COURTSIDE: Visegrad Trial

Survivors of the Visegrad house fire massacre take the stand.

COURTSIDE: Visegrad Trial

Survivors of the Visegrad house fire massacre take the stand.

Saturday, 6 October, 2001

The trial of the Bosnian Serb waiter Mitar Vasiljevic saw the prosecution present first hand accounts from two Muslim survivors of one of Vasiljevic's alleged crimes - "The Pyre of Pioneers St". This offence, in which 65 Muslims were burnt alive in a house in Visegrad, is the worst crime in the indictment against Vasiljevic and his two absent co-defendants, relatives Milan and Sredoje Lukic.

All the victims of the house fire in Visegrad came from the nearby Muslim villages Kortinik and Sase. Protected witnesses, VG 38 and VG 13, a mother and son from Kortinik, described the sequence of events leading up to the alleged war crime.

It was on the June 13, 1992 that Serbs in Kortinik began to tell their Muslim neighbours to leave. The latter were told to pack food and clothes and buses would pick them up the next morning to take them to Kladanj, controlled by the Bosnian army. Their houses would then be given over to Serbs.

In witness VG 38's case, a neighbour called Dusan Grujic came to call and apparently said, "Hello neighbours, ethnic cleansing begins tomorrow, be kind and leave your house."

Over 60 Muslim inhabitants were present the next morning to wait for the buses and witnessed their Serbian neighbours begin a systematic looting of their homes. When there was no sign of any buses, a decision was taken to head to Visegrad on foot.

Passing through the village of Sase, they picked up ten further Muslims and eventually arrived in Visegrad.

Looking for representatives of the Red Cross, the Muslim's instead chanced upon the accused Vasiljevic, who was uniformed and armed. He told them that the buses which were meant to have picked them up in Kortinik would do so in Visegrad the following morning and take them to Kladanj, which was under Bosnian army control.

He then directed them towards two empty former Muslim homes on Pioneers St. He also wrote a "confirmation" that the Muslims should not be troubled.

Some time later Vasiljevic returned to the house with his co-defendants Milan and Sredoje Lukic, as well as another man, Milan Sunjar. They first robbed the Muslims of money and gold, then humiliated them by forcing them to strip and dance. Later three girls were taken away and raped.

At around 10 o'clock in the evening, Vasiljevic and the Lukic returned once more. The Muslims, who were mostly women and children, were transferred to the house of Adem Omeragic. The move was made because Vasiljevic said that Muslim Green Beret paramilitaries were shooting nearby.

All the Muslims were crowded into one room in which the carpet had been soaked in a liquid that smelt like glue. Then Vasiljevic appeared at the door with Milan Lukic who was holding what VG 38 describes as a burning "flammable gadget". This was thrown into the room and a fire began with the flames almost immediately reaching the ceiling.

Two people jumped from a window and were chased by Vasiljevic and Lukic: the former holding a torch while the latter fired a gun. Witness VG 38's 13-year-old son then jumped from the window and his mother decided to follow. She told the tribunal she thought, "It would be better if they kill me rather than to burn alive".

As she ran from the house she was shot at and wounded in the arm but still managed to reach a stream fifty metres away and hide. For the next two hours, the witness could hear the screams from the house before eventually moving to a sewer where she hid for the next three days. The day after the fire, she could smell burnt flesh in the sewer, "as if on the barbecue".

On her third night, witness VG 38 managed to escape from Visegrad unnoticed. For several months she did not know whether her son had survived and only met him again in late 1995. In his own testimony, the son, witness VG 13, told how until he was reunited with her, he believed his mother had perished in the fire.

Two further survivors of the house fire in Visegrad are expected to testify next week. Both had initially refused but were issued with "subpoena ad "testificandum" (a summons to testify under the threat of punishment) at the request of the prosecution.

Vjera Bogati is an IWPR special correspondent at The Hague and journalist with SENSE News Agency.

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