bosnia report
New Series No: 35 August - September 2003
 
The most massive of all mass graveyards
by Hasan Hadžic

The few surviving relatives of the murdered inhabitants of the villages of Klisa, Đulići and Šetići are currently searching the area of the mass graveyard at Crni Vrh in the hope of finding traces of six hundred of their family members. The author of this report joined them, looking for his wartime friends

 

 

 

'They shut us up in the building of the technical college in Karakaj. We were suffocating from fear and heat, and from the rising stench of sweat, urine and faeces. One group of our neighbours was forced to eat a kilogram of salt apiece, then given water. As they drank it they quickly died, simply perished. That is how Hrustan Avdić, head of the Petkovci primary school, died - along with dozens of others. They forced us to pass in groups through a double row of torturers who hit us with metal bars. The bloodied people fell to the ground... They started to take away one group after another in trucks. Though the canvas flap was in place, judging by the length of the journey and the flatness of the ground I concluded that the execution place was located in a field close to the Drina. In no time at all we were facing the guns. It was all over! We were in such a state of shock that no one was able to cry out. I exchanged glances with my uncle Sejdo and firmly shook his hand, for the last time. And then I lost consciousness. I don't know how long I heard or saw nothing. When I regained consciousness, there was silence all around. I was covered by twisted dead bodies.'

That is part of the horrifying story that Fedahija Hasanović, a native of Šetić who survived his own execution at the start of June 1992, told me soon after he had managed, though severely wounded, to reach the free territory of Tuzla. Extracts of his testimony were published a few days later in The New York Times.

The secret of Šahbegovići

According to Fedahija's rough estimate at the time, out of 800 imprisoned civilians from the villages of Klisa, Đulić and Šetići in the Zvornik area, aged between 15 and 70, half were killed at Karakaj. The others were deported in buses to Bijeljina, or more exactly to the infamous Pilica that Dražen Erdemović, convicted by the court in The Hague, would later cite as the site of mass executions of the people of Srebrenica. In the Hall of Culture at Pilica the inhabitants of these villages were tortured again, and dozens of them were killed. According to most testimonies, the rest were executed in Duboki Potok close by and other locations in the vicinity.

Over recent years around 200 of their bodies were discovered and identified at Glumina, Bebići and other mass graveyards in the Zvornik area, and buried in a separate cemetery at Kalesija. According to the most reliable estimates, half of the remaining 600 lie in the newly discovered graveyard at Crni Vrh, the pass between Zvornik and Kalesija. They were brought there in 1995, having been exhumed from the original burial ground at Šahbegovići. The Serb authorities feared that one of the survivors of Srebrenica, who used the pass in their march to Tuzla, might discover the secret of Šahbegovići. That is why the bodies of the murdered inhabitants of Đulići, Klisa and Šetići were transferred to the even more obscure location at Crni Vrh, where they were buried together with hundreds of freshly murdered inhabitants of Srebrenica for whom this was their primary burial ground.

'One cannot tell what the ultimate figure will be, but on the basis of what has been excavated and my long experience in this kind of work, I am convinced that this is the single largest mass graveyard discovered so far in Bosnia-Herzegovina.', says a member of the team working on the exhumation. A figure of as high as 700 is being cited

Another reporter would probably pay greater attention to the findings of the forensic experts, the court investigators and the members of the state commission for locating the disappeared; but in my case this is simply impossible, since for me these grisly skeletons and skulls are not a pile of remnants of 'some' victims, but of very real people with whom I spent several dramatic days as a refugee in Međeđa near Sapne. Between 10 and 20 April 1992, some 15,000 people sought refuge in this village of around 400 houses.

Keeping watch at the graveyard

We were surrounded, cut off from the municipal centre of Zvornik, which was already under occupation, and from Kula-Grad in its immediate hinterland, where self-organized defenders had for the past month been offering a heroic resistance. We were convinced at the time that the Bosniak leaders of Zvornik municipality had joined the resistance, only to be told later that they had left their base in good time and moved to the west.

We waited desperately for some instruction or order so that we would know what to do. We called the Bosnia-Herzegovina presidency, but there was no one there except for an adviser to Fikret Abdić, who appeared to be even more confused and lost than we were. We could not expect any help from Tuzla, since the JNA was still stationed in the barracks there and at the nearby airport. Amid the general chaos, matters were made worse by the information that was being tirelessly repeated by Radio Sarajevo: 'According to TANJUG [Yugoslav News Agency, run from Belgrade], JNA units under the command of General Janković have entered Zvornik where they are now establishing law and order and ensuring security of all citizens.' We, however, had reliable information that Arkan’s men had already killed hundreds of people in Zvornik; but it was impossible to persuade the panicky mass of refugees or direct them in any way.

The hard-working peasants of Đulići, Šetići and Klisa, worried about their buildings, animals and agricultural machinery and believing that all this havoc was a passing phase, started to return to their homes in the direction of the Drina. I remember Omer Lupić, a young and mild-mannered giant of a man, setting off with a group of his neighbours crammed aboard his tractor trailer. I stood in front of them and begged them not to return to their villages, quoted the lies being put out by Belgrade TV about 10,000 'green berets' being trained in a camp at Međeđa, and tried to persuade them that these lies were an alibi for the continuation of massacres. It was all in vain. These good people, on the one hand deserted and betrayed by a government for which they had voted, and on the other hand fearing the loss of their property acquired over many decades, were condemned - though wholly innocent - to become victims.

Today their few surviving relatives are standing guard at the graveyard of Crni Vrh, hoping to find some trace of Omer, of his father Avdo and of another six hundred of their neighbours. They will have to wait for weeks if not months, however, to identify them, since the skeletons were dug up once before, then jumbled together again with building machinery as if they were stones. The executioners' expert teams worked hard, moreover, to ensure that the bodies would be devoid of personal documents or any other visible marks of identity.

Evidence of crime

Climbing down from Crni Vrh towards Kalesija, I thought about how Serbs living in houses less than three hundred metres away from the graveyard had allowed their authorities to leave such evidence of crime in their immediate vicinity. Before the official discovery of the graveyard and the start of exhumation, did they warn their children to avoid going there, or at least not to play on the field close to the place where hundreds of their neighbours were buried, among them as we now know children under twelve years of age? If they did remain indifferent to all this, then the basis of that indifference is a phenomenon that should worry us as much as the crime itself.

Such thoughts had likewise preoccupied me before I got to the graveyard, while I was taking photographs of the technical school centre in Karkaj. I read displayed on the wall the list of new students and the timetable of exams to be retaken, and I asked myself whether one would ever be able to read there a list containing the names of Hrustan Avdić and all the other residents of Klisa, Đulići and Šetići who were murdered in this school, in a manner to rival the most monstrous deeds from the fascist era. Do the school’s teachers, as they lecture on the poetry of Desanka Maksimović or on the crimes committed at Jasenovac, ever fall silent, thinking that in June 1992 these schoolrooms were covered in the blood of their former pupils? If not, how do they manage never to think about it? Will anyone ever tell the pupils what happened in their own school to other of its pupils during the summer vacation in 1992?

During this day of most horrible sights and memories, I wondered whether Sulejman Tihić, the member of the Bosnian presidency who was visiting Crni Vrh that morning, would have the heart to continue fashioning Bosnia-Herzegovina in the company of Dragan Kalinić and Dragan Čavić [SDS leaders], the authentic heirs of the ideology that created this Crni Vrh and many others like it. What, indeed, is the price of power?

 

 

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Perfect monsters

The suburb of Pilica and its Hall of Culture, where in 1992 the inhabitants of Đulići, Klisa and Šetići were tortured and killed, was mentioned by Mark Harmon the prosecutor of The Hague war crimes tribunal, in an interview he gave to Dani last year. He mentioned them in the context of the Srebrenica massacre that happened three years later. The similarities between these two great criminal operations prove that the Belgrade-Pale project of eradicating the Bosniak population of the Drina valley was carefully planned: torture chambers, execution methods, killing fields and locations for mass graves, the impeccable readiness of the Serb population for the crimes carried out in its name - all was prepared with a monstrous precision. In this context, therefore, it is worth quoting Harmon again: 'What particularly shocked me, however, was not Srebrenica itself but my visit to Pilica, one of the sites of mass executions. Some 500 people were killed in its Hall of Culture, located opposite a café, on 16 July 1992. I went to the café having heard the testimony given by Erdemović, who on that day [12 July] had returned from Branjevo [near Duboki Potok, where the inhabitants of Đulići perished] where 1,200 people had just been killed. When he was asked to kill another 500, he refused; he went to the café and they drank coffee there while on the other side of the street people were being killed. Those who tried to escape were shot on the spot, one could hear the explosions of hand grenades and human cries. I went there before the start of the trial and had a coffee; I had arrived in a clearly marked UN vehicle and everyone there knew well why we were there. Sitting in the place where Erdemović had sat, I looked around and knew that some of the people there knew what had happened - maybe those who were serving the coffee, maybe the café owners - but no one approached to say: "You’re the investigators? I’ll tell you what happened." My sitting in this company, so indifferent or maybe scarred, or whatever, and asking myself what it is that prevents normal human beings from doing their moral duty and testifying about a crime, was the most horrifying experience of my life. I was greatly moved by Srebrenica, but it was the visit to Pilica that upset me in particular, since I saw that a monument to dead Serb soldiers had been erected in front of the Hall of Culture. These men had died for their cause, believing in what they were doing; but it was highly arrogant to erect a monument to them in front of the site of one of the most shameful crimes in the whole war in Bosnia-Herzegovina. I tell you, it was the most shocking thing.'

This café about which Harmon spoke was working overtime in June 1992. The killers quenched their thirst there and celebrated the killing records that they had been breaking in the Hall of Culture. Everything was as usual, except for the victims. The inhabitants of the Zvornik villages were killed in 1992 and those of Srebrenica in 1995. Many were buried in the same graveyard, the one discovered at Crni Vrh, which is why it represents not only the largest of the mass graves but also the most brutal testimony to a perfect circle of crime. Srebrenica was only the most tragic last link in a chain made up of many earlier Srebrenicas.

 

 

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Are the criminals of Zvornik dear to The Hague?

The discovery of the mass grave at Crni Vrh has highlighted - yet again - the unbearable indifference on the part of the court in The Hague towards those responsible for it. Together with the 800 murdered inhabitants of Đulići and nearby villages, the municipality of Zvornik lost 4,000 people to the Serb criminals. Although it is known that Zvornik was chosen as a pilot project for the treatment of Bosnia; that for this reason in the first months of the war it came under the control of Arkan, Frenki Šimatović, Jovica Stanišić and other close collaborators of Slobodan Milošević; that the crimes committed against the people of Zvornik, Bratunac, Vlasenica and Srebrenica were particularly horrific and extensive; and that this area contains a dense network of mass graves - the fact is that none of Zvornik's wartime leaders has been indicted for war crimes by The Hague.

Although Brano Grujić, leader of the SDS and of 'Serb Zvornik', is generally held most responsible for what happened to the villagers of Đulići, Šetići and Klisa, other individuals seem to have played an even more important role. One of these is Stevo Radić, secretary of the Zvornik municipality at the time. Radić was born in Jadran, a village close to Đulići; according to several Serb sources, it was he who insisted in particular that all Bosniak males - i.e. the neighbours with whom he had attended the local primary school, travelled in the same bus to the secondary school in Zvornik, and played football in local tournaments - should be destroyed. Radić is today one of the wealthiest men in Zvornik.

There is also Dragomir Vasić, whose political career thanks to Ashdown's recent and belated intervention is in decline, but whose wealth is also considerable. Together with Radić he swung the balance against more moderate views regarding the fate of the slain villagers. It is also the case that Vasić, immediately after the deportation of the Bosniak population from Đulići, moved into their houses Serb refugees from Brnjica near Živinice - so that Đulići until quite recently was officially re-named Brnjica.

While the Hague Tribunal has had no contact with Radić up to now, it has developed a close cooperation with Vasić, in a manner implying that he may be let off. But what his close collaborators Momir Nikolić and Dragan Obrenović have said about his role in the Srebrenica massacre should be borne in mind.

 

These texts have been translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 15 August 2003

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