Visegrad: Remembering the Bikavac fire massacre.

Last Sunday, 27 June, attended the ceremony which marked the 18th anniversary of the Bikavac fire, in the town of Visegrad in Eastern Bosnia. This was a very simple yet moving ceremony, in which family and friends of the victims paid tribute to them in the most dignified way.  I felt very gratified for having had the opportunity to witness such emotional event, which was deeply sad, but also, through the example of dignity and strength revealed by its participants, very inspiring.

Photo: the arrival at the site of the Bikavac fire.

On the night of 27 June 1992, around 70 persons were locked in a small house on the Bikavac hill, after which the house was set on fire. The crime was meticulously prepared, to make sure that nobody would survive to tell the story. All the exits had been blocked by heavy furniture, and a heavy garage door was placed at the house’s entry. Only one person, Zehra Turjacanin, survived, albeit heavily burnt, by escaping through a narrow fringe between the door and the garage gate, and eluding the surveilance of the armed men, who were busy celebrating Vidovdan by listening to loud nationalistic songs and intoxicating themselves with drugs and alcohol.

Amid widespread indifference and oblivion, a small group of determined people works in order to pursue justice for the victims and keep their memory alive. Only around one hundred persons attended the commemorative ceremony, organized by the Women Victims of War (Zene zrtva rata). As we walked the slope leading to the place where once the house stood, it occurred to me that the number of participants was very close to the number of victims. I couldn’t stop imagining them being gathered in the same place, eighteen years earlier, surrounded by their executioners. When we arrived, a wave of emotion spread, and tears were shed while some of the women covered their heads with a scarves as a sign of respect. Nobody cried, though. Instead, people looked at the improvised exhibition installed for the occasion, showing the names of the victims, depicting the images of some of them, as well as photos of some of the Chetniks who terrorized them and of  Zehra Turjacanin, whose testimony at the ICTY provided crucial evidence for the conviction of the leader of the local para-military unit, Milan Lukic, to life in prison.

No politicians were present, no reporters either, such tragic event not being considered important enough amidst the countless atrocities committed during the war. However, the small number of participants did not diminish in any way the significance of the commemoration In fact, it rather highlighted it, as representative of all those forgotten massacres. Far from being an isolated incident, the Bikavac fire was only one among many crimes committed in the area of Visegrad, as part of a widespread and systematic attack against the civilian population, targeting the Muslim inhabitants, in order to change the demographic structure of the area, that is, to transform it into a exclusively Serb area. Such goal was successfully achieved. Eighteen years later, very few Bosniaks have returned to the municipality of Visegrad, and, I was told, only two or three have returned to the city itself. Of the presence of the Muslims in the city, very few traces remain. One of the mosques destroyed during the was was rebuilt, but on the location of the other, a small garden has been planted, in which the cross-shaped pathways further desecrate what was once a place of worship. Only the Drina river and the magnificent Mehmed pasa Sokolovic Bridge, made famous by Ivo Andric’s book ‘The Bridge on the Drina’, still confer some beauty to the town, in which main square a statue to the Serb fallen soldiers stands, facing the river and its famous bridge in front of the Hotel Visegrad, where Serb fighters ‘heroically’ got drunk before and after executing rows of Muslim civilians on the bridge and throwing their bodies to the Drina. The tribute to the ‘Fallen soldiers’, with which the Bosnian Serbs try to highlight their own suffering stands is striking contrast with the absence of memorials to the real victims of genocide in Visegrad.

Photo: an Italian soldier of the EU Police Mission observes the participants as they leave the place where the house once stood.

After the fire, what was left of the house in Bikavac was bulldozed and removed to unknown locations, along with any remains of the victims, in order to erase all traces of the crime. The land was then transformed into an improvised waste dump, and as we were standing there, listening to the short speech delivered by Bakira Hasecic, the leader of the ‘Women Victims of War’, and to the prayer pronounced by the local Imam, the silence on the audience was interrupted by the noise of plastic bottles and other rubbish under our feet. As a proof that a house was once there, only one section of the houses’s fence remains, but the organizers marked the four corners of the house with wooden sticks, which allowed me to realize how small it was, and to imagine how packed it was on that tragic night.

Photo: Esad Tufekcic and other participants engage in a prayer for their loved ones, at the end of the ceremony. Photo by Sven Gunnar Simonsen.

Among the participants on the ceremony, was a man, Esad Tufekcic, who lost his then 28 year old wife Dzehva, his four year old daugter Elmaghter and two year old son Eldar. He spoke to the foreigners present, myself and my friend Sven who came with me, and a few american students. Asked by one of them what did such event mean to him, this man, whose face was the very image of pain and trauma, reminded us that he had lost his entire family, for whose remains he has been searching for in the last eighteen years, and expressed his sorrow and outrage by the fact that the people who committed such atrocity can return to Visegrad and welcome as heroes.

This was a reference to the recent release of Mitar Vasijlevic, a leading member of Milan Lukic’s ‘White Eagles’.  Released from prison in March 2010, after having served ten of the 15 years to which he was condemned by the ICTY, he was greeted in Visegrad by a fanfare and celebrated by hundreds of people (photo here),  a crude reminder of the long road yet to be travelled before we can even start talking of reconciliation in Bosnia. The feeling that justice has not been served in Visegrad is further highlighted by the fact that, while in his own trial, the prosecution failed to proof beyond reasonable doubt his involvement in the Bikavac massacre, as well as on a similar crime, committed one week earlier on Pionirska Street, which resulted in the death of 59 persons, such proof was subsequently established in the context of the trial of Milan Lukic, who in 20 July 2009 was condemned to life in prison. Other participants in this crime remain unpunished, as do many others in the countless crimes of the Bosnian genocide.

As was stated in the judgement of Milan and Sredoje Lukic (pag. 239),

“In the all too long, sad and wretched history of man’s inhumanity to man, the Pionirska street and Bikavac fires must rank high. At the close of the 20th century, a century marked by war and bloodshed on a colossal scale, these horrific events remain imprinted on the memory for the viciousness of the incendiary attack, for the obvious premeditation and calculation that defined it, for the sheer callousness, monstrosity and brutality of herding, trapping and locking the victims in the two houses, thereby rendering them helpless in the ensuing inferno and for the degree of pain and suffering inflicted on the victims as they were burnt alive.”

One of the most beautiful regions in Europe, Eastern Bosnia is now a desolated region, burdened by the weight of genocide and economic stagnation, the two faces of the legacy of the war. What was achieved with all these crimes? Endless suffering for the victims and his relatives and friends, and moral corruption among those who fail to feel outraged by such atrocities, and a whole society whose future remains hijacked by those few which the war and its aftermath brought wealth and power.

11 Comments

Filed under Duty of memory, Genocide, Uncategorized

11 responses to “Visegrad: Remembering the Bikavac fire massacre.

  1. Pingback: Global Voices in English » Bosnia & Herzegovina: 18th Anniversary of the Bikavac Fire

  2. Arianit

    Similar pattern of crime to those in Kosovo. Thanks for remembering!

  3. Owen

    Thanks, Sarah. It’s sad that the commemoration wasn’t treated with the full respect it deserves. But the fact that it was such an intimate occasion, attended by ordinary people personally affected what happened, is very eloquent – the people in your pictures are just ordinary people, like you and me, like the victims, though without the same presence of young children. The people in your pictures might equally have been the victims, you and I if we happened to be Milan Lukic’s neighbours. They’re the people that some people couldn’t tolerate living in their militarily, politically, socially and spiritually pure town. There’s no getting away from it, this was genocide.

  4. Ben

    Hi Sarah,

    Fantastic article – as always. Like you say, there are so many war crimes to commemorate that they have become part of the background noise for news agencies. At least Srebrenica has become some kind of universal symbol for the collective crime committed on innocent civilians across Bosnia.

    Like Owen said, in terms of Visegrad – that was genocide too. What happened in my town and many other places around Bosnia – it is the very definition of genocide. To plan and execute a targeted, systematic and logistical campaign of eliminating one ethnic or religious group and their associated history and culture. This happened all over Bosnia, yet international justice has failed to recognise this fact. Just like genocide didn’t only occur in Auschwitz, but rather all over Nazi-occupied Europe.

    The Karadzic trial is becoming a farce, just like all the other ones. Mladic will probably evade capture and the victims will be asked to forgive and forget even though their suffering will never be acknowledged as long as there are statues celebrating the “heroic” soldiers of Karadzic and Mladic. Their project lives on and has been institutionalized by the very existence of Republika Srpska. One can only hope that this ethnic segragation, a perpetual reminder of the needless bloodshed of thousands of innocent civilians, will one day fall just like the Berlin Wall.

  5. Christine

    Great post with very insightful reflections. This must have been quite an experience. If you are in Sarajevo and want to have a coffee, I would love to hear about your research. Sve najbolje!

  6. K.M.

    Thank u for that interesting and touching article, it should be published somewhere so it can reach more people who possibly have never heard about Visegrad and Bikavac… Myself is originally from Visegrad, my family fled in 1992, when all those crimes started… Thank u for writing about this topic, at least someone remembers to do that!

  7. Christine

    OH NO! I missed you. I was swimming in the lake near Travnik, and I’m also relying on internet cafes so my internet connection is a bit sporadic. Please email me (christine.bednarz@gmail.com) and let me know if you are coming back to Bosnia. I am under the impression that you do a lot of research here. Since I am just beginning my own research, I would love to hear about your experiences and to get some advice🙂 Also, I had to change my Bosnian number today so now it is 387 62 523 565. Enjoy Croatia! Best, Christine

  8. bosniakandjewishfriendship

    Thank you for remembering…

  9. bloggingbalkanistan

    Thanks for writing about Visegrad. I do find it a little bit upsetting that not *one* politician from the federation could find the time to attend the memorial. But that doesn’t take away anything from the event, just being there and bearing witness is huge. Thanks

  10. Owen

    Sarah, while you’ve been offline there’s been quite a lot happening in relation to the 1992 Visegrad atrocities with the investigations at Lake Perucac. When the waters of the reservoir behind the Bajina Basta dam were lowered for repair work skeletal remains were revealed along the exposed banks. A lot of volunteers joined the Institute for Missing Persons team in the grim work of searching through the mud on either side of the river to recover as many traces of the bodies disposed of in the Drina in 1992 as they could in the brief window of opportunity open until the reservoir was filled again on 26 September. Unfortunately, again the politicians seemed to have shown underwhelming interest in Perucac, apparently being more concerned with their election campaigning. http://genocideinvisegrad.wordpress.com/

    The Visegrad Genocide Memories blog has an illustrative record of the work of the volunteers – with photographs by Velija Hasanbegovic and Dijana Muminovic, as well as more of the sad photographs of some of the victims – http://genocideinvisegrad.wordpress.com/.

  11. Barbara

    What a moving and sad piece. In the (often excellent) histories of the war, Visegrad is often forgotten. Thank you for remembering, and for all those who have helped to keep these memories alive