What to do during a war? In Sarajevo there's litigation -- and the occasional ax murder

February 11, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina -- After nearly two years of unrelenting slaughter, siege and wartime nastiness here, who'd think there would still be enough time and energy for plain old murder? Or enough cool calculation to keep filing lawsuits?

Yet spurned lovers still shoot each other dead in Sarajevo doorways. Drinkers who argue politics still come to fatal blows. Angry spouses still go for the jugular, or worse. Lawyers not only keep filing suits -- one has won a multimillion-dollar judgment.

And somehow, despite the hardships of daily shelling and shooting, Sarajevo's creaky justice system keeps lurching along, arbitrating matters of life and death in a drafty courthouse that has lost most of its windows and nearly half its judges.

There's even a pending case of an ax-wielding wife, with remarkable similarities to the Lorena Bobbitt trial (although not in the way that first comes to mind; this woman aimed for the head).

"After the war it would probably make a good psychological study as to why there were still so many murders," attorney Zarko Bulic says. "It is probably because people are very edgy now, and they don't have any of the values they used to have. There are also more guns around. It's very hard staying alive, and it causes a lot of these emotional reactions."

No one knows for sure if Sarajevo's murder rate has gone up or down during the war. As one court clerk explained, "It is hard to collect that kind of information now."

And in an environment where explosions and sniper fire are commonplace, it can be tricky defining where combat ends and homicide begins. Some investigators wonder if clever murderers might be exploiting this murkiness. If someone is found shot in the head down in the dangerous zone by the Miljacka River, for instance, who's to say he wasn't hit by a sniper?

The wily, silver-haired Mr. Bulic only knows that he's never short of clients these days. In Sarajevo's community of "advokats," the local word for lawyers, he may be the best in the business.

Not only do his clients include Ramiz "Celo" Delalic, a reputed mobster awaiting trial on charges of organized crime, but he also won a recent $2.2 million judgment for a local pharmaceuticals firm. He is president of Bosnia's equivalent of a national bar association.

Then again, Mr. Bulic doesn't have much competition. Only about 50 practicing lawyers remain among Sarajevo's population 300,000, a ratio that in an American city might be cause for celebration.

Even before the war there were only 150. Under communism, there was little demand for lawyers in the former Yugoslavia. Evacuation, army enlistment and death have since cut the prewar total by two-thirds.

The volume of white-collar cases and civil suits has dropped correspondingly since the fighting began, judges say, and Sarajevo's District Court -- the mainstay for major cases -- is down to 33 judges from its prewar total of 64.

Even so, says Muamer Herceglija, president of the District Court, "we still have sessions here in the court almost every day. But we have to be very careful, because the shells are always falling, sometimes right around the building."

Mr. Herceglija, 52, has the sort of roomy, well-appointed office one would expect of someone presiding over 33 judges, as long as one is willing to overlook the blown-out windows and lack of heat and electricity. Standing on his large desk is a bronze statuette of a woman holding aloft the balanced scales of justice.

This rendering of Lady Justice wears a Yugoslav star on her forehead, and she has no blindfold. She is a holdover from the Communist days, just like the structure of Bosnia's court system.

The District Courts are wedged between the Supreme Court and the Community Courts, which handle small cases such as traffic violations (although no one gets speeding tickets anymore. With the snipers and shell holes, speed and recklessness are virtues).

During the first year of the war, as control of the city swayed toward the armed anarchy of private warlords and black-marketeers, military authorities slapped together their own court system, handling such cases as draft-dodging and the highly profitable smuggling of food, coffee, alcohol and sugar.

Talk of this kind of business leads naturally to Mr. Bulic's most

famous client, the notorious "Celo," or "Mr. Celo," as he calls him. He has been in jail since Oct. 26, the day police cordoned off the city in a crackdown that included mortar battles and the taking of hostages. "Celo," released his hostages and gave up.

Mr. Bulic gets a little defensive -- which is his job, after all -- when quizzed about "Celo's" alleged misdeeds. "I think that Mr. Celo ,, did not commit murders," he says forcefully. His voice then trails off as he adds, "He just did some other things."

What sort of other things?

"It is a very tangled case."

Will someone in "Celo's" line of work have any trouble paying his legal bills?

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