagues had deeply repressed those traumatic experiences and while remembering them, many were close to quitting.
“My child is going to read one day how his father was abused by some underworld types, scum… It will ask me how I had found myself in such a situation. How to answer that question?” – was the explanation of one of our colleagues for refusing to participate in the project. He has a disability today, because of injuries inflicted by thugs who abducted, assaulted and tortured him because of the texts he published in the nineties. In the end he agreed, so his case is included among the seventy described in the White Paper.
A dozen of our colleagues, whose cases we also wanted to cover, persevered in their decision not to be mentioned. They have changed professions and deeply repressed the trauma they experienced. A dozen of our colleagues first agreed to cooperate, but withdrew without a real explanation. Several did not agree because they consider threats and assaults an
integral part of their profession.
„I don’t see why we, as journalists, should list the threats and assaults we experience because of what we publish. What makes us different from plumbers, for example, who also sometimes experience threats and assaults because of their work” – was the argument of a colleague whose threat cases, and there were many during her long career as an investigative journalist, we intended to publish. This question, but also many similar ones, racked all the colleagues whose cases we covered. Mostly because journalists refuse to become news, because then they cease being journalists, those who record what happens to others, not themselves. They made the decision when they realized that it is not a case that is important, but the whole phenomenon.
ROBERT FRANK & RONALD BRMALJ, 1999
journalist and photojournalist
of Novi list
An assignment trip to Mostar on 7 may 1999 proved fateful for Novi list journalists Robert Frank and Ronald Brmalj. At 9:30 am, just after arriving in Mostar and settling at the Ero hotel, they were abducted by six unknown men, who brutally tortured them for almost three hours in the woods some 15 km away. Robert Frank, the journalist who was the main target of the cruel harassment, threats and beating, had all bones in his hand broke, his face beaten and was covered with haematoma and bruises. Ronald Brmalj suffered less serious injuries, because he was, so to speak, a collateral victim of the attack. The attacker obviously knew that they were coming to Mostar and they thoroughly planned the abduction. A day earlier, Frank had called some acquaintances in Mostar to inquire about hotel accommodation. He intended to do a report about the shooting of the special episode of the show “Lijepom našom” in Široki Brijeg, dedicated to the first anniversary of death of Gojko Šušak, Minister of Defence of the Republic of Croatia, who was born in Široki Brijeg. According to the notes he made before leaving for Herzegovina and despite the predominant negative opinion about Šušak, Frank was preparing a positive story about him, as seen by his sympathisers and the majority of Herzegovinians, because it was their legitimate right. Robert Frank frequently covered events in the neighbouring Bosnia and Herzegovina. His critical texts covered a series of political and economic affairs, and he investigated the links between interconnected organized crime groups in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The Ero Hotel, where Frank and Brmalj were accommodated upon coming to Mostar, was the headquarters of the International Community as well as the High Commissioner, so there were always many Bosnian and international police officers there. An hour after settling in their room, two men in civilian clothes entered their room, showed them police badges and told Brmalj and Frank to immediately get ready and go with them, allegedly for a short informative interview at the local police station. Frank was suspicious, but since he had already experienced (un)official police interceptions in Mostar, as well as their threats inexpertly veiled in their concern for his safety in the area, he decided to obey their demand.
“Since I had been in a similar situation a year earlier, while covering the election, I knew that one should not ask too many questions and that it is better to go with them. I left the room key at the front desk, at which there was also a police counter, so nobody could have taken us out without the knowledge of the police. They put us in a Golf and the two men that joined us in front of the hotel took the keys to our car and drove after us, toward Široki Brijeg. After some 15 km, we turned onto a side road, where an off-roader joined us, and continued to drive to some rocky field. They dragged us out of the car, searched our things, and the person from the off-roader, who joined us later, started asking me question of the type who I was and what I was, followed by a series of kicks and punches in my ribs, back and stomach. They continued harassing Brmalj, who was squatting on the other side of the off-roader, with the same questions. When they were convinced that he was just a photojournalist and that he wasn’t the man they were after, they assaulted me, and I had to stand leaning on the bonnet of the car the whole time. They hit wherever they could and none of my answers, especially to questions who my informers for the texts about Bosnia and Herzegovina were, but also for some stories about Croatia, were good enough. Of course, despite the beating and serious threats, I did not reveal the names of my informers. In any case, they knew about the majority of my texts about Herzegovina in which I dealt with criminal phenomena in the area, but also about the political events before and after the September election. They obviously did not like the way we treated these subjects. One of them told me I was starting from the wrong premises and chasing the wrong people”, said Frank.
After more than an hour of merciless beating, they told him to kneel and kiss the Herzegovinian earth. Tired from the beating, Frank knelt and rested his face on the ground, and they started pelting him with new insults that he was a “partisan” and a “communist from Rijeka”, while continuing to hit him. “One of them sat on my back and started hitting me with open hands on the ears and head, and since he was smoking, he put out yhe butt on my ears and neck. Then another one joined him. I couldn’t move or flinch, because that would provoke another series of blows. Then that one got up and stood on the left of me. The other one was on the right of me and they continued kicking me in series. One would kick from the left, the kick would cause me to lean to the right, and the one on the right would kick me and push me back to the left. They were enjoying themselves that way. Then came the threats that I would never write again. They immediately carried out that threat” – said Frank.
To be sure that the journalist would never hold a pencil again, one of them picked up a rock weighing several kilos and forcefully hit Frank’s right hand with it. These blows broke every bone in Frank’s right hand. They demanded he write their theses about what and how he should write with that hand, but the torture did not stop there. He was pretty battered when they took him to the other side of the off-roader and stuffed a plastic bag in his mouth. Then they pulled it over his head and as he would breathe in, the bag would go deep into his mouth and this almost choked him. This harassment went on for some time until they commanded him to extend his crushed right fist half a meter in front of the wheel. “I thought then that they would run my hand over with the car and that they stuffed the bag in my mouth so I couldn’t scream. This play of nerves lasted for some thirty second, but after they completed the last of several phone calls, during which they were deciding my fate; whether they would batter me a little, a lot or actually liquidate me in the end, they took the bag out of my mouth. In the end, their leader told me not to take it personally, that they were just following orders and that I was lucky they didn’t have to liquidate me, because they would do it with no fuss, and they would transport my body to the other side of Mostar to make it appear that I was killed by the Muslims, whose crimes and criminals I had already extensively investigated. Since they also got tired from hitting me, he grotesquely demanded we sit together on a rock, light a cigarette and rest a bit. They were sighing from jumping on me and I was catching the breath they beat out of me”, recalls Frank.
Although hurt, I intended to complete the newspaper assignment we came there for, but they commanded us to immediately leave Herzegovina, at the Metković border crossing. One of the attackers hissed: ‘It is called a ‘soft border’, because if you can smuggle food and Mercedeses, you can smuggle people, lest someone sees the state you’re in’. With these words, the attackers escorted us to the hotel.” The journalists headed toward the Croatian border. Frank says that it was no accident that they were beaten there, because the people behind the attack knew there would be no investigation. Since, at the time, Frank also wrote about the war crimes committed in Gospić, but also about the conflicts within the intelligence community and the underworld, where his collocutors sometimes publicly expressed their views of things, he thinks that he was maybe partly punished because of that, so they just waited for him to go to Herzegovina, where the beating was technically easiest to execute. In that case, the order givers might be in Croatia.
In Rijeka, the journalists were immediately admitted to the Clinic-Hospital, and Robert Frank was hospitalised because of severe injuries and an urgent operation on his hand. Besides the crushed hand, he was diagnosed with a haematoma in the cheekbone area, effects of blows to his chest and severe cigarette burns… Ronald Brmalj’s injuries were qualified as minor, although he had suffered blows to the right side of his chest, to the sternum and the right hand, but with no signs of fractures or haematomas, so he was released to be treated at home. The perpetrators and order givers of this brutal beating were never found. Since the journalists had been driven from Mostar and Herzegovina after the beating, they filed the report in Rijeka. The game of confusion and misunderstanding between police officials in Croatia and the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina went on for months. The latter claimed that Frank’s statement had never reached Mostar, so an investigation could not be started. Considering the fact that they were abducted in a hotel that was swarming with police, who were permanently stationed there, and the attackers themselves had police badges, it all suggested that the Herzegovinian police would sooner cover up the case than investigate it. Five months after the event, the international police (IPTF) asked Frank to come to Mostar and give a new statement, under their protection. Frank refused, explaining that he had described the event in great detail, and that he could only conclude that nobody cared about the investigation, so he thought it unnecessary to be bothered again.
“The investigation of my case was obstructed in Croatia as well, at high, ministerial, and even higher levels. And after I had received the summons to come to Mostar and give a new statement, I was again exposed to threats, where I was told that something a lot worse than merely being beaten and having my hand broken could happen to me” – said Frank. At that time, when the information that the International police was offering Frank protection to come and give a statement in Mostar, in the centre of Zagreb, Globus journalist Željko Peratović was intercepted by Munib Suljić, who asked him: “Are you Robert Frank of Novi list?!” Suljić was a former member of the police reserves and the unit commanded by Tomislav Merčep, the members of which have been accused of killing civilians during the war, and was himself convicted of killing civilians after the war. This Suljić’s question might also have been a clear message that threats would be carried out if he went to Mostar. Munib Suljić, who was leaving the HIS building, asked Peratović whether he was Frank. He obviously confused Frank and Peratović, because they were both guests on Latinica a few days earlier.
“Personally, I don’t care who the persons who abducted me and beat me are, because they did it for someone else, and since nobody in the Croatian and the Bosnian authorities wanted to find out whose orders they had been following, for me, the case is closed. We can all just have a think and wonder in what kind of times we are living. We all, obviously erroneously, thought that the assaults would cease after the fall of the Tuđman regime; that the new government would create a climate where no one would think of jeopardizing the status or the lives of journalists, beat them or even try to liquidate them. Such thinking was proven wrong, because the assaults, sometimes more and sometimes less brutal, continued, often more sophisticated than the one I was the victim of. That does not only speak about the risk of being an investigative journalist, but also about the fact that the mechanisms of the state of law are not too interested in preventing the assaults or uncovering their perpetrators or order givers. In the case of an assault and what comes after it, if it isn’t interesting or he has no other position, a journalist remains alone, often with no help or support from professional organizations and with ever present doubt of tendentious colleagues that the assault happened like that and because of those reasons. I have myself faced this” – says Frank. Robert Frank and Ronald Brmalj still work at Novi list.
I especially thank my colleagues from Association of Croatian Investigative Journalists that they are me allowed to transfer parts of their books The White Paper – A Chronicle of Threats and Assaults on Journalists in Croatia 1990 – 2011 / Zagreb, March, 2011.