“We once again say to our loved ones: we are looking for you, we will never give up the truth."
A few years ago, I received a Facebook message from a woman I did not know, or, rather, could not remember. She said that she thought we went to elementary school together during the war in Gorazde, a town in southeastern Bosnia and Herzegovina to which my family and I fled, as did many other people, from my hometown Visegrad.
I can hardly remember anyone from that — probably the most traumatic — period of my life, but we kept talking. She was also from Visegrad and she fled with her family to Gorazde in the summer of 1992. After the war, she stayed in Gorazde, got married and had two children.
“We never found my sister,” she said. “And my mother never recovered from it.” I remember I froze when I read that sentence, which has stayed with me ever since.
Visegrad was where some of the worst atrocities in Bosnia and Herzegovina took place. It was an ethnically diverse town in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina where Muslims made up the majority of the population, 63 percent, before the 1992-1995 war.
In what has come to be known as “ethnic cleansing”, Visegrad’s Bosnian Muslim population was almost completely erased. The town’s 13,000 Muslims had been either killed or expelled.
To this day, many of the survivors are still searching for the remains of their loved ones, hoping that the river Drina or a former neighbour will help uncover the truth of what had happened to them. But families also have to fight one more battle: for truth and memory. The committed crimes and their experience have been continuously denied, minimised, relativised and belittled.
From May 1992, Bosnian Muslims, particularly men, but women and children too, were slaughtered at Visegrad’s famous 16th-century Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic bridge, which served as inspiration for Yugoslav author Ivo Andric’s novel, The Bridge on the Drina, and thrown into the river.
On two distinct occasions, on June 14 and 27, 1992, more than 120 civilians, mostly the elderly, women and children, including a two-day-old infant, were locked in houses: one on Pionirska Street in Visegrad and one in the Bikavac area. They were then set ablaze. Those who tried to escape through the windows were shot by soldiers. Only six managed to survive the Pionirska Street fire and only one from the Bikavac fire.
Hundreds of women were detained and mass-raped at the spa hotel in Visegrad, called Vilina Vlas. Several women, unable to endure the relentless abuse, jumped out of the hotel’s glass-covered balconies and killed themselves, while others were killed, “suffocated in a system of gas pipes at the hotel”, thrown into the Drina river or burned alive.
One victim, 17 at the time, told the Washington Post that she was taken to Vilina Vlas by Milan Lukic, a leader of a Bosnian Serb paramilitary group, with her 15-year-old sister and an 18-year-old friend. They were separated and locked in different rooms. A few hours afterwards, she was raped by Lukic, who told her she was lucky to be with him, since she could have been thrown into the river with rocks tied around her ankles. She heard a loud cry “when the door across the hall was opened,” and recognised her sister’s voice. She never saw her again.
After raping the 17-year-old, Lukic returned her to her family. The family stayed in Visegrad as long as they could, hoping that her sister would be returned too. After her mother went to the police station almost every day for a month, Lukic said to her: “What do you want? At least I returned one of your daughters.”
The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) sentenced Milan Lukic to life in prison for war crimes including murder, cruelty, persecution and other crimes against humanity committed in Visegrad in 1992 and 1993, including the Pionirska Street and Bikavac fires.
The fate of hundreds of other victims is still unknown. The bodies were hidden in mass graves, spread across the territory of Republika Srpska, which were often dug up again and transferred by trucks and mechanical diggers to several “secondary” and even “tertiary” mass graves.
Despite the courts' judgements, testimonies of witnesses and survivors, admissions by many paramilitary soldiers, and the mass graves that are being unearthed in the area to this day, the majority of Visegrad’s Serb residents and government officials continue to deny murder, torture or rape ever took place there.
In 2014, Visegrad authorities ordered the word “genocide” to be removed from a memorial to the dead from the Muslim graveyard called Straziste. The then-mayor of Visegrad, Slavisa Miskovic, said the word genocide was offensive to local people because there “is no proof of verdict about genocide in Visegrad.”
Visegrad’s government officials have tried for years to demolish the house in Pionirska Street where Bosniak civilians were burned alive. They also refused to acknowledge the “rape camps” built in their town during the war and instead erected a monument for the pro-Serb Russian volunteers who participated in the war, many of whom were involved in the rapes.
After the war, the Serbs who controlled Visegrad re-opened Vilina Vlas as a spa hotel and invited tourists. In 1998, one of the visitors was Austrian writer and Nobel laureate Peter Handke – a well-known genocide denier and apologist for Serbian war criminals. Handke repeatedly expressed scepticism and scorn for reports about Serb crimes against Visegrad’s Muslims over the years.
This year, Handke was awarded the “Ivo Andric Grand Prize'' and an honorary doctorate by the University of East Sarajevo for his alleged “contribution to art, literature and the truth about the Serbian people'' in Visegrad. On May 9, 2021, Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic presented Handke the Order of Karadjordje’s Star of the First Degree, one of the state’s highest honours, for his so-called “uncompromising fight for the truth”.
When the Office of the High Representative (OHR), the top international body overseeing the implementation of the peace agreement that ended Bosnia’s war, criminalised the denial and glorification of genocide in the country on July 23, 2021, the parliament of Republika Srpska passed a law on “non-implementation” of the high representative’s decision and another providing for penalties of up to 15 years in prison for “violating the reputation of the Republika Srpska”.
In the words of Israel W. Charny, denials are “celebrations of destruction, renewed humiliations of survivors, and metaphorically murders of historical truth and collective memory”. Denial is especially devastating for the families of missing persons many of whom have died without finding their loved ones.
A little over a week ago, families of the missing and killed in the Srebrenica genocide, genocide survivors, researchers, activists gathered to mark the International Day of Disappeared. “We once again say to our loved ones: we are looking for you, we will never give up the truth,” they said.
We must continue their search and fight for the victims’ memory and for the triumph of truth. We owe at least that much to those innocent people whose remains are scattered in mass graves, never to be found again.
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