The fight for justice in Bosnia goes on

The Guardian

Rob Miller

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.



3 Responses to “The fight for justice in Bosnia goes on”

  1. Miller raises the serious unresolved issue of the influence that continues to be exercised within Republika Srpska by the political-criminal alliance that was responsible for the atrocities perpetrated in the area between 1992 and 1995.

    The essential criminality of the Republika Srpska regime made Dayton a nonsense and continues to poison Bosnia’s future.

    This is a subject that I hope journalists covering the Karadzic trial will devote rather more attention to than they have so far.

  2. Abdulmajid Says:

    I believe that the only way for Bosniaks to get back their country is by military means.

    And given the hostility that Visegrad’s current population shows towards Bosniaks, how they defernd the inhumanity of 1992 to this very day, I have the great notion that these people are particulary evil and rotten, and therefore then the whole current Serb population of Visegrad should be put to the sword – children, women and men in that order, or slowly starved to death. Srebrenica in reverse should happen to them but their bodies should be burned and the ashes scattered so that no monument can be erected to their evil memory. Why? because it is impossible for Bosniaks to live with them in peace. Impossible of course, I know, but a man can dream, can’t he? And history has shown, in Bosnia as well as in Spain during the Reconquista, and in Palestine during the Crusades, that generally Christians have always been more cruel to Muslims than vice versa, so why not turn it around for once? Okay, were it up to me I would not actually Order that such a thing is done, after all I ‘m not a war criminal and I don’t want to have any innocent lives on my conscience, but I would not care about the lives of enemy civilians very much either, and instruct my subordinates not to care about them too.

    And I know one thing: as long as Visegrad is in Serb hands I am not going to set foot there nor give any of my money to hands stained in Bosniak blood, or to people who in any way approve of the genocidal anti-Bosniak crusade – which I have the impression that almost all Serbs there do and they have passed on the hate against Muslims to the young generations. So they have passed to the next generations the guilt too. Then they too should be punished accordingly. Sorry, that is how it is. After all evil Serbs have done to Bosniaks they should not now brag about it or defend or justify it, but they do; too bad that can’t be outlawed in Bosnia and any offender be sentenced to at least five years in prison if he publishes or expresses such denial or justifications in public.

  3. The sullen, silent population of present-day Visegrad should be obliged to take a grandstand seat on the shores of Lake Perucac, to watch those valiant volunteers poking through the silt and mud in search of the remnants of the crimes that gave the sullent, silent ones the town of grim memories they now occupy. They should be obliged to stay there until they have had the time to reflect carefully on the intimate relationship that exists between their present lives and the deaths concealed below those sediments.

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