Visegrad: On the Trail of Vasiljevic
Search for released Serb war criminal reveals town still profoundly affected by wartime horrors.
Visegrad: On the Trail of Vasiljevic
Search for released Serb war criminal reveals town still profoundly affected by wartime horrors.
Visegrad was deserted on a May morning when we arrived in the picturesque little town in eastern Bosnia. Its Ottoman bridge over the Drina river has been a symbol of the town for centuries. Since the Bosnian war of 1992-95, however, it has also become an emblem of the suffering of the town’s Bosniak, or Bosnian Muslim, population.
According to many witnesses who testified at the Hague tribunal and local courts about wartime events in Visegrad, hundreds of Bosniaks were killed by Serb forces on the bridge and their bodies thrown into the river.
Visegrad streets were deserted as I and a photographer colleague walked around. Rare passers-by and even fewer visitors in cafes along the Drina were having their first coffees. No one was smiling.
On March 12, a Bosnian Serb convicted of war crimes committed against Bosniaks in Visegrad in 1992, Mitar Vasiljevic, returned to the town after serving two thirds of his 15-year sentence. His supporters in Visegrad welcomed him as a hero with music and processions of cars, all cheering his name.
On that occasion, Vasiljevic wore a hat bearing insignia of the Serbian nationalist paramilitary Chetniks who operated in the Balkans before World War Two. Vasiljevic told the crowd he had never felt happier in his life.
“I greet my fellow Serbs, the young people and especially children who had not been born when I was last here,” he told them.
He called his war crimes conviction unjust and said all the evidence against him was a lie. He refused to talk to journalists afterwards.
The people who live in Visegrad - once predominantly a Bosniak town and today inhabited mostly by Serbs – would not talk to strangers about the welcome party in Vasiljevic’s honour. The few who did stop to answer our questions said they were not there and knew nothing about it. When we asked about crimes committed by Serb forces in Visegrad, they refused to answer and walked away.
According to the tribunal, around 3,000 Bosniak civilians were killed in Visegrad in the war, including 600 women and 119 children. Some of the most horrific crimes of the Bosnian war took place in this town in June 1992, when 140 Bosniaks were burnt alive in houses in Pionirska Street and Bikavac.
Vasiljevic was at that time a member of a paramilitary unit called “White Eagles”, headed by Milan Lukic, who was recently sentenced by the tribunal to life imprisonment for his role in crimes in the first months of the war, particularly for the incidents in Pionirska Street and Bikavac. The case is currently pending before the tribunal’s appeals chamber.
Bosniak returnees are also unwilling to talk about the war. We stopped a 17-year old Bosniak boy in the street and asked him whether he was concerned at the way Serbs from his town had welcomed Vasiljevic. He said he was not afraid of Vasiljevic himself but of those who had organised the hero’s welcome for him. Asked who this was, he replied, “His people” and refused to elaborate.
Today, Visegrad is deeply split. Serbs and Bosniaks greet each other in the street, but do not socialise much across the divide. One of the few Serbs who have friends on both sides is Zoran Maksimovic, the owner and editor-in-chief of the Internet portal www.visegrad24.info. He is a journalist from Sarajevo who moved to Visegrad after the war. People say Maksimovic knows everything and everybody in the town.
He told us that the hero’s welcome Vasiljevic had received on March 12 had not been planned in advance.
“It was organised by a small group of people who spontaneously decided to do this while they were hanging out in a local cafe. When news reached them that Vasiljevic was approaching Visegrad, someone suggested that he should be welcomed properly and that’s how it all started,” said Maksimovic, who took photographs of the event that shocked people throughout Bosnia.
However, his account of the events differs from what we heard from another source, who asked to remain anonymous. According to this source, Vasiljevic’s welcome was meticulously planned and organised by a Serb war veterans’ association.
Vasiljevic had not been answering his phone for a month before we came to Visegrad so we decided to pay him a visit unannounced. Maksimovic said he would take us there.
His home, a white two-storey house some four kilometres from the town centre, seemed empty when we arrived. We entered the front yard. The curtains were closed and the place was silent. No one answered the door bell.
A neighbour said the Vasiljevic family were in Belgrade, visiting their son. “Who knows when they’ll be back? They rarely come here,” she added.
As we exited the front yard, we saw a police car parked close to Vasiljevic’s house. Five minutes before, it had not been there. Maksimovic found that highly suspicious and said traffic police would usually never park there. We got into our car to head for Visegrad and the police car drove away, too.
SHADOW OF MIHAJLOVIC
Outside the Visegrad municipality offices, Bilal Memisevic, the president of the town assembly, was waiting for us. Memisevic, a Bosniak, is one of very few officials doing their best to help Visegrad overcome the economic and social crisis it has been stuck in.
He lost both his parents in the war. He says he knows who killed them and that their murderer walks the streets of Visegrad freely. In spite of that, Memisevic says he believes in justice and that that everyone will be held to account for their crimes sooner or later. He claims that relations between the two ethnic groups in the town are “all right and constantly improving”.
Memisevic has not seen Vasiljevic since he returned to Visegrad. “He had been convicted and served his time in prison. I hope he has learnt something from that. That’s all I’d want to see – that he has changed, that he is no longer the man who committed war crimes here,” he said.
The 2,500 Bosniak returnees to Visegrad have not been intimidated by Vasiljevic’s comeback, nor has it in any way disturbed relations between the two communities, Memisevic said.
He believes that what happened in the vicinity of Visegrad only a day after Vasiljevic’s welcome is a much bigger problem than the welcome itself.
In the village of Drazevina, around ten km from the centre of Visegrad, members of Ravna Gora movement marked the 64th anniversary of the arrest of the World War Two Chetnik leader Draza Mihajlovic, displaying the Chetnik symbols dreaded by Bosniaks and Croats and singing Serb nationalist songs.
Mihajlovic was captured near Visegrad on March 13, 1946 by agents of the Yugoslav security, OZNA, and sentenced to death for war crimes and high treason. To this day, his supporters see him as a martyr who died for his homeland.
Around 800 members of the Ravna Gora movement who gathered near Visegrad this March praised Mihajlovic and sent a message to all Serbs that “they should be living in one Serb country”.
“The local Bosniak population is more intimidated by the existence of the Ravna Gora movement than by anything else. They are turning that place – Drazevina (the village is named after Mihajlovic) – into a tourist attraction. They even erected Mihajlovic’s statue there, the one that was removed from a square in Brcko a few years ago. That has become their meeting place,” he said, adding that almost no one in Visegrad talks about this openly.
The local Ravna Gora movement is a closed group whose representatives rarely talk to the media. We did, however, manage to make an appointment with its president, Miro Jeremic.
Jeremic doesn’t see any problem with the movement’s activities. “Our only goal is to present the real truth about the events that took place in the World War Two, because the history has been misrepresented,” he said, referring to the fact that Mihajlovic was pronounced a war criminal and traitor by the Yugoslav communist authorities after the war.
When we asked him about relations between Serbs and Bosniaks in Visegrad, he turned to the bridge connecting the two banks of the Drina and said, “There they (Bosniaks) are, walking freely”, and pointed at two elderly men.
“The first crimes in Visegrad, just like everywhere else in Bosnia and Hercegovina, were committed by Bosniaks. Serbs only took revenge,” Jeremic said. “I was in the [Bosnian Serbs’] Republika Srpska army. When you lose someone close to you in a war, you lose your mind, too.”
However, Jeremic remains silent when asked to specify what crimes were committed by Bosniaks in this town. As for Vasiljevic, Jeremic said he did not know him personally.
“The only thing I know is that he was a marginal figure, both during the war and now,” he said.
We then go to Drazevina, the place where Mihajlovic was captured 64 years ago. Every year on March 13, the Ravna Gora movement marks the anniversary.
SCARS NEED TO HEAL
At the entrance of the settlement, we see a large sign pointing towards the Orthodox monastery of Sveti Nikolaj, headed by Father Jovan Gadrovic.
Asked why he agreed to keep a statue of Mihajlovic, a convicted war criminal, in his monastery’s courtyard, he replied, “He was a man abandoned by everyone, and I embrace all abandoned people.”
A kiosk outside does not have many icons or postcards bearing Orthodox imagery, but it has numerous souvenirs related to the Chetnik movement.
Father Gadrovic said he and his people do not have much contact with Bosnia’s Muslims, “This will change in time, but there are still some scars that need to heal first, and only God can make that happen.”
Like most of the people in Visegrad, he will not talk about the crimes committed in the town during the recent war. He says that for a few days he did not even know Vasiljevic was back in town.
“Crimes were committed on all sides. Only God knows what happened in Visegrad. Both our and their people suffered. The war was a stupid thing,” Father Gadrovic said.
“Muslims got most out of it. They now have a state, which they would not have got had there not been a war,” he said.
That day at a cemetery a few km from Drazevina, Imam Hasan Skorupan was burying two Bosniak war victims whose bodies have only recently been identified - a mother and her 12-year-old daughter.
The imam came to Visegrad from Priboj in Serbia to hold the service. He says he has heard about the crimes that were committed here from Bosniak returnees.
Reflecting the confessional gulf, he says his contacts with Orthodox clergy are limited to matters of religious education. “We organised together lessons on religion a few times. I think it would help both ethnic groups to get to know each other better,” Skorupan said.
The imam said Bosniak returnees had told him they did not feel comfortable with the fact that Vasiljevic had received a hero’s welcome when he returned to Visegrad in March.
“When you see a Bosniak mother who lost two sons in the war, you can understand why she is upset with this. These recent events, of course, disturbed many Bosniak returnees, but we have to hope for the best. That is what I keep telling them,” he said.
Close to the cemetery, in his studio that doubles as an art gallery, painter Branko Nikitovic, a Serb, is trying to depict a different Visegrad. “Primitivism is predominant in this town more than ever before. I am not interested in nationalism or politics,” he said as he showed us the gallery.
He does not want to talk about Vasiljevic's return either. “I don't care about him. Some good, dear people who are no longer alive to walk the streets of Visegrad are those I care about. They are constantly on my mind,” he said.
Nikitovic has managed to bring an international art colony to Visegrad, an achievement that makes him proud. He lives for the few days of the annual arts festival when this little town on the Drina leads a different life.
The 11-arched Visegrad bridge, built in the 16th century by the great Ottoman architect Sinan on the orders of Grand Vizier Mehmed Paša Sokolović, is a World Heritage Site. It was the subject of the novel “The Bridge Over the Drina” by Nobel Prize winning Yugoslav author Ivo Andric.
“Anyone who comes to Visegrad for the first time already knows something about it. They have either heard of Mehmed Paša Sokolović, or read Andric's novel, or heard about the outstanding beauty of the bridge,” he said.
“So far, I have made around 3,000 paintings featuring the bridge in Visegrad. But I haven't managed to paint its true face yet.”
Marija Arnautovic is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.
Also see Story Behind the Story, published in TRI Issue 652, 8-Jul-10.
The Story Behind the Story gives an insight into the work that goes into IWPR articles and the challenges faced by our trainees at every stage of the editorial process.
This feature allows our journalists to explain where they get the inspiration for their articles, why the subjects matter to them, and how they personally have felt affected by the often controversial issues they explore.
It also shows the difficulties writers can face as they try to get to the heart of a story.