‘The river took him’
Miratovac, Yugoslavia – Hasnija Pjeva witnessed the execution of her husband, Nenad, from the terrace of her house outside Visegrad.
It was 7:30 a.m., June 24, and Nenad was returning from his overnight factory shift when the armed men in Serbian paramilitary uniforms spotted him. Nenad started running to the nearby riverbank, but the irregulars shot him dead on the spot. They dragged the corpse onto the bridge, then threw it into the green water of the Drina.
“I didn’t bury him,” Hasnija said of her husband two days later, tears welling up in her eyes. “The river took him away.”
Abdulahu Osmanagulis was at his home in Visegrad, a virtual prisoner since Serb forces seized the predominantly Muslim town three months ago. They burned down the two ancient mosques and roamed the streets, firing small arms day and night. Early last week three of his neighbors were shot in their home.
“The bodies were just left lying there in the courtyard,” Osmanagulis said. He knew it was time to get out of his house.
Emina Hodzic’s husband was abducted one noon; her son that same evening. Mediha Tira’s husband was taken away by men with blackened faces.
The killings all happened last week in the Bosnian town whose Turkish built “Bridge on the Drina” was immortalized by Yugoslavian novelist Ivo Andric. There are now two bridges, and after last week’s events, both will find their place in the literature of war atrocities.
Except for an unknown but apparently small number who escaped, all the able-bodied Muslim men and youths of Visegrad who had not fled the occupiers were shot, according to a dozen survivors.
“Most of the executions were committed on the bridge. Their bodies were thrown into the river,” said Osmanagulis, 73, the unofficial leader of the survivors.. It appears that dozens were executed, perhaps hundreds.No one knows exactly.
“If the Drina River could only speak, it could say how many dead were taken away,” said Hasnija Pjeva.
Visegrad (pronounced VEE-shih-grad), with a population of about 30,000, is one of a number of towns where Serb forces carried out “ethnic cleansing” of Muslims in the past two weeks, according to the Bosnian government.
“There was chaos in Visegrad. Everything was burned, looted, and destroyed,” said a Visegrad expellee, 43, who spoke of the terrible events over coffee in the Miratovac cafe but would give neither his name nor profession. He escaped only because he was an invalid with a gangrenous leg.
The survivors of the massacre are the old, the infirm, the women and the children. They are traumatized by what they witnessed, barely able to control their emotions or to speak. Two of the women had been raped, Osmanagulis said. But the heartbreak was compounded by humiliation they endured at the hands of the local Serbian Red Cross.
Against their wishes, 280 people were shipped in a convoy of five buses across Serbia, the principal state in the new Yugoslavia, to Macedonia, a breakaway state, a journey of about 275 miles. The Serbian Red Cross gave them food and clothes but insisted they sign papers saying they had been well-treated and wanted to go to Macedonia.
“We all wanted to go to Kosovo or Sandzak,” two mainly Muslim areas of southern Serbia, said Osmanagulis, “but they directed us exclusively to Macedonia. There was no other choice.”
He carried a paper requesting that the Macedonian border authorities provide passports and admit the entire group. But Macedonia, which has more than 30,000 Bosnian refugees but has yet to be recognized by western countries or to receive any real assistance, has stopped accepting any refugees, particularly Muslims, due to substantial problems with its own Muslim minority, according to Mira Jankovska, a government spokeswoman in Skopje.
And so the Macedonians refused to allow the survivors of the Visegrad massacre to cross the border. It was 4 a.m.
Osmanagulis conferred with the drivers, and they agreed that everyone should disembark and try to enter on foot, but the Macedonian police turned them away. “I ran back to the buses, and everyone followed, but when the drivers saw us, they turned the buses around and left,” he said.
For 16 hours on June 25 the survivors found themselves stranded in a no-man ‘s-land on an international highway without food, water, shelter or assistance, abandoned by the Red Cross, welcomed nowhere. Fifteen of them were over 80, and there were at least as many children under the age of 2. They stood and sat from 4 a.m. until 8 p.m., through the hot midday sun and a fierce summer rainstorm.
Albanian Muslims in this impoverished farm village in southern Serbia, about a 20-minute drive from the border crossing, brought bread, water and tomatoes. Then in the evening they arrived with tractors and taxis and took them to a small mosque. On the advice of a local doctor, who feared the spread of disease, the survivors were moved to private homes two days later.
“If the people of the village hadn’t helped us, half of us would be dead of starvation or illness,” said Osmanagulis. One woman, 92, died after the ordeal. She was buried Sunday.
Now the survivors of Visegrad sit in this village at the end of a potholed dirt road, sleeping on the floors and couches of its simple houses, caught between the hostility of Serbia and Macedonia, unattended by any refugee organization, unable even to contact anyone outside, for there is no telephone.
“We have a saying, said Osmanagulis, summing up their plight. “The sky is too high, and the ground is too hard.”