Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Visegrad in Denial Over Grisly Past
Visegrad's 16th century Ottoman bridge. (Photo: Rachel Irwin)
When asked if she was aware of what happened in Visegrad during the war, the waitress's face quickly tightened into a frown.
She doesn't know anything, she says, crossing her arms and glancing nervously around the empty, darkened hotel cafe. She didn't live here then, she says.
That seems to be a common refrain in this eastern Bosnian town.
Nestled in the mountains, and boasting a 16th-century Ottoman stone bridge that stretches majestically across the emerald-tinted Drina river, Visegrad could hardly be more picturesque.
But the natural beauty of the town and its surroundings belies the horror that gripped this region during the summer of 1992, when Bosnian Serb paramilitaries carried out a violent campaign to rid the area of Bosnian Muslims, or Bosniaks.
That summer, as many witnesses have testified in trials at the Hague tribunal, the historic UNESCO-protected bridge was the scene of executions of Bosniak men, women and children, whose bodies were thrown into the river, often in broad daylight. By autumn, 3,000 Bosniaks had been killed. Many more simply disappeared.
Currently standing trial at the Hague tribunal, Bosnian Serb cousins Milan and Sredoje Lukic are accused of responsibility for many of the outrages perpetrated at this time.
The men, who say they are innocent, are charged with burning 140 Bosniak men, women and children alive in barricaded houses.
An associate of Milan Lukic, Mitar Vasiljevic, was sentenced by the tribunal to 20 years in prison in 2002 for aiding and abetting the murders of seven Bosniaks in Visegrad.
In their decision on the Vasiljevic case, tribunal judges wrote that Visegrad was subjected to “one of the most comprehensive and ruthless campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian conflict”. They added that, proportionally, no other Bosnian town except Srebrenica underwent a more drastic change in ethnic composition.
Before the war, 60 per cent of Visegrad's 20,000 residents were Bosniak. Today, only a handful of survivors have returned to what is a predominantly Serb town.
The killings in Visegrad are also included in the first count of genocide against former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, who was apprehended in July after 13 years on the run.
HOTEL AT CENTRE OF ABUSE CLAIMS
The Vilina Vlas hotel and health spa, where the waitress bristled at questions, is a short drive from the centre of town and surrounded by woods and a steep, pebble-filled ravine. The hotel's website extols the healing properties of the spa's waters and boasts of a large dining room perfect for business lunches.
From this mild description, one would never suspect that Vilina Vlas allegedly served a much grislier purpose during the war.
According to the prosecutor's pre-trial brief in the Lukic case, Vilina Vlas “was used by Milan Lukic and his paramilitaries to detain and interrogate Bosnian Muslim civilian men as well as to rape and sexually enslave young Muslim women and girls”.
The alleged events at the hotel, and the allegation of rape, were not included in the final indictment against Lukic. The presumption of innocence relating to these allegations must therefore stand.
However, there is a substantial body of reports that suggest something terrible happened at Vilina Vlas. The alleged abuse there – which was documented as early as 1993 by the United Nations, Amnesty International and foreign journalists – was so severe that some women are reported to have jumped from second or third storey windows to their deaths. It is claimed that hundreds of others were held in the guestrooms for days or weeks at a time, where they were allegedly brutally raped, mutilated, and often killed.
In one of the many statements collected by the Research and Documentation Centre, RDC, in Sarajevo, a Bosniak woman spoke of her ordeal at the hotel with the Serb who brought her there.
“He raped me from 12.00 to 21.00 hours on that day. All that time, he held a knife in his hand, or within reach,” she said.
The few remaining survivors declined to be interviewed for this article, citing the trauma of retelling their story.
These days, Vilina Vlas caters to elderly visitors who come to bathe in the medicinal waters. Inside the hotel, heavy curtains are drawn on most of the windows and the air is stale from cigarette smoke. The furnishings in the lobby and cafe area are dark red, but heavily worn and faded with age.
The middle-aged Serb waitress, clearly uncomfortable with questions about the hotel's past, shuffled across the vast dining room and headed downstairs to the lobby. She emerged moments later with a slender man who sat and watched the cafe's only guests for several minutes, followed by another burlier man, who did the same.
All attempts to interview staff at Vilina Vlas ended in the same way - they said they knew nothing of what happened there during the war.
There is no suggestion that current staff members worked at Vilina Vlas in the early Nineties. Instead, we talked to them because like any other residents of this small town, they could reasonably expected to have some memory of its recent history, and - given where they work - to be aware of the stories surrounding the hotel in particular.
“Visegrad is a small town. They can't not know,” said Mirsada Tabakovic, a Bosniak who fled Visegrad in June of 1992. She accompanied IWPR journalists to Vilina Vlas, and was present during the encounter with the hotel staff.
Tabakovic now lives in Sarajevo, where she works on behalf of rape victims and has helped to collect statements from many of those who survived the alleged abuse at Vilina Vlas.
“They are all in a terrible state,” she said. “They suffer from depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Most of them are not able to lead a normal life.”
And Tabakovic has endured her own trauma.
On May 19, 1992 – the day that the then Yugoslav army withdrew from Bosnia – soldiers with Serbian accents arrived at her door, she said, and took away her husband, brother-in-law and father-in-law; the last time she ever saw them alive.
Tabakovic hid with a Bosnian Serb friend in Visegrad until she was able to leave on an organised convoy on June 14 of that year. Her husband's body was found eight years ago in a mass grave.
Tabakovic brushed her blonde hair away from her face and looked around the dining room – at the stony-faced waitress behind the espresso bar, the two hovering managers smoking cigarettes, the elderly guests climbing the stairs in their sweat suits, and at a half eaten cake in the humming cafe fridge.
“How can those people behave as if nothing happened here?” she asked incredulously.
Having coffee at a place like Vilina Vlas was clearly excruciating for Tabakovic, and she shifted in her chair, barely touching her drink.
“I was looking at those walls thinking about how many untold stories of pain they will keep secret,” she later remarked. “We have heard a lot about what happened at Vilina Vlas, but there is so much we will not hear, especially because they decided not to include rape in [Milan] Lukic's indictment.”
As IWPR reported in July, the failure to charge Milan Lukic with rape provoked anger and astonishment from victims and NGOs. (See Lukic Trial Ruling Provokes Outcry).
Hague chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte had omitted the charges from his indictment in order to speed up his trial, since the tribunal is under pressure to complete all cases by the end of 2009.
Del Ponte retired at the end of 2007, but the prosecution waited until last June – just a month before the trial was to begin – to resubmit the rape count. The judges deemed the submission too late, and the trial commenced with the charge absent from the indictment.
"WE KNOW NOTHING"
Acting as though nothing happened – or claiming not to know anything – was not a reaction exclusive to those at Vilina Vlas.
In a narrow, unheated room in the centre of Visegrad, several members of the right-leaning political party Alliance of Independent Social Democrats, SNSD, huddled around a long table. They were eager to talk about the economic problems plaguing the town, and about plans to expand job opportunities and tourist attractions.
“We expect a lot from tourism,” said Brane Topalovic, an SNSD leader with a small frame and greying hair. “We have a spa, Vilina Vlas. We expect to expand its capacity, and there are plans to construct another hotel and a swimming pool.”
When asked, he claimed not to know about the rape and murder that allegedly occurred at the state-owned Vilina Vlas during the war.
“Look, I don't know, even today, what happened in Visegrad,” he said, underlining that he only moved to the town in 1996. “I only know what people tell me.”
And what is that?
“Some tell one story, others tell something completely different,” he said, appearing increasingly agitated. He added that while he does not follow the trials at the Hague tribunal, he did meet Milan Lukic in 1996.
“[Milan] was a good-looking man,” he said. “He did not have any problems with law enforcement then.”
Another member of the SNDS, an elderly man in a blue jacket, nodded his head in agreement before launching into a speech about the “Muslim extremists” who he said started the conflict.
“According to propaganda, 3,000 Muslims were killed here,” he said. “I guarantee that this is a lie. What happened here was a civil war.”
During the ensuing discussion, a theme emerged: no one at the table knew what happened during the summer of 1992 because they claimed to have been living elsewhere, or to have already left the area. They said they did not see any crimes committed themselves, and thus considered any stories of atrocities in Visegrad to be rumours and nothing more.
Did they think the accounts of what happened at Vilina Vlas were just rumours?
“I don't know,” answered Topalovic, the party leader.
At that point, a middle-aged man sitting quietly at the back of the room interjected. He appeared uncomfortable with some of his friends' statements, and attempted to explain them.
Cedomir Guzina grew up in Sarajevo, and fought in the Bosnian Serb army during the 44-month siege of the city. After the war ended, he came to Visegrad, and spent the next four years living at Vilina Vlas with other Serbs who had left their home towns.
“No one ever mentioned the crimes people talk about now,” said Guzina. “I heard people talking about it only after Milan Lukic had left town, after a warrant was issued for his arrest. Maybe the people who were with him [then] know more, but nobody talks about it and we know nothing.”
Darko Andric, a tall young man in jeans and a white sweater, sat tensely listening to Guzina speak. He was a child during the war, and said his family left Visegrad in the spring of 1992.
“Even if something happened here, no one knows about it,” he said. “That's why it's stupid to answer your questions. I heard there was some kind of hospital there [at Vilina Vlas] during the war. They say the water has healing powers. The wounded were there and doctors took care of them... hundreds of people were saved. Who knows how many amputations took place there?”
According to scholars, this sort of denial is extremely common – and even expected – after atrocities have been inflicted on a civilian population.
“Because you have guilt about what your group did to this other group, you wind up not wanting to acknowledge it. It reflects on you,” anthropologist Gregory Stanton told IWPR. Stanton, founder and president of international organisation Genocide Watch, is a former employee of the United States State Department, where he helped to draft the UN resolution that created the war crimes tribunal in Rwanda.
In Germany, for example, it took at least 20 years for the country to begin coming to terms with the Holocaust, Stanton explained.
While the Bosnian war officially ended 13 years ago, some observers feel that Bosnian Serbs, in particular, still have a long way to go in facing up to their role in atrocities committed, especially when it comes to the crime of rape.
“There are men who will admit they committed crimes against humanity before they will acknowledge rape,” said Sara Sharratt, a clinical psychologist, who for the last three years has co-directed a project for women who testify about sexual violence at The Hague tribunal and Bosnian courts.
“There is more acknowledgement in larger towns, but still nowhere near where it needs to be,” she told IWPR. “My sense is that it's not coming in the near future.... There hasn't been a lot of healing.”
Part of the problem, say others, is the overall atmosphere of denial that still permeates the Serbian part of Bosnia – Republika Srpska – and Serbia itself.
Sonja Biserko, chairwoman of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Serbia, said that during the war, the media in Serbia dispensed an enormous amount of pro-Serb, anti-Bosniak propaganda.
“This was a preventative war against a genocidal [Bosniak] force – that’s how the media framed it,” she said.
Even now, she added, many Serbs are reluctant to confront what went on during the war, and seem content to leave it to “history” to assess what happened.
A common phrase repeated in Serbia these days is “history will say what happened”, she said. “This is what you hear all the time, even in the media.”
“But what is history?” she asked. “The passage of time?”
SUSPECTS ALLEGEDLY LIVING IN TOWN
Sitting at an outdoor cafe by the banks of the Drina, a Bosnian Serb man lit a cigarette and pointed at the old Ottoman bridge.
“Look, that bridge was built in 1571,” he said. “There were as many people killed there [during the war] as there are bricks in the bridge. It's the biggest graveyard.”
After a moment, he added, “I never cross that bridge. I use the one down there to go to work.”
The man, who lived in Visegrad during the summer of 1992 and continues to do so, added that when the Drina became full of bodies, someone would open a sluice gate on a dam located downstream on the river to flush them away.
He agreed to speak to IWPR on condition of anonymity, as he feared he might be targeted for speaking out. As he spoke, he would periodically look around to see whether anyone was watching. Talking about the war isn't something people do here.
Many residents, he explained, had been offered large sums of money to remain silent, especially since some suspected – and even convicted – war criminals are known to be living in town.
One of those that he mentioned specifically was Oliver Krsmanovic, a former associate of Milan Lukic. Both men were sentenced in absentia to 20 years in prison by a Belgrade criminal court in 2003.
Lukic and Krsmanovic, along with two other men, were convicted of abducting 16 Bosniaks from a bus in the Serbian border town of Sjeverin on October 22, 1992. The kidnapped men were taken to Visegrad where they were tortured, then executed on the banks of the Drina, prosecutors alleged. Their remains have yet to be found.
Jasna Sarcevic-Jankovic, a spokeswoman for the office of the war crimes prosecutor in Belgrade, confirmed that Krsmanovic is still at large. She said that the prosecutor's office does not have any new information on his whereabouts, and that it was up to the police to apprehend him.
But the Visegrad resident IWPR spoke to claimed to know exactly where Krsmanovic is hiding.
“I saw Oliver Krsmanovic the day before yesterday,” he said. “He has not left his house in years. If they want to arrest him, they should come to me, and I will help them approach his house at night. I guarantee they'll find him in his room.”
Taking a sip of his espresso, he said he didn’t know why Krsmanovic hadn’t been arrested, since his whereabouts are something of an open secret around town.
When asked whether he was haunted by the things he witnessed, the man was quiet for a moment.
“I could not sleep the first year [after the war ended],” he said. “I was taking sleeping pills. [But] I never did anything to harm anybody and I think I did much to help.”
On a few occasions, he said, he hid Bosniak children in his house until he was able to transfer them to Bosniak-held territory.
As he sat back in the yellow cafe chair, the man alternated between expressing fears of being exposed and a brazen willingness to speak openly.
”I am not afraid,” he said. “They can do whatever they please to me. Three thousand [murdered] people are more important than me.”
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. Edina Becirevic is a senior lecturer at the University of Sarajevo.
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