Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Regional Report: Grbavica Horror Chamber

Bosniaks detained in a Sarajevo shopping complex that served as a brutal wartime prison speak of their experiences.
By Srdjan Papic

For visitors to Sarajevo, the Grbavica shopping center, a rich mosaic of glittering stores similar to those found in any modern European city, is a favourite stopping off point.


But during Bosnia’s war, these same attractive boutiques and coffee bars were a chamber of horrors where Serb forces imprisoned and tortured their mainly Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) victims.


Evidence of the abuses committed here was prepared for the prosecution of former Bosnian Serb president Biljana Plavsic. But her decision to plead guilty late last year meant the evidence was not heard in public.


Dedo Bikic, a retired army officer, was 65-years-old when the war started. He lived close to the shopping centre and says most of his neighbours, along with his wife and daughter, fled the suburb when fighting first broke out.


His sons joined the Bosnian government army, which defended Sarajevo. Dedo also stayed behind. And at the end of May 1992, he said a Serb neighbour broke into his apartment. Without a word, he hit Dedo with the rifle butt, knocking him to the ground.


He then took him to the front of the building where he turned him over to another Serb neighbour, who, also armed, took Dedo to the shopping centre. The names of these men are being withheld by IWPR for legal reasons.


At the entrance to the tunnel leading to a parking lot beneath the centre, they met the first Serb neighbour who attacked Dedo with a knife. “He stabbed me right here…,” Dedo told IWPR, showing the scar on his neck. “He wanted to cut my throat!” But the second neighbour decided Dedo had suffered enough and intervened.


“Soon a nurse, called Petra, came. She looked at my neck wound, poured some white powder over it, gave me some pills to swallow, and applied a band-aid. She said not to tell anyone about this,” continued Dedo, who was then led to garages in the parking lot where he was incarcerated with three other men.


They told him that there were 36 more prisoners in the garages. “Our jailers constantly kept bringing and taking people, women and children. Meanwhile, soldiers came and beat us up,” he went on. “Some wore red berets, others wore caps. They did not use real names, but addressed each other with nicknames.”


Two other former detainees, interviewed by IWPR on condition of anonymity, said they believed their Serb captors were Beli Orlovi (White Eagles), a paramilitary formation consisting of units of volunteers from Serbia and Montenegro.


“On the first night of captivity they took me to an apartment full of drunk Serb soldiers. There they first beat me, and later all of them raped me,” said Sadzida, a Bosniak, in a report carried by Bosnian media.


Sadzida’s ordeal began in May 1992 when Serb soldiers, some of whom she knew, broke into her apartment in Grbavica.


They immediately killed her husband and then looted the place. They then took her inside the shopping centre, where she saw 20 other Bosniak girls.


She remained here until December, and says that during that time was repeatedly raped. She became pregnant and was released in a prisoner exchange in May 1993.


The shopping centre horrors form part of the charges that Plavsic has admitted to. She became the first high-ranking official ever to plead guilty to war crimes, and The Hague is expected to announce this month her sentence for crimes against humanity.


Grbavica was under control of Republika Srpska during the 1992-95 war. An ethnically-mixed suburb, most of its Bosniak population was expelled, while others claim to have been imprisoned and tortured in what are now luxury boutiques.


Hundreds of prisoners were taken here after the suburb was occupied by what was then the Yugoslav People's Army, JNA, when fighting broke out in April 1992. Shortly afterwards, it was taken over by the Bosnian Serb army, and by Serb paramilitary formations.


The shopping centre’s roofed parking space and basement area became a prison camp for non-Serb civilians. “They beat me while interrogating me about where my sons were, which I answered that I don’t know,” said Dedo.


“One day they took a young man from my cell and I never saw him again. I don’t know the exact number of people that were killed. You could not peek out of your cell. It could cost your life. You had to be invisible. I sat in one corner from where I could not see, but I could hear. Sometimes they brought groups, sometimes individuals, women and children also. Day and night I heard shots, shouting, screaming, commotion. It seemed to me that they cut throats there.”


Dedo says he was starved. He received a daily ration of a piece of bread, potato and a litre of water for five to six days. He was held prisoner in the shopping centre’s parking lot for more that 60 days, weighing 36 kg in the end.


He returned to his Grbavica appartment after the war and found only a handful of his former Serb neighbours. “None of those criminals who beat me in the shopping centre came back, I could not look at them, I would kill them,” said Dedo.


But he feels the gathering of evidence for these crimes is largely pointless, as there have been few attempts to apprehend them. “It is of no use to me or society. I have tried to investigate this case and many other crimes that were committed in Grbavica, but then I gave up. People who committed these crimes now walk freely in Republika Srpska, Serbia and Montenegro.”


Srdjan Papic is Sarajevo-based journalist.