Words On Humanity, and Crimes Against It

The following are selections from the judgement of the International Tribunal for Yugoslavia on the case of Milan Lukić, one of over 150 individuals indicted under international law for crimes committed during the wars in Yugoslavia in the 1990’s.

I preface the story with a few thoughts and an open warning that the story is graphically violent and unfiltered, but deeply important.

I found this while researching the magnificent bridge at Višegrad, and it has been haunting me ever since. I felt I needed to share it for a few reasons. First, the stories of victims are all-too-often silenced and forgotten, and the sins of perpetrators in war-time are often ignored or explained away by some variation of “all’s fair…”

Reading the testimony in this case has made me appreciate the work done by the Tribunal, and all its participants. It is important work that brings justice where it is so often escaped.

The second reason I share this is to give context to my experience traveling in Bosnia and Herzegovina. I have been thinking a lot about how what we read while we travel affects how we travel. Reading these documents, as well as other stories of the war, has profoundly shaped my experience of the Balkans.

Finally, I share this because I can’t carry it myself. It truly haunts me, coming to my mind as I walk the streets, as I see people praying at the mosques in Sarajevo. The stories float through my mind as I see faces of people on the street, whether they be Serb or Muslim. Sharing a story can lighten its weight on our minds and hearts. Sharing a story can gently pull it apart, revealing lessons, challenging us toward hope.

Numbers in parentheses are the relevant section numbers from the judgement, which can be accessed freely from the ICTJ here.

Background

Milan Lukić, of Serb ethnicity, was born on 6 September 1967 in Foča… Milan Lukić has two daughters, the first of whom was born during the war…During the war, Milan Lukić lived with his father, mother and brother in a house on Pionirska street. (1,3)

The Prosecution alleges that in 1992 Milan Lukić returned to Višegrad, near where he grew up and located in the eastern part of Bosnia and Herzegovina (“BiH”), and organised a group of local paramilitaries that was sometimes referred to as the “White Eagles” and the “Avengers”. It is alleged that this group had ties to the Višegrad police and to Serb military units. (11)

The municipality of Višegrad is situated in the south-eastern region of BiH … In 1991, the municipality of Višegrad population was… 21,000 persons, 63 per cent of whom were of Muslim ethnicity and 32 per cent of whom were Serbs. (38)

“The Drina River Incident”

On 7 June 1992, VG032, a Muslim, was hiding with Hasan Kustura and VG032’s father-in-law in the basement of the latter’s house in Bikavac… at around 5 p.m., VG032, his father-in-law and Hasan Kustura left the house.323 They then saw four soldiers coming towards them, one of whom was Milan Lukić. Milan Lukić wore a purple-blue camouflage uniform of the kind normally worn by the police, a black beret with a twoheaded eagle and tennis shoes. On each of the uniform’s sleeves was a two-headed eagle emblem, and Milan Lukić’s face was painted with a dark colour…VG032 also saw that Milan Lukić carried a sniper rifle with a silencer attached and that the other three soldiers had automatic weapons. Milan Lukić asked VG032 why he had been hiding and took VG032’s identity card and tore it up. Milan Lukić then ordered VG032 and Hasan Kustura to follow him and another soldier, leaving the two remaining soldiers behind. After a while, they came to a house in Bikavac, near the Grad hill, which Milan Lukić entered and searched. When Milan Lukić came out, he told VG032 and Hasan Kustura to enter the house.332 Milan Lukić then left the house, but the other soldier remained at the entrance of the house… (101-102)

After a while, Hasan Mutapčić and his 13 year old son entered the house. Hasan Mutapčić’s son was terrified and trembled visibly… After Milan Lukić had left the house where the persons were being detained, he went to the house of VG014. VG014 testified that at around 5.30 p.m. there was a knock on the door and Milan Lukić entered the house… Milan Lukić ordered VG014 to get his uniform and come with him to a burgundy Passat that was parked outside… When Milan Lukić came out of the house, he caught sight of Amir Kurtalić, VG014’s friend and a friend of his family, who had fled from the village of Kurtalići, and told him to come with them. (102-105)

They drove into a side street near the Bikavac hotel and stopped at the house where VG032 and the other persons were held. (105)

Milan Lukić entered the house and told the detained men to stand in a semi-circle, to take off their shoes and socks, and to place all valuables on the floor. Milan Lukić said that if he found anything on anyone he would kill them. Milan Lukić took the banknotes from the wallets and put them in his pockets. He kicked the identification papers that the men had placed on the floor. (106)

[They] were driven to the Vilina Vlas hotel, a journey which took 20 to 25 minutes. On the way, VG032 saw that the two mosques in Višegrad had been burnt down. (109)

The cars stopped after a few hundred metres from the intersection at Sase, in the direction of Višegradska Župa. Milan Lukić ordered everybody to leave the vehicles and to walk towards the nearby Drina river. (113)

VG014 testified that the men walked in a single column through a field: Meho Džafić went first, followed by his son Ekrem Džafić, VG032, Hasan Mutapčić, VG014, Hasan Kustura and Amir Kurtalić.393 VG032 testified that the men walked in a line, one next to the other. By the time they were crossing the field, VG032 felt that “if there had been a trace of hope that this could all somehow have a happy ending, this trace of hope was extinguished”. (113)

About ten metres before the captured men reached the river, Milan Lukić ordered them to stop. The bank of the river, from the field to the water’s edge, was about five metres wide. Milan Lukić asked the captured men who could swim and VG032 replied that he could. Milan Lukić then ordered the men to move to the river, warning them that they would be killed should they try to escape. The men cried and begged for their lives. (114)

VG014 testified that he saw images of his wife and young daughter in his mind and that he felt that nothing could be changed. VG032 testified that he was “frozen”, that he walked slowly to the river’s edge and that he “wanted to go those last ten metres with only [his] daughter in [his] mind”. Meho Džafić pleaded with his former colleague, Mitar Vasiljević, to spare them. (114)

The seven captured men were lined up on the bank facing the river. (115)

The soldiers were swearing and cursing the… mothers of the captured men. When the two soldiers and Milan Lukić opened fire… VG014 fell into the water unharmed. At the same time, VG032 jumped into the water and was also unharmed; when he landed he saw blood in the water. Meho D`afi} cried out but his scream was cut short. VG032 did not hear a gunshot at that point in time. However, he realised that Meho D`afić had been shot by Milan Lukić’s sniper rifle, which was fitted with a silencer. VG014 also heard the sound of Milan Lukić’s sniper rifle being fired. Hasan Mutapčić fell over VG014 and covered the top of his body. A man also fell on top of VG032. Lying in the water, both VG014 and VG032 heard the screams of men who were not fatally wounded by the first shot and then heard individual shots being fired. VG014 lay partly submerged near the water’s edge facing the shore. VG032 moved his head to the side so it was halfway into the sand and dug his arms into the sand. VG032 realised that Ekrem Džafić, who lay next to him, had fallen silent. (116-117)

When VG014 heard the car doors close, he stood up in the water together with VG032.  VG032 examined the five men lying in the water to see if anyone was alive but the five men were dead. VG014 suggested that they leave because Milan Lukić had said that he had six more people he wanted to bring and execute. At this point in time, VG014 looked at his watch and saw that it was 7.45 p.m. They then walked two and a half kilometres along the Drina river towards Mušići and when night fell they crossed the river using a piece of wood.  Eventually they reached VG014’s house where VG032 stayed for several days.(118)

“The Bikavac Incident”

Bikavac is a neighbourhood of Višegrad, located a ten-minute walk from the Višegrad town centre. (638)

On the evening of 27 June 1992… At about 8.30 p.m., Zehra Turjačanin, while smoking a cigarette on her balcony, heard loud “Serb nationalistic” music being played from several cars, in which there were several armed men. The armed men knocked on the door of the Turjačanin house, as well as the doors of several other houses in the neighbourhood. The armed men then instructed everybody in the Turjačanin household to leave the house, telling them that a convoy had been organised to transport them to Bajina Bašta, a town located north-east of Višegrad. Zehra Turjačanin and the other women and children complied, while her brother and cousin remained walled in inside the house. (639, 641)

Upon leaving the house, Zehra Turjačanin noticed that there were no vehicles to transport them from Bikavac. Instead, the armed men led them, as well as many of their neighbours, to Meho Aljić’s house, which was approximately 100 metres away. Zehra Turjačanin saw Milan Lukić with the armed soldiers on the path between the Turjačanin house and Meho Aljić’s house. Zehra Turjačanin and the other women and children were instructed by the armed men to enter Meho Aljić’s house through a large glass patio or balcony door. Zehra Turjačanin was the last to enter the house. (641)

VG058 testified that she saw [from a nearby hiding place] Milan Lukić, Sredoje Lukić, Jovica Planojević, a man wearing a stocking over his head, and others, forcing Muslims into Meho Aljić’s house… She also saw Milan Lukić using the butt of his rifle to push people into the house and saying, “Come on, let’s get as many people in as possible”. After the people were forced into the house, VG058 heard a banging noise “like a hammer”. (644)

Approximately 70 Muslim civilians were in the house, including Zehra Turjačanin and her other relatives mentioned above, young mothers with their children and elderly people. The youngest child in the house was one year old. All the people herded into the house were civilians, none of whom were armed or wore any kind of uniform. Some of the people in the house were locals from Bikavac, but most were refugees from surrounding villages… (645)

There was an atmosphere of fear in the house. All the exits had been blocked by heavy furniture, and the people were sitting on the floor against the walls. (645)

Milan Lukić and the other armed men threw rocks at the house in order to break the windows. They then shot bullets inside the house… Subsequently, the armed men threw in grenades. The grenades killed several people inside the house.The armed men then threw some form of powder into the house which induced mass suffocation. VG115 and VG058 observed the armed men, which included Milan Lukić and Sredoje Lukić, using petrol to set the house alight. (646)

A fire broke out and spread very quickly. Zehra Turjačanin was reported to have said, “I heard the voice of my brother’s school friend, Milan Lukić, saying that it was time to set fire to us. He came up to the house and set it on fire”. (648)

VG035, standing at the bathroom window of her house some distance away, saw the fire and testified that she had never seen such a high flame. (648)

VG058 and VG035 vividly remembered the terrible screams of the people in the house, “like the screams of cats”. (648)

Grenade fragments had entered Zehra Turjačanin’s left leg. Her clothes caught fire and her skin began to burn. She saw the clothes of other people in the house catch fire and that they were burning alive. There was wailing and screaming. Zehra Turjačanin, shutting her eyes tightly so that they would not burn, managed to escape through a small opening of about 65 centimetres under, or through the window of, the metal garage door, which was blocking the patio door. Touching the door caused severe burns to her arms and hands, leaving them permanently damaged. All the other people in the house burned to death. (649)

Verdict and Sentence

The Trial Chamber finds Milan Lukić GUILTY… on [all] counts… (1099)

Count 1: Persecutions, a crime against humanity,
Count 2: Murder, a crime against humanity,
Count 3: Murder, a violation of the laws and customs of war,
Count 4: Inhumane acts, a crime against humanity,
Count 5: Cruel treatment, a violation of the laws and customs of war,
Count 6: Murder, a crime against humanity,
Count 7: Murder, a violation of the laws and customs of war,
Count 8: Extermination, a crime against humanity…

Count 10: Murder, a violation of the laws and customs of war,
Count 11: Inhumane acts, a crime against humanity,
Count 12: Cruel treatment, a violation of the laws and customs of war,
Count 13: Extermination, a crime against humanity,…
Count 15: Murder, a violation of the laws and customs of war,
Count 16: Inhumane acts, a crime against humanity,
Count 17: Cruel treatment, a violation of the laws and customs of war,
Count 18: Murder, a crime against humanity,
Count 19: Murder, a violation of the laws and customs of war,
Count 20: Inhumane acts, a crime against humanity,
Count 21: Cruel treatment, a violation of the laws and customs of war. (1099-1100)

The Trial Chamber sentences Milan Lukić to a term of imprisonment for the remainder of his life. (1101)

 

The Character of Milan Lukić Prior to the War

MLD10, a former Muslim neighbour of Milan Lukić, described him as a “very positive character” and testified that he was “thoughtful and kind to all people, regardless of nationality or ethnicity”.Željko Marković, who was acquainted with Milan Lukić between 1987 and 1989, described Milan Lukić as a quiet man who lived modestly. He stated that Milan Lukić was the “paragon of gentleman-like behaviour”. (1077)

Višegrad, and its great bridge over the Drina

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