The fight for justice in Bosnia goes on
In northeastern Bosnia, nestled in the Dinaric Alps on the border with Serbia, there lies a small lake. Formed in the 1960s, when the Drina was dammed to build a hydroelectric power station, Lake Perucac seems unremarkable – just one of many artificial lakes in a mountainous region whose hydroelectric power is a major economic asset.
Its significance, though, lies in its location downstream of Visegrad, the small eastern Bosnian village most famous before the 1990s for itsbeautiful 16th-century Ottoman bridge. Since then, though, it has developed a far more macabre reputation, second only to Srebrenica as a byword for ethnic cleansing and for humanity at its cruellest.
Three thousand Bosniak Muslims were killed here in the spring of 1992; not in one organised operation, as in Srebrenica, but over weeks and months, killed almost for sport by the police and the army. Their bodies were dropped from the famous bridge and into the sparkling blue-green Drina, where the current took them downstream to Perucac.
Given the town’s reputation, then, the discovery in the last month of more than 50 bodies – found by investigators who are trawling the lake while it is half-drained for maintenance reasons – comes as little surprise. Nobody expected the search to be fruitless. The surprise, to many outside Bosnia at least, has been to learn how difficult the investigators’ jobs have been.
At every level, the investigation has been met with resistance. Shunned by locals in the now wholly Serb town, a wall of silence meets even the simplest inquiries, and sometimes the reception is one of outright hostility. Two weeks ago, an unknown attacker shot at a forensic team’s boat. Nobody was hurt, but the message was clear: be careful what you look for.
The veiled and not-so-veiled threats are just part of a culture of silence that has been the biggest obstacle in Bosnia’s attempts to find justice and settle the historical record. A shadowy network of former and current figures from the government, police and organised crime – the so-called “Preventiva” – protects those who were responsible for some of the worst crimes in the 1992–95 war, and silences those who threaten to speak.
Responsible for protecting the former Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadzic, while he was in hiding, the Preventiva has been successful at derailing or disrupting legal proceedings even when its subjects are caught. Testifying is strongly discouraged; witnesses are intimidated, or worse. Whether through fear or through loyalty, few in Visegrad will talk; those who do are often silenced.
In war crimes trials witness testimony is essential. It is typically straightforward to prove that a crime has taken place: there is, distressingly, no shortage of mass graves in Bosnia. But to place an individual or a military unit at the scene, to prove their responsibility, almost always requires witnesses – something of which the Preventiva and their ilk are well aware.
In 2005 a former police inspector from Visegrad, Milan Josipovic, testified at the trial of Novo Rajak, a member of the Visegrad police force who had participated in the mistreatment of Bosniak civilians. To testify at all was grounds enough to rile the Preventiva, but when rumours emerged that Josipovic would be prepared to give evidence at a trial of higher-level officials the situation became urgent. Josipovic was shot and killed; his attackers have, unsurprisingly, never been caught.
The future, though, is not without hope. Investigators continue to find more material evidence and cracks have appeared in the formerly watertight seal around the Preventiva and its membership. An internal feud is widely believed to have led to the arrest of Milan Lukic, a Preventiva member and the former head of the White Eagles paramilitary organisation that was responsible for some of the worst crimes in Visegrad; last year he was sentenced by the international criminal tribunal for the former Yugoslavia to life imprisonment.
It remains to be seen whether the shroud of secrecy will fall completely. If Bosnia is ever to bring to justice those who haunt her past, though, then it surely must.