«I wish it had never happened».
THE UNFORGIVEN begins with this statement. A documentary by the Danish director, Lars Feldballe Petersen, its world preview at the International Festival of Documentary Cinema in Copenhagen.
Esad Ladzo wished he had never lived through what he had experienced in 1992 in Bosnia-Herzegovina. As an executioner, not as a victim. He wished he had never done the things that he had done. Or, at least, this is what he says. We are facing an issue that should be treated with the utmost delicacy. The redemption and forgiveness of a former war criminal – a persecutor, a ruthless jailor, torturer and killer at only 19 years of age. Can there be redemption, change, forgiveness? And, above all, can one ask for forgiveness?
In 1992, in the prison camp of Celebici in the town of Konjic, 50 kilometers from Sarajevo, there are Serb prisoners in the hands of Bosnian Muslim jailors and Croat Bosnians.
«I did terrible things, I cannot believe that there lives a monster», says Esad looking at the photo that shows him as a child.
The war in Bosnia began in 1992 and finished in 1995. The Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia stopped existing in the summer of 1991 with the declarations of independence of Slovenia and Croatia. In January 1992, Bosnia-Herzegovina does the same, pressured by Serb nationalism. Belgrade’s response was swift, some months later, the Serb Bosnians created a separate entity, the Republic of Srpska.
In the spring of 1992, Esad is 19 years old and like many, too many, has fallen into the trap of ethnic nationalism. Maybe he does not even know what it is, but he joins the Bosnian army to make himself feel like he is someone, after his father refused to let him study at the art institute in Sarajevo. His mother will never forgive him for this. «Perhaps, if he had left Konjic, his future would have been different».
Arrested in May 1996 by the authorities of Bosnia-Herzegovina, Esad is sent to The Hague, the International Criminal Tribunal for ex-Yugoslavia set up by the United Nations in 1993, where he remains up to 21 December 2017, the date when he is imprisoned. The Hague Court finds him guilty of 17 indictments sentencing him to 15 years in prison. The accusations are chilling.
«Brutal and premeditated crimes […] torture, murder, inhuman treatment, all serious violations of the Geneva Convention on the treatment of civilians during war […] »
«I used to go to all the political rallies, but to enjoy myself, to meet young girls. You could feel the tension in the air, the news was arriving of what was happening in neighboring countries», recounts Esad.
The tension can be seen in the images of Radovan Karadzic on television: «We will get rid of the Muslims»
«Negative energy was in the air, and the war was a great opportunity to let it out».
A purifying energy that injected a passion and impetus after the grey years of Tito’s Socialism.
«I joined up with the military troops of my town. I wanted to go to the front immediately, but instead they sent me to guard the Serbian prisoners. They wanted young people for this».
When the Serbs begin the ethnic cleansing of eastern Bosnia, in the spring of 1992, in the areas under the control of the Bosnian authorities the mobilization begins. Bosnian Muslim armed forces and Bosnian Croats attack villages around Konjic mainly populated by Bosnian Serbs. About 700 people are imprisoned in the Celebici camp, 19 prisoners die from torture.
«I liked the uniform, the guns, I wanted to be a perfect soldier. I was 19 and weighed 65 kilos. I had power, they were shitting themselves with fear […], it’s something you like to see. Before the war I was no one, now in town everyone knows me, I like this, it was like a drug that I couldn’t get enough of».
His role model was Commander Hazim Delić. He wanted to become like him. Hazim Delić was sentenced to 18 years of imprisonment for war crimes. In 2003, Esad is transferred to Finland where he serves out the last three years of his sentence in the prisons of Kylmäkoski and Hameenlinna. He is released in 2006. In the meantime, in 2003, the director, Lars Petersen Feldballe, plans a documentary on the psychology of war criminals sentenced in The Hague. He writes a letter to all of them inviting them to tell their stories. Only Esad Ladzo responds. In 2010, Esad has a permanent residency permit for Finland. Every other country has refused him. No one would grant an entry visa to an ex-war criminal.
«I tried to look for work but the employment office asked me what work experience I had. I have no present and no future. I have never felt like this before, not even when I was in The Hague, at the Tribunal I felt better than now. My demons come to find me at night and keep me awake».
When he was in prison, Esad went through a lot of psychotherapy.
«The Hague saved my life and helped me to discover who I was. I discovered some things about myself that I could never have found out if I had remained in Bosnia [..] I would never have accepted the facts that I accepted if it hadn’t been for the trial, including the fact that I am guilty. I learned that people are capable of doing anything.» (Esad)
Even to ask forgiveness for the unpardonable acts he had committed. After 24 years, in 2015, he decided to return to Bosnia, to the scene of his crimes. His demons do not leave him in peace. He courageously writes an email to some of the survivors and families of his victims. He wants to meet them. He wants to apologize. Apologize for an evil wrong, an unforgettable brutality.
«You want to apologize?», his father asks, «And for what? They treated me worse than what we ever did to them […]. They don’t even admit to the genocide of Srebrenica, let alone apologize for it. Nobody in the Serb Republic wants to apologize for what they have done».
Very few accept to meet Esad and no one will forgive him.
«All my life after the trial has been a lie […]. I lie to myself, telling myself I am happy. I did terrible things, I killed innocent men. It isn’t important what my superiors wanted, I felt good when I was praised. I was like a puppy».
From the stories of some of the survivors, Esad Ladzo, more than being a puppy, appeared to be a beast with a thirst for cruelty and insatiable brutality.
«Ladzo made me kneel down in front of 280 prisoners, my brother had to pull out his genitals and put them in my mouth … my brother’s genitals, in front of all the prisoners. Then he took me outside and beat me with a stick. After, he tied fuses around me, he lit them and then stuck them up my anus in front of 280 prisoners. I cannot forgive him.» (Veso)
The very brief meeting between Esad and Petko in front of the former prison of Celebici is the hardest-hitting and most difficult scene of THE UNFORGIVEN.
«I ask you to forgive me, I must apologize to you, you personally, and also to your people».
A destroyed man before another destroyed man.
«Do you remember Samoukovic Bosko? You beat him.»
«Yes, I remember.»
«He had two sons, can you imagine how they felt watching their father being beaten to death? And what happened to Scepo Gotovic, do you remember him? He arrived in the evening, he had been beaten to death.»
«He made us drink our urine, eat our own excrement», Slobodan, another Serb prisoner, remembers. He would have met Esad, but a heart attack prevented him from seeing him. In front of the gate of the former prison, there is Vesa, a mother whose son had been murdered by Esad.
Is it possible to forgive? Is Esad’s repentance sincere? We cannot even hazard a guess to answer the sensitive and disturbing questions which THE UNFORGIVEN raises.
Esad Ladzo will never return to live in Bosnia because «there is no life here for people with a past like mine». In Finland, where the documentary was filmed, he lost his anonymity as he kept his real name and even his Bosnian passport. He works as a cleaner in a café, he married Bosank, a Bosnian. Has Esad forgiven himself? We don’t know. And we don’t even know if his demons will ever stop tormenting him.
«If you kill an innocent person, it is as if you had killed humanity, says the Koran», so his father often reminded him.