Why we need to challenge genocide denialism in the Balkans

The denial of an individual’s or a group’s persecution is the ultimate cruelty – on some level worse than the persecution itself.

TO GO WITH AFP STORY BY NICOLAS GAUDICHET AND RUSMIR SMALJILHODZIC A photo taken on November 1, 2016 shows hotel "Vilina Vlas", near the eastern-Bosnian town of Visegrad.
A photo, taken on November 1, 2016, shows hotel 'Vilina Vlas', which was used as a 'rape camp' in the early 1990s, near the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad [File: Elvis Barukcic/AFP]

On June 27, 1992, at least 60 Bosniak Muslim civilians, mainly women and children, were burned to death in my hometown, Visegrad, in eastern Bosnia and Herzegovina. White Eagles, a Serbian paramilitary group led by Milan Lukic, forced them into a house in the town’s Bikavac neighbourhood, blocked all the exits, and set the house ablaze. My cousin’s daughter, son and wife were among the victims.

Only one person, a young woman named Zehra Turjačanin, survived the fire by escaping through the small gap between the patio door of the house and the heavy objects that were placed in front of it to keep it shut. Once she managed to get out, she discarded her clothes, which were on fire, and ran for her life.

British journalist Alec Russell later recalled seeing Zehra in Goražde, a nearby town that was under the control of the Bosnian forces, a few days after the massacre.

“Turjačanin was sitting under a tree in the shade,” he wrote in an essay for the Financial Times. “Two older women were waving away the flies hovering over her wounds. Her hands and feet were bandaged. Her face was covered in black scabs. Her ears had all but melted away.” Zehra lost her mother, her two sisters, her sister-in-law, two nieces and a nephew in the fire.

Years later, during the trial of Milan Lukic, witnesses recalled smelling the horrendous stench of burned flesh in the air in Bikavac on the morning after the massacre. Other witnesses said they saw “smouldering skulls and bodies”.

This was not the first genocidal act by Lukić’s paramilitary forces in Visegrad. Two weeks before the fire in Bikavac, on June 14, at least 59 Bosniak Muslim civilians were confined in a house on Pionirska Street by Lukić’s men. The house was set ablaze and those who tried to escape through the windows were shot by the soldiers. Only six managed to survive.

Rape and sexual violence were also used as a weapon of ethnic cleansing and genocide in Visegrad and other parts of eastern Bosnia at the time. A spa hotel in Visegrad, named Vilina Vlas, was infamously turned into a “rape camp”. It is believed that at least 200 Muslim women and girls were held at Vilina Vlas and systematically raped for many nights and days. After the repeated rape, many of them were murdered or burned alive. Several women, unable to endure the relentless abuse, jumped out of the hotel’s glass-covered balconies and killed themselves.

In the end, out of 14,000 Bosniaks who lived in Visegrad before the war, about 3,000 were killed. Many of them were executed on Visegrad’s famous 16th-century Mehmed Paša Sokolović’s bridge, which served as an inspiration for Yugoslav author Ivo Andrić’s novel The Bridge on the Drina. Witnesses still recall the bodies of victims, dead or in various states of half-dead, turning the turquoise waters of the River Drina, which divides Bosnia and Serbia, red with blood during the summer of 1992.

My family and I were in Visegrad during these massacres. After the Bikavac fire, we managed to flee to Goražde. I was only six years old, but I clearly remember the night-time journey through the woods. We had to leave my paternal grandmother, who was unable to walk due to her severe asthma, behind. For years, we did not know exactly what happened to her, but we always feared the worst.

Some 18 years later, in July 2010, the man-made Perucac Lake on the River Drina was emptied for the maintenance of a Serbian hydroelectric plant. As the water levels went down, human remains became visible on the dried up lakebed. Eventually, some 500 bone fragments belonging to “at least 97 people” were identified. One of them was my grandmother.

We were lucky to find my grandmother’s remains. The fate of hundreds of other victims of this genocide is still unknown. The bodies were hidden in mass graves, sometimes burned in order to hide any evidence of the crime. The ravines, rivers, and lakebeds in and around Visegrad are still believed to be hiding countless bodies.

In July 2009, the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) found Milan Lukić and his cousin Sredoje Lukić guilty of crimes against humanity and violations of war customs committed in Visegrad – including the Pionirska Street and Bikavac fires – and sentenced them to life in prison.

Following the trial, presiding Judge Patrick Robinson stated, “In the all too long, sad and wretched history of man’s inhumanity to man, the Pionirska street and Bikavac fires must rank high … these horrific events stand out for the viciousness of the incendiary attack, for the obvious premeditation and calculation that defined it, for the sheer callousness 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.”

However, despite the court’s crystal clear judgement, testimonies of witnesses and survivors, admissions by many paramilitary soldiers, and the mass graves that are being unearthed in the area to this day, the majority of Visegrad’s Serb residents and government officials continue to deny murder, torture or rape ever took place there.

They are, as journalist Emma Graham-Harrison wrote for the Guardian in 2018, “bent on not only forgetting the campaign of death that transformed their town from one with a Muslim majority to one heavily dominated by ethnic Serbs, but erasing any trace that any of it ever happened”.

Visegrad’s government officials have tried for years to demolish the house in Pionirska street where Bosniak civilians were burned alive. They also refused to acknowledge the “rape camps” built in their town during the war, and instead erected a monument to the pro-Serb Russian volunteers who participated in the war, many of whom were involved in raping.

After the war, the Serbs who controlled Visegrad also reopened Vilina Vlas as a spa hotel, without even changing the furniture. They invited foreign tourists to visit and stay, and some did. In 1998, one of these foreign visitors was Austrian writer and Nobel laureate Peter Handke – a well-known genocide denier and apologist for Serbian war criminals. Indeed, Handke repeatedly expressed scepticism and scorn for reports about Serb crimes against Visegrad’s Muslims over the years. He once described Srebrenica as a “revenge massacre” for earlier Muslim killings of Serbs, and expressed doubt about Lukić’s well-documented involvement in crimes against humanity committed in Visegrad.

On May 7, 2021, Peter Handke was awarded the “Ivo Andrić Grand Prize” and an honorary doctorate by the University of East Sarajevo for his alleged “contribution to art, literature and the truth about the Serbian people” in Visegrad. Besides the “Ivo Andrić Grand Prize” and the honorary doctorate, Handke was also awarded the Order of the Republika Srpska in Banja Luka, for “exceptional work and contribution in the field of cultural and spiritual development, and for outstanding contribution in developing and strengthening overall relations with Republika Srpska”.

On May 9, 2021, Serbian President Aleksandar Vučić presented Handke the Order of Karadjordje’s Star of the First Degree, one of the state’s highest honours, for his so-called “uncompromising fight for the truth”.

The continued use of Vilina Vlas as a hotel, honouring of a well-known genocide apologist with prestigious awards, and other efforts by Serbian authorities to whitewash or completely erase past atrocities like the Pionirska Street and Bikavac fires are proof that Visegrad and the wider region have not yet reckoned with its dark history.

These efforts and attitudes by Visegrad’s Serb rulers and residents are undoubtedly distasteful, divisive and counterproductive. They are yet another slap in the face of a people who lost so much and still healing. But, perhaps most importantly, they are signs that the hatred, indifference and dehumanisation that paved the way for the atrocities of the 1990s in Visegrad are still strong in the hearts and minds of the town’s residents.

Denial of genocide or any other crime against humanity is an indicator that a repeat of that crime is a possibility. And today in Visegrad, we routinely witness not only efforts to whitewash history, but also outright calls for another genocide.

In March 2019, members of the Ravna Gora Movement, a Serb nationalist Chetnik organisation, rallied in Visegrad to commemorate the arrest of Draža Mihailović – the leader of the World War II Chetnik movement, who was executed in 1946 in Belgrade on charges of high treason and war crimes. Clad in black uniforms, they chanted, “There will be hell, the Drina will be bloody, here come the Chetniks from the Serb mountains.”

In the eyes of Bosniak Muslims, and anyone with the most basic understanding of the region’s recent history, this was an apparent call to ethnic cleansing and genocide. Three people who participated in the rally were charged with inciting ethnic, racial, and religious hatred, and provoking discord and intolerance in December 2020. But others who participated in the hateful march, and thousands of other residents of Visegrad who are known to be sympathetic to these genocidal views, faced no censure.

Holocaust scholar Deborah Lipstadt once argued that the denial of an individual’s or a group’s persecution is the ultimate cruelty – on some level worse than the persecution itself. Indeed, the denial of atrocities like the Holocaust or the Bosnian genocide is not a misdemeanour that can be overlooked or ignored. It not only delivers one more blow on the victims, but opens the door for the repeat of such atrocities. It also poses a threat to everyone who believes that knowledge and memory are among the keystones of our civilisation.

Therefore, it is more urgent than ever before to fight genocide denialism in the Balkans and to preserve the memories of the victims. We owe at least this much to those who were raped, tortured, burned alive and then hidden in unmarked mass graves across these lands. We also owe it to those who survived, and still living with the fear that one day, not too far away, it may all start again.

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