LAWRENCEVILLE, Ga. – Zeljko Zekic came to this quiet Atlanta suburb after the bloody Bosnian war to work in factories and raise his two children with his wife, never telling immigration officials that he had worked as a senior police officer in the Serbian paramilitary.
Now he's confined to his home by an ankle monitor, puffing on cigarettes as he wonders if he'll be sent to prison or back to his native Serbia for lying about his work and telling officials he had been unemployed during the war. He pleaded guilty Tuesday, one of at least three former Serbian officials prosecuted in recent years for lying to get refugee status in the U.S.
Zekic told The Associated Press he had no part in the atrocities that have led to war crimes charges against other high-ranking officials, and that he lied only to give his family a better life.
"I was trying to do what's best for my family, my life, my children," he said, taking a drag from a cigarette.
Zekic rose to the rank of master sergeant as part of a unit that fought under recently captured Serbian Gen. Ratko Mladic, who now faces 11 war crimes charges in Europe. Mladic is accused of orchestrating ethnic cleansing campaigns in the 1992 to 1995 war, which left 100,000 dead and forced 1.8 million from their homes. Prosecutors also say Mladic was a leader during the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, during which 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed.
"I had nothing to do with Srebrenica," Zekic said in his thick accent at his home on the outskirts of Atlanta. "I was a traffic police. I say for you and everyone that I am sure I never was involved in Srebrenica. I worked with traffic police all the time then."
Zekic could be deported or be sentenced to up to five years in prison, though he hopes a judge will show mercy — especially for his children. He's not sure what would happen to his wife, son and daughter if he's forced from the country.
"I hope to stay here. My daughter is a very good student," he said. "If I have to go, I have to go. But I don't want to leave."
Prosecutors, though, say he should pay the price for misleading federal immigration officials. U.S. Attorney Sally Quillian Yates said Zekic convinced officials "that he was only a refugee of the struggles that tore Bosnia and Herzegovina apart rather than a member of the group that has been identified as a very substantial part of that war."
Zekic said he had no choice. He, an Orthodox Christian, married a Catholic woman and soon found it difficult to live anywhere in the Balkans during a war fought among three ethnic groups: Muslim Bosnians, Catholic Croats and Christian Orthodox Serbs. The couple moved to Zvornik, a Serbian-controlled town in Bosnia where he found his family was more accepted. He worked there as a police officer between 1992 and 1997.
At the height of the Bosnian War in July 1995, prosecutors say his unit was deployed to Srebrenica, a town in eastern Bosnia that by that time was filled mostly with Bosnian Muslims driven from their homes.
The officers were assigned to surround the 25,000 or so Bosnian Muslims who gathered there and to separate women from military-aged males, who were loaded onto separate buses and later shot to death, prosecutors say. Authorities also say his unit swept the area and shot hundreds of stragglers.
Prosecutors have not been able to determine the full extent of Zekic's role in the military, according to public records.
Zekic later moved to the Serbian capital of Belgrade, and by 2002, he and his family were applying for refugee status in the U.S. because they feared for their safety in the Balkans.
On his immigration forms, he indicated that he was unemployed and living in Serbia — away from the conflict zone — during the war, prosecutors said.
Since 2004, customs officials have arrested more than 200 suspected or known human rights violators in the U.S. But federal officials say they don't have a breakdown on how many were involved in the Bosnian conflict. All told, the Serbian Embassy says there are about 350,000 Bosnian immigrants living in the U.S.
In August 2004, Marko Boskic was arrested in the Boston area on charges of lying about his role in the Srebrenica massacre so he could get into the U.S. and sentenced to five years in prison. He was returned to Bosnia in April 2010, where he confessed to being involved in the execution of hundreds of Muslim Bosnians and was sentenced to serve 10 years behind bars.
And in 2006, Nedjo Ikonic was accused of commanding the police unit that participated in the Srebrenica killings. He pleaded guilty to visa fraud charges and was sentenced to one year in prison, and was later charged in Bosnia with genocide.
Zekic, though, said his biggest crime was seeking a better life for his family. He said he bought a $1 lottery ticket in Serbia that won him $5,000 a month before he traveled to the U.S. and used the money to help his family start fresh in metro Atlanta. He moved to a leafy suburb packed with other immigrants and spent the next few years bouncing from one job to another before landing a gig as a machine operator at a nearby factory.
He said he was wrong to lie, but he's hoping his 17-year-old daughter won't have to pay for his mistake. He wants her to graduate from high school so she can attend the University of Georgia.
"I no kill nobody. I'm not a terrorist. I'm not working with drugs. My background is very clean," he said. "I do nothing wrong. I make false statements to help my family, but there's nothing criminal in that. It should be like a speeding ticket. It's a foul, but not a big foul."
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