On the 16th of May 2015, 23 years had passed since the Zaklopača massacre, in which at least 63 Bosniak men, women and children were killed by Bosnian Serb forces. Zaklopača, a village on the border with Srebrenica municipality was once part of the pre-war Vlasenica municipality. After the war Vlasenica was split into two municipalities by Serb authorities. The new municipality which Zaklopača is now a part of is called Milići. Before the Bosnian war Zaklopača was a predominantly Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) village, Bosniaks constituted some 60 percent of the village population. Bosnian Serb forces killed close to 40 percent of the population and ethnically cleansed rest of the Bosniaks who lived there. To this day no one has been tried for the massacre in the village.
Back in 2010, Daniel Toljaga spoke to one of the people that survived the massacre in May 1992, a woman called Nihada Hodzić. She had managed to escape the carnage in Zaklopača with her mother but lost eight members of her extended family in the massacre, including her grandfather Ibro and five uncles. Her father and several other members of her extended family managed to escape the slaughter and were reunited in Zagreb in 1993. The bodies of her dead relatives were later exhumed from a mass grave. However as Nihada recalled in her interview with Dan; it´s hard to separate the pain one feels for ones close relatives from the pain one feels for the loss of good friends and neighbors, especially in a small tightly-knit community.
This wasn´t the first time Bosniaks in Zaklopača were subjected to persecution and murder at the hands of Serb nationalists. As Daniel pointed out in his interview with Nihada; Zaklopača was the scene of an infamous fall 1941 massacre, when Chetnik forces under the command of Jezdimir Dangić barricaded 81 Bosniak men, women and children in the local mekteb (Muslim religious school) and then burned them alive. In August 1941 Dangić was appointed as commander of Chetnik forces in Eastern Bosnia by Draža Mihailović. During his time as Chetnik commander in eastern Bosnia; Dangić collaborated with both the Italians and Nazis against the Partisans, seeing Tito´s Partisans as his primary enemy.
Still, according to Nihada Hodzić people didn´t believe something like that could happen again. People were sure that nothing would happen. When they heard automatic weapons being fired in the distance, they were told that it was “only routine training by the armed forces” Her grandfather on the other hand knew that things looked bleak and that something was coming. Her grandfather Ibro had already survived an execution in 1941 when a dozen Bosniaks in Zaklopača were killed, including Ibro´s dad and Nihada´s great grandfather. Ibro was only fifteen when the massacre took place and it was his quick thinking that saved his life then.
Fifty years later he was killed by Serb extremists on the steps of his own home, as well as his five sons and one grandson who was sixteen at the time. Yet no one in the village could understand Nihada´s grandfather´s fears of an impending massacre due to the constants reassurances of a Serb neighbor Milenko Đurić, called Gorčin who kept telling them that nothing would happen to them and that they should carry on as usual. Nihada belives that Milenko Đurić was directly or indirectly involved in the plot leading up to the massacre, according to Nihada they had attempted to flee Zaklopača prior to the massacre to a safe haven in Živinice however they were sent back by Đurić who used similar reasoning to reassure them. She believes that he played a middleman who manipulated the fears of the Bosniaks in Zaklopača and their trust in him as a great friend and neighbor in order to set the stage for a more effective premeditated “military” operation by the Serb forces, i.e. that it was his job to pacify the Bosniaks in the village by convincing them that they had nothing to fear from their Serb neighbors.
However there were signs that something horrible was coming, not only in Zaklopača but in the surrounding area as well. A week prior to the massacre in Zaklopača, two of Nihada´s uncles and her father were arrested and brought up for questioning at the local Police Station in Milići. The Police Station had been taken over by Bosnian Serb forces. He and the others were picked up by reserve police units and brought to the station. According to Nihada, they were picked up by the police after they were stopped and asked to identify themselves. Anyone with a Bosniak name was taken to the station where they were interrogated. Some of the men were severely beaten by the Serb police forces. According to Nihada; her father and uncles were shoved into a small room with hundreds of other Bosniak civilan men, it´s there that he witnessed “some very gruesome acts being performed on these defenceless civilian men” according to Nihada, they were beaten beyond recognition, some even defecated on themselves out of fear.
Nihada´s father told her that it was Milenko Đurić ( Gorčin ) came to his rescue. He was responsible for her father´s release from the station. After that Nihada´s father refused to go back to work, anticipating something worse was to come, despite reassurances from Đurić who said that Nihada´s father should go back to work and carry on as usual. Still Nihada´s father was lucky, many of the men who stayed behind at the Police Station in Milići were never heard from again. There were signs that something bad would happen, Serb militia was crusing around the village telling people that they should hand over any weapons they had, even hunting rifles. Nihada suspects that was just a way of demilitarizing the village before the slaughter.
On the day of the massacre her mother was working in the vegetable garden when she saw jeeps and cars coming into the village around noon on that 16th of May 1992. In front of the jeeps was a police car, on one of the jeeps, a white one there was a slogan; Pokolj (Slaughter) written in Cyrillic. The convoy had come from the main road leading to Milići. Nihada´s mother recalled that the jeeps were packed with long bearded well armed “Chetniks”, some with nylon socks covering their heads. She rushed to Nihada´s oldest uncle Bećir who was in the garden with her and told him to run, he tried to reassure her that everything would be allright. Those were his last words to Nihada´s mother. Nihada´s mother ran to the house and started packing and getting Nihada and her sisters ready for the worst possible. They ran over to one of Nihada´s other uncle´s houses where almost all of Nihada´s relatives had gathered as well as a few other neighbors. The bullets whizzed thru the house leaving holes. At one point, a bullet pierced through Nihada´s mothers light denim jacket, as she was in her lap. The bullet missed both by a hair. The shooting lasted for another fifteen or twenty minutes. As it subsided they heard one of her uncle´s calling her aunt to come out. As they came out they saw one of the Serbs militiamen pointing a gun at him, he looked pale, afraid, asking for a cigarette. As he reached in his pocket for a lighter, the Serb militiaman shot him in front of his relatives and started firing at the people gathered outside the house. Once the Serbs left, there were dead bodies everywhere; men, women and children. Nihada saw her eldest uncle Bećir again, lying in a pool of blood, he was dead too. Rest of her family, those who were still alive decided to “surrender” to the Serbs not knowing that her father had managed to escape the slaughter. They thought they had no one left and were ready to die too. After the massacre the bodies were dumped in a mass grave, and later dug up again and relocated to a secondary mass grave in order to cover up the crime. In May 2004 forensic experts found the grave and exhumed the bodies. The youngest victim was Naida Hodzić, five years old at the time of death. (Photos from the exhumation and funeral can be found on Srebrenica Genocide Blog: here and here )
As Nihada points out it´s difficult to bring the perpetrators of the massacre to justice as most of the people who could have testify have been killed in the war. Her father didn´t see anyone he recognised up close, but they are certain that Milići police was directly involved in the massacre. According to Nihada the process has been extremely slow and ar nobody has been tried for the massacre in Zaklopača even though as Daniel pointed out: ICTY transcripts suggest that Milenko Đurić ( Gorčin ) was directly involved in the events leading up to the massacre including demands that Bosniaks hand over any weapons. As Dan pointed out in the interview; Milenko Đurić was right under the mayor of Vlasenica, Milomir Stanic when it comes to the Serb chain of command. ( Daniel´s full interview with Nihada can be read here)
Vlasenica itself was occupied by the JNA´s (Yugoslav People´s Army) notorious Novi Sad Corps out of Vojvodina at the end of April 1992. Novi Sad Corps of the JNA had participated in the brutal Seige of Vukovar. During the takeover of the town (Vlasenica) scores of people were killed, others taken to the now notorious detention camp Sušica were Bosniak civilians were beaten, raped, and many were murdered while others were simply “ethnically cleansed”, or expelled, those were the lucky ones. During the trials of Predrag Bastah and Goran Višković (Bastah was reserve policeman while Višković a member of the Bosnian Serb Army) Bosnian State Court concluded based on the evidence presented to them that between April and late September 1992 units of the JNA, as well as Bosnian Serb military and paramilitary units took part in a widespread and systematic attack directed at the Bosniak and other non-Serb population of Vlasenica Municipality. The long list of crimes committed by the two men in the company of other Serb soldiers or police officers includes torture, kidnapping, and murder of both individuals and group executions.
Not many people outside of Eastern Bosnia or Podrinje (Drina Valley) have heard of Sušica, a camp located near Vlasenica. People who had been “cleansed” from Vlasenica and survivors of the camp who had made it across the frontlines to Bosnian goverment-controlled territory spoke of the atrocities committed at the camp but it wasn´t until 1993 when a remorseful Serb soldier and a guard at the camp, named Pero Popović, 36 years old at the time deserted from the Bosnian Serb Army that the stories of the atrocities in Sušica could be confirmed. Popović and about a dozen Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) survivors of the camp were interviewed on three separate occasions by the New York Times. According to the Times; “their convergent portrayals, conveyed in separate, independent interviews, establish Sušica’s function as the systematic elimination of Muslims from the area.”
Popović made it clear to the New York Times in three separate interviews that executions were a nightly occurrence at the camp and that a unit of the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army (former JNA) had helped carry out the “cleansing” of Vlasenica. He also admitted to taking part in some of the beatings but that he had never killed anyone. One of the people that Popović guarded in Sušica was Fikra Atalov, a 60 year-old woman from Vlasenica who was held in the camp in July 1992 and was later transferred to safety on Bosnian-controlled territory in Kladanj. According to her testimony to the New York Times; more and more people were coming in every day and room had to be made for them that was done either by transferring women and children to Kladanj or the executions of men. Other times Serb soldiers would come for the women in the camp. They were taken away and usually sexually assaulted by the Serb soldiers. According to Atlov it was the silence that was so eerie. Even little children that were in the camp had to keep quit as they heard shooting nearby. When Fikra was transferred out of Sušica she had to leave behind a 37-year old son, a mechanic called Naser Atlov in Sušica. When the interview with Fikra was conducted he was still missing, the last time she saw him was in the camp. Popović however belived at the time that her son may have been released and that he was in Tuzla.
According to Popović executions of small group of men usually took place within the camp. Outside the hanger that was being used as barracks. But large-scale executions were carried out at a nearby ravine called Han Ploča. Most of the large scale executions were carried out as reprisal for the killing in the war of a local Serb. Prisoners from the camp were loaded on the back of a truck and taken to the ravine which was about five miles away towards Han Pjesak ( where Ratko Mladić had his command centre.) They were taken to the edge of the ravine and shot as they got out the truck. According to Popović; group of young soldiers were brought in to do the executions. Bosnian Serb Army used bulldozers to cover the bodies. In mid-June 1992 he witnessed an execution of 26 people, one man managed to escape that time by running into the woods as he got out the truck. Popović belives that at least 1000 people were executed on that spot.
Another witness to the brutality prisoners of the camp were subjected to was Rafija Hadzić, taken to the camp in July 1992 after she had been kidnapped from her house. A Serb soldier broke in and told her to undress, an hour before her husband Ejub Hadzić had benn arrested and taken away. She never heard from him again. According to Rafija the Serb soldier who broke into her home and told her to undress beat her with the butt of her gun and cut her with a knife. After the assault she and her 8-year-old daughter who was standing in the room during the assault were taken to Sušica where they saw about 700 Bosniak residents from the Vlasenica area; men, women and children. During her time at the camp she witnessed as the guards cut a men´s ear off and killed two others. She could name the two men killed. They were: Ismet Dedić and Galib Musić. The bodies of those killed in the camp could sometime lie on the hanger floor for hours before being taken away by the guards. 10 days later she and her daughter were taken to the front lines near Kladanj and walked down to Bosnian government territory.
At the beginning of July, Bosnian government soldiers, two months after the Yugoslav Army with the help of Serbian State Security forces and extremists loyal Radovan Karadžić began their attack on Bosnia and Herzegovina and the genocide on the Drina river started to unfold were starting to get better organized and started to fighting back. On July 5th they killed two Bosnian Serb rebel fighters from Vlasenica in an ambush. One of them was a well-liked car mechanic and according to Popović a brave fighter. His cousin died alongside him in the ambush. As retaliation about 300 prisoners from Sušica from were killed by a firing squad according to Popović.
By September 1992 there were few Bosniaks left in Vlasenica, mostly old people and invalids whom the Serbs avoided until then. It was their turn to be “cleansed” now. One of the old people that Serb forces came for was Tima (Fatima) Handzić aged 93 at the time of the interview she was lying in bed when a Serb soldier kicked in the door to her house in mid-September and ordered her to come with him. Tima and her daughter Meira who was in the house with her were taken to the camp, on arrival she remembered seeing hundreds of people on the concrete floor of the hanger, her daughter Meira said that she thought that they were dead. Serb forces had taken away Meira´s son Suljo on June 1. She saw him again upon entering Sušica, she recalled that he approached her embraced her and said: “Now that you are here, I see that it’s finished. There is no hope for me.” The next day Tima and Meira Handzić were loaded onto a bus and taken away to Kladanj. Once in Kladanj, Meira was reunited with her other son Abdulah, apparently a passionate chess player who´s friendship with the Serb president of Vlasenica´s chess club had saved his life, on May 17 he was able to escape Vlasenica with a special pass provided to him by the president of the chess club. Abdulah became a soldier in the Bosnian Army and despite stepping on a land mine which gave him a limp he was still determend to return to the fight. He was also driven by a desire to find his brother Suljo who was last seen by his mother and grandmother in Sušica, however in his intreviews with the New York Times Popović confirmed that Suljo was dead. He had been executed.
The man Popović and the other witnesses New York Times spoke to identify as most responsible for their suffering was in the camp was Dragan Nikolić called Jenki, commander of the camp. Popović believed that Nikolić had been induced by Serb nationalist propaganda and that as commander of the camp he was making a lot of money of his victims. One woman had offered 18,000 German marks to help her get out and given that according to the ICTY 8000 people passed thru the camp there was clearly money to be made on their suffering and Dragan Nikolic was taking everything of value he could from the Bosniaks in Vlasenica.
By the end of August 1992 Nikolić had been replaced by Maj, Mile Jaćimović who was utterly ruthless in his determination to root out all the Bosniaks in Vlasenica, and by the end of September he had decided to close the camp. When asked by the Times if he thought that this was beause Jacimovic feared that the camp would be discovered by following the disocvery of Omarska in August 1992 Popović said; “No, it was simply that there were no more Muslims in the Vlasenica area, and Jaćimović and Nikolic had taken all the money they could from the Muslims.”
Dragan Nikolić was the first person to be indicted by the ICTY (International Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia) back in 1994 thanks to the testimony of survivors and Popović. Leading a pretty unremarkable life before the Bosnian War, he was marginally employed didn´t have children and was never married, a native of Vlasenica, before the war he was generally well-liked by the people who knew him, regardless of ethnicity. On November 4th 1994 two separate arrest warrants were issued for Nikolić by the ICTY who brought the matter before the UN Security Council due to the Bosnian Serb leadership’s failure to respond to the arrest warrant. This was however not really a surprise, the notion that a political leadership of an entity where many in the leadership were indicted and had arrest warrant against them would hand Nikolić to the ICTY might seem ridiculous but the attention of UN security council did lead to an international arrest warrant transmitted to all member states.
Nikolić was finally arrested 2000 in Bosnia and brought before the tribunal. Once his trial started Nikolić entered into a plea agreement, pleading guilty on all charges from count 1 to 4, including persecution, murder, aiding and abetting rape and torture. According to ICTY: “As commander of the camp Nikolić subjected the detainees to inhumane living conditions by depriving them of adequate food, water, medical care, sleeping and toilet facilities, as a result of the atmosphere of terror and the conditions in the camp detainees suffered psychological and physical trauma.”
Nikolić confessed to the murders of Durmo Handzić and Hamo Zildzić. Two men were called out by Nikolić and camp guards and taken out back where they were severely beaten. Zildzić died shortly after the beatings and his body was buried by two prisoners while Durmo Handzić died later the next day after being questioned by Nikolić (despite being in severe agony from the beating) about the whereabouts of his son. Handzić died later as a result of his wounds.
He also confessed to the murders of Rasid Ferhatbegović, Muarem Kolarević,Dzevad Sarić and Ismet Zekić. Like Zildzić and Handzić; Muarem Kolarević and Dzevad Sarić were ordered to get up and were taken out back, later a guard came in and took out Ismet Zekić as well. For 30 minutes the prisoners inside the camp could hear screams of pain and gun shots coming from the back of the hangar. Two prisoners were later called upon to wash away the blood where the two men had been beaten and dispose of the bodies. Outside the hanger they watched as the guard that had called them out killed Ismet Zekić. Later that same guard entered the hanger with a local policeman and pointed to Rasid Ferhatbegović asking the guard if he was “the one that was running away” the guard said “yes” Ferhatbegović was taken out and shot. Prisoners charged with removal of bodies saw the body of Ferhatbegović lying on the ground with a bullet hole in his forehead as they went remove the body of Muarem Kolarević. On July 6th Nikolić took out Ismet Dedić out of the hangar. The other prisoners could hear Dedić scream, later Dedić was dragged back inside, his body covered in blood and barely recognizable. Dedić died not long after the beating and the prisoners placed his body in a plastic bag and removed it. Over a period of several days in the first week of July Nikolić beat a man Mevludin Hatunić several times until Hatunic died due to the injuries inflicted. During the second week of July over a period of seven days Nikolić beat a 60-year old man Galib Musić every day until Musić succumbed to his injures and died. Rafija Hadzić had in her testemony to NYT back in 1994 described Dedić´s and Musić´s murders.
From 1th of June to 18th of July Nikolić beat prisoner Fikret Arnaut both inside the hanger and in a special spot referred to as the “punishment corner.” Nikolić stomped on Arnaut´s chest and beat him with metal “knuckels” on his hands. He forced Arnaut to kneel on the floor, put his hands behind his head and tilted his head back while putting a bayonet in Fikret´s mouth and asking him about the whereabouts of his brother who Nikolić claimed had joined a group of “Ustašas” One time Nikolić approached Arnaut and said: “I can’t believe how an animal like this can’t die; he must have two hearts” and continued to beat him and stomp on his chest. Sead Ambesković and Hajrudin Osmanović who were originally arrested by Serb police in Vlasenica were also taken to Susića where they were subjected to beatings with axe handles, iron bars and rifle butts. They were interrogated several times during which they were beaten again, this time with iron bars, wooden bats and rifle butts for approximately 90 minutes. Sead´s head was cut as a result of the beating, four teeth were knocked out and three ribs broken. From June 13th to 3d of July Nikolić beat Suad Mahmutović on an almost daily basis, he beat him with iron bars, rifle butts and rubber tubing with lead inside. During one of the beating seven of Mahmutović´s ribs were cracked, Nikolic also hit him in the face several times leaving permanent scars. On one occasion, Nikolić put a cocked pistol into Suad Mahmutović’s mouth and tried to force him to admit that his neighbor had a weapon. Suad Mahmutović refused to admit that whereupon Nikolic pulled the trigger, but the gun wasn´t loaded.
According to testemony and evidence dislpayed during Nikolić´s trial the Trial Chamber concluded that Nikolić derived enjoyment from the pain he inflicted on the prisoners in Sušica. One of the witnesses stated that he “enjoyed himself while he was beating people.” “I know firsthand that he enjoyed beating Arnaut Fikret. He used to beat him five times a day” stated the witness. Nikolić and the other guards threw buckets of water on prisoners after they had passed out from the beatings they had recived, in order to revive them, some prisoners begged to be shot, in order to spare them of more suffering, Nikolić´s reply was: “A bullet is too expensive to be spent on a Muslim.”
Nikolić´s statement of guilt before the tribunal.
Given that he had entered a guilty plea on counts 1-4 he was sentenced to 23 years. He was granted early release in 2013 after serving two-thirds of that sentence. Together with Darko Mrdja a Bosnian Serb Police officer found guilty for the murder of more than 200 Bosniak prisoners at Korićanske Stijene on Mount Vlasić in central Bosnia in August 1992. The decision to release Nikolić and Mrdja was withheld from the public until November 2013 even though both men had already been released in October that year.
As for the returnees to Vlasenica and those expelled living in other parts of the country; they face an uphill struggle. Journalist and Balkan Diskurs founder Velma Sarić spoke to Bosniaks that were expelled from Vlasenica in April this year ahead of a collective burial of victims that have been exhumed from various mass-graves in surrounding hills above Vlasenica. This was the 12th collective burial held in Vlasenica.
One of those expelled, a woman with initials S.H is now living in small Sarajevo apartment with her 83 year old mother. S.H worked in the municipal building in Vlasenica until 1992 when one of her colligues came ans said that the municipality was going to be divided into Muslim and Serb districts, according to S.H she believed that was just a figment of her colleague´s imagination but on April 8th 1992 they were prohibited from entering the building and were told not to come to work anymore. According to S.H: “That same night armed soldiers in uniform knocked on our door, they proceeded to search the house and took two of my brothers away. My mother and I were told to stay in the home. Words cannot explain the events that took place in my hometown. People were abducted, murdered on their doorsteps, expelled from their communities, and detained in camps. Women and girls were taken from their homes, humiliated and raped. My next door neighbor came on April 9th and took me away to an empty Muslim house where he proceeded to rape and torture me. He was drunk, and I will never forget how he reeked of alcohol. He raped me several times that night. I was held there for the next three months. Every day he would arrive with 20 or 30 soldiers and they would sit and drink. I was forced to serve them if one of the wanted to rape me he did. They would take me upstairs and point their weapons at me. I will never find peace until those who committed these heinous crimes are held accountable.”
The remains of one of her brothers, Mehmed were buried in 2010 while her brother Muhamed has not yet been found. According to S.H there were many other houses in Vlasenica where women and girls were held and went through the same hell as she did. She recalled the fate of sisters Aida and Velida Karać who didn´t survive and were finally buried in the Rakita Memorial Cemetery last year.
According to Sarić the fates of Aida and Velida who graduated from law school and veterinary school respectively was unknown for many years until their remains were found in a mass-grave in the Serbian village of Pelemiši 22 years later. They were taken from their family´s house one night in April while their parents were being detained at Sušica. According to their brother Hamdija his sisters were good girls who wanted to finish their studies and start their own families. Witnesses recall (including S.H ) that Serbian soldiers raped them a number of times and finally demanded that the girls allow themselves to be baptized. Once they refused, they were taken to Pelemiši and executed. S.H was also forced to be baptized, she was taken to a church near Vlasenica where she was forcebly baptized and given a Serb Ortodox name: Slađana Milošević. Such things were of course not uncommon. As the sex scandal involving Vasilje Kaćavenda the former Serb Orthodox bishop of Tuzla and Zvornik began to unreval one of those who came forward was a Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) girl who claimed that Kaćavenda had imprisoned and raped her as well as forcing her to convert to Orthodox Christianity. Kaćavenda was finally brought down in 2013 when a sex-tape showing him s engaged in sexual activity with young men was leaked by a Serbian news-site.
According to the Families of Vlasenica War Victims ’92-’95 2,600 people from Vlasenica were killed during the war. 265 of those killed were children. An unknown number of Vlasenica residents were killed in the Srebrenica genocide. Some sources put the number at around 800. For most people who escaped the “cleansing” of Vlasenica during the spring and summer of 1992 the then newly liberated Srebrenica represented a safe heaven, a free territory, as well as Zepa further south. The same goes for the citizens fleeing the “cleansing” of Višegrad, Bjeljina, Zvornik, Bratunac, Sokolac, Rogatica, Foča and Han Pjesak.
This post was inspired by Hasan Nuhanović´s book Zbjeg- Put u Srebrenicu (Escape: The Road To Srebrenica) which I will be reviewing here soon. (Just as soon as I get the time) Hasan is a native of Vlasenica. Also, sources tell me Hasan´s book in currently being translated into english. So look out for that. I will also be writing more about Vlasenica in the future.