Articles on the Bosnia Conflict




By Peter Lippman
June 25, 2010


                  Report index
Report 1: Kozarac, Prijedor. June 2, 2010
Report 2: Banja Luka, Doboj. Tuzla
June 5, 2010
Report 3: Bijeljina,  June 16, 2010
Report 4: Srebrenica and Bratunac,
June 18, 2010
Report 5: Visegrad,
June 25, 2010
Report 6: Roses and Walnuts, June 28, 2010
Report 7: Sarajevo and Travnik, July 7, 2010
Report 8: Srebrenica, July 25, 2010
Report 9: Herzegovina and wrap-up, August 12, 2010

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Last week I traveled from Sarajevo to Visegrad with a group of survivors of a wartime atrocity in that city. On June 14, 1992, extreme nationalist Serb troops forced about seventy local Bosniaks into a house on Pionirska Ulica and torched it, shooting those who tried to escape through the windows. A few survived; 59 are known to have been killed in this war crime. Two weeks later, Serb soldiers repeated the crime in Bikavac, another location near Visegrad. Last week’s visit was the second annual commemoration of the crime at Pionirska. (For another report on this experience, see my article at Open Democracy.)

Survivors of the genocide at Visegrad visiting torched house

Visegrad, a lovely town on the Drina River, is best known as the setting for Ivo Andric’s famous book “Bridge on the Drina.” I had only been in Visegrad one time before, passing through from Serbia on my way to Sarajevo. At that time, I slept one night in a spa hotel named Vilina Vlas, in the woods above the town.

In the fire on Pionirska Ulica, the youngest victim was a two-day-old baby, and the oldest was 71 years of age. Several people managed to jump out of the house; some were shot and killed, but some escaped. One woman who escaped was with us on the memorial visit.

These house torchings were part of a campaign in which Serb soldiers ultimately killed or expelled all of Visegrad's Bosniaks, who had constituted 70% of the town’s population. Many people were shot and dumped in the river Drina. Some hundreds of Bosniak women were kept prisoner and raped, then killed. They were held at the hotel Vilina Vlas.

The two most notorious leaders of the crimes in Visegrad, Milan Lukic and his cousin Sredoje, were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity in July of last year by the ICTY.

I contacted “Hasan,” who arranged a ride for me to Visegrad. Along the way he explained to me some of the wartime history of the town. At the beginning of the war, he said, “the army started arresting doctors and teachers, and anyone, hunters, who had a registered weapon.”

This arrest and liquidation of the community’s intellectuals and leaders is reminiscent of what happened in Prijedor and Kozarac. Someone coined the word “elitocide” in reference to this practice.

Hasan told me that Bosniaks from Visegrad were forced to leave the city on bus convoys heading for Macedonia or inner Bosnia. Some of those buses were stopped and all the men were killed.

Hasan said, “This was not like Srebrenica, where there were many soldiers from other parts of Bosnia and from Serbia as well. Here, professors killed their students, and students killed their professors. People killed their neighbors. Bystanders saw these things happening and put up no resistance to it. Serbs who were in mixed marriages with Muslims were also considered the enemy of the extreme Serb nationalists. There was a Serb woman who was married to a Bosniak, and she was raped.”

The women from Visegrad who survived the war later formed an organization, “Women Victims of War.” This is a Bosnia-wide organization, composed primarily but not exclusively of Bosniak women. Women from this organization were instrumental in collecting information -- at significant risk to themselves -- about the war criminals who were marauding around Visegrad during the war.

One point that Hasan emphasized is that genocide in Bosnia was not restricted to Srebrenica. Survivors from Prijedor municipality in the northwest have the same complaint. No one begrudges Srebrenica the attention, resources, and sympathy that it receives. But the court proceedings that have found that genocide was committed in Srebrenica are incomplete without including other localities in their scope. Perhaps that will be rectified, if and when Karadzic is convicted.

On the way up to Visegrad, we stopped for lunch at Medjedje, a hamlet of returned Bosniaks outside of the city. I sat at the table with Hasan, Bakira Hasecic (leader of the women’s organization), and the woman who had survived the fire at Pionirska Ulica. I watched her as she participated in the conversation, smiled, even laughed. I could not help but wonder at the strength and bravery of this woman -- of all the activists, really, but especially her. It is hard to fathom how it must feel to be condemned to death and be so close to it, and then to survive. In fact, that is the situation of thousands of Bosnians. Anyone at Omarska could have been killed; anyone in Sarajevo as well. The only thing I can conclude is that it is natural to carry on; that strength exists within people -- but that does not mean they will naturally remain healthy.

We arrived at Visegrad and went to visit the cemetery. Some of the victims’ remains have been identified and reburied there. I looked at a row of graves, all marked with the same last name, Ahmetspahic. All died in 1992: Fatima, born 1911; Hasena, born 1953; Amela, born 1991.

We arrived at the house on Pionirska Ulica. A hundred people, mostly women, crowded into the yard of the house and into the basement. One wall was missing from the house and trees were growing up inside of the main floor room. Photos of the victims were strung up along the side of the house. A man who had lost his whole family there was crying. A woman was touching some of the photos and crying. She kissed a photo of her sister. Television photographers pushed into the crowd in order to get a close shot of a woman crying.

Mourners at the house torched in Visegrad

As I approached the house, I felt the intensity of the tragedy, almost as if the house were still on fire.

In the basement, a girl cried and held onto her grandfather. Bakira Hasecic admonished her, “There will be no more crying now.”

Ms. Hasecic spoke, saying that her organization was fighting for the truth. “There were Serbs across the creek who saw what was done,” she said, “but no one will say who threw the victims in the river, and who moved the graves.”

A few of us walked to the famous old bridge. On the way back we stopped at a little park in the middle of an intersection. There used to be a mosque there, but it was bulldozed.

“Bridge on the Drina” at Visegrad

After visiting the house on Pionirska Ulica, the group went to the only rebuilt mosque to pray. A woman said to me, “May every step you take be written in the Book of Judgment.” I asked her, “Where are the big journalists, where are the politicians?” She answered, “The politicians have no time for this. They are busy taking humanitarian aid and buying cars and houses with it.”

Hasan told me that he had written to fifty journalists, asking them to come to the memorial, and only one answered. That person asked Hasan if there would be “anybody famous there.” I told Hasan that he should have said that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie were rumored to be attending. (Pitt and Jolie did visit Bosnia a few months ago; they even traveled to out-of-the-way Gorazde and visited a displaced persons’ camp nearby. It was the news of the month.)

Just before leaving Visegrad, several of us drove up to Vilina Vlas hotel. Hasan was nervous about getting out of the car or staying around for very long, saying that people who worked there during the war were still working there. On the way back we stopped at a spring with water that was said to be good for the eyes, and we all rinsed our eyes with that water.

The final tally of justice for the victims at Visegrad is as yet incomplete. Ms. Hasecic told me that there are fourteen war crimes cases connected with Visegrad that are ready to go to court, but that the Bosnian court, where most of these cases are now heard, is overloaded.

One war criminal from Visegrad, Momir Savic, was convicted last month and promptly fled the country. Another, Mitar Vasiljevic, was released earlier this year after a reduction in his sentence. He served a total of ten years for his part in the crimes. Upon his return home, he was greeted in Visegrad by a brass band from neighboring Serbia.


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