Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
House Blaze Horror Testimony
As prosecutors painted a picture of the early stages of the Bosnian war, and tried to implicate Slobodan Milosevic in war crimes committed as early as 1992, one woman's story of a lucky escape from death brought the scene to life.
The woman, identified only as Witness B-1504, took the stand to tell how Bosnian Serb forces rounded up Muslim civilians and burned them alive.
Her ordeal began in June 1992 when a Serb neighbour arrived in her village, Koritnik, near Visegrad, and announced bluntly that ethnic cleansing was about to start.
Serb police ordered the local residents to leave immediately, and they marched out of the village to Visegrad, where they were directed to the town's hotel.
From there, the woman together with a number of other villagers were sent to a house in the Muslim quarter which had already been cleansed of its inhabitants.
"There were around 70 of us, perhaps even more, old men, women, children," said the witness.
There she met her tormentors: policeman Milan Lukic arrived with his brother Sredoje, and two more men including Mitar Vasiljevic.
First, they ordered their captives to put their valuables on a table. B-1504 handed over her savings, some 2,000 German marks.
Then the abuse began. One of the policemen "told us to take our clothes off and we had to dance in front of him," she said. The men took two girls, Ifeta Kurspahic and Jasmina Vila, out of the room. What happened remains a mystery: both came back later, deeply shaken, refusing to speak. "They did not say anything, they just asked for a painkiller," said the witness.
Later that day, the same Serb men ordered everyone to cross the street to another house.
But once inside, they suddenly realised it was a trap: the carpets were soaked in fuel oil. "The carpets were wet with something, and that is where they burnt us all," said B-1504.
The Serbs threw a match into the building and locked the doors. The house was in flames within seconds.
The woman dashed to a window, pushing out her 13-year-old son, then jumped out herself as flames shot through the building.
Milan Lukic saw her jump and opened fire, hitting her left arm and leg. But she kept running, disappearing into the back streets where she spent the next three days hiding from the Serbs.
She could not find her son, so she walked for 11 days by herself, keeping clear of Serb patrols, until finally she stumbled upon the government front lines around Gorazde.
Her own story had a happy ending: three years later, while staying in Zenica, she found her son - he had escaped to another enclave, Zepa, fleeing again when it fell to Serb forces.
During cross-examination, Milosevic accused the witness of making the story up, saying, "No one in Serbia heard about this."
Branislav Tapuskovic, a court-appointed official tasked with helping Milosevic, said her evidence contradicted earlier statements she had given about the incident.
In response she said, "Your honours, it really happened. That is surely the truth."
Hague prosecutors certainly believe the murders happened. In 2001 they issued an indictment against the two Lukic brothers for a series of war crimes, including the killing of 70 people in the house from which the witness escaped. Two of the dead listed in the document are Ifeta Kurspahic and Jasmina Vila. The brothers remain on the run.
Vasiljevic, named in the same indictment, was less lucky: French troops who rented a house from him realised he was wanted for war crimes and arrested him - he is now serving 20 years in jail for war crimes.
Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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