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

Visegrad House-Burning Testimony

Sole survivor speaks of “wailing and screaming” as fire engulfed house full of Bosniaks.
By Rachel Irwin
The only person to escape from a house set on fire in Visegrad in 1992 testified this week at the trial of Bosnian Serbs Milan and Sredoje Lukic.

Zehra Turjacanin told judges that former Bosnian Serb paramilitary leader Milan Lukic forced her and her relatives from their village in the Bikavac neighbourhood of Visegrad and herded them into a nearby house which was then set alight.

The cousins stand accused of burning alive some 70 Bosniaks trapped inside.

However, the witness appeared not to recognise either accused during her testimony at the Hague tribunal this week.

Turjacanin told the tribunal’s prosecutor Dermot Groome that on the night of June 27, she and nine others – including her mother, two sisters and her sister’s two small children – were made to leave their home by armed men, including Milan Lukic, and his older “cousin or uncle”.

The men took the group to another house, where Turjacanin said a large number of people stood leaning against the walls of the dining room and kitchen.

“In that house, there were mainly young mothers with small children,” she said. “Unfortunately, there were many children.”

Turjacanin said the men outside threw rocks and grenades into the house, fired several shots at the walls and the people inside and then set the house on fire.

“What did the people in the room do?” asked Groome.

“[They] were wailing and screaming,” she responded. “It’s not describable, what I heard.”

Turjacanin, who gave most of her testimony in French, wore her long grey hair in a single braid and was dressed in black. Her badly scarred hands, which she said had been completely paralysed by the fire, lay folded in her lap.

When Judge Patrick Robinson asked why she was not speaking in her native language, she replied, “I’ve broken off all contacts and distanced myself from [Bosnia]. I have a new country and that’s where my life is.”

For most of her testimony, the two defendants sat expressionless in the back of the courtroom.

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 claimed the lives of 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 a member.

The trial chamber has already heard testimony from witnesses in relation to another house-burning in Pionirska Street in the eastern Bosnian town on June 14, 1992. Milan Lukic and his men are accused of forcing some 70 Bosniaks into the house before setting it alight.

According to Turjacanin, “there was a lot of fear” among Bosniaks in Bikavac in June 1992.

She said she often stood on her balcony at night and heard “screams, shots and the sound of bodies falling [into the Drina River]”. Her brother and male cousin went into hiding on the ground floor of their house, barricaded “with blocks of concrete”, she added.

When the Bikavac house was set on fire, Turjacanin said she held her mentally disabled younger sister, Aida, close to her stomach. The rest of her family, she said, dispersed to different parts of the room.

“When I started to burn and it became unbearable, I tried to escape through the door, but I was surprised…there was an obstruction,” she said, going on to describe a metal garage door blocking the exit.

Forced to leave her sister behind, Turjacanin managed to squeeze through what she described as a small opening between the doors. At that point, she began to run, discarding her burning clothing as she fled. The men who had started the fire, she said, were lying on the grass watching the house burn.

After staying part of the night in another village, she returned to Bikavac to urge other citizens to leave. The next morning she visited the command of the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, based there, where she hoped someone would put an end to her extreme physical and emotional pain.

“What did you ask them?” asked Groome.

“I asked them to shoot me,” she replied, her voice breaking.

“Did they?” asked Groome. “No,” she answered.

Turjacanin, now 45, said she attended the same secondary school as Milan Lukic, and much of her testimony focused on their previous interaction and her recollections of him before the war.

Though she was three years ahead of him in school, she said she remembered seeing him during smoking breaks between classes. Her brother, she testified, was in the same class as Milan Lukic.

On the night of the fire, Turjacanin said she was wearing a small gold chain around her neck. “As I entered the house, Milan himself pulled the chain out from under my red t-shirt,” she said.

But when Groome asked her if she recognised anyone in the courtroom, she looked around the room and at the defendants. After a few minutes, she said, “No.”

The defence again tried to prove that Milan and Sredoje Lukic were not in Visegrad at time when the alleged crime was committed, as they have done throughout the trial.

Jason Alarid, Milan Lukic’s lawyer, asked questions designed to test Turjacanin’s memory.

He asked her to describe Milan’s appearance, in detail, both at secondary school and on the night she escaped the house.

He also wanted to know if it had been hard for her to hear bodies falling into the water from her balcony two kilometres away.

“It’s not that difficult,” she responded. “It’s very easy to see everything from the balcony.”

But could she hear something that far away at night, he asked.

“Yes,” she responded, firmly.

Earlier in her testimony, Turjacanin told Groome that after fleeing from Visegrad on foot, her third-degree burns were so severe that a Bosniak doctor declined to treat her, saying “it’s not worth it”.

The witness said that she is now missing part of her ears and will never regain normal function of her hands.

“Can you describe the overall impact of that night?” asked Groome.

“All of the suffering and pain will continue for the rest of my life,” she responded. “Despite all that, I’m still alive. Life is beautiful, and I still want to live it to the fullest.”

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR contributor.

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