An accused Bosnian war criminal lived a largely anonymous life in the Boston suburbs for some 25 years without notice—until Wednesday morning.
Kemal “Kemo” Mrndzic, 51, was arrested May 17 by special agents from the Department of Homeland Security, who showed up shortly after sunrise at his Swampscott home. The feds say Mrndzic was a security official at the notorious Čelebići prison camp in central Bosnia, where Serbian detainees were systematically starved, tortured, and abused by their captors.
Mrndzic, who is facing four fraud-related charges for lying to U.S. immigration authorities about his past so he could gain refugee status in America, was assigned to Čelebići in June 1992, according to a newly unsealed criminal complaint.
Mark Imber, a neighbor at the condo complex where Mrndzic has been living, described it as “essentially a retirement home.” Imber said he had no idea the man on his floor had allegedly carried out a slew of wartime atrocities, and saw Wednesday’s raid on Mrndzic’s home but didn’t know what it was all about until being contacted by a reporter.
“They had a warrant, an armored truck, I knew it was a big deal,” Imber, 30, told The Daily Beast. “I was woken up at 6 a.m. by a loudspeaker going, ‘Apartment 1N, come out—we have a warrant.’ They stayed for about two hours, searching the unit and sticking around.”
Another resident, who lives on the same floor as Mrndzic and asked that her name not be used, said the property is filled with older Eastern Europeans and that Mrndzic would have had little problem fitting in. The details of Mrndzic’s dark past came as a complete surprise to her, she said.
“Yeah, that’s crazy,” the woman told The Daily Beast. “Fucking crazy.”
“He must’ve thought, ‘30 years later, I’m all set,” she said. “But nope.”
UN Peace keepers collecting bodies from Ahmići, Bosnia and Herzegovina in April 1993.
The United Nations’ International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and others “documented the systematic persecution, beating, torture, and starvation of Serb detainees by guards” at Čelebići, along with “murders, rapes, and other sexual abuse of Serb men and women” being held there, the complaint states. Survivors have described violence meted out by camp guards while shouting, “Auschwitz, Auschwitz,” telling prisoners they would never leave the camp alive and, “at times, hailing each other with the Nazi ‘Sieg Heil’ salute,” it goes on.
“One survivor recently recounted that the screams from prisoners at the camp caused by the beatings were loud enough to carry for ‘kilometers,’” the complaint states. “… Dozens of survivors have recounted hearing beatings and other violent abuse, as well as screams of those prisoners selected to be beaten and abused at night. Persecution of Serbs at Čelebići was pervasive and obvious to every prisoner and every guard at the camp.”
At Čelebići, Mrndzic supervised three soldiers who in 1996 were tried and convicted by the ICTY for “numerous” wartime atrocities, according to the complaint. The guards withheld food from the inmates for days on end, occasionally letting them have a single spoonful of soup, the feds say. Many later reported losing up to one-third of their body weight while imprisoned there. During the ICTY trial, former POWs testified about having their tongues burned with red-hot pieces of metal, having their arms and legs set on fire, and in at least one instance, having a lit fuse cord tied to his genitals.
More than a dozen people who made it out of Čelebići alive identified Mrndzic to the ICTY as one of their most brutal persecutors. Three others “separately recounted Mrndzic’s use of ‘karate’ to beat prisoners, and to practice his martial arts strikes,” the complaint alleges. “One of those targeted by Mrndzic for ‘karate’ strikes described Mrndzic as a ‘particularly vicious’ guard because he selected and beat prisoners on his own initiative rather than being ordered to do so.”
Through it all, Mrndzic denied everything. He told ICTY investigators that he had never witnessed any mistreatment of detainees and that everyone was provided three full meals a day. But before Mrndzic could be charged with war crimes, including the murder of a prisoner at Čelebići, he applied for refugee status in the U.S. On his official immigration application form, Mrndzic “fabricated his personal history,” falsely claiming to have been captured and imprisoned by Serbian forces due to his Muslim background, the complaint states. He lied about his family ties, saying he had a half-brother in Lynn, Massachusetts, whom he wanted to join, it says.
Bodies of people killed in April 1993 around Vitez, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“Mrndzic falsely claimed that he feared a ‘return’ to his home in Nevesinje where he said he would be mistreated, persecuted, and imprisoned by the Serbs in that area, in part because of his alleged escape from their captivity and also because he was a Muslim,” the complaint continues. “In sum, Mrndzic falsely claimed to have been the target of the type of persecution which he perpetrated on others.”
Having duped U.S. immigration authorities, Mrndzic and his wife arrived in the United States on March 4, 1999, according to the complaint. He took up residence in Massachusetts and received a Social Security card a short time later. Mrndzic was granted permanent resident status in October 2008, was naturalized as a U.S. citizen the following April, and got his U.S. passport two months later.
But Mrndzic’s alleged lies would eventually catch up with him. In March 2022, DHS agents confronted him with written statements he had previously given to ICTY investigators, prompting an admission from Mrndzic that he had indeed been a guard at Čelebići and that portions of his refugee application were false, the complaint states. However, he denied ever participating in, or even witnessing, any violence against detainees. At a second interview a week later, Mrndzic again insisted he had never harmed anyone as a Čelebići guard.
On Monday, DHS agents met with Mrndzic at his home in Swampscott. This time, according to the complaint, he “said he was ashamed of the manner in which he came to the United States. He also identified himself in two video recordings taken at Čelebići in 1992, in which he appeared in uniform holding a rifle.”
Mrndzic further “identified by name photographs of many other guards who worked at the camp in 1992,” the complaint states.
“However, he continued to deny being involved in either the direct or indirect persecution of prisoners at Čelebići,” it concludes.
It is unclear how Mrndzic was supporting himself in the U.S., though public records show him having worked as a supermarket manager in New England.
Earlier this year, a Serb who in 1998 was convicted in absentia for his own wartime atrocities was discovered living in Ohio, working as a sausage maker.
Mrndzic appeared in court Wednesday afternoon, and was released on $30,000 bond. If convicted on all four counts, Mrndzic faces a maximum combined total of more than 40 years in prison and up to $500,000 in fines. His court-appointed lawyer, Brendan Kelly, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.