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15 Serbs face questions about past

Accused of lying on immigration forms, they are asked about the '90s war.

By LANE DEGREGORY
Published December 13, 2006


ST. PETERSBURG - The immigration officers came before 5 a.m. Monday, pounding on the doors of 15 St. Petersburg homes.

Slavko Krsmanovic, 17, woke to flashlights on his porch, eight agents pointing guns at his house. They wanted his dad. He told them his dad was driving his mom to work. So the agents waited until Strahinja Krsmanovic came home.

"As soon as he got out of the car, they handcuffed him behind his back and arrested him," Slavko said. "They kept calling him 'the suspect.' What did he do?"

* * *

All of the immigrants arrested are men between age 40 and 60. Most are husbands and fathers who work two jobs to pay mortgages. They all belong to St. Sava Serbian Orthodox Church. They were part of a wave of about 3,000 Serbs who came to St. Petersburg as refugees in the early 1990s, during the war that dissected Yugoslavia.

The 15 men are suspected of lying on their immigration applications, of falsifying their permanent resident papers. Officials say they also could be connected to, or know something about, war crimes that happened 11 years ago.

Agents took the men's passports and green cards. Then they took them to jail.

Customs agents asked the men whether they had served in the Serbian army.

And where they were stationed in July 1995.

* * *

The arrests were the most recent in a series of Serbian roundups across the country. In August 2004, immigration officials in Boston jailed a Serb they said had committed war crimes. In March 2006, immigration officials in Phoenix arrested 24 Serbs suspected of atrocities.

Those men allegedly took part in a July 1995 massacre at a farm outside Srebrenica, where a reported 1,200 Muslims were gunned down.

The St. Petersburg men might have information about the massacre, said prosecutor Donald Hansen from the U.S. Attorney's Office.

"Through work at the Hague, we're still finding out who was in the units that did the massacres," Hansen said.

The 15 men were charged with denying that they had been in the military. They said relief workers told them if they admitted to being soldiers, they wouldn't be allowed to emigrate to the United States.

During that war, every man age 17 or older had to serve, said Father Stephan Zaremba, priest at the Serbian church. "Those who refused were sent to concentration camps or shot," he said. "What would you do?"

By Tuesday morning, 10 of the St. Petersburg Serbs had been questioned and released. The remaining five were scheduled to appear in federal court at 2 p.m. Only four were there when Judge Thomas McCoun III called the court to order.

They shuffled in slowly, heavy chains dragging between their ankles, orange jumpsuits sagging across their slumped shoulders.

The bailiff gave each man headphones, and a translator stood by a microphone. The bailiff explained that the fifth man, Ostoja Saric, wasn't there because "he wasn't on the list."

The judge asked each man's wife to take the stand. None of them spoke English. Sekula Bilic's case was called first.

He's 37, a construction worker, the youngest of the four men. When his wife walked toward the judge shaking, he smashed his fist into his dark eyes.

They had been married 15 years and lived in Florida for six. They had a $69,500 mortgage on a little house on Seventh Street in St. Petersburg. And they had three children, ages 13, 10 and 3.

The charge of falsifying immigration papers carries a maximum sentence of 10 years, the prosecutor said. If the men also were charged with war crimes, they could be sent to jail or back to Bosnia.

The judge told each man to hire an attorney. In two weeks, he said, they would have to come back to court for their hearings. Until then, the men would have to stay in jail, unless their wives were willing to put up $50,000 bonds.

One by one, the women all signed over their homes: Strahinja Krsmanicvoc, whose husband is a computer tech, whose two youngest sons were home when the agents came. Ljila Kordic, whose husband works in manufacturing, who has a son and daughter. Jadranko DGastic is divorced, but his live-in girlfriend took legal responsibility for making sure he didn't skip town.

* * *

By late Tuesday, the four men were out of jail. Their families didn't ask them about the war, or what had happened so long ago. Most of them never had.

They didn't want to know. They had lost everything in the war: family, homes, friends. They had wallowed in refugee camps, fought for permits to get out, come to Florida with just their clothes and determination. For more than a decade, they had worked to buy homes and businesses, send their kids to college. Now everything was crashing down. The past they thought they had escaped still haunted them.

"In the old Yugoslavia, 90 percent of us were in the war, and 90 percent of us didn't want to be," said Sladjana Bilic, her eyes red and swollen. "Just because they had to be in the army doesn't mean they were part of a massacre."

Scott Raspopovich, who is president of St. Sava Serbian church, doesn't understand why only Serbs are being hauled in for questioning, when Croatians and Muslims also killed people in the war. "If you define war crimes as shooting the enemy, yes, these men probably all did. But what choice did they have?" he said.

"Were they involved in those massacres? Not that I know of. If they were, they sure never told anyone."

Times news researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.