Has onyone seen Milan Lukic?
by Anes Alic/Jen Tracy
Wanted by the Hague tribunal for massacring thousands in the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad, a notorious war criminal easily evades arrest in a territory controlled by SFOR troops.
Visegrad. To the rest of the world, this small town in the south-eastern part of the country on the border with Serbia might be known only by Nobel-prize winning Ivo Andric's novel Bridge Over the Drina. But to the 13,000 Bosniak Muslims who lived in Visegrad before the war in 1992 - about 100 of whom remain - it is better known as a place where Bosnian Serb paramilitary leaders burned masses alive in houses, forced women and children over the famous bridge and shot them as they fell, and slaughtered thousands of Muslim men.
On 5 August, survivors of the massacre returned to Visegrad for the burial of 180 bodies exhumed from mass graves. The exhumation lasted for two years and the bodies were found in 19 different mass graves. Only a small number were identified. The event sparked intensified calls for justice which, everyone agrees, has been slow in coming.
Mitar Vasilijevic, a Bosnian Serb waiter in Visegrad before the war, is now on trial at the Hague-based UN war crimes tribunal for his participation in the mass murder of some 135 Muslim civilians who were locked inside two houses and burned alive. His charges include crimes against humanity, such as extermination and persecutions, and violations of the laws or customs of war. Among other crimes, he is accused of ‘the murder of a significant number of Bosnian Muslim civilians, including women, children and the elderly’, according to the indictment. But the trial of Vasilijevic is hardly complete without the arrest of the main suspect in the case - Milan Lukic, the notorious leader of the White Eagles paramilitary group and Vasiljevic's commander in chief.
Much to the dismay of the survivors of the massacre and those in The Hague who want to see him tried as soon as possible, Lukic has managed to evade arrest since his indictment in 1998 and remains at large, running between Serbia and Visegrad. French SFOR troops attempted to arrest him a couple of times in 1998, but he easily managed to slip away. On one of those occasions, a witness said that French SFOR troops were seen with Lukic in a Visegrad cafe, but allegedly made no move to arrest him because of the presence of Lukic's intimidating body guards.
According to the advisor to the Tribunal prosecutor, Jean-Jacques Joes, there is little excuse for the delay in Lukic's arrest. Once Lukic is finally arrested, Vasilijevic's trial will have to be completely repeated. Joes blames SFOR and the authorities in Republika Srpska for slow action and wasting the tribunal's time, money and resources. Joes says that while he is pleased with the arrest of suspected war criminals SFOR has made so far, he is certainly not pleased with the fact that the most-wanted remain on the run - not only Lukic, but also Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, the primary leaders of the Bosnian Serbs.
Unquiet flows the Drina
It was the Drina river - which flows through Fo…a, Visegrad, Gorazde, Zepa and Slap-na-Zepi in the Podrinje region - that brought the first signs of the massacre in Visegrad to the neighbouring villages. On a late spring day in 1992, 72-year-old Mehmed Tabakovic and some fellow villagers from Slap-na-Zepi found a dead body floating in the Drina river. ‘We took the body from the river and buried it in our village cemetery. Nobody knew who he was or what was happening,’ Tabakovic said. But that was just the first body and hundreds more would follow. ‘The bodies stank badly. In 15 days, we took about 250 bodies from the river. But I'm sure there were many more that were sucked down to the floodgates, where they remain trapped at the bottom of the river to this day.’
It was a clandestine operation that Tabakovic and the villagers conducted in the dark and quiet of night to avoid the Serbian snipers surrounding them on all sides from the hill tops. Together, some 50 villagers organized a secret volunteer brigade to haul the bodies out of the river and bury them unnoticed. A couple of the men were from Visegrad and could identify some of the bodies. ‘For me, the most terrible experience was when one 20-year-old boy recognized his mother's body floating in the river,’ he said.
While Tabakovic and his burial team were doing their best to deal with the fallout from the massacre floating down the river, the Bosniak Muslim residents of Visegrad were fleeing for their lives or paying with them.
Serbian military units started shelling Visegrad on 6 April 1992 and many Muslims fled the area. A week later, the JNA attacked. Fighting was sporadic and resulted in no major casualties. After the JNA had secured the city, many Muslims returned to their homes, with the JNA guaranteeing them security. It was when the JNA pulled out their troops that the ruthless paramilitaries, backed by the JNA, started mopping up operations and all hell broke loose.
Avdija Ziga, president of the Visegrad 92 Citizens Association, was fortunate enough to escape the massacre after the JNA left, but the thousands of others weren't.
‘No one could believe what was happening,’ Ziga said. When the JNA arrived, she said, many Bosniak men fled to neighboring Tuzla, Gorazde, and Zepa, and women and children fled to Serbia and Montenegro. She and her colleagues formed a citizens’ association, called FORUM, to help during the panic and chaos. The group was comprised of well-known and well-respected people from the community and they urged Muslims who had fled for their lives to return to Visegrad after the JNA promised to guarantee their safety. ‘We were naive and we trusted them,’ Ziga said. ‘The JNA promised that no one would lose a hair on their head. A couple thousand returned. Only a few are alive today. They didn't know they were coming to meet their deaths.’
And they didn't know that their deaths would be at the hands of Lukic, until the war a seemingly ‘good neighbour’ who expressed no nationalist or extremist tendencies. Born in a small village near Visegrad in 1967, Lukic led what his largely Muslim neighbours thought to be a normal life. He had Muslim friends and even went to the local Mosque with them. At the onset of war, however, he suddenly changed for no apparent reason and gave himself the nickname he would very soon live up to - ‘Revenger’. Revenger for what, Ziga and the others who knew him have no idea.
The young Lukic joined the Serbian White Eagles paramilitary group as its local leader, and together with the Tigers, a paramilitary unit led by notorious warlord Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan, they took control of Visegrad and the fate of the non-Serb people living there. Lukic's 10-15-strong group of paramilitaries began to terrorize the town. At first it was individual murders. They took men, women and children to the famous Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic bridge and slaughtered them, throwing the bodies into the river. They threw women and children off the bridge and shot them on the way down. If they missed, the Serb paramilitaries waiting on the river bank finished the job. Others were crucified on doors and then thrown over the bridge to drown in the river. ‘Those nights were creepy,’ Ziga said.
Then the mass murder started, again led by Lukic. With him were, most notably, Momir Savic, Mitar Vasiljevic - now alone on trial in The Hague - and Lukic's cousin, Sredoje Lukic, as well as Ziga's former language professor, Risto Perisic.
In one house in the village, Lukic ordered Vasiljevic to imprison 65 people - men, women, children, babies, many from the same family. The doors were closed and locked and then the house was ignited. Anyone who tried to escape was shot, while explosives were thrown in through the windows. ‘Four people survived that hell,’ she said. This crime was repeated a second time in another house with a similar number of people. Lukic is also believed to have ordered rapes.
In mid-1992, Lukic organized a convoy of Bosniaks to be transported to Olovo, to ‘safety’ in a Bosnian army-controlled territory. Some were naive enough to trust him. Half way there, he ordered the buses to halt, forced the passengers to get off and then to run. He and his men reportedly shot them as they ran with their backs turned. There were 85 passengers - one survived.
For the survivors, there will be no peace until all the mass graves are discovered, the bodies identified, and the main man responsible, Lukic, answers for his crimes in The Hague. And for his part, Vasilijevic and his lawyers agree - the trial is unfair without the commander-in-chief. For the year and a half that Vasilijevic has been on trial, the only result has been his acquittal for the burning alive of some 65 people. The Hague says there is not enough evidence to convict him on that charge and they await the arrival of Lukic. ‘I live for the day when Milan Lukic is arrested and all those who massacred Bosniaks in Visegrad. I hope that day will come soon,’ Ziga says. But her hopes, and the desires of the other survivors for peace, now rest in the hands of slow-acting SFOR troops and uncooperative Republika Srpska authorities. Still, with each new war criminal sent to The Hague, Ziga says, Lukic's day draws nearer and he can't run forever.
This report was published in Transitions On Line (Prague), 7 September 2001. Anes Alic is a journalist for the Open Broadcast Network in Sarajevo. Jen Tracy is a freelance correspondent in Sarajevo and former managing editor of TOL.