Sjeverin Abduction

A memorial to the victims of Sjeverin
A memorial to the victims of Sjeverin

On October 22nd 1992, 16 Bosniak civilians, fifteen men and one woman were taken out of a bus traveling from Sjeverin to Priboj. Both Priboj and Sjeverin are in Serbia´s Sandžak region, (with a large Bosniak population), Sjeverin lies on the very border with Bosnia and Herzegovina. People on the bus that morning were going to work in Priboj, the town being one of the main industrial centres in the area. In order to get to Priboj from Sjeverin the bus had to pass thru Bosnia and Herzegovina for a brief period due to the location of the road when it was stopped by Serb paramilitaries in a place called Mioče just across the border. After the initial Serbian attack on Eastern Bosnia by various Serb paramilitary formations, units from Serbian State Security and the former JNA (Yugoslav People´s Army) and the ethnic cleansing and massacres that took place in the towns and villages all along the Drina Valley in the spring, summer and fall of 92, that area, ( aside from Srebrenica, Žepa and Goražde ) was now firmly in control of Serb forces.

In order for the workers, especially non-Serb workers to pass through safely the firms they worked for had issued special permits, Serb forces has established a curfew and were checking the buses and cars passing through their area. The bus that morning, like most mornings was full of people going to work and school. One of the survivors of the kidnapping at Mioče was then 13-year-old Admir Džihić who was going to Priboj with his uncle Esad, Admir to school and his uncle to work in Priboj. He recalls that on that day Serb units blocked the road, waiting for the bus, at around 6:30 in the morning 9 heavily armed men in camouflage fatigues entered the bus and started asking for people´s id-cards and permits, yelling “Muslims get out” to the Bosniaks on the bus, 13-year-old Admir managed to avoid the kidnapping as one of the Serb fighters mistook him for a Serb boy named Ilija. His uncle and fifteen other Bosniak passengers were taken out of the bus, the only woman taken, Mevlida Koldžić asked the Serb fighters where they were taking her brother, who was also on the bus, once they knew the two were brother and sister, i.e. both were Bosniaks, the Serb fighters told her to get out too, saying; “if he´s your brother then you come with us too”.

The Serb fighters took out fifteen men and one woman out of the bus and told the driver to drive on, telling the driver that “he saw nothing and heard nothing, and should somebody say something, they´ll know who it was”. The bus drove on and nobody, not one of the Serb passengers on the bus objected to the kidnapping of the people from Sjeverin.

After they were taken out, Serb fighters told them to get in the back of a military truck that was parked nearby. The boy,  arriving at school in Priboj started crying but was too afraid to tell his teacher what was bothering him, while the driver of the bus informed the employer of those kidnapped about what had happened, he in turn informed the police in Priboj. The news of the kidnapping started to spread in Priboj while the police did nothing. Several of the relatives of those taken that day believe that had the police and local authorities acted immediately they would have been able to free those taken within an hour, since everyone knew who it was that had taken them. The bus had arrived on time in Priboj and the police was informed about what had happened.

According to a  documentary by Ivan Markov, Otmica (Abduction) the truck also passed two check points on its way to its final destination across the border in Bosnia; one manned by soldiers of the federal army ( former Yugoslav People´s Army) and one manned by the Serbia´s Ministry of the Interior (MUP). In other words; Lukić and his men were able to pass thru two checkpoints manned by security forces controlled by the Serbian state  while carrying in the back 16 Serbian citizens of Bosniak nationality. At around 12:00 in the afternoon on the 22d a truck was spotted outside of the police station in Višegrad (Bosnia) in the truck was a group of people dressed in civilian clothes, three Serb fighters stood by the truck; Milan Lukić, Oliver Krsmanović and Serb fighter from Goražde known as “Kokošar”. All three were known members of the infamous Serb paramilitary unit Osvetnici (Avengers), responsible for the majority of the atroceties commited agianst the Bosniak population of Višegrad. From the police station the truck headed north towards Hotel and Spa Vilna Vlas, 7 kilometers north from Višegrad. During the war Vilna Vlas was turned into rape camp where Bosniak women and girls were systematically raped by Serb police, paramilitary units and soldiers.

In 2013, Australian actress Kym Vercoe´s play about the Vilna Vlas rape camp was turned into a film (For Those Who Can Tell No Tales) starring herself and filmed in and around Višegrad, including sites of several atrocities, one of those being the house on Pionirska Street where Milan Lukić along with several members of the “Avengers” locked 60 people in house and set it on fire, 53 people were burned alive. Two weeks later Milan Lukić repeated the act on Bikavac, locking 71 people in a house and setting it on fire. He would not reapet his mistake from Pionirska Street, this time only person survived live pyre, Zehra Turjacanin, she agreed to testify against Milan Lukić at the Hague in 2008.

Vilna Vlas
Vilna Vlas

It´s not clear why the 16 were  kidnapped in the first place, there are  speculations that they were taken in order to be exchanged for Serb soldiers held by Bosnian Army, or that it was simply a matter of ethnically cleansing the Bosniak population that lived near the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Once at Vilna Vlas the men and one woman kidnapped were severely beaten by their captors, Milan Lukić and his men photographed themselves beating and torturing the victims at the lobby of the Vilna Vlas Hotel. Parts of the footage  was showed in the 2002 documentary made by Markov.  That´s also the last time they were seen alive. After the beating they were most likely taken to the banks of the Drina river and executed. Lukić´s modus operandi was executing the victims at close range and then dumping them in the Drina river. During the 2010 exhumations of Lake Perućac the remains of Medredin Hodžić (one of the kidnapped) were identified along with 250 others exhumed from the dried lakebed. The others are still missing, their remains unaccounted for. As I wrote last year; the heroic effort to exhume the bodies at Perućac lakebed was a last ditch effort and it happened by accident: 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. At this point there is no chance of exhuming more remains, including those from Sjeverin. The authorities in Republika Sprska and Serbia are 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.

Screen caps of the snuff film made by Milan Lukic and his men
Screen caps of the photographs made by Milan Lukic and his men in the lobby of the Vilna Vlas

Ivan Markov´s documentary; Otmica (Abduction) from 2002. (Photos of the torture shown from 43d minute)

Day after the kidnapping the family members of those kidnapped gathered in the village along with Serbian officials when a truck with eight men showed up in Sjevrin, on the hood of the car was traditional black flag with skull & bones of the Serb nationalist Nazi collaborationist Ravna Gora Chetnik movement. ( During the Second World War, Dragoljub “Draža” Mihailović´s Chetniks viewed the Bosniaks, Croats and the Partisan resistence as their real enemy, the collaboration with Fascist Italy and the Nazis in Eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina meant that both Germans and the Italians looked the other way as the Chetniks carried out mass atrocites against the Bosniak population of Eastern Bosnia and Hercegovina. The movement, which was banned during the Communist years was resurrected  leading up to the violent dissolution of Yugoslavia.)

In the truck was among others Milan Lukić, according to witnesses; he and three other men started firing automatic rifles into the air close by the gathering of the family members of the kidnapped and the officials. According to one of the officials interviewed for Markov´s documentary the local population of Sjeverin complained that these type of incidents were almost a daily occurrence in Sjeverin and the surrounding area, sometimes several times a day, including firing burst from machine guns of the houses of the residents of Sjeverin. The kidnapping and the fact that Lukić had showed up at the gathering making it clear that he was able to do to the citizens of Sjeverin what he wanted with impunity meant that the Bosniaks of Sjeverin decided to abandon their homes and head away from the border towards Novi Pazar and Priboj, the largest towns in Sandžak. Afraid of taking the Sjeverin-Priboj road which meant that they would risk coming across Lukić and his men, the Bosniaks of Sjeverin took the longer route to Priboj going thru Serbia, many walked on foot for over 8 hours on the 20km trek to Priboj.

Admir Džihić, the then 13-year old boy who´s uncle Esad had been taken away by Lukić and his men, and the only one from Sjeverin that could identify the kidnappers, given that the Serbs on the bus were at that time at any rate, reluctant about identifying the kidnappers moved to Priboj where he and his mother heard that someone was asking questions about him and his family. According to Džihić, he started to see men in uniform at the lobby of the hotel where he was staying. According to Admir, his mother had been told by someone at the Priboj municipality building that people were looking for him. Fearful that the kidnappers from Sjeverin were looking for him, his family relocated first to Novi Pazar, with the aid of an NGO, and later to Turkey. 10 years later, Admir and the Džihić family moved to Sarajevo, Bosnia and Herzegovina. At the time of the filming of the documentary Admir and his family had not been back to Sjeverin. According to the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center, from October 1992 to the 20th of January 1993, 50 houses in Sjevrin were looted and several burnt down.

Four days after the kidnapping, on October 26, members of Serbian Ministry of Interior (MUP) pulled over a car in Sjeverin, in the car were two men, Milan Lukić and Dragutin Dragićević from Višegrad. During the identification process, Lukić pulled out fake ID-card issued to him by the local Višegrad Police Station. During the search of the car large quantities of weapons and ammunition were found and the two men were taken to jail in nearby Uziće, for possession of unsilenced firearms and falsified identification papers, a crime punishable with up to 10 years. However, after a week in jail Lukić and his partner were released by order of the court in Uziće. According to the documentary this was most likely due to the intervention of the late Radmilo Bogdanović, then head of the Serbian MUP (Ministry of the Interior) and as Markov notes the éminence grise of the Serbian Security structures. A powerful, behind the scenes decision-maker and close Milošević ally. Bogdanović just happened to be in Priboj and Uziće on the 1th of November. Three days later, on the 4th, Lukić and Dragićević were relesed from Uziće jail.

Due to Bogdanović´s intervention both Lukić and Dragićević were released from the Uziće jail with the explanation given that they did in fact not use falsified ID-cards, that they were citizens of a another country and that they were “on assignment”. The justification given for Lukić´s and Dragićević´s release from Uziće jail goes along with what has what has subsequently been established at the ICTY,  that far from simply being “out of control Bosnian Serb paramilitaries” as Belgrade propaganda and officals liked to portray their henchmen in Bosnia and Herzgovina people like Lukić and Dragićević were an integral part of Belgrade´s  “Greater Serbian” military-political project in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

It wasn´t until July 2005 that the men suspected of masterminding the kidnapping and execution of the civilians from Sjeverin were found guilty of the crime in a Belgrade court. Twelve years after the war crime had taken place and three years after the fall of Slobodan Milošević. Milan Lukić and Oliver Krsmanović were sentenced to 20 years (in absentia) along with Dragutin Dragićević who also received 20 years (also in absentia) while Đorđe Šević recived 15 years. That same year, in August 2005 Milan Lukić was arrested in Argentina on an Interpol warrant and brought before the tribunal at The Hague. In 2009 he was sentenced to life imprisonment for crimes against the civilian population of Višegrad. He was not tried for the kidnapping and execution of 16 Bosniaks from Sjeverin.

On the 23d anniversary of the war crime, last year Omer Hodžić, the youngest son of Medredin Hodžić, the only one of the victims whose remains have been found told Serbian Danas that he expects Serbia to settle the matter of Sjeverin which he said was a legal precedent not only in Serbia but in Europe as well. He was joined by Sandra Orlović head of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Center who said that it was important for the public to know that the state of Serbia was treating the family members of those kidnapped and murdered as second class citizens. Noting that the victims have not even received the status of “civilian victims of war” which would make the eligible for reparations from the state.

According to N1 Srbija ( a CNN affiliate in the Balkans)  Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor´s Office had agreed to talk to them about Sjeverin during the last year´s commemoration but then quickly changed their mind saying that they were “busy”, briefly commenting on the case by saying that “jusitice had been served” in the case of Sjeverin. However the families of the victims as well as members of various NGO`s don´t agree with this, saying that there has never been an investigation about the apparent role the Serbian state in the crime.

In October, last year Sandra Orlović also gave an interview for Sandžak Media pointing out that a legal team from the Humanitarian Law Center had sued the state of Serbia for the deaths of the 16 Bosniaks from Sjeverin. According to Orlović it´s clear that Serbia had throughout the entire war in Bosnia and Herzegovina openly and regularly facilitated the Bosnian Serbs both financially and materially and that this was no longer in dispute given the massive amount of evidence presented at the ICTY. She also pointed out that Serbia had a responsibility to protect those people as citizens of Serbia given that it was obvious that units of Bosnian Serb army and paramilitary forces were active in the area where the abduction took place. Orlović reminded the viewers that a day before the abduction, a 20 year-old, Sabahudin Ćatović  was taken away by Serb paramilitaries in Sjeverin never to be seen again. A day later his brother was taken by Milan Lukić and his men along with 15 other Bosniaks. There is also according to Orlović today in Serbia and in the region still an unwillingness to acknowledge that these people were simply killed because of who they were. That the state armed men like Milan Lukić who killed people simply based on what their names were, or their religion.

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

Remembering the Murders and Abuse of Bosniaks in Rogatica

A sign from 2012 in Rogatica, with picture of Veljko Vlahovic Secondery School. "Once You Were A Place O Knowledge, Then A Prison Camp Were We Spilled Our Blood, Were Raped, Tortured And Killed...
A sign from 2012 in Rogatica, with picture of Veljko Vlahovic Secondary School. “Once You Were A Place of Knowledge, Then A Prison Camp Where We Spilled Our Blood, Were Raped, Tortured And Killed…

Yesterday marked the 22 anniversary of the killings of Bosniaks in the Rogatica area in eastern Bosnia. Rogatica sits between Srebenica Visegrad and Gorazde about 60 km from Sarajevo nestled on Romanija Mountain. The anniversary of the killings and torture was marked by a commemoration as former prisoners as well as families of the dead  vsited the former detention facilities in “Veljko Vlahovic” school building and “Rasadnik” building where most of the beatings and killings took place. According to Bakira Hasecic, President of the “Women, Victims of War” Association: Women and men were held in those locations and were brutally abused and tortured and some were killed.

Some of the methods for torturing Bosniak prisoners were disclosed during the on-going trial of Radovan Karadzic, Karadzic is currently on trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide in Bosnia and Herzegovina. In September 2011 one of those who survived the camps in Rogatica testified about the abuse he saw. Sefik Hurko a former resident of Rogatica described the cruel abuse he suffered together with his father and uncle after their arrest in mid-August 1992. According to Hurko he was arrested together with his father mother and uncle by Serb troops, they were first held prisoner in a garage belonging to a Serb man in the village of Kosovo. According to Hurko they were abused by Serb soldiers who Hurko could name, including Rajko Krsmanovic, Stojan Perkovic as well as other Serb soldiers under the command of Rajko Kusic. Kusic had introduced himself as the commander of Serb forces in Rogatica. Hurko reacounted how Rajko Krsmanovic approached his father ordered him to stick out his tounge like he meant to cut it off and the took out his knife and strated cutting Sefik Hurko´s father´s ears. Hurko´s father fell to the ground, covered in blood. Then Krsmanovic told Sefik to eat three or four rounds from his pistol and started stabbing Sefik´s hands with a knife and beating him.

According to Sefik Hurko, Krsmanovic and Perkovic took his uncle Abdulah Hurko out to the yard and beat him too. He never saw his uncle again. Rajko Kusic was also present while several other members of Hurko´s family were beaten up. Hurko was later taken with his father to a high school that served as a detention camp and then transferred to Rasadnik prison camp. Accodring to Hurko; Rajko Kusic appointed a certain Vinko Bojic as camp warden who “humiliated and abused the detained men and women. They were beaten, tortured and sexually assaulted.”

Aside from testifying at the trial of Radovan Karadzic, Sefik Hurko testified at the trial of Ratko Mladic as well in September 2012, it was Hurko´s second encounter with Ratko Mladic.  (Mladic is alongside Karadzic on trial for war crimes, crimes against humanity and genocide ) Hurko had first meet Ratko Mladic in 1994 on the front lines outside Gorazde; Serb soldiers had used imprisoned Bosniak civilians from Rogatica as forced labor on the front lines. On the day he meet Mladic, Hurko was forced to cut down trees in the woods near Gorazde with other Bosniak prisoners from Rasadnik prison camp. Mladic was there with the prison warden, Vinko Bojic, the commander of the Rasadnik prison camp, when Mladic asked Bojic who the men cutting wood were; Bojic responded that; they were “loyal Muslims” after which Ratko Mladic spoke to the Bosniak prisoners, pointing at Gorazde he said that “in a day or two it will be in Serb hands” and that those who wish to stay; will have to be baptized; those that don’t will be moved to Alija’s state”.

In his testimony against Ratko Mladic in September 2012 Hurko also described how the Bosniak prisoners from Rasadnik were forced to work every day, doing the jobs that Serbs didn´t want to do. Clearing the streets, and the ruins of the Mosques that had been destroyed, according to Hurko; they were also forced to “remove furniture, household appliances  from abandoned Bosniak homes and bring them to Serb houses”.

Hurko also described the beatings he and his father received while at Rasadnik, including beaing beaten with thick bats in the prison warden Vinko Bojic´s office. At one point Hurko fainted from the beating he had received, only to have water poured on him to wake him up. Hurko talked about the murder of one of the prisoners, a Becir Cutaj, who´s cries according to Hurko could be heard from the warden’s office, and the man that was ordered to bury Cutaj, another Bosniak prisoner told Hurko that Cutaj had been “cut to pieces”

Another survivor from Rogatica recounted his own painful experiences during the trial of Radovan Karadzic; he did not use his name and acted as a protected witness, talking about how it was to be a father to two children, who had both been raped by Serb forces in Rogatica. The daughter was seven-and-a-half year´s old and the son 13 years old when they were raped. The witness said that Serb soldiers raped him too, but that “he had got through it somehow” while it was difficult to come to terms with the fact that his young children were sexually assaulted. He had yet to ask his wife if she had been raped as well, he simply lacked the strength to do it. “I got seriously ill. I have been in treatment for the past 16 years and I have tried to forget at least some of it, but I can’t. To this day I haven’t asked my wife if she was raped, too. I lack strength to do it”

The witness was haunted by the fact that the people who did these things were his former neighbors and people he knew.  According to the witness before the war Rogatica was a little town full of life, people celebrated Bosniak, Catholic and Orthodox holidays. Life was good. All that ended when Serb forces together with Rajko Kusic men came, according to the witness “Rogatica was first shelled brutally from the local hills before Serb forces entered and “cleansed” it ruthlessly  not caring if if their victims were children, invalids or the sick”.

During the on-going trial of Ratko Mladic another protected witness, witness RM 81 talked about the arrests, beatings, rape and murders that took place in Rogatica after the Serb takeover of the town. According to the witness most of this took place in Veljko Vlahovic Secondary School, and that Rajko Kusic was firmly in command of the prison camp. The witness went on to say that, one time, in late June or early July Kusic visited the school and complained about the fact that “people refuse to cooperate” and that was giving him problems. According to the witness Kusic said that he had been given a “deadline” for the “cleansing” of Rogatica and that he “had to report to Pale” The witness also stated that a man named Danko Neric took part in the destruction of Arnaudija Mosque, one of two Mosques in Rogatica to be destroyed by Serb forces, the other one was; Carsijska Mosque. Neric wore “an olive drab military uniform of the former JNA”.

Rajko Kusic
Rajko Kusic

In 2012 the anniversary of the crimes committed in Rogatica was held for the first time. Edvin Kanka Ćudić spoke to some of the witnesses and survivors about what they saw and experienced in Rasadnik. Few of the survivors told Cudic about the abuse and murders they saw and heard about while in the prison camps:

 Almost everyone who was there was a victim of a crime, from the old and disabled to young. They beat us with everything, everything they could get hold of. They forced us to do manual labor; they raped the women and girls. It was unbearable, what they did to us. We didn´t have any kind of conditions, no decent food we slept on pallets. Once the warden got drunk, whoever he could get hold of first, he took with him. We all returned blooded and brused, Vinko Bojic personally knocked out two of my teeth, once they abused us they called us various derogatory names, it was horrible for everyone who was there. For me the hardest part was the murder of Sefjo Mirvic.

 

Sejfo Mirvic and Alija Omerhodzic from Gorazde were killed in Rasadnik, Alija Omerhodzic was killed with a chainsaw and Sejfo Mirvic hacked to death with an axe according to one of the survivors.  But while Sejfo Mirvic was buried, Alija Omerhodzic was thrown down into the sewage system. “I personally saw and will never forget. Vinko Bojic personally abused the prisoners” said one of the survivors, the survivor also named several of those involved, a man he called Ljubinac from Seljani,(Radisav Ljubinac, sentenced to 10 years in 2007) as well as Rajko Kusic, Goran Kanastravac, Slavisa Vukovic, according to the survivor Rajko Kusic personally killed around 20 Bosniaks, while Slavko and Simo Lubarda killed his brother´s children on the door step of their house.

 

2012 was also the first time families of the victims and survivors were able to pay respect to the victims and lay flowers in front of a the secondary school and near the Rasadnik camp which served as prison camps for Bosniaks during the war. It was pointed out during the commemoration that from 1992-1995 women were subjected to mass rape in these camps and that those most responsible from that crime of war, including Rajko Kusic have not been arrested.

Bakira Hasecic who spoke at yesterday´s commemoration also spoke in 2012. According to her:  “In Visegrad, Foca and Rogatica, institutions of learning were turned into mass prison camps were Bosniaks and Croats were murdered. In the pogroms, the killings, and sexual violence that took place there, aside from the local  unit assembled by Rajko Kusic, members of Arkans Tigers, Seselj`s Volunteers, the Bosnian Serb Army, (VRS) as well as the JNA (Yugoslav People´s Army) also participated.”

In May 2006 Dragoje Paunovic, leader of a Serb military formation of the Rogatica Battalion was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment for crimes against humanity, for the murder of 24 civilians that were taken from Rasadnik Prison Camp and used as human shields by Serb forces in a battle against the Army of Bosnia And Herzegovina. Altogether 27 prisoners were taken from the camp by Radislav Ljubinac and driven to a place called Jacen in Rogatica, later that day Paunovic lined up the prisoners and ordered his men to shot the prisoners, the verdict said Paunovic took part in the killings at Jacen. So far Bosnian  State Court has sentenced three men;  Radisav Ljubinac, Dragoje Paunovic and Stojan Perkovic for the crimes committed against the civilian population of Rogatica. The three men have been sentenced to 42 years imprisonment totally, however as Bakira Hasecic pointed out on Friday, that is not nearly enough and that those most responsible are still at large, and that the victims  request faster processing of these crimes. Hasecic was referring to men like Rajko Kusic who according to Bakira Hasecic lives in Serbia. She hopes that that Bosnian State Prosecutor´s Office would conclude an agreement with Serbia about the processing of those crimes, given that according to Hasecic it is known that most of the suspects now live in Serbia.

This post has been edited and updated 18/08/2014