Visegrad, memory and justice

The survivors of a terrible but neglected atrocity in a historic Bosnian town continue to campaign for remembrance and accountability. Peter Lippman joins them on their return to the site.

On 14 June 2010, approximately one hundred people, mostly women, crowded into a yard next to a half-demolished house on Pionirska Street in Visegrad, eastern Bosnia. On that day in 1992, extreme nationalist Serb troops forced about seventy local Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) into this house and torched it, shooting those who tried to escape through the windows. A few survived; fifty-nine are known to have been killed in this war crime.

The memorial observance of this anniversary - only the second to be conducted at the scene of the crime - was organised by Zene Zrtve Rata (Women Victims of War), a national body which advocates for women who were expelled during the war, were sexually abused, or are seeking information about their missing loved ones. They also call for the arrest of accused war criminals in the Visegrad region and throughout Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Bakira Hasecic, leader of Women Victims of War, spoke: “We are fighting for truth and justice, so that this kind of crime will never again be perpetrated against anyone, regardless of their ethnicity. We are still alive. Let us remember what happened as long as we are alive, and as long as our descendants are alive.”

It appears that the women survivors’ struggle for justice and memory, fifteen years after the end of the Bosnian war of 1992-95, remains an uphill battle.

The survivors’ story

The picturesque town of Visegrad, immortalised by Ivo Andric in his novel The Bridge on the Drina and the award to him of the Nobel prize for literature, was the scene of brutality that matched any other crime during Bosnia’s war, and precious few of the perpetrators have answered for their crimes.

Among them are the seven military figures, including Ljubisa Beara and Vujadin Popovic, convicted on charges of genocide on 10 June 2010 by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at The Hague in connection with the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995. The genocide at Srebrenica, understandably, overshadows the crimes committed in Visegrad. However, the survivors of Visegrad require justice no less than any other victims of the Bosnian war.

The two most notorious perpetrators of the crimes in Visegrad, Milan Lukic and his cousin Sredoje Lukic, were convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity in July 2009 by the ICTY. Milan Lukic received a life sentence, and Sredoje Lukic thirty years. Among other crimes, the Lukic cousins were convicted for the torching of the house and its inhabitants at Pionirska Street. The Lukices committed a similar crime two weeks later, on 27 June 1992, when approximately seventy people were burned to death in the Visegrad settlement of Bikavac.

In the fire on Pionirska Street, the youngest victim was a two-day-old baby, and the oldest was 71 years of age.

But justice was not served completely. During the war, about 3,000 of Visegrad’s 13,000-odd Bosniak population (some 60% of the town’s total number) were murdered. Many were slaughtered on the famous bridge and then thrown into the Drina; others were thrown off the bridge and then shot. At least 600 women and 100 children were among those killed.

Serb troops in Visegrad looted and torched houses, making sure that no Bosniaks remained. Visegrad is also notorious as a centre of mass rape - a vicious practice that has that has been recognised as a war crime, though in the case of Visegrad the victims have certainly not seen the justice this promises. At least 200 women were imprisoned and abused at the hotel-spa Vilina Vlas on the outskirts of Visegrad, and only around ten survived. The Lukic cousins were heavily implicated in these sexual crimes but, inexplicably, relevant charges were not included in their prosecution.

Several lesser war criminals have been tried and convicted in Bosnia’s domestic war-crimes court, but this offers little comfort to the victims. Bakira Hasecic told me, “Many of us would have returned to our home, but we were unable to do so because war criminals walk free in Visegrad.” In 2000 the ICTY sentenced one of the Lukics’ accomplices, Mitar Vasiljevic, to twenty years’ imprisonment. That sentence was reduced on appeal to fifteen years and, in March 2010, Vasiljevic was released early for good behaviour. His return to Visegrad was celebrated by a brass-band from nearby Serbia.

Members of Women Victims of War state that there are fourteen war-crimes cases with sufficient evidence to prosecute immediately; however, the Bosnian court, where most such cases are now heard, has a backlog numbering in the thousands, and jail space is also pitifully insufficient.

Even when justice for Visegrad is served, it has in some cases fallen flat. In May 2010, after an appeals trial, Momir Savic was sentenced to seventeen years’ imprisonment for crimes committed in Visegrad. Savic had been a commander of units of the army of the Republika Srpska, and he was sentenced for crimes including the arrest, deportation, mistreatment, and murder of civilians. However, in late 2008 during his appeal process, Savic was released from jail under restricted conditions pending a final verdict. Upon the announcement in June of Savic’s sentence, he disappeared and has not been seen since. Bosnian commentators have severely criticised Saban Maksumic, presiding judge of the Bosnian war-crimes court, for his excessive leniency in allowing Savic freedom before his sentencing.

In the course of the day’s travels I ate lunch with members of the survivors’ organisation, and they described to me their ongoing struggle. Mirsada Tabakovic, vice-president of Women Victims of War, was among those who had been forced onto a bus and expelled from Visegrad in June 1992. She recounted to me how at one point, the women and children were removed from the bus and the bus was sent back towards Visegrad, carrying only the men. The men were then killed and their bodies were thrown into a ravine at Pacenik; Ms Tabakovic lost her brother and uncle in this incident. Their remains were found in 2001.

Mirsada Tabakovic told me, “The first time I returned to Visegrad, in 2000, my arms and my legs were trembling. Now I have come back ten times, and I do not feel so nervous anymore. But this is not the same city it once was, where I remember the lovely days of my childhood. We had our homes, our work, and suddenly everything was lost. We weren’t aware of what a rich life we had! I have met some people here who surprised me, and said, ‘Why won’t you Muslims come back?’ - but they are few. I lost fifteen members of my family, and this is no longer my city.”

An endless search

There is a website about what happened in Visegrad, maintained by a young man who wishes to remain anonymous in order to protect his security; such is the ongoing problem of those working to preserve the memory of what happened in Visegrad. “Hasan” further described to me the work of the women of the survivors organisation. Seeking information about the whereabouts of the suspected war criminals, they have bought photos and film footage from demobilised Serb soldiers who were in need of money. At times they photographed the suspects themselves and published these photos. “These are women who were raped, or lost their husbands”, Hasan told me. “They are doing work that the state should be doing.”

I asked Hasan if this was dangerous work. He replied, “These are women who do not consider that they have anything to lose, after what they have been through. They have received death threats, but they do not care.

One of the women at the lunch table had been imprisoned in the house at Pionirska street; she managed to climb through a back window and escape. She participated in the conversation normally, even smiling and laughing at times. I wondered how it could feel to have been thus sentenced to death, to have lost all of one’s family, and to carry on.

On this anniversary, photos of the victims were strung up along the side of the half-wrecked house at Pionirska street, where trees are growing up out of what was once its living room. A man who had lost his whole family there was crying. A woman was touching some of the photos and weeping. She kissed a photo of her sister. Television photographers pushed into the crowd in order to get a close shot.

No Bosnian politicians, those who will flock to Srebrenica in July, were present to remember Visegrad.

Bakira Hasecic lamented the difficulties of her organisation’s struggle, especially in finding the remains of lost relatives and in prosecuting the war criminals. She said: “Now Serbs in Visegrad say, ‘I don’t know anything about what happened, I didn’t see anything.’ But it is a small town, everyone knows everything, everyone is connected in some way. You could know what your neighbour ate for breakfast. If I knew where someone’s grave was, I would not sleep, I would not get off the telephone until the right people knew. But at the rate these things are being done, this work will require another thousand years to process the war criminals."

About the author

Peter Lippman is a writer and human-rights activist from the United States who has worked extensively in Bosnia and much of ex-Yugoslavia. He is a contributor to (among others) the resource site Balkan Witness, the Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, Americans for Bosnia, and the Advocacy Project 

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Peter Lippman is a writer and human-rights activist from the United States who has worked extensively in Bosnia and much of ex-Yugoslavia since the early 1980s

Also by Peter Lippman in openDemocracy:

"Srebrenica's search for justice" (23 August 2006)

"Kosovo: approaching independence or chaos?" (30 December 2006)

"Crisis and reform: a turnaround in Bosnia" (18 December 2007)

"Bosnian voice, Yugoslavian memory" (14 February 2010)