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

'Visegrad' Arrests in Eastern Bosnia

As the "Visegrad Indictment" is unsealed, SFOR troops make a new arrest in an area in Bosnia previously considered to be a safe haven for war criminals.
By IWPR

On January 25, SFOR troops arrested Mitar Vasiljevic (45) in Visegrad. This is the second such arrest operation in eastern Bosnia (the French-German SFOR sector) in just over a month. At the end of December 1999 Zoran Vukovic was arrested by SFOR troops in Foca. Previously eastern Bosnia had acquired the unflattering reputation of being something of a safe haven for war criminals.


Vasiljevic is accused of grave crimes against the Bosniak (Muslim) population of Visegrad, a town on the west bank of the Drina River that separates Bosnia from Serbia. The "Visegrad Indictment" was issued on October 26,1998, and placed under seal by the Tribunal.


After Vasiljevic's arrest, the seal was removed from the part of the indictment referring to Vasiljevic.


In his initial appearance before the Tribunal's judge on Friday, January 28, Vasiljevic pleaded not guilty on 14 counts of extermination, murder, persecution and violence to life and property, qualified as crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war.


According to the indictment, Vasiljevic, a local waiter, was a member of the paramilitary unit sometimes referred to as the "White Eagles" and associated with Vojislav Seselj, leader of Serbian ultra-nationalist Radical Party and vice premier of the government in Belgrade.


From mid-April 1992 until at least October 1994, the men in this paramilitary unit committed dozens, if not hundreds, of crimes in the Visegrad municipality including murders, torture, beatings, looting and destruction of property.


In at least two incidents in June 1992 the prosecutor claims Vasiljevic and other members of the paramilitary unit committed, planned, instigated, ordered, or otherwise aided and abetted the mass murder of approximately 135 Bosniak civilians. They forced approximately 65 Bosniak women, children and old men, mostly from Kortinik village, into one room in a house. Having forced them to turn over all their money and jewellery, Vasiljevic and another member of his unit locked and barricaded the people in the house.


"As Mitar Vasiljevic stood behind him, the other member of the paramilitary unit opened the door, placed an incendiary device on the floor and lit the fuse," the indictment said. "Within seconds, the entire house was engulfed in flames and it continued to burn for the next hour. Some people tried to jump out the windows, but the other member of the paramilitary unit stood outside shooting at them while Vasiljevic shined a light on the victims."


According to the indictment, all but six of those people were killed. Among the victims were 46 members of one family and several young children.


In an annex to the indictment, the prosecutor enclosed a list of 58 identified victims from the house in the Pionirska Street in Visegrad. Of the 58, 14 were men and the rest women and children, including a two-day-old baby.


Later in June 1992, some 70 people were killed in a similar way in the Bikavac settlement near Visegrad. This time, Vasiljevic and other members of the paramilitary unit threw several grenades into the house in which they had locked their victims.


"The grenades injured the people inside and set the house on fire. The fire quickly engulfed the house and everyone inside, with the exception of one young woman, was killed."


The indictment goes on to say that in early June 1992, Vasiljevic, "another member of the paramilitary unit and a man nicknamed 'Montenegro' led seven Bosniak men to the bank of the river and ordered them to line up. All three men then opened fire and shot at the seven Bosniak men with automatic weapons. Five of the men were killed, but two survived."


Due to his alleged participation in these crimes, Vasiljevic has been charged with the extermination of Bosniak civilians and persecution on political, racial or religious grounds, both qualified as crimes against humanity. Those crimes were executed though murder, cruel and inhumane treatment, unlawful detention, harassment and terror and finally, theft and destruction of personal property.


In the introduction to the indictment, the prosecutor describes how the attacks on Visegrad started. The town was strategically important as a key transportation hub and the site of a hydroelectric dam.


In April 1992 the Uzice Corps of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) attacked the town, and following their withdrawal in May, local Serbs took over all municipal government offices.


Thereafter, paramilitary troops, local police and local Serbs began a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing.


"Hundreds of civilians in the town of Visegrad were killed in random shootings. Every day, men, women and children were killed on a famous bridge on the Drina and their bodies were dumped into the river. Many of the Bosniak men and women were arrested and detained at various locations in the town, including a camp created in the former JNA Uzamnica military barracks. Serb soldiers raped many women and beat and terrorised non-Serb civilians. Widespread looting and destruction of non-Serb homes and property took place daily and the two mosques in town were destroyed."


It can be concluded from the description of the crime, that the "Visegrad Indictment" contains more names, but they will be learnt only after the arrest of the suspects implicated.