Bosnia: 20 years on
Visegrad, site of one of the worst atrocities of the Bosnian war, is still in denial about the past.
Bikavac is a hamlet on the fringes of Visegrad, a 15-minute climb from the mighty Drina river, which cuts through the town. It has one of the more dramatic views in the Balkans. In The Bridge on the Drina, Andric describes how on one side of the town the Drina “flows with the whole force of its green and foaming waters from the apparently closed mass of the dark steep mountains”. On the other “like from a spring spreads the whole rolling valley of Visegrad and its surroundings with hamlets nestling in the folds of the hills, covered with meadows, pastures and plum orchards”. Even now, after all that has happened there – and on the bridge in particular – the hills with their pink-roofed farmhouses have an Arcadian feel.
Bikavac was a medieval Christian village when Visegrad was just a few huts. By 1992, it had long since become a mixed community, where – as across Visegrad – Muslims and Serbs attended each other’s festivals and shared troubles and joys. In the last census before the Bosnian war, Visegrad’s 21,000 people were 63 per cent Muslim and 33 per cent Serb. Yet, when I first heard the word Bikavac that harmony had ended and Bikavac was Christian again – as it still is now – and the town’s 13,000 Muslims had been either killed or expelled.
It was a sweltering morning in August 1992. I was sitting in a hillside plum orchard 10 miles west of the town. All around me was the debris of war: unexploded cluster bomblets, shrapnel-scarred houses and refugees, endless refugees. “Beekavats (as it is pronounced), Beekavats…” shouted the refugees. They stared at their visitors and cursed the negligent west.
I had just spent 24 hours in the besieged town of Gorazde, further up the river valley, with Maggie O’Kane, a correspondent for The Guardian, and we were walking back through a tiny pocket of free Bosnian territory seeking to cross the lines to send our dispatches. We had a powerful story to tell of how Gorazde was being suffocated by the Serb siege. The plight of the besieged cities was then dominating the attention of the west. It was only as we listened to the stories of the survivors of Visegrad that we realised the people of Gorazde, facing daily bombardments as they were, were the lucky ones.
The refugees spoke of a virtual genocide. From May, Muslims, particularly men, had been rounded up and murdered; as in Rwanda, the educated and wealthy were the first in line. Scores, if not hundreds, were slaughtered on the Ottoman bridge. Hundreds of women were detained and mass raped at the local spa. My most abiding memory is of the face of a slender young Muslim textile worker, Zehra Turjacanin. She was sitting under a tree in the shade. 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. It was clear her wounds were badly infected and that she might not live. (Much later, I learnt that it was about then that a doctor suggested to her she should not have precious medicines, as she would not survive. She answered that she had to live.) She spoke in a whisper yet with astonishing force. On the night of June 27, a Serb policeman called Milan Lukic knocked at her door. She had known him from their days at high school. She, her mother, two sisters and four children were bundled into a house down the road with dozens more.
“When I got to the balcony I saw there was a wardrobe against the front door and all the windows had been blocked with furniture. They started to throw stones at us to make us go inside, then they threw hand grenades. We were the last ones in … I said to my mother ‘don’t worry they won’t kill us.’ Then they set the house on fire … I saw a window in the garage door … I was the only one who got out.
About 70 people were murdered in the Bikavac fire. It was one of the worst single atrocities of the war. It featured prominently in both O’Kane’s and my own dispatches, but even after a year of chronicling Yugoslav atrocities, I was wary about reporting with confidence the accounts of mass executions on the Drina bridge. The refugees talked of people having their throats cut like livestock, with their hands tied behind their backs, and then being hurled into the Drina. But these accounts had the hysterical flavour of wartime propaganda. The bridge had for centuries been a ritual place of atrocity, both in myth and recorded history. For more than a year, the Serbian newspapers had been filling column inches with fictional accounts of Croats stringing children’s fingers as necklaces and such like – and the Croatian media had repaid them in kind. I remember asking myself how could they be confirmed, and suspecting that if we recorded them, we would be deemed to have lost all journalistic perspective. (This was a time when John Major’s government in Britain was desperate to avoid intervention, and officials routinely briefed that correspondents covering Bosnia had lost objectivity and were biased against the Serbs.)