Persecution And Death In Vlasenica

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 )

Forensic team of the ICMP inspects remains of the Bosniak victims - women, children, and the elderly - in the Zaklopaca mass grave.
Forensic team of the ICMP inspects remains of the Bosniak victims – women, children, and the elderly – in the Zaklopaca mass grave.

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.

Sušica camp
Sušica camp

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.

A Memorial Stone in Potocari, listing the places where victims of Srebrenica genocide came from.
A Memorial Stone in Potocari, listing the places where some of the  victims of Srebrenica genocide came from.

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.

Returning To Eastern Bosnia

Muniza Oprasic
Muniza Oprasic

Last month media in the Balkans reported that Muniza Oprasic, a 78-year old Bosniak returnee to Republika Sprska was ordered by a district court in Eastern Sarajevo which is in the RS entity to pay 10 000 euro to a Serb family who lived in her house as squatters in the village of Okruglo for about seven years until 2003. During that time Muniza Oprasic lived as a refugee. Oprasic who now lives of her pension, which is 320 Bosnian marks [160 euro] appealed to anyone who can help since she as an elderly returnee to that part of Bosnia and Herzegovina has no means to pay the fee ordered by the court. The Serb family sued Muniza Oprasic since they most likely had assumed that she would never return to her house and her village and therefore made renovations to the house for which they now expect to be compensated for.

Clearly shocked by the court´s decision Muniza said to reporters from BIRN that she didn´t understand how such a thing could happen. This was her home, and she didn´t understand what gave them the right to go into her home at all? Living there for seven years in her house while Muniza lived as a refugee away from her home. Now the Serb family wanted her to pay for renovations they had made on someone elses house. Since Muniza has no means of paying the large amount set by the district court in Eastern Sarajevo; the court decided to take it out of her  monthly pension, which is 160 euro. The court said that they will take half or maybe as much as 100 Bosnian marks (50 euro) which would be unberable for someone her age, given that she needs medicine and has bills to pay.  When BIRN talked to her she openly appeled to help from anyone who could help her…

According to Muniza this is the way returnees to Visegrad are being treated by the Serb-led authorities in that part of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Muniza´s village; Okruglo lies a few kilometers from the old town of Visegrad, in the past most famous for it´s old Ottoman era-bridge built by Mehmed-pasha Sokolovic and immortalized in Ivo Andric´s novel  Bridge on the River Drina, now infamous as the site of some of the worst atrocities during the Bosnian war. On 6th of April Visegrad was attacked by the Yugoslav People´s Army´s (JNA) Uzice Corps under the command of Dragoljub Ojdanic. Ojdanic later went on to become Chief of General Staff of the “reformed” Yugoslav Army (Vojska Jugoslavije) and was later found guilty for crimes against humanity, and sentenced to 15 years for his role in Milosevic´s Kosovo campagain. By April 14th 1992 his Uzice Corps had with the help of Serb paramilitaries, managed to take over the town installing a Serb nationalist government which proceeded to arrest and harass segments of the Bosniak and other non-Serb parts of the population. After the the JNA formally left the town on May 19th the systematic and wide-spread targeting of the town´s Bosniak community began, with arrests, disappearances, abduction of prominent local figures, executions carried out by local paramilitary units, setting up of detention camps, including the Uzamnica camp  where the inmates, both male and female subjected to physical abuse, including sexual violence. The turning of the hotel and spa resort Vilna Vlas into a rape camp where Bosniak women and girls were systematically raped by Serb police, paramilitary units and soldiers.

As well the mass executions of civilians all around Visegrad, some of the civilians were taken from their houses and rounded up, others abducted from their workplace, others taken off buses, and led to the banks of the river Drina where they were told to go into the water and executed by Serb paramilitaries or taken to ravines where they were executed and their bodies dumped into the ravines or pits. The mass killings in Visegrad also included two of the arguably most horrific cases of mass-murder early on in the war. First being The live pyre at Pionirska Street, where over 60 people were barricaded into a house which was later set on fire, 53 died. Killed by two men who are most likely Europe´s most well-known living mass-murderers; Milan Lukic and his cousin Sredoje Lukic. According to journalists who covered the war, and especially the butchery in Visegrad; the two men, especially Milan, probably killed more people during the Bosnian war than anyone else. Two weeks after they had burned 53 alive people on Pionirska Street, they repeated the act in a Visegrad neighborhood Bikavac where they barricaded another group of people into a house before setting it on fire. One person survived.

But the biggest execution-site was the old bridge itself. As Ed Vulliamy noted in the Guardian back in 1996; “the bridge is visible from almost every balcony and window in Visegrad, it´s cobblestones are a stage at the foot of an amphitheatre; the executions were intended to be as public as possible.” From their balconies witnesses watched as Milan Lukic in his red Passat together with his companions in the trucks behind would arrive at the bridge each evening. They would unload the prisoners and start killing them.  “We saw them by day or by the city lights, whether they were killing men that time, women or children. It took half an hour, sometimes more.” One witness recalled… The prisoners who were between life and death were stabbed before being thrown of the bridge into the river. According to one witness; sometimes they threw people off alive shooting at the same time.  Another witness, recalled how Milan Lukic enjoyed playing music from his car radio while throwing two men into the river; one of the men shouted that “he couldn´t swim” while Milan Lukic fired his gun into the river.

Visegrad, photo: Velija Hasanbegovic
Visegrad, photo: Velija Hasanbegovic

At the start of the Bosnian war, Visegrad and other places like it along the Drina Valley or Podrinje received a minimum of attention from the world press. What was happening in eastern Bosnia, all along the Drina Valley as well Prijedor, Kozarac, Sanski Most, Kljuc and other towns and hamlets in northwest Bosnia, and Bosanska Krajina was part of the hidden war that the Serbs were waging far away from the carnage taking place in Sarajevo. Karadzic could not keep Omarska, Trnopolje & Keraterm a secret for too long, but by then he had “cleansed” much of what was to be “Greater Serbia” of non-Serbs. As Vulliamy, one the chroniclers of the Bosnian genocide wrote in The Nation in June 1996, one of the middle-managers of genocide; Professor Nikola Koljevic a close associate of Radovan Karadzic, and wartime vice-president of RS as well as a Shakespeare scholar had said sardonically to him in the Serbian capital Belgrade 1992; “So you found them! Congratulations!  It took you a long time to find them, didn’t it? Three months! And so near to Venice! All you people could think about was poor, sophisticated Sarajevo. Ha-ha!” And then, as Vulliamy recalls, added with a chill in his voice: “None of you ever had your holidays at Omarska, did you? No Olympic Games in Prijedor!”

He was referring to the concentration camps in northwest Bosnia and the implication was clear: The dismay many felt about what was taking place in Sarajevo and the focus on the Bosnian capital meant that the Serbs were free to carry out their plans more or less uninterrupted elsewhere in the country. After the war Koljevic tried to commit suicide on January 16 1997 by shooting himself in the head and died in a Belgrade hospital a week later from the wounds. By then he had been edged out of the Bosnian Serb political leadership by Biljana Plavsic and Momcilo Krajisnik. Both Plavsic & Krajisnik were later convicted of war crimes by the ICTY.

By the end of June 1992, a Serb police inspector in Visegrad, Milan Josipovic recived a request from the the Bajina Basta hydro-electric plant just across the border in Serbia. The director of the plant asked Josipovic if those responsible could “slow down the flow of corpses” on the Drina river. According to the plant director; the corpses were clogging up the culverts of the Bajina Basta dam at such a rate that he could not assemble enough staff to remove them.

13 years later, Josipovic, who was then 48 years, was shot twice in the chest and once in the head while he was in his coffee-grinding shop. There have been speculations that he was killed by a shadowy group called Preventiva charged with protecting wanted war criminals, including Milan Lukic. In 2005 Josipovic testifed against Novo Rajak, a member of the Visegrad police who  had taken part in the mistreatment of Bosniak civilians. After that rumors started to circulate that Josipovic was ready to give evidence against higher-level officials and that may have sealed Josipovic´s fate. His killer/killers have never been arrested.

In 2010 a small boat got stuck in the turbines of the Bajina Basta hydroelectric power plant, in order for the turbines to be repared the dam had to be emptied. That gave people from Institute for the Missing Persons of Bosnia-Herzegovina what was in effect their last chance to track down the bodies of of Bosniak civilians who had been killed in Visegrad and dumped into the Drina River. As Irena Antic from the Helsinki Committee For Human Rights Serbia  pointed out;

Everybody knew that throughout 1992 bodies of the Bosniaks were ending up in the turbines of the Bajina Basta hydro-electric power plant, thrown there by executioners, Milan Lukic’s “Revengers” and members of other Serb formations, who believed no one would ever find them in such a place. No one – some working for the plant or in hydro-electric sectors of Serbia or Republika Srpska, or an official of that Bosnian entity or the neighboring state – had ever suggested that the Drina lakes or even its basin should be emptied in the search for the killed.

Antic went on to say that once the team from Institute for the Missing Persons of Bosnia andHerzegovina got to Perucac they were met with rough terrain, mines, cracked soil, snakes and piles of clay, as well as high temperatures in the summer and rain, mud and wind in September.  According to the director of the Institute, Amor Masovic; fifteen people from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina made up the investigative team. The team moved on foot down both banks of the lake. They started at the old bridge in Visegrad and moved along the canyon all the way to the lake. “It was a multiethnic team sharing the same goal” according to Masovic. The investigators were soon joined by a team from Serbia looking for the remains of Kosovars killed by Serbian State Security Forces during the 1998-1999 Kosovo war. After a while a survivor organization made up of survivors and relatives of those killed in Visegrad 1992, called; “Visegrad 92” made an appeal for help which lead to hundreds of volunteers from all over Bosnia and Herzegovina and some from Serbia as well showing up at the exhumation-site trying to help the investigators. The long list of volunteers included students from Sarajevo University, utility workers from Sarajevo and former citizens of Visegrad now living abroad and in other parts of Bosnia and Herzegovina, many of them had lost loved ones during the massacres carried out by Serb forces in Visegrad area and for them this was the probably the last chance to maybe find the remains of their loved ones. Firefighters, speleologists, rangers, de-miners, and members of Bosnia´s special police forces helped too. In total the remains of 250 people were exhumed during those few months, needless to say, there was no help from the authorities in Republika Sprska who as Antic rightly points out were too afraid of the consequences draining the lakes on the border between Bosnia and Serbia might have, what might be found there, let alone draining the Drina basin, the bottom and the mud which most likely hides the largest amount of remains.

The remains exhumed at Perucac were just a small fraction of what lies beneath, together with the 126 citizens of Visgerad who were exhumed at the village Slap near Zepa back in 2000. The bodies found in Slap were gathered by the villagers as they floated down the river and buried in shallow graves. One of the people Vulliamy interviewed back in 1996 had escaped the carnage in Visegrad and found refuge in Zepa which was together with Srebrenica and Gorazde the only Bosnian-controlled enclave in eastern Bosnia. After Serb forces took Srebrenica in July 1995 they set their sights on Zepa which fell two weeks later after fierce resistance from the vastly outgunned and desperate Bosnian soldiers defending it. Vulliamy´s interview subject, then simply named “Jasmin R” was captured, in Serbia as were many men from Zepa as they tried to make their way to Serbia or Montenegro hoping to avoid the fate of those killed in Srebrenica. By Christmas 1995 Jasmin was evacuated to Dublin from a prison camp in Serbia. When he arrived in Zepa he was 14 and deemed too young to fight, he was instead assigned to Slap, a junction between the Drina and Zepa rivers. His job was to bring up the bodies of murdered civilians from Visegrad as the current flowed to Zepa. He was to bring them ashore in a small boat and bury them, often under fire from Serb forces. Jasmin and others, they dug the graves and buried the people gathered from the river, some of them Jasmin had known personally, they had been his neighbours in Visegrad. According to Jasmin; “the bodies came almost every day Men and women, old and young. They had been beaten and tortured, they were black and blue, and some had been decapitated. Yes, and there were children. Mostly 10 or 12, and two infants of about 18 months.”

During the trial of Mitar Vasiljevic back in 2001, Amor Masovic stated that by then the remains of 311 people belived to be from Visegrad had been exhumed from 14 different locations in Visegrad, Sokolac and Rogatica. Vasiljevic had been one of Milan Lukic´s closest companions. Before Masovic took the stand, another man who had worked on bringing up and burying the bodies floating down the Drina, Mevsud Poljo testified about bringing up about 170 to 180 bodies from the river together with others. Poljo belived that the bodies they pulled out of the Drina constituted maybe one fifth of the total number of corpses floating down the river. After they pulled the bodies out of the river they searched them for any form of identification before burying them, mostly at the banks of the small river Zepa near Slap.

Exhumations At Lake Perucac photo: Velija Hasanbegovic
Exhumations At Lake Perucac photo: Velija Hasanbegovic

Many of those Poljo, Jasmin and others didn´t manage to pull out of the water most likely ended up in the culverts of the Bajina Basta hydro-electrical plant.

A proper search would mean that a greater number of those killed in Visegrad and surrounding villages would be found. As it is now that is improbable as Serb-led authorities in Visegrad have done everything in their power to erase the memory of those atrocities, including an effort to destroy the house on Pionirska Street, the site of the live pyre that took the lives of 53 people. Re-built by survivors to serve as memorial to those killed it came close to being destroyed last year on the same day as Serb authorities in Visegrad erased the word genocide from a the Straziste cemetery. (A large number of those exhumed and identified from Visegrad and the surrounding area are buried there. ) As of today, the house on Pionirska still stands but that does not mean it´s not in harm´s way. The original date set for the destruction of both the house on Pionirska and the removal of the word genocide from the memorial on Straziste was December 24th 2013 Christmas eve, but due to the controversy this caused in Bosnia and the statements made by OHR, the US Embassy and OSCE the action was delyed, until one month later that is, when the Serb-led authorities in Visegrad finally entered the Straziste cemtery and removed the word genocide from the memorial to the fallen. They did not touch the house that time but there are reports that all final appeals to prevent the demolition of Pionirska Street house have been exhausted.

Muniza Oprasic faces a similar fate as the house in Pionirska Street. The original ruling came 2012, which she appealed and at the end of last month the district court in “Eastern Sarajevo” ruled that she had to pay 10 000 euro to the Serb family. Her story isn´t new but it´s indicative of the way returnees are treated in Republika Srpska.

After the original ruling back in 2012 she spoke to Bosnian media about the situation saying that she lived as a refugee in Sarajevo until 2003. The local Serb authorities had given the Serb family material to rebuild the house which had been damaged in the war.  The repairs were carried out without her permission. The Serb family lived there for years, while she had no access to her land and house. They sued her for the renovations that they had made to the house without her permission and that she and her husband were not aware of.  According to Muniza there was a ruling in her favor too, by which the Serb family was forced to pay a 100 KM or 50 euro to Muniza for every month that they had lived there on her property but according to her; she never saw a penny of that money. They refused to remove the windows, doors and some other things they had put in to the badly damaged house; instead they sued her for compensation.

When journalists from Al Jazzera Balkans visited her two years ago they found her living a humble existence in her house on her property in Okruglo. A picture of Mecca along with some Quranic verses adores her living room walls. She was orphaned during World War II. During the visit to Muniza journalists also spoke to Nedim Jahic, a human rights activist from Sarajevo who believes that the verdict against Muniza is absurd. Jahic said that if Muniza had returned to an empty house in 2003 she would have probably received donations and her house would have been renovated at no cost to her. She wouldn´t be facing the situation she is facing today, having to pay 10 000 euros to people who lived in her house at the order of local authorities.

Still, according to Hajro Poskovic, a legal expert with the OSCE in Sarajevo temporary users of abandoned houses have a legal right to be compensated for any repairs they make, but that the owner also has the right to be compensated from the local authorities, in this case the owner is Muniza Oprasic. Strictly legally speaking that would mean that Oprasic would pay the 10 000 euros to the Serb family and then seek compensation from the local Serb authorities who settled the family in Muniza´s house in the first place.

However Muniza Oprasic is a 78 year old pensioner with no other income except her pension which is 160 euros every month, she has no means of paying 10 000 euros and given the legal situation for returnees in Republika Srpska it is naïve to think that the she will ever be compensated from the Serb authorities in Republika Srpska. With the appeal process apparently exhausted, if she does not find the money, 10 000 euro to give to the Serb family she will most likely be evicted from her home.

Note: Irena Antic´s piece for Helsinki Committee For Human Rights referred to Milan Lukic´s paramilitary unit as the “Revengers” (Osvetnici) Most court documents in english as well as articles on Visegrad refer to them as “Avengers” as well as the Balkan Insight piece which claims that Muniza Oprasic is 71 years old, while all the Bosnian articles on her, including articles in Klix, Dnevni Avaz and Slobodna Bosna indicate that she is 78 years old today.

This post has been uppdated and edited on 12/03/2015

With Šešelj’s Release from the Hague, Can There be Justice on the Ground in Bosnia?


David Pettigrrew shows solidarity with Bakira Hasecic at Straziste Cemetery in Visegrad. Photo by Markéta Slavková
David Pettigrew shows solidarity with Bakira Hasecic at Straziste Cemetery in Visegrad. Photo by Markéta Slavková

This is a guest post by Professor David Pettigrew. This article was published in Bosnian on Al-Jazeera Balkans 9-12-14

The recent release of ultranationalist demagogue Vojislav Šešelj1 from his detention at the Hague, for “compelling humanitarian reasons,”2 raises new questions about the legacy of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Šešelj is charged, for example, with having “made inflammatory speeches in the media” and with having “espoused and encouraged the creation of a homogeneous ‘Greater Serbia,’ by violence, and thereby participated in war propaganda and incitement of hatred towards non-Serb people.”3 Upon his arrival in Belgrade following his release, Šešelj re-affirmed his commitment to pursuing a “Greater Serbia,” and brazenly asserted that he would never return voluntarily to the Hague. In addition to his “extreme ethnic rhetoric,” Šešelj is charged with “Persecutions” as a Crime Against Humanity, including murder, torture, and deportation.4

There is no doubt that the work of the ICTY is profoundly important, but Šešelj’s release indicates the troubling limits of the judgments of the Court. For example, even if Radovan Karadžić would be convicted on both counts of Genocide, the entity of Republika Sprska, with its political and cultural policies of genocide denial and the glorification of war criminals, would continue to exist, thereby circumscribing the limits of judicial processes in matters of justice and human rights.

In addition to the difficulties of achieving meaningful justice at the ICTY, there are frustrating obstacles to achieving “justice on the ground” in Republika Srpska. For example, the authorities in Republika Srpska have declared their intention to demolish the Pionirska Street house. The destruction of the house would erase all traces of the crimes that were perpetrated in 1992 when innocent women and children were burned alive both in the Bikavac neighborhood and in the Pionirska Street house. These were crimes, it must be said, that were described by the ICTY as “the worst acts of inhumanity that a person may inflict upon others.”5

Nonetheless, the authorities in Republika Srpska have designated the Pionirska Street house for demolition as part of a municipal road construction project, even though the foundation of the house is quite obviously far removed from the adjacent roadbed. A “red tape” was placed around the house by the authorities, announcing the condemnation of the property and prohibiting access.

In response to the plans to destroy the house and erase any evidence of the crimes, Mrs. Bakira Hasečić, President of the Association of Women Victims of War, organized an effort to restore the Pionirska Street house, a restoration that was to include a memorial museum for the victims in the basement where they were viciously murdered. Mrs. Hasečić’s efforts, however, led to her being the target of criminal investigations for “illegal construction,” and for crossing the “red tape,” or, what could be termed the “red line.”

At this point the final appeal to prevent the destruction of the house has been exhausted and Mrs. Hasečić is still being targeted for investigation and prosecution. Thus, Mrs. Hasečić is being targeted and persecuted a second time: she was first targeted and persecuted in 1992 as a result of the genocidal policies of Mr. Šešelj and Mr. Karadžić, and now she is targeted and persecuted once again as part of the apartheid politics of Republika Srpska; apartheid politics masquerading as the “rule of law.”

On March 18, 2014, I crossed the “red line” of the “red tape” at the Pionirska Street house in solidarity with Mrs. Hasečić, in order to respect and honor the memory of the victims of the crime, one of two crimes that the International Criminal Court insisted, stand out “for the viciousness of the incendiary attack, for the obvious premeditation and calculation that defined it, for the sheer callousness and brutality of herding, trapping and locking the victims in the two houses, thereby rendering them helpless in the ensuing inferno, and for the degree of pain and suffering inflicted on the victims as they were burnt alive.”6 The question now, is whether, as Vojislav Šešelj is receiving a hero’s welcome in Belgrade and is affirming the ideology of a “Greater Serbia,” the international community will find the resolve to support Mrs. Hasečić and to save the Pionirska Street house from demolition.

In his comments in Prague on October 30, 2014, the High Representative Valentin Inzko stated that “the international community needs to change” and that it must be “much more united,” and “more prescriptive” in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The High Representative insisted that Republika Srpska would not be allowed to secede and that Srebrenica would never be situated in a separate country.7 The High Representative also described genocide denial as “unbelievable,” and the glorification of war criminals in Republika Srpska as simply “unacceptable.” Such a glorification of war criminals is equivalent, in his opinion, to “hate speech.” He emphasized that Bosnia and Herzegovina needs to enact laws against genocide denial and hate speech.8

In response to Šešelj’s release from the Hague, and to his avowal of ultranationalism and hate speech, let us seek justice on the ground in Republika Srpska. If the right to the freedom of cultural expression guaranteed by the core International Human Rights documents does not include the right to memorialize and mourn the victims of a genocide, and to be protected against discrimination in this regard, then the documents would have no meaning.9 Survivors have also been prohibited from installing memorials to the victims of atrocities in Foča and Prijedor.

Accordingly, in the spirit of Mr. Inzko’s recent comments in Prague, I invite the High Representative and representatives of the international community to join me in crossing and defying the “red tape” at the Pionirska Street house in Republika Sprska, in the sense that this “red line” is the line of genocide denial, hate speech, discrimination, persecution, psychological intimidation and dehumanizing exclusion. Let us cross the red line together in remembrance of the victims, in solidarity with the survivors, and in support of human rights. When efforts to achieve justice are frustrated at the Hague, let us support human rights and justice on the ground in Republika Srpska.

Vojislav Šešelj is charged, among other crimes, with the “deliberate destruction of homes…cultural institutions, historic monuments and sacred sites.”10 Tragically, without some form of unified action, the anticipated demolition of the Pionirska Street house will be nothing less than the cruel re-enactment, in 2014, of the genocide that occurred between 1992-1995. The destruction of the Pionirska Street house will re-enact the Bosnian Serb Army’s practice of destroying homes, mosques and cultural institutions in civilian towns and villages, such as occurred from Kozarac (Prijedor Municipality) to Klotjevac (Srebrenica Municipality), and in many other locations. The international community was unable to stop the murder of civilians and the destruction of their homes from 1992 – 1995. The question is whether the international community will unite and act now to protect Mrs. Hasečić from further criminal investigation and prevent the destruction of the Pionirska Street house.

David Pettigrew, PhD

Professor of Philosophy, Southern Connecticut State University,

Member, Steering Committee, Yale University Genocide Studies Program,

International Team of Experts Institute for Research of Genocide Canada,

Board Member, Bosnian American Genocide Institute and Education Center, Chicago, IL


  1. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Third Amended Indictment, Šešelj (IT-03-67-T), December 7, 2007, accessed November 28, 2014,
  2. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ORDER ON THE PROVISIONAL RELEASE OF THE ACCUSED PROPRIO MOTU (IT-03-67-T), Trial Chamber III, November 6, 2014, accessed November 28, 2014,
  3. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Third Amended Indictment, Šešelj (IT-03-67-T), §10, b and c, December 7, 2007, accessed November 28, 2014.
  4. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Third Amended Indictment, Šešelj (IT-03-67-T), §22, 24, 26, 27, 28-33, December 7, 2007, accessed November 28, 2014,
  5. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Judgement, §1061, Trial Chamber III, July 20, 2009, accessed November 28, 2014,
  6. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Judgement, Milan Lukić-Sredoje Lukić (IT-98-32/1-T), Judgement, §740, Trial Chamber III, July 20, 2009,
  7. Inzko, Valentin. “Panel Presentation and Discussion.” “Conference on “European Integration of the Western Balkans” Council for International Relations in Cooperation with Ministry of Foreign Affairs Czech Republic, Prague. 30 Oct. 2014. Speech.
  8. Ibid.
  9. The International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights affirms that “the ideal of free human beings enjoying freedom from fear and want can only be achieved if conditions are created whereby everyone may enjoy his economic, social and cultural rights, as well as his civil and political rights.”

The International Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination, Part I, Article 2 (2.) states that “Parties shall, when the circumstances so warrant, take, in the social, economic, cultural and other fields, special and concrete measures to ensure the adequate development and protection of certain racial groups or individuals belonging to them, for the purpose of guaranteeing them the full and equal enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Article 5, (e) specifies Economic, social and cultural rights, including “(vi) The right to equal participation in cultural activities.” While the Pionirska Street house faces demolition in Višegrad, a statue that honors the perpetrators of the genocide has been installed in the middle of town, clearly indicating a discriminatory policy with regard to the cultural practice of memorialization.


  1. International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, Third Amended Indictment, Šešelj (IT-03-67-T), §17 j, December 7, 2007, accessed November 28, 2014,

The Norwegian Yugoslavia-Syndrome

IbsenHandkeThis article originally appeared in Norwegian on the website of VG Nyheter as a part of the debate on the controversial decision to award Peter Handke The Ibsen Award. Written by Balkan-expert and senior adviser to The Norwegian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights; Aage Borchgrevink This article has been translated and published with the author´s permission. 

In its decision the jury shies away from the problematic aspects of choosing Handke and concentrates on his work. The jury has also avoided what they call “the polemic” I asked for a debate on the award. Is it only in Norway that it´s so easy to differentiate between the aesthetic and the political?

20 years ago the wars in the former Yugoslavia created; The Bosnia-generation: Intellectuals who wanted intervention in case of serious crimes. In Norway you saw very little of that. Few Norwegian newsrooms covered the war thoroughly and the premise of interpretation was left to those Norwegians who themselves were involved. Lessons of the genocide were filtered away.

Bosnia was about the international community’s role. “While impartiality and neutrality are hailed as virtues in diplomacy, as the complexity and ambiguity makes it purely intellectual,” wrote philosopher Arne Johan Vetlesen, “ Then are all these virtues to be considered – at least potential – vices in an actual situation where genocide is the phenomenon we are facing and have a responsibility to decide”

Vetlesen wrote this in his attempt to debate Bosnia with UN´s former peace negotiator Thorvald Stoltenberg. There are many reasons why Stoltenberg is one of the country´s most respected statesmen, that is perhaps why so few have talked about how controversial his effort in Bosnia really was. Critique of Stoltenberg has usually been referred to the debate slits in niche media; Stoltenberg has rarely responded.

«Appeasement» was the word Nobel Prize winner Kofi Annan used to describe Stoltenberg’s peace negotiations, Stoltenberg’s view of the war, that all parties were equally at fault and that Serbs were made scape goats is not only controversial but also flies in the face of any serious historical account. Verdicts rendered at the War Crimes tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) showed that the clear majority of the crimes were committed by the Serb side.

Yet Stoltenberg has been a chief witness in the description of the Bosnian War, especially at NRK ( Norwegian State Television)  which has created two uncritical documentary projects about Stoltenberg , The Peace Warrior and The Balkans in the blood. Stoltenberg was also expert in NRK Brennpunkt revisionist documentary on Srebrenica in 2011, A Town Betrayed, (Izdani Grad) The film was the first program to be brought down in both the Press Complaints Commission ( PFU ) and the Investigation Committee , the Swedish equivalent of PFU.

Another factor which has paved the way for Handke´s Ibsen Award is the cultural elite´s instinctive moral compass. When tens of thousands were being slaughtered during the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia and Croatia during the beginning of the 90s there were few protests and petitions. It was only after NATO attacked Yugoslavia during the spring of 1999 that the cultural elite rose up in protest, not against the Serb forces and their ethnic cleansing in Kosovo, but against the NATO-operation to stop the abuses. To many Norwegian “opponents of war” the wars in the Balkans only became visible once the United States intervened.

Handke defined the problem of Yugoslavia in the language, and protests against the black and white image of the conflict he thinks he sees in the media. Here he´s one the same page with literature professor Arild Linneberg´s critically acclaimed book; 13 Boring Essays about War and Literature, from 2003. Handke is also defended by his publisher Karl Ove Knausgård who writes: “If you read what Handke actually said at Milosevic´s funeral and what he has written about Serbia it´s about nuancing the one sidedness of the western media coverage of the conflict”

And nuance is always good right? Doubt is our product, gentlemen, said an executive in the tobacco industry to the marketing department. And just like the tobacco industry´s counter attack against science was about taking advantage of the medias estimable desire for balance in their columns, in order to sow doubt and prevent action, so were Slobodan Milosevic´s efforts to nuance the image of the wars in the former Yugoslavia. Milosevic complained in 1999 that Western journalists depicted the wars as black and white, and wanted just like Arlid Linneberg more ambiguous shades of gray…

Poetic ambiguity can also serve the interests of power. There is no moral snow white point outside of politics, not even for playwrights. We are all intertwined, the language is tainted. Handke or Knausgård should perhaps be less concerned about ”complexity and ambiguity” per se, and more concerned with judicial reviews. Although all sides committed crimes in Bosnia, one cannot nuance statistics from the ICTY without getting into bad company.

Maybe this isn´t that new for artists? Hamsun, Celine, Mishima, Ezra Pound: Many great artists have been fascists. Their writing lives on. But I’m not sure if Ibsen himself would appreciate getting into this company, and he would hardly appreciate the jury´s attempt to kill off the debate. The Ibsen Award is also created by the Norwegian government, and although the jury is independent, giving him the award represents an official Norwegian tribute to Peter Handke.

The moral juxtaposition of the victim and the perpetrator and the conspiratorial description of reality given by people like Handke plays straight into the political debate in Bosnia today, and is used to maintain yesterday´s view of the conflict, which is the basis for the political power in much of that dysfunctional country. The Ibsen Award thus has a political significance, which the jury should recognize.

There is no unassailable wall between literature and politics, not even in the case of Handke. It is the jury’s silence on these issues, more than the actual award, which makes the event an embarrassing affair.

150 years ago Henrik Ibsen dissected his time´s bourgeoisie on the stage. If he came back today, short stature and bearded, what would he write about? Perhaps a jury consisting of ‘Pillars of Society’ (name of an Ibsen-play) toying with the explosive attraction of a contrarian writer, who all run home and switch off their phones as soon as cries of real misery emerge from the background.

Open Letter To ICTY President Theodor Meron


The Old bridge ( Na Drini Cuprija) Višegrad
The Old bridge ( Na Drini Cuprija) Višegrad


This is a guest post by professor David Pettigrew.

Dear President Meron:

I am writing to you to express a grave concern about the ICTY’s prosecution of Mr. Radovan Karadžić, particularly regarding the removal of Višegrad and other municipalities from the indictment.

Approximately one year ago, on July 11, 2013, the Appeals Chamber reversed the Trial Chamber’s acquittal of Mr. Karadžić for genocide in the municipalities named under Count 1 of the indictment, and reinstated the charges against Mr. Karadžić under Count 1.1

The Appeals Chamber noted that “statements on the record … suggest that Karadžić possessed genocidal intent. For example, Mr. Karadžić is alleged to have said that his goal was ‘to get rid of the enemies in our house, the Croats and Muslims, and not to be in the same state with them [anymore]’ and that if war started in Bosnia, Muslims would disappear and be annihilated.”2

Thus, with the reinstatement of the charges under Count 1, it appeared that Mr. Karadžić would be prosecuted for the crime of genocide for atrocities committed in municipalities such as Prijedor and Višegrad, and that, through the legal process, there would be the possibility of a conviction for genocide under Count 1.

Moreover, the reinstatement of Count 1 for genocide was profoundly significant since, as the Appeals Chamber Judgement Summary stated, “the case concerns events that occurred between 31 March 1992 and 31 December 1992 in certain municipalities of Bosnia and Herzegovina claimed as Bosnian Serb territory…”3 In other words, the area “claimed as Bosnian Serb territory” was nothing other than the territory that is known as “Republika Srpska.” Accordingly, in the event that there is a conviction on the charge of genocide under Count 1, there would be confirmation that genocide was not only committed in Srebrenica, but that the genocidal intent of Mr. Karadžić pertained to the entirety of the territory of Republika Srpska. The profoundly important implication of this confirmation would be that Republika Srpska was founded upon a genocidal intention and that its territory was secured through genocidal atrocities. 4

However –and here is the matter of my concern– according to the October 8, 2009 Trial Chamber decision regarding the reduction of the scope of the Karadžić case, a reduction purportedly designed to insure that the trial would be conducted in “a fair and expeditious manner,” “the Prosecution proposed to remove eight municipalities in their entirety from the presentation of evidence.”5 The municipalities that were removed from the indictment included, Bosanski Petrovac, Kalinovik, Kotor Varoš, and Višegrad.  The removal of the selected municipalities from the indictment is evidenced by a line that is drawn through, or “struck through” the name of each of the selected municipalities. For example, Višegrad appears as such in the Prosecution’s Marked-up Indictment.

In its written decision the Court stated that “the preclusion of evidence pertaining to certain crime sites or incidents is not meant to suggest that the associated charges are of lesser importance than others.”6 However, “striking through” Višegrad, and removing the municipality from the indictment seems to fly in the face of the Court’s own ruling with respect to the crimes committed therein.  In his Judgement Summary for Milan Lukić and Sredoje Lukić of 20 July 2009, regarding crimes committed in Višegrad, Judge Robinson stated that:

The Pionirska street fire [June 14, 1992] and the Bikavac fire [June 27, 1992] exemplify the worst acts of inhumanity that a person may inflict upon others. In the all too long, sad and wretched history of man’s inhumanity to man, the Pionirska street and Bikavac fires must rank high. At the close of the twentieth century, a century marked by war and bloodshed on a colossal scale, these horrific events stand out for the viciousness of the incendiary attack, for the obvious premeditation and calculation that defined it, for the sheer callousness and brutality of herding, trapping and locking the victims in the two houses, thereby rendering them helpless in the ensuing inferno, and for the degree of pain and suffering inflicted on the victims as they were burnt alive. There is a unique cruelty in expunging all traces of the individual victims which must heighten the gravity ascribed to these crimes.”7

Having read Judge Robinson’s statement, and, having personally witnessed the exhumation of the human remains of victims from Višegrad in August 2010 when I accompanied the Bosnian Missing Persons Institute and the International Commission on Missing Persons in the course of their mission, it would not have occurred to me that it was in the interest of justice to remove Višegrad and the crimes committed therein from the indictment.

In your recent address to the U.N. Security Council, you spoke briefly about a range of expectations and implications of the ICTY’s decisions in relation to justice, peace and reconciliation.8 Your thoughtful reflections raise a question about the effect that the Court’s actions (or inactions) may have on certain perceptions. It seems, indeed, in the present context, that the absence of a conviction for genocide in Prijedor and the absence of a charge for genocide in Višegrad may well have emboldened the Bosnian Serb majority in those municipalities in their denials of the atrocities that were committed and in their suppression of the commemoration of the atrocities.

In Prijedor, for example, survivors have been forbidden from using the term “genocide” in public gatherings and have, moreover, been prohibited from installing memorials to the victims. In 2006, the local administration in Prijedor effectively prevented the installation of a memorial in the “White House” building that was part of the Omarska Concentration Camp. On December 1, 2005, ArcelorMittal, the current owner of the Omarska mining complex had actually agreed to allow the memorial to be installed and to provide financial support, but the Prijedor administration resisted the installation.

In Višegrad, the authorities threatened to destroy or remove a memorial to the victims in a private Muslim cemetery. Then, on January 23, 2014, the authorities forcibly entered the cemetery and ground the word “genocide” off the memorial.  It could be said that the Bosnian Serb-dominated municipality had effectively “struck through” or had “struck out” the term “genocide” from the memorial in the same way Višegrad had been struck through in the Prosecution’s Marked-Up Indictment.  If the intention was different, the result was the same.

In the meantime, it should not escape our attention that memorials to the perpetrators have been installed in Trnopolje (Prijedor), and Višegrad, and that only recently a memorial plaque honoring Commander Ratko Mladić, was installed in the hills above Sarajevo.

Hence, in the event that the prosecution of Mr. Karadžić culminates in a conviction for genocide under Count 1 in the named municipalities, it would be imperative, in the interest of justice, that the Court’s Judgement include a clear statement to the effect that while the conviction for genocide refers to a set of selected municipalities (the municipalities that remained in the indictment), in its essence, and in truth, the conviction for genocide under Count 1 would be a conviction for a genocidal intention that applied to the entirety of  the area “claimed as Bosnian Serb territory.”

If such a statement can be included in the Court’s Judgement, then those municipalities that were arbitrarily removed from the indictment would be inscribed once again in the essential scope of the conviction, an act of inclusion that would respect and respond to the singularity of the suffering that occurred throughout Republika Srpska as a result of the genocidal intention of the overarching joint criminal enterprise of its founding leadership.

Thank you for your consideration.


David Pettigrew, PhD Professor of Philosophy, Southern Connecticut State University,

Steering Committee, Yale University Genocide Studies Program,

International Team of Experts Institute for Research of Genocide, Canada,

Board Member, Bosnian American Genocide Institute and Education Center, Chicago, IL, USA

With the endorsement of:

Sanja Seferović-Drnovšek, J.D., M.Ed.,

person, Bosnian American Genocide Institute and Education Center (BAGI) Member, Illinois Holocaust and Genocide Commission;

Prof. Emir Ramić, Chairman,

Institute for the Research of Genocide, Canada (IRGC);

Prof. Dr. Rasim Muratović, Director,

Institute for the Research of Crimes Against Humanity and International Law, University of Sarajevo;

Satko Mujagić, Association of Victims and Witnesses of Genocide;

Ajla Delkić, Executive Director,

Advisory Council for Bosnia and Herzegovina;

Hamdija Čustović, President, Congress of North American Bosniaks (CNAB);

Bakira Hasečić, President, Association of Women Victims of War;

Selena Seferović, Director, Bosnian Library Chicago;

Prof. Dr. Senadin Lavić, President,

Bosniak Cultural Association, “Renaissance”;
Dr. Hariz Halilovich, Senior Lecturer,

Office of the Vice-Provost (Learning and Teaching),

Monash University, Victoria, Australia;

Dr. Marko Attila Hoare,

Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences,

Kingston University, London;

Anes Džunuzović, Udruženje ”Mladi Muslimani” [Young Muslims];

Mr. Sc. Sedad Bešlija, Active Bosniak Network.

The continued humiliation and mistreatment of genocide survivors

Hatidža Mehmedović
Hatidža Mehmedović

This article appeared on Al Jazeera Balkans 14/04/ 2014

President of the Victims Association “Mothers of Srebrenica” Hatidža Mehmedović received a letter today demanding that she show up at the local police station in Srebrenica on today, Tuesday because she entered the premises of the Agricultural Cooperative in the village of Kravica on July 13 last year together with other members of the association in order to pay respect to the victims of genocide.

According to Mehmedović: “The letter says that what I did was a criminal offence, and that they need me to come to the station and make a statement. That is the very height of arrogance, the way victims are being treated. They killed everyone I had and I am guilty because I survived and bear witness to what happened. If it´s a crime to lay flowers on a scene of a crime, then I don´t know what a crime is”

She also feels that the Office of the Prosecutor and the courts are to blame for rewarding criminals and criminals and punishing the victims. “We victims are punished while we live,” she added, stating that “if need be, I´ll to go to jail,”

“I´ll always fight for the truth, for justice and equality as no mother should need to go from execution site to execution site to mark the anniversary of the suffering of their loved ones. I have nothing left to lose, many more mothers have nothing to lose and will fight for truth and justice. We will not give up,”

Mehmedović has already been questioned by the police once before, where she was held for three hours. Members of several victims associations entered the cooperative in Kravica last year in order to mark the anniversary of the murder of over 1000 Bosniaks from Srebrenica. They were executed in Kravica. They did however not receive permission from the owners. The local police tried, as they have done in previous years to stop the members from entering but were not successful

After members from various associations entered the cooperative, the entity judiciary said that they had broken into private property and initiated proceedings against the members.

“The war criminals have all the rights they need; they are even rewarded, while the victims are humiliated. It´s a bigger crime to go to the scene of the war crime then it is to commit one. This is worrying because we have been sending the requests so that we can peacefully mark the anniversary of the executions. According to law, we have that right, yet we constantly encounter various obstacles.”

Aside from Hatidža Mehmedović, who lost her sons husband and about ten relatives in the Srebrenica genocide, Aiša Omerović will also be questioned by the police. The hanger in the cooperative in Kravica was one of the biggest execution sites after the fall of Srebrenica. Accoriding to testimony of survivors in July 1995 members of Bosnian Serb military and police forces killed over 1000 Bosniak men and boys.

Bodies of the murdered Bosniaks in Kravica were caught on film by cameraman  Zoran Petrovic
Bodies of the murdered Bosniaks in Kravica were caught on film by cameraman Zoran Petrovic

My Note:  On december 12th 2012 the ICTY convicted Zdravko Tolimir for genocide in Srebrenica, Tolimir was assistant Commander of Intelligence and Security for the Bosnian Serb army and reported directly to the commander, General Ratko Mladic. He was Mladic right hand man. The judgement mentioned the massacre in Kravica:


In the late afternoon of 13 July, hundreds of Bosnian Muslim men were transported from a meadow in Sandići by bus, and some directed by foot, to a one storey building known as the Kravica Warehouse, in the Bratunac area. When the warehouse was packed full, Bosnian Serb Forces started firing at the men inside, using machineguns as well as hand and rocket propelled grenades. They fired for hours, with intermittent lulls in the shooting in which the wounded moaned and called out names. These executions continued into the morning of 14 July. The Accused’s immediate subordinate, Beara, was directly involved in the burial operation of between 600 and 1,000 Bosnian Muslim men who the Chamber found had been murdered at the warehouse between 13 and 14 July 1995.

On the evening of 13, and morning of 14 July, hundreds of Bosnian Muslim men were transported by bus to a school in Grbavci located near Orahovac. There, they were crammed into the gymnasium of the school building. In the afternoon of 14 July, they were transported by bus to two separate killings sites nearby. Upon disembarking, they were shot by Bosnian Serb Forces. Some of the wounded prisoners were cursed, and left to suffer in agony before they were finally killed. One of the groups of prisoners included a boy of approximately five to six years old, who, after being shot at, stood up from the pile of bodies and called out for his father. Up to 2,500 Bosnian Muslim men were murdered at Grbavci school on this day. They, too, were buried in a mass grave.


Prior to the Zdravko Tolimir verdict, Ljubisa Beara who had been Tolimir´s direct subordinate and was present during the executions in Kravica was found guilty by the Trial Chamber, on the basis of individual criminal responsibility, of genocide, crimes against humanity, violations of laws or customs of war and was convicted to life imprisonment. Beara was sentenced togheter with Vujadin Popović, the Chief of Security of the Drina Corps, Drago Nikolić, the Chief of Security in the Zvornik Brigade who was found guilty of aiding and abetting genocide, extermination, murder and persecution. Ljubomir Borovčanin, Deputy Commander of the Special Police Brigade of the police forces was convicted of aiding and abetting extermination, murder, persecution and forcible transfer. The men were tried togheter with three other high ranking Bosnian Serb officers: Radivoje Miletić, Milan Gvero, and Vinko Pandurević. The trial was known as :The Srebrenica Seven.

Statement Concerning the January 23, 2014 Desecration of the Stražište Memorial

The Old bridge ( Na Drini Cuprija) Višegrad
The Old bridge ( Na Drini Cuprija) in Višegrad


This is a guest post by David Pettigrew. Shortly after professor Pettigrew´s visit and his report The Guradian published a lengthy article by Julian Borger on the situation in Višegrad.

Višegrad, March 18, 2014

By my presence in the Stražište Cemetery today in Višegrad, I condemn genocide denial in Republika Srpska and specifically condemn the removal of the word “genocide” from the memorial to the victims of the genocide in the Stražište Cemetery, a removal carried out by the municipal authorities in Višegrad on January 23, 2014. On that day, the authorities forcibly entered the Muslim cemetery and defaced the memorial by scraping the word “genocide” from the stone memorial. Under the circumstances, this was a cowardly and heinous act of desecration and denial.

In May 2012, sixty victims of the genocide were laid to rest in Stražište cemetery.  Their human remains had been exhumed from the Drina River and Lake Perućac beginning in August 2010. At that time, repairs on a nearby dam had caused the river level to drop. It then became possible for the first time to find the victims who had been murdered on the Ottoman bridge and thrown into the river in 1992.  Perhaps the perpetrators thought they had hidden the evidence of their crimes once and for all. However, due to the heroic efforts of Bosnia’s Missing Person’s Institute and the International Commission on Missing Persons, the bones of the victims were recovered from the riverbed.  I accompanied the government exhumation team and I witnessed the discovery of the human remains. These were the victims who were laid to rest in the Stražište cemetery in 2012 when the memorial to the victims of the Višegrad genocide was installed.

When removing the word “genocide” on January 23, 2014, the local authorities suggested that they were operating under the “rule of law.” But they fail to recognize that their “rule of law” is discriminatory as well as a violation of human rights. Such a “rule of law” imposed by one ethnic group (Serb) upon another ethnic group (Bosniak or non-Serb) in Višegrad, is discriminatory in the same way that the Nuremberg Laws in Nazi Germany1 discriminated “legally” against the Jews, and in the same way that the “Jim Crow Laws”in the United States2  –from approximately 1876 to 1965– discriminated “legally” against Black Americans. It should not escape our attention that the Bosnian Serb majority in Višegrad achieved its current political authority precisely as a result of the genocide that occurred from 1992-1995.

The “rule of law” that authorized the defacing of the Stražište memorial is clearly discriminatory in the sense that a monument to the perpetrators of the genocide stands prominently and undisturbed in the center of the town of Višegrad. Further, such a discriminatory “rule of law” is also operative elsewhere in Republika Srpska, since Bosnian Serbs have erected their own memorials, which are located provocatively nearby the sites of the concentration camps –such as the one at Trnopolje (Prijedor)– while Bosniaks have been prevented from doing so.

The removal of the word “genocide” from the Stražište memorial is, moreover, a violation of every core human rights instrument regarding the fundamental human right to take part in the cultural life of one’s community.  Such conventions must certainly protect the social and cultural practice of memorializing the victims of genocide in a private religious cemetery.

My colleagues and I (Sanja Seferović-Drnovšek, Chairperson, Bosnian American Genocide Institute and Education Center in Chicago IL; Prof. Emir Ramić, Chairman Institute for the Research of Genocide Canada; and Prof. Dr. Smail Čekić, Director, Institute for the Research of Crimes Against Humanity and International Law, University of Sarajevo), have proposed that one way to protect human rights regarding the preservation of cultural memory would be to recognize the sites of genocide, whether in Foča, Omarska, Trnopolje, Višegrad, or elsewhere, as “national” properties, in the same way that the Potočari Memorial Cemetery has been established and preserved as a national site in memory of the victims of the Srebrenica genocide. By establishing these memorial sites as national lands, the survivors would be empowered to create memorials and commemorate the genocide in these specific “places of pain,”3 free of the denial and the suppression of the truth.

For their part, the authorities in Višegrad have signaled their insensitive and discriminatory intention to destroy the Pionirska House, which is the only existing “memorial” to the murder of innocent civilians by Bosnian Serb forces in Višegrad in 1992. In this case, the authorities are using the excuse of a road construction project to allow them to demolish and erase the only remaining evidence of the Pionirska and Bikavac crimes, crimes which the ICTY described as horrific, vicious, callous, brutal, and uniquely cruel.4

In the light of the documented suffering of the victims of the genocide in Višegrad, and of the victims throughout Bosnia and Herzegovina, the actions and intentions of the authorities in Višegrad can be characterized as indecent and shameless. In addition, those actions and intentions can be identified as “apartheid.” Indeed, the International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid condemns “Any legislative measures and other measures calculated to prevent groups from participation in the political, social, economic and cultural life of the country and the deliberate creation of conditions preventing … the right to freedom of movement and residence, the right to freedom of opinion and expression…”5   Recent reports indicate that such discriminatory practices in Republika Srpska are affecting non-Serbs in a number of other respects, including taxes, property rights, residency, voting rights, and psychological intimidation affecting the right of return. Those discriminatory practices are a primary impediment to human rights and restorative justice as well as to national and regional economic development.


Let us stand in solidarity today with those who endured the genocide, and in memory of the victims as we request that the international community recognize and undertake its responsibility to protect, through all appropriate diplomatic, political and legal avenues, the Bosniak and non-Serb populations who are subject to persecution, psychological intimidation and discrimination in Republika Srpska.

Let us request that all necessary measures be taken to hold the authorities in Republika Srpska accountable for crimes against humanity under international law for willfully persecuting and discriminating against Bosniaks and other non-Serbs in their effort to secure the goals of the genocidal aggression and exclusion that took place from 1992 to 1995.


David Pettigrew, Ph.D.,

Professor of Philosophy

Southern CT State University

Member, Steering Committee, Yale University Genocide Studies Program,

International Team of Experts Institute for Research of Genocide Canada,

Board Member, Bosnian American Genocide Institute and Education Center, Chicago, IL

Višegrad, March 18, 2014

1 “The Nuremberg Race Laws.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Web. 18 March 2014.

2 “Jim Crow Laws.” Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site. National Park Service. Web. 18 March 2014.