TRANSITIONS ONLINE: Juka of Sarajevo
10 January 1994
Jusuf Prazina, called Juka, did not live to become a respectable West European businessman. According, to the Agency France Press, he was found on New Year's Eve on a parking lot of Liege - E-la-Chapelle highway, close to the state border between Germany and Belgium. According to forensic experts, he died several days earlier before his body was discovered by two Romanian hitch-hikers.
The cause was common when it comes to people like Prazina - "lead poisoning." Simply speaking, "Commander Juka" was killed with two bullets in the head, and the Belgian radio claimed that one of his body-guards had a fire-arm with the same caliber. The same source claimed that Prazina had arrived in Liege in August 1993 and that he disappeared on December 3 together with the three of his body-guards. Mid December a former member of Muslim armed forces from Sandzak, who happened to be in the Bulgarian town of Vidin, said that Juka Prazina was killed by Bosnians in Stuttgart, but did not specify which faction was responsible. The reason was his joining the Croatian Defense Council (HVO) and his plotting with Serbs. The Zagreb daily "Vjesnik" accused a five-member group of the Muslim army's special units of killing Juka Prazina. The organization is connected with the son of Bosnian Muslim leader Alija Izetbegovic, Bakir, and it is believed that a Syrian secret service followed Juka. The reason is the same in this version as well - treason.
Before the media in Sarajevo were to label him as a "traitor", Jusuf Prazina was a "hero", Commander of the special units of reserves of the Interior Ministry of B-H, Commander of the special units of the Army of B-H, and later a robber wearing the HVO uniform. In Pale he was declared "Muslim fundamentalist" and "war criminal" and in Sarajevo "the city's protector" even "advocate of the civic option."
Juka's "professional affirmation" took place in the atmosphere of pre-war Bosnia, when the central government was losing authority and national mini-states were only to be created. A well-known "trouble-maker" from Sutjeska Street, who himself admitted having spent more nights behind bars than at home, became a most feared "debt-collector" in the town. He spoke openly about his job on the Third Channel of Sarajevo Television - he would first demand a paper to provide him some kind of authorization (court orders, a contract, or something similar), then a payer would receive a threat and if he answered negatively more drastic methods would be applied. His fingers would be broken or his face disfigured. The rumor has it that the most stubborn debtors were kidnapped and kept in a hiding-place on Mount Trebevic all until the family settled the debt. He managed to develop a network of about 300 armed "collectors" in a very short period of time. They became a back-bone of his army after the war broke out. In Autumn 1991 he said that preparations for founding of a humanitarian organization, called "Green Berets", were underway. Juka was very rich even then.
His people knew how to demonstrate power even before the fighting in Sarajevo began. In Spring 1992 Juka Prazina was heavily wounded in a clash during a pit-bull terrier fight in Vrace, now a suburb of Sarajevo controlled by Serbs. He was taken to Kosevo Hospital, but the doctors were hesitant to perform such a risky operation. Then 300 armed Juka's men besieged the hospital and forced the surgeons to go ahead and operate. They were fortunate. Juka survived and recovered, but one bullet still remained in his body. When the war began he still needed a crutch which he skillfully used to beat up those who upset him. "Juka's army" immediately joined the fighting in the streets of Sarajevo, thoroughly looting everything they could lay their hands on, especially the places where food and fuel were stored. Expensive cars were confiscated in the name of "the city's defense." "In the first days of the war they put their experience gained in street fights and authority they had in the city's underground into service of defense of the part of Sarajevo where they lived against analogous paramilitaries 'on the side' who tried to descend into the town from Vrace," Nenad Kecmanovic, the former Rector of Sarajevo University, wrote in his book "Political Memories." "Juka's army" had several strongholds throughout Sarajevo. The confused Government of Alija Izetbegovic whole-heartedly accepted such a large and well-armed group ready to die for "unitary and sovereign Bosnia", and Jusuf Prazina was appointed Commander of the special units of reserves of the Interior Ministry of B-H. His forces grew so that it is assessed that at one point he commanded the army of 4,000 well armed and well fed soldiers whose officers were mostly recruited among the people who are familiar to the police.
At the same time "the city's defenders" were promoted in the media, and, according to Kecmanovic, primarily on Radio 99 and the paper "Slobodna Bosna." Kecmanovic believes that the media, political factors and a class of the urban population (most of them Muslims) who wanted Bosnia as a unitary and civic state tried to enhance their influence with Juka's help.
"There were two factions of the Muslim National Movement, which the observers outside of the war-ravaged Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina failed to recognize," Kecmanovic wrote. "Let's call them Old Muslim and Young Muslim factions. First, the Old Muslim Faction. Political leadership: the Party of Democratic Action (SDA) and the Muslim-Bosnian Organization (MBO); leaders: Alija Izetbegovic and Muhamed Filipovic; their base: Muslim villages, provincial areas, the people of Sandzak; their armed forces: territorial defense and its commander Sefer Halilovic; territory under their control: the valley of River Bosnia. And, the Young Muslim Faction. Political leadership: the Social-Democratic Party (SDP), the Liberals and the Socialists; their leaders: Nijaz Durakovic, Zlatko Lagumdzija, Rasim Kadic, Zdravko Grebo, Ismet Grbo; their base: the urban national intelligentsia, the Serb and Croat youth integrated around the "Bosnian cause"; their armed forces: Juka's paramilitary; territory under their control: the urban areas of Sarajevo."
If Kecmanovic's assessments are accepted then it is clear that Juka had verbally distanced himself from Islamic fundamentalism ("I know how to say Allah, and that's it. I'm a citizen of Sarajevo and a Bosnian and full stop.") and the media insisted that there were Serbs and Croats fighting in his ranks. (At the very beginning local gangsters took the territory rather than the nationality as a criterion when joining some armed force, so that there were Muslims to be found on Serb barricades). Even if there was a "marriage" between Juka and some politicians who supported the civic option, everything is clear: apart from satisfaction derived from being in a company of educated and prominent people, Prazina secured a political license for looting. On the other hand, intellectuals, journalists and politicians (who with their might and main strove to meet the former "unofficial court executioner") could count on a physical protection, so desperately needed in war-times, and even a slight possibility to topple ever more conservative Alija Izetbegovic. When popular professor Zdravko Grebo put Juka's picture on his car, the well-known gangster was accepted by the circles which would have otherwise remained beyond his reach.
Juka Prazina thus became an absolute lord of Sarajevo who would dare to attack Alija Izetbegovic himself. At the end of June 1992 Juka's gang surrounded the building of the Presidency of B-H. Prazina broke into the cabinet of Alija Izetbegovic, who immediately appointed him Commander of the special units of the Army of B-H! His people are well fed, drunk, armed and have good cars...They had a generator in one of his bases so they washed their cars in front of the citizens of Sarajevo who were going crazy of thirst. There was everything for Juka and his men. Whatever was left over he gave to hospitals, children, etc. with great pomp. "Foreign journalists took him as Robin Hood of Sarajevo, and the domestic media as "a hero". It was a matter of prestige to know Juka. Even among the intellectuals. Juka could solve all problems. He could arrange for one to leave the town or provide food...He could do anything, he even decided on who will get a telephone line," a well-known journalist from Sarajevo, Zeljko Vukovic, wrote in his book "The Killing of Sarajevo." Such circumstances allowed Juka to acquire enormous wealth. He helped Serbs leave the city, naturally, on condition they paid several thousand DM "per head" (he is said to having helped his friends and acquaintances leave without paying, but there was no rule). On the other hand, he did not shun helping Muslims "get rid" of surplus property. Nevertheless, his people boasted of "liberating" Pofalici, where a massacre against Serb civilians took place. Right after his people "liberated" garages in the center of Sarajevo Juka got hold of a luxuriously furnished "Audi", which was a special order. When a dispirited owner (general manager of the Sarajevo Car Manufacturer Sead Ajanovic) came to claim his car Prazina welcomed him by saying, "It's a great car. I'll go for a ride and give it to you tomorrow." When the owner came the next day Juka had changed his mind. "You are a real nuisance," he said and added, " I wanted to give it back to you but now I won't." Ever since Juka cruised in "his" new car, which had his name on the license plates instead of numbers, always kindly greeting Ajanovic whenever he passed him by.
With time it was ever more difficult for Prazina to put up with the new-comers from Sandzak, especially then the B-H Army Commander Sefer Halilovic, and later the entire leadership of the Army of B-H. On one occasion he broke into the room where Sefer Halilovic, Jovan Divjak and Stjepan Siber were holding a press conference and shouted outloud in front of a number of journalists, "You, bastards! Why haven't I been invited." He is reported to have become even more aggressive and lost his sanity after his pregnant wife Zaklina was wounded. He could not cope with subtle plots of Alija Izetbegovic who was removing him from the center of power.
After a short stay away from Sarajevo Prazina went to Mount Igman where he enjoyed himself riding a motorized sledge and demolishing hotels. He did not miss the opportunity to knock out Vehbija Karic, a high official of the Army of B-H. He was arrested in the vicinity of Konjic, but his people blocked the building of the town's headquarters and demanded that "General Juka" be released. Their request was immediately fulfilled. Having realized that it had become to "hot" for him, Prazina left Sarajevo at the end of 1992 and his unit subsequently fell apart.
His alleged intention was to gather "the partisans" in the mountains who would free Sarajevo from "Chetniks" and "the newly-arrived fighters from Sandzak" but his plans were soon to fall through. It turned out that the rules in the Bosnian mountains are different from those in the streets of Sarajevo. He spent some time with HVO, hung around Konjic and Jablanica, robbed Muslim refugees, as he did anyone else. He was seen in Zagreb, Promajna near Makarska, Split,... According to some information, he was seen in Belgrade on two occasions: in August and November 1993. He tried to settle down in Belgium but did not live to see 1994.
The question, who he had actually worked for, will remain unanswered for a very long time. Some connected him with Croats, others with the Secret Service of the Yugoslav People's Army. Songs about a "traitor" and "criminal" have been banned in Sarajevo. On the other hand, many people in Grbavica and Vrace gave a sigh of relief when they heard that the cruel oppressor of Serbs in Sarajevo, but also an important witness to international "transactions", is dead. A concise portrait of Juka Prazina by a lawyer from Sarajevo seems to be closest to the truth. He said about Juka, "He delighted in the role of a hero, he loved Sarajevo and he loved money". Especially, if it belonged to somebody else.
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