Investigation: Visegrad rape victimes say their crie go unherd
By: Nidžara Ahmetašević, Nerma Jelačić i Selma Boračić (Višegrad i Sarajevo)
20 October 2006 Handful who survived town’s infamous rape camp fear they will never obtain justice.
Standing in front of her former home in Visegrad, Bakira Hasecic recalls the day 14 years ago when her life was turned upside down.(Watch BIRN report about war time rapes in Visegrad: Rape Victims Say Their Cries Go Unheard)
Her voice breaking with emotion, she tells of the Bosnian Serb soldiers who came into her house in April 1992 and sexually abused her and her family, before taking her to the basement of a police station in Visegrad.
“There was a large armchair, a bar, some chairs and a half of the room was decorated with wood. I saw Milan Lukic and Sredoje Lukic. I knew Milan Lukic very well,” she said.
“Holding a crescent-shaped knife, he told me to take off my clothes – I thought he was joking. But I realised he was holding the knife right in front of me.”
Hasecic did what she was told, taking off her trousers and shirt until she was left in her underwear. She breaks down this time, unable to go on and tell further details of the rape that ensued.
Years on, Hasecic has become a vocal fighter for the rights of the women who experienced rape and similar crimes during the three-and-a-half-year war.
Her Association of Women Victims of War rallies rape victims across Bosnia and Herzegovina and has provided key testimonies in rape and sexual abuse trials linked to the conflict.
The association has helped to obtain justice and financial and psychological aid for many of its thousand-plus members.
But Hasecic feels rape victims from her Visegrad hometown have been left short-changed by the courts.
For although the cousins Milan and Sredoje Lukic are now in the Hague tribunal’s detention unit in Scheveningen, they have not been charged with rape.
Instead, they are indicted with murder, persecution and other inhumane acts, to which they pleaded not guilty earlier this year.
Hasecic feels it is wrong that neither man was charged with rape or sexual abuse. In June, she wrote to the tribunal’s chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, asking why.
Del Ponte’s response, which Balkan Insight has read, was that the prosecution had no evidence for such charges when it drew up the indictment. “We had no witnesses who would come forward with such evidence,” Del Ponte wrote.
The chief prosecutor had not been able to find women from Visegrad prepared to testify that Milan and Sredoje Lukic raped them.
Hasecic says this is untrue, as she and other women made statements to the relevant officials that were available to Hague investigators.
One, who wishes to remain unnamed for her own security, told Balkan Insight Lukic raped her several times.
She was one of reported 200 women held in a spa hotel Vilina Vlas at the outskirts of the town which was turned into a rape camp.
Furthermore, the hotel was, according to reports as well as to Lukic’s own admission of which Balkan Insight is in possession, turned into a command post for his unit.
“I can’t remember the exact dates when it happened,” the woman told Balkan Insight. “I was hiding in the woods with my son for a while after the war broke out, while my daughter hid in a shed behind our house because we heard they were taking girls to Vilina Vlas.
“The first time, Milan Lukic raped me in the house. Then he took me down to the garden, where my 16-year old son was. Lukic grabbed him, took him into the house and came out holding a set of knives.
“He asked me which one was the sharpest and when I told him, he slaughtered my son with that same knife. ‘Mummy’ was the last word my son said before he died. Then Lukic raped me in the garden again.”
The same witness said Lukic then took her away to Vilina Vlas.
“Sometimes they would keep me for a day, sometimes for longer, before taking me home and then bringing me back to the hotel. I lost count of how many times they raped me,” she said.
The woman recalled that there “were many women held in the hotel and that there was blood everywhere”.
“All the rooms in the hotel were locked. Everyday they threw us bread which we had to catch with our teeth as our hands were tied. The only time they untied us is when they raped us,” she told Balkan Insight.
“They abused us in unspeakable ways. They burned me with cigarettes, cut my body with a knife and ripped flesh from my mouth”.
“We couldn’t talk. We just stared into a point in the corner, crayed and completely lost. We didn’t know what time it was. The only time we knew was when they came for us.”
The woman believes she is one of a handful who survived the camp in Vilina Vlas as most were killed, or took their own lives. She told Balkan Insight she saw one suicide herself, when a girl jumped from a second-floor room through a glass balcony.
She said she could not understand why Milan and Sredoje Lukic had not been accused of rape, as she had told her story to investigators, though she did not know if they worked for the Hague tribunal or local courts.
She and the other women victims from Visegrad now threaten not to appear in The Hague to testify about the two men’s other alleged crimes if rape is not included.
But the court faces a conundrum. The UN’s “completion strategy” for the tribunal rules out prosecutors bringing any new charges or amending existing ones.
Charges can only be altered if the case is shifted from The Hague to Sarajevo, or elsewhere. In that case, the local courts may order a new investigation.
Meanwhile, Bakira and her allies continue their quest for justice.
Rape was systematic in Visegrad in the early months of the war, they argue, yet no one has faced a trial for this crime in the town.
Mitar Vasiljevic, a former comrade of the Lukics, is the only man to have faced a trial in The Hague for crimes committed in Visegrad.
The newly formed War Crimes Chamber in Sarajevo has issued one judgment regarding war crimes committed in Visegrad, but the accused was found not guilty on rape charges. Two more trials are pending before the local court. But none of the accused has been charged with
Serbian forces overran the town on Bosnia and Herzegovina’s eastern river border with Serbia in mid-April 1992, when the Yugoslav army’s Uzice corps took it with tanks and heavy artillery.
Documents held at the Hague tribunal say the situation in Visegrad was relatively calm until the Uzice corps started to pull out, leaving the town in the hands of local Serbian paramilitaries.
This conflicts with the accounts of witnesses who spoke to Balkan Insight and who say the terror began when the Yugoslav army arrived.
These survivors said they often hid in nearby woods and fields to escape the Serbian paramilitary units that worked alongside the army.
The “Wolves”, “White Eagles” and “Avengers” – allegedly headed by Milan Lukic – were some of the paramilitary units they mentioned.
The Uzice corps officially pulled out of Visegrad on May 19, leaving control in the hands of a new Serb-run municipality.
These then conducted a vigorous campaign of ethnic cleansing to rid the town of its non-Serbian majority population.
The last available census, made in 1991, declared 62 per cent of Visegrad’s population of 21,200 were Muslim Bosniaks. Serbs accounted for 32 per cent. Today, only a handful of Bosniaks has returned.
International human rights organisations and refugees reported on the atrocities in Visegrad back in 1992.
They told of people being killed en masse and of bodies being thrown off the Ottoman-era bridge that has long been the town’s landmark.
As survivors fled, reports of rape and sexual abuse of women trickled in, prompting Amnesty International to publish an extensive report on rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina, mentioning Visegrad as a prime example.
A UN report in 1994 on rape in Bosnia and Herzegovina meanwhile singled out the Vilina Vlas as one of the spots where these rapes occurred.
The report said the hotel became a detention camp for women in which girls less than 14 years old were also held.
It cited the testimony of one woman who said that during 24 hours nine soldiers raped her. She also said she saw other women undergoing the same ordeal.
Alexandra Stiglmayer, a German reporter, also wrote about the goings-on in Vilina Vlas, publishing a book on women rape victims in Bosnia and Herzegovina named “Mass Rape: The war against women in Bosnia and Herzegovina”.
She told Balkan Insight that in 1993 or 1994 an investigator from the Hague Tribunal took all of her material relating to rapes in Visegrad and asked her if she would be willing to testify about this evidence in the court, to which she agreed. Stiglmayer was contacted once again in 1999 when she reiterated her willingness to testify but was never called upon again by the Hague.
In 1996, the Guardian newspaper published extracts of a confession by one Serb soldier called Mitar Obradovic after he had been captured by the Bosnian army.
The confessions included statements by Obradovic on how men under Milan Lukic sexually abused women prisoners in Visegrad.
Obradovic said Lukic had raped many women and encouraged his troops to do the same.
The Washington Post in 1992 also carried the reports of one girl aged 17 from Visegrad, saying Milan Lukic raped her. She described and named Lukic, saying he had taken her and her sister to Vilina Vlas.
She said her sister never returned from the hotel, and after her mother asked Lukic abut the fate of her other daughter, he answered that “she should be happy he had returned one of them”.
The Hague court first pressed charges over crimes in Visegrad in 1998 in a joint indictment against Milan and Sredoje Lukic and Mitar Vasiljevic.
The indictment said Vilina Vlas had been used to incarcerate prisoners who were tortured, beaten up and sexually abused. None of the 20 counts in the original indictment specifically mentioned rape, however.
NATO troops arrested Vasiljevic in 2000 when the tribunal ordered that he be tried separately as Lukic cousins were still at large.
The trial, which started in September 2001, ended in 2004 with a guilty verdict and Vasiljevic was jailed for 15 years.
Although Vasiljevic was a low-ranking soldier, and was never identified as a rapist, witnesses at that trial spoke about the mass rapes that had occurred in Visegrad.
One protected witness in October 2001said Lukic routinely took away women who came back with clothes in pieces.
Vasiljevic also spoke about the Lukics at his own trial. In November 2001, he told the tribunal how he had heard that Milan Lukic raped, robbed and murdered many of his victims. Vasiljevic said that after Serbs overran the nearby village of Musici, Lukic took away a number of girls and raped them.
The trial judges who pronounced Vasiljevic guilty stated that they believed Vilina Vlas was under Lukic’s command in 1992.
In an interview with Belgrade’s Duga magazine in 1992, Lukic himself confirmed heading a unit based at Vilina Vlas. Lukic said he returned from Zurich when the fighting began in Visegrad to join a unit organised by his cousin Sredoje and one Niko Vujacic.
The unit grew, moving out to its own headquarters in the spa hotel in order to separate themselves from what they saw as the totally inefficient police.
The UN 1994 report did not specify how many women were incarcerated in Vilina Vlas but said the number may have been as high as 200.
Hasecic says her association believes fewer than ten women prisoners survived.
Hague prosecutors have changed the charges sheet against Milan and Sredoje Lukic twice already. The last time was in February this year, when a brief mention of sexual abuse was removed from the indictment.
Milan Lukic has not been charged with rape even under the chain-of-command principle, and although rapes in Vilina Vlas, where he was the commander, are well documented.
Even without the mention of rapes, his charges sheet reads like a page from a fictional work of horror. He is accused, for example, of burning to death more then 140 women, children and elderly people in two buildings in Visegrad.
In the 1992 interview with Duga, he confessed to some of his crimes, adding, “I don’t have a guilty conscience over any of them.”
He went on to describe how his unit entrapped Bosniaks in captured villages.
“When we swept the terrain, this is how we did it: we would go through a village in an armoured vehicle and call through a loudspeaker for everyone to surrender and lay down their weapons. I swore not to harm anyone who did,” he said.
“Those who didn’t [lay down weapons] had it coming”.
Lukic told Duga he had no qualms about appearing in front of an international court if he was charged with war crimes.
However, he was arrested in Argentina in August 2005 after seven years on the run.
Only weeks later, his cousin Sredoje surrendered to the authorities, having evaded his arrest warrant for years in Russia.
Both men pleaded not guilty to crimes against humanity and violations of the rules of war.
The torture experienced by Hasecic and by the witness who spoke to Balkan Insight of her rapes in Vilina Vlas was not included in any indictment.
Nor have the reports of any of the women held in Vilina Vlas made it into a charge sheet. The details of the rape camp carried in the UN report, by Amnesty International and the media have also been deemed insufficient evidence.
The Hague tribunal continues to maintain that at the time there were no “direct witnesses or testimonies”.
Apart from Hasecic and the anonymous women victims of Vilina Vlas, Balkan Insight has spoken with two more women who claimed Lukic raped them.
They also said they had given statements to the Bosnian authorities about their ordeals. Hasecic went to The Hague to give her statements in person.
The chief prosecutor’s special advisor and spokesperson Anton Nikiforov, concedes that there is plenty of information about the rapes that took place in Visegrad.
But he added that tribunal prosecutors had been “unable to reach the witnesses” before the indictments were completed. Now it appears too late.
“If anyone is to blame, it’s us. The only thing I know is that we did our job to the best of our abilities,” Nikiforov told Balkan Insight.
The tribunal prosecutor’s office says the only hope for those wanting the two men to answer for rape charges is for their trial to be moved out of The Hague.
Del Ponte has, in fact, submitted a motion before the tribunal for the Lukics’ case to be transferred to the War Crimes Chamber in Sarajevo.
As Del Ponte said in her letter to Hasecic, the fact that her own office had not investigated the reports on rapes would not stop Bosnia and Herzegovina’s prosecutors from doing it.
She urged the Women Victims of War to cooperate with the state prosecutors to ensure this happened.
Cooperation with them is an important part of the tribunal’s strategy and has a key role in dealing with the legacy of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina,” Del Ponte wrote.
The state prosecutor’s office in Sarajevo could not confirm to Balkan Insight whether an investigation into the Lukics’ case was already underway.
But Boris Grubesic, a court spokesperson, agreed that the indictments could be changed if the case was transferred to Sarajevo.
This has happened in at least one other case. The indictment against Gojko Jankovic, a Bosnian Serb charged with war crimes, including rape, in Foca, was expanded after an investigation by the local judicial authorities revealed new crimes.
In the meantime, the women victims of rape from Visegrad still feel the justice system has failed them.
As for the town of Visegrad, now firmly in the hands of the Serbs who seized it 14 years ago, the locals there do not want to talk about the crimes that once took place there.
Vilina Vlas has been turned back into a health spa. When Balkan Insight first visited the complex in 2004, it found the interior almost unchanged since the early 1990s.
The small rooms still sported the small wooden beds and the bed linen they had before the war. Some of the beds had names carved onto them. “Mladen ’92″ read one.
Two years later, its outside walls have received a lick of fresh paint and the interior has been done up for visitors who have started trickling in again.
The town’s inhabitants are reluctant to speak of the events back then, not least because the name of Lukic continues to intimidate many.
A secondary school teacher was willing to say only that she knew all sorts of things had happened in Vilina Vlas. “But I really can’t talk about it,” she said, scuttling away.
But for Hasecic talking about the crimes she survived is the only weapon she has left.
“How can I testify about what happened to others if I cannot talk about what happened to me?” she asks.
Nidzara Ahmetsevic is an editor with BIRN’s Justice Report. Nerma Jelacic is BIRN’s director in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Selma Boracic is an intern with BIRN.
This investigation was produced with the support of the Office of Public Affairs, OPA, of the US embassy in Sarajevo. Views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the views held by OPA.