Višegrad’s rape camps: Denial and erasure

In the Bosnian town of Višegrad, the local authorities are trying hard to whitewash genocidal crimes through tourism.

Bosnian Muslims toss 3,000 roses into the Drina River, each representing people killed in the 1992-95 war, in the eastern Bosnian town of Višegrad, on May 26, 2012 [File: AP/Amel Emric]

I was born in the 1980s to a Bosniak family in Višegrad, an ethnically diverse town in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. A couple of years later, my hometown turned into one of the worst places on earth to be born a Muslim.

It was a hot day in June 1992. The disappearances and the mass killings of Bosniak civilians at Višegrad’s famous 16th-century Mehmed Paša Sokolović’s bridge, which can be seen from almost every window in town, had intensified. Death and fear were all around me. I was just six years old.

We were sitting at home, my mother holding me in her arms, trying to comfort me. I clearly remember telling her: “I wish they’d kill me first.” Death, however scary it may be to a child, sounded better than watching my mom being killed in front of my eyes.

At the beginning of July, we fled to Goražde, a nearby town which was under the control of Bosnian forces, but many of our neighbours, friends and acquaintances stayed behind and faced genocidal violence.

Today, more than 25 years after the Dayton Accords officially recognised the ethnically cleansed Serb-majority entity Republika Srpska, where Višegrad is now located, the stories of the horrific suffering of its Muslim residents still haunt me.

So it was with anguish and a survivor’s guilt that I opened British journalist Christina Lamb’s recent book Our Bodies, Their Battlefield. It details the use of rape as a weapon of war across the world, including in Bosnia during the war. Lamb’s account of what happened in my hometown reawakened the trauma of the war.

Knowing the extent to which the current authorities in Republika Srpska are going to in order to erase these crimes made reading her book that much more painful.

Death and rape in Višegrad

In 1993, as details of the horrific crimes committed in Bosnia started to surface, the UN Security Council voted to establish the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) to prosecute war criminals. The crimes committed in Višegrad particularly stood out.

“These courts have heard many accounts but even the most seasoned judges and prosecutors pause at the mention of crimes perpetrated in Višegrad […] Crimes which reached an unprecedented peak of capricious cruelty not seen anywhere else,” one of the judges quoted in Lamb’s book had said.

Out of 14,000 Bosniaks who lived in Višegrad before the war, about 3,000 were killed, often in the public executions on that famous Ottoman bridge, which served as an inspiration for Yugoslav author Ivo Andrić’s novel The Bridge on the Drina.

The killings on the bridge in June 1992 were on such a mass scale that according to British journalist Ed Vulliamy, Višegrad’s police inspector Milan Josipović received “a macabre complaint from downriver, from the management of Bajina Basta hydro-electric plant across the Serbian border”. The plant’s director requested to “slow the flow of corpses down the Drina”, since “they were clogging up the culverts in his dam at such a rate that he could not assemble sufficient staff to remove them”.

On June 14 and 27, 1992, more than 120 civilians, mostly women and children, including a two-day-old infant, were locked in two houses in Pionirska Street in Višegrad and Bikavac area which were then set ablaze.

Zehra Turjačanin, the only survivor of the Bikavac massacre, recalled in her testimony: “The people inside were burning alive. They were wailing, screaming. It’s just not describable what I heard.” When she got out of the burning house, she saw the armed men “lying in a grassy area nearby, seemingly intoxicated”, “playing music very, very loud so no one could hear the sound of the burning people screaming inside”, before running away.

Rape and sexual violence, which were “deliberately and methodically used as a weapon of ethnic cleansing and genocide”, as Lamb writes, were widespread in Višegrad and other parts of eastern Bosnia. One of the victims told Lamb there were multiple locations used to carry out mass rape: “The police station, the local sports centre, even the Institute for the Protection of Children”.

One of the most infamous rape camps was the hotel Vilina Vlas, located seven kilometres (four miles) from town. It is suspected that at least 200 Bosniak girls and women were held at Vilina Vlas and systematically raped “in order to be inseminated by the Serb seed”.

“They called us Turks. They told us, ‘You are not going to give birth to Turks any more, but Serbs,’” one of the survivors told Lamb. After the repeated rape many of them were murdered, thrown into the Drina river, or burned alive.

A group of people in the village of Slap, located downstream from Višegrad, retrieved about 180 bodies from the water. The female corpses, they said, were always naked and wrapped in blankets that were tied at each end.

Despite these gruesome crimes carried out in Višegrad between 1992 and 1993, there has been only limited justice delivered.

A Bosnian court found a member of the Republika Srpska police force, Željko Lelek, guilty of crimes against humanity in Višegrad, including rape and sentenced him to sixteen years in prison. One of his victims was Jasmina Ahmetspahić, who ended her life by jumping out of a window at the Vilina Vlas hotel, after being raped for four days.

Milan Lukić, the leader of the Bosnian Serb paramilitary group White Eagles, who established his headquarters at the Vilina Vlas in 1992, was not charged with sexual violence even though “there was ample evidence about a large number of rapes, murder and other serious crimes being committed at the Vilina Vlas”, according to Dermot Groome, who led the prosecution of Milan Lukić at the ICTY.

He described the women who were tortured and violated at the Vilina Vlas hotel, as “some of the most traumatised people he had ever encountered in his work as a prosecutor.”

The ICTY sentenced Milan Lukić to life in prison for war crimes including murder, cruelty, persecution, and other crimes against humanity committed in Višegrad in 1992 and 1993, including the Pionirska Street and Bikavac fires.

The erasure 

Despite the Bosnian court judgement that confirmed the Vilina Vlas hotel was used as a rape camp and the extensive testimonies submitted to the tribunal, the government officials, and the majority of Višegrad’s Serb residents continue to deny rape, torture, or murder took place there.

The denial, which in the words of the prominent genocide scholar, Israel W Charny, represents a celebration of destruction, renewed humiliation of survivors, and metaphorical murder of historical truth and collective memory is not only widely accepted, but it has been state-supported.

In June, as survivors marked the 28th anniversary of the Pionirska Street and Bikavac fires, the administration of the Rehabilitation Center Vilina Vlas, as it is officially called now, announced it is offering government-issued vouchers for discounted stays and use of rehabilitation services.

Then in July, the Bosnian media reported that Republika Srpska’s Tourist Board, with the support of the municipality of Višegrad, has started a promotional campaign called “We are waiting for you in Višegrad” and provided gift vouchers as a way to attract tourists. Vilina Vlas was also part of the campaign.

Support and encouragement of the denial go far beyond Bosnia. In 1998, shortly after the hotel reopened and the Serb authorities started encouraging foreigners to stay there and help erase the memory of its horrors, Austrian author and genocide denier Peter Handke booked a room.

He later wrote about his experience in Višegrad, expressing doubt about Lukić’s involvement in the killings and such crimes happening at all. Despite his appalling genocide apologism, the Swedish Academy awarded Handke the Nobel Prize for the Literature in 2019.

And beyond the realm of the written word, the rape and genocide of Muslims in Višegrad and elsewhere in Bosnia are now celebrated and glorified by white supremacist across the world and serve as an inspiration for terrorist acts.

It is now becoming increasingly clear the denial and distortion of truth not only constitute an assault on the history of one particular group but also pose a threat to us all. Denial is one of the most certain indicators that a repeat of such crimes in the future is imminent.

Therefore, it is more urgent than ever to fight denialism in the Balkans and across the world, to preserve the memories of the victims and remember the unimaginable suffering inflicted upon them. Failing to do so would constitute complicity in ethnic cleansing and genocide.

The Serb fighters started that process by killing and then trying to erase any physical evidence of their victims’ existence by burying them in unmarked graves or throwing them in the Drina River. Embracing denial and forgetting the names and lives of these people would complete the process. As Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel wrote, “to forget would be akin to killing them a second time.”

We must fight for the victims’ memory and for the triumph of truth.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.