Systematic Rapes of Bosniak Women and Girls in Visegrad
By CHRIS HEDGES
Published: March 25, 1996.
VISEGRAD, Bosnia and Herzegovina, March 21 — For the thousands of Bosniaks who fled from this town in eastern Bosnia, and for the Serbs who remained, the war has bound this generation and the next to a Serbian militia leader named Milan Lukic.
Witnesses and survivors say Mr. Lukic, 29, killed scores of Muslims in this region from 1992 to 1995. He has not been indicted by the United Nations’ war crimes tribunal in The Hague, and the Serbs in Visegrad say they do not know his whereabouts.
Beyond Visegrad, his name and story are largely unknown. But detailed accounts collected during the last two weeks from witnesses, many of them now dispersed around Bosnia, provide a picture of slaughter, pillage and abuse condoned by the local authorities and Serbian commanders from Belgrade.
Mr. Lukic (pronounced LOO-kich) is emblematic of dozens of Serbian militia leaders who rose to prominence in the war in Bosnia, who used the call for an ethnically pure Serbian state to drive tens of thousands of Bosniak families from their homes and kill thousands of others.
The legacy he and others left — of hatred, loss and pain — is something no peace agreement seems likely to erase. It helps explain why Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs refuse to return to homes controlled by other ethnic groups, as called for in the peace agreement reached last year in Dayton, Ohio. And it fuels the yearning for vengeance that could in time unleash another conflict.
“Every child from Visegrad, even those too young to remember, knows the name Milan Lukic,” said Mehmet Prtkovic, the leader of the displaced Muslims from Visegrad who now lives in the isolated Muslim enclave of Gorazde. “Our community will never forget. We will never allow our children to forget.”
In Visegrad there is a graceful 400-year-old bridge, hewn of large off-white stones, that spans the emerald-green waters of the Drina River. The Nobel laureate Ivo Andric centered his novel “The Bridge on the Drina” around the pumice structure, which he could see from his window as a boy.
The book chronicles, over 350 years, the turbulent and often violent history of Visegrad and Bosnia. And as the novel points out, the bridge has served as a kind of public theater in times of war and upheaval. Brigands and criminals were once impaled and executed on its stone flanks. Mr. Andric wrote in the book, “In all tales about personal, family or public events, the words ‘on the bridge’ could always be heard.”
A Long History Of Major Killers
“The sight of the Passat sent terror into our hearts,” said Hajra Karahodzic, whose husband was taken away by Mr. Lukic and who now lives in Gorazde. “We all prayed that it would not stop in front of our homes.”
Survivors said the killings quickly became frenzied and common. On one occasion, witnesses said, Mr. Lukic used a rope to tie a man to his car and dragged him through the streets until he died.
They said that on at least two occasions, Mr. Lukic herded large groups of Muslims into houses and set the buildings on fire. Zehra Turjacanin, her face and arms badly marred by the flames, escaped from one burning house on June 27 and raced screaming through the streets. Townspeople said she was the only survivor of 71 people inside. She now lives in France.
“We watched all these things,” said Fadila Mujakic, 46, who now lives in Gorazde. “But when we saw poor Zehra yelling in terror and pain, we knew Visegrad had descended into some kind of hell. I gathered my family, and we snuck out that same night.”
Captured Serb Testifies on Lukic
On Aug. 5, 1994, a United Nations policeman, Sgt. T. Cameron, interviewed a captured Serbian soldier from Visegrad, and gathered the only known Serbian testimony of Mr. Lukic’s actions.
The soldier, Milomir Obradovic, told how fleeing Muslims were hauled off buses, lined up and shot by Mr. Lukic and his companions. He identified the sites of two mass graves, but neither have yet been investigated. He said Mr. Lukic and his followers raped young girls held captive at the Vilina Vlas spa outside Visegrad. And he said Jasna Ahmedspahic, a young woman, jumped to her death from a window of the spa after being raped for four days.
But in a move that probably meant death for Mr. Obradovic, he was released in a prisoner exchange. He has since disappeared.
Mr. Lukic, witnesses said, began to drive his captives to the center of the bridge. Women and men said they had turned their heads as Mr. Lukic and his men taunted their victims, who were made to stand on the walls of the bridge, before pushing them into the water and opening fire with automatic weapons.
Muslims in Visegrad were desperate to leave. But the city officials refused to give them papers to leave until they had stripped them of their property and wealth.
On June 7, 1992, Hasan Ajanovic was picked up with five friends and driven to the river by Mr. Lukic and two other men, including Mr. Vasiljevic, the former waiter. One of the victims, Meho Djafic, had worked for 20 years in the Panos restaurant with Mr. Vasiljevic.
“Lukic told us to wade out into the water,” he said, interviewed by telephone from a Western European country that he insisted not be identified. “I did not hear the first shot, I suspect because Lukic’s gun had a silencer. But I heard the screams and then the other shots. Meho’s body fell on top of me. I lay with my face in the sand until night. I swam across the river and escaped. The water stank of death.”
Killings were occurring each day. On the afternoon of July 19, 1992, Milos Lukic kicked down the door where Hasena Muharemovic lived with her sister, mother, invalid father and two small girls, Mrs. Muharemovic said. Her husband had been abducted and had disappeared two weeks earlier. She swept up Nermina, 6, and her older girl and hid.
Mother and Sister Are Shot on Bridge
But her mother, Ramiza, and her sister, Asima, were driven to the center of the bridge. Mrs. Muharemovic crept from her hiding place and saw her mother and sister sitting astride the wall.
“Milan Lukic and his brother shot them in the stomach,” she said. “When they fell in the water, the men leaned over and laughed.”
That night she huddled in an abandoned house with her daughters. At dawn she went to see her father.
“My father told me to take the girls and run away, that if we stayed we would all be killed,” she said. “I cannot go, he said. I will stay until they come for me. ‘Nermina,’ he said to my daughter, ‘come kiss your grandfather goodbye for the last time.’ Then we fled.”
The mother and two girls were picked up by Serbs and taken for two months to a house with six other women, Mrs. Muharemovic said. But she would not talk about the experience.
In September the mother and her daughters where sent to work on a farm with dozens of other captives.
“Lukic would come to stuff pieces of pork in our mouths,” she said. (Pork is forbidden under Islamic dietary rules.) “He beat people with metal rods and took many away.”
In October 1995 Mrs. Muharemovic and her daughters were freed in a prisoner exchange.
The killings here, witnesses said, filled the waters of the river with bloated and mangled bodies.
Mesud Cocalic lived about 12 miles down river from Visegrad in the village of Slap, which did not fall to the Serbs until last summer. He said he and a group of neighbors had buried 180 bodies they had retrieved from the water. The men identified 82 of the bodies and wrote out detailed descriptions of the others.
“The bodies were often slashed with knife marks and were black and blue,” he said. “The young women were wrapped in blankets that were tied at each end. These female corpses were always naked. We buried several children, including two boys 18 months old. We found one man crucified to the back of a door. Once we picked up a garbage bag filled with 12 human heads.”
By the autumn, with Visegrad nearly emptied of Muslims, the killings subsided but did not end.
Those who survived the Serbian capture in July 1995 of the United Nations “safe areas” of Srebrenica and Zepa say they saw Mr. Lukic with the Bosnian Serb troops. Mr. Lukic, they said, took away 65 Visegrad natives who had moved to the United Nations “protected” enclaves.
Capture, Killing, Then a Coca-Cola
Jasmin Kulovac, a young Muslim fighter from Zepa who now lives in Sarajevo, tried to escape from Zepa through the woods toward Montenegro after the enclave was captured in July. But he was arrested with eight companions on Aug. 4 by the Serbian police along the border near Zemlica.
The Serbs drove the men to Visegrad and turned them over to Mr. Lukic. Mr. Kulovac said he had seen one companion gunned down along the banks of the Drina and heard shots that he suspects indicated the killing of the others.
“Lukic took me to the middle of Visegrad to have a Coke afterward,” he said. “As we sat in the cafe, the other Serbs spat at me. He walked around the town like a god.”
Mrs. Muharemovic, who lives in a tiny Sarajevo apartment with her daughters, is gaunt and nervous.
“I do not sleep much,” she said. “I am plagued by the same dream. My room is filled with water. I am fighting to get to the surface. I see the bodies of my mother and my sister swirling past me in the current. I burst to the surface.”
Her voice went low and hoarse.
“I can always see it above me,” she said. “The bridge. The bridge. The bridge.”