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

Serb Witness Challenges Survivor's Story

She says Milan Lukic was not responsible for woman’s burns.
By Katherina Goetze
A witness in the trial of Milan Lukic this week disputed the previous testimony of a woman who said she escaped a house in which her relatives were trapped and burnt alive by the accused.

Anka Vasiljevic, a Serb woman from the Bosnian town of Visegrad, told judges at the Hague tribunal that former witness Zehra Turjacanin’s allegations against Lukic were not true.

Turjacanin, who appeared at the tribunal in September last year, said that in June 1992, ex-Bosnian Serb paramilitary leader Lukic drove her and her family from their village in Bikavac, Visegrad, then forced them into a house which was then set alight.

However, this week, Vasiljevic said that Turjacanin, who is badly scarred, had suffered severe burns to her face, hair and arms when she tried to light her cigarette from a gas stove.

According to Vasiljevic, her now deceased husband Radomir Vasiljevic had been a doctor in Visegrad at the time and had treated the burned woman.

Milan Lukic and his cousin Sredoje Lukic stand accused of burning alive some 70 Bosniaks trapped inside the house in the Bikavac area.

According to the indictment, Milan Lukic is charged with 21 counts of crimes against humanity and violations of the laws of war, which include murder, extermination and severe physical and psychological abuses that killed at least 150 Bosniaks in Visegrad alone. Sredoje Lukic is charged on 13 counts.

Milan Lukic is alleged to have organised the Serb paramilitary group known as the White Eagles, of which Sredoje Lukic, a former police officer, was also said to be a member.

The prosecution also alleges that both the accused were responsible for a second “living pyre” incident that took place in Pionirska Street in which another 70 Bosniaks were burnt alive.

But this week, Vasiljevic denied that anyone had been burnt alive at all.

“Visegrad is a small town, news like that would have spread. If so many people had been burnt, there would have been a stench that could not have been concealed. It would have spread throughout the whole valley. I think this is all a huge mistake,” she said.

Vasiljevic said that while the Bikavac house had burnt down, she denied that there was anything suspicious about this.

“That particular house did burn down, but it certainly wasn’t the only one. Many Serb and Muslim houses burnt down at the time,” she said.

When asked about the case of Turjacanin, Vasiljevic recounted that in the summer of 1992, her husband had told her the story because he was horrified by it.

“He came home and told me that he had never before seen a woman like that with burns of the highest degree. Her arms were burnt, her face, her hair. She had tried to light a cigarette by using a gas stove and then caught fire,” she said.

She said that her husband Radomir had given the burnt woman medicine before driving her home.

Quizzed by the prosecution about why he had not taken her to hospital, she replied that because she was a Bosniak, her life would have been at risk, “Had he taken her there, she would have never made it. There was a war going on.”

She said her husband was surprised when Turjacinin did not turn up for a later check-up.

“We didn’t even know whether she was alive,” she said.

Three years later, when he read Turjacinin’s account of her ordeal, included in a book written following the war, he was relieved, she said.

“He had obviously provided her with sufficient medicine for her to make it.”

But Vasiljevic said her husband was shocked when he read Turjacinin’s version of how she was so severely burnt.

The witness appeared to become angry when Prosecutor Dermot Groome questioned her version of events, asking if it seemed likely to her that lighting a cigarette could cause such grievous burns.

“My husband was no charlatan, he was a well-known expert. I think you are slandering my husband’s memory,” she told him.

Vasiljevic grew more agitated when asked why her husband didn’t keep a record of having treated Turjacanin.

“Are you listening to me? Or are you just pretending to not understand what I am telling you? Are you taunting me, sir? He received a call from the health centre and they told him, ‘Here is a woman who is injured,’ and he grabbed his medicine,” she said.

Vasiljevic’s husband previously testified before the Hague tribunal as a defence witness in the case of Mitar Vasiljevic – said to have been a subordinate of Milan Lukic in the White Eagles, who was sentenced to 15 years’ on appeal having been found guilty of aiding and abetting persecutions and murder.

But during this testimony, Turjacanin’s burns were not mentioned.

Groome wanted to know why her husband had never previously contested Turjacanin’s claims that her burns were the result of a war crime rather than an accident.

“He was not asked, no one ever asked him about the cause,” the witness told the court.

“My husband died when he came back from The Hague… [he] found that he could not win the battle for truth and justice. I think all of your questions are entirely pointless. He is a great man.”

Vasiljevic also told the court of her family’s relationship with Milan Lukic who is her son’s godfather and “will be his best man”.

“I adore him, I love him. He is a saint, he is like a patron saint of the family,” she said of him.

She went on to describe him as a good friend who was always helpful, gave her family moral support during the war and was “adored” by everyone in Visegrad.

“Never, during the war or after, did I hear anyone saying bad things about him,” she said.

She said that when she read the indictment on the internet she was shocked and surprised about the accusations.

“This has nothing to do with him,” she said. “I really hope everyone will see for themselves that this is simply impossible.”

The trial continues.

Katherina Goetze is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

More IWPR's Global Voices