DESPERATE BOSNIAK VILLAGERS SEE NO EXIT
Credits: The following is another horrifying testimony from the horrors of the Bosnian Genocide (1992-1995) by Sally Jacobs with introduction by András Riedlmayer. Reprint courtesy: Bosnian Institute, U.K.
Everyone by now knows about the massacre at Srebrenica and the terrible 44-month-long siege of Sarajevo. But few know about the other horrors that were taking place elsewhere in Bosnia-Herzegovina, out of sight of the international media, during the 1992-95 war.
By 1993, the second summer of the Bosnian war, there were few foreign journalists reporting from the field outside of Sarajevo. Fewer still ventured into the villages in the vast areas of Bosnia that had fallen under the control of Serb nationalist forces, to observe at first hand the progress of ‘ethnic cleansing’ of the Bosnian Bosniak, Bosnian Croat and other non-Serb residents. Among the few were Boston Globe reporters Sally Jacobs and photographer Michele McDonald, who went from Belgrade to Banja Luka to see for themselves what was happening. Ignoring warnings from UN officials, who told them it was too dangerous, they drove out to the village of Liskovac, near Bosanska Gradiška, 20 miles north of Banja Luka, where they had heard terrible things were happening. Below is their account of what they found there.
Fifteen years later, so far as I know there have been no judgements brought – at The Hague or in local courts – against those responsible for what was done to the non-Serb residents of Liskovac.
- András Riedlmayer
Reporter: Sally Jacobs
The Boston Globe
8 August 1993.
LISKOVAC, Bosnia-Herzegovina — No one admitted it when the mosque was demolished. Or when gangs of soldiers threw grenades through their windows and stole their cattle. Or even when Serb refugees forced them out of their homes at gunpoint.
But last week, as the screams of five villagers being mutilated and murdered tore through the night air, Bosniaks here acknowledged that their village was no longer their own. And so, the next morning, villagers – the most recent victims in a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing that has halved the number of Bosniaks in the region – decided to leave. Or at least they tried to.
One by one they walked from homes their families had lived in for generations, past pear and plum trees tended by their parents and their grandparents, and formed a ragged circle at the edge of town. Nearly 600 strong, they pleaded with Red Cross officials to take them somewhere, anywhere, far from the terrorizing Serbian squadrons.
‘Every night I am so afraid that I sleep in the cornfield,’ whispered Idriz Rizvanović, the cousin of two of the murdered men. ‘I am afraid all the time. It gets worse every day. I think sometimes I wouldn’t be sorry to be killed to end all of this.’
There is nowhere, however, for the Bosniaks of Liskovac to go. The war in the former Yugoslavia has produced thousands of refugees. It is unlikely that many individuals will be relocated anytime soon.
‘It is hopeless,’ conceded Sophie Demuylder, a delegate to the International Committee of the Red Cross, confronted by the beseeching crowd. ‘At the moment there is nowhere for you to go. There are many other villages in the same situation.’
Some of them are in the same Gradiška district that encompasses Liskovac, a stronghold of Serbian nationalism in eastern Bosnia that abuts the Croatian border. The ‘cleansing’ campaign has unfurled in this pastoral region like a lethal carpet, forcing about half of the 18,000 Bosniaks that lived here before the war to flee before its forward roll, while quietly silencing others beneath its suffocating weave.
In Liskovac, where only the poorest of the village’s several hundred families remain, it began when the regional Bosnian Serb squadron was dispatched to embattled Mount Igman outside Sarajevo three months ago.
At first, drunken Serb soldiers would roam through town shouting that for every Serb killed on Igman, they would kill 15 Bosniaks. Then they began knocking on doors, demanding money and robbing the Bosniak farmers of their valuables. When villagers began hiding their cash under the floorboards and burying their televisions and radios in mounds of grain, the infuriated soldiers shot up their houses and tossed grenades through their windows.
‘One of them came to my house and told me to give him my money. When I didn’t, he beat up my boyfriend and took my bicycle,’ said Jasminka Melica, 28. ‘He came back with a friend the next day and shot at my house.’
While ‘cleansing’ efforts got under way in earnest just a few months ago, the campaign really began with the start of war in Bosnia in April 1992. As a Bosnian Serb army was assembled, Bosniaks were given a choice: Join the Bosnian Serb army or lose their jobs.
None of the villagers signed up. Stripped of their jobs, many turned to the cornfields and cattle that had sustained their families for hundreds of years. But shortly afterwards, gangs of young Serbs led their cows away and stole their farm equipment. Local Serb officials now give the villagers ‘compulsory work’ assignments, often purposeless but grueling tasks – such as moving rocks or digging up grass – for which they are paid nothing.
‘We are prohibited from having weapons. We have no way to defend ourselves,’ said Biljana Mulalić, 30, one of a handful of Serbs who live in the village and who is married to a Bosniak. ‘When we call the police, they do not come. We are totally alone here.’
So it was that when villagers saw three luxury cars drive into town about 10 p.m. last Sunday, and heard the blast of gunfire and the raucous shouting of men filled with drink, they were on their own. As the gang of about seven men in their 20s, three wearing the green Bosnian Serb army uniform, broke into one house after another, villagers peered out from behind their curtains.
‘They were throwing bottles and shooting into the air,’ said Mulalić, who lives across the road from one of the victim’s homes. ‘We all knew something was going on. We tried to communicate by phone, warning people as they got closer.’
The men stopped first at a small white house in which 62-year-old Emina Turan had long ago gone to bed. They announced their arrival by putting a match to the chicken coop.
‘I heard one of them shout to the other, ‘I want to kill and burn the Balija’ ‘ – a term of contempt for Muslims – one neighbor said. ‘And then I heard the screaming.’
No one knows exactly what happened in the next two hours: The only survivor, Turan’s daughter-in-law, was raped that night and remained hospitalized last week. But when a neighbor walked into the house shortly before dawn, she found Turan’s son, Almaz, strapped to a small wooden table, his body sliced and bloodied, barely alive. Emina Turan’s body was found lying behind the barn where she had died of a single bullet to her head. Two of her fingers had been cut off and her face was pocked with cigarette burns.
So much blood flowed from Almaz Turan’s body, that by late Monday afternoon the carpet remained matted and moist. Underneath the table on which he was found, an orange-handled knife lay amidst dozens of bloodied family photographs.
‘When I found him, the room was in flames,’ the neighbor, who asked not to be identified for fear of retaliation, said as tears streamed down her face. ‘My husband called the fire brigade and police but they said they were busy and would come when they could.’
After leaving the Turan home, the Serb soldiers headed down the curving narrow road into the center of town, pulling their cars to a halt in front of the Rizvanović house shortly after 3 a.m. Awakened by shooting, brothers Suljo and Mehmed fortified the front door with a heavy wooden cupboard. But the men tore a branch from the plum tree outside the trim white house and smashed the windows.
‘We ran upstairs into the attic and they followed us there,’ Samira Rizvanović, Suljo’s 19-year-old daughter, said, starting at the sound of a passing car. ‘My father said, ‘Take what you want, take what you want.’ And they began beating him with the milk bucket, hitting him with all the force they had. I was just screaming.’
And then they turned on Samira.
‘For one hour we heard the screams of the girl as she was raped,’ said one villager, as gooseflesh of fear broke out on her arms despite the hot sun overhead. ‘She was screaming to her father, ‘Help me, help me.’ But Mehmed could not walk, and he screamed back, ‘I can’t move.’ ‘
As Suljo’s wife fled with their two children into the cornfield and Mehmed’s wife lay on the floor with a bullet in her chest, the brothers and their 75-year-old mother, Saza, were dragged from the house and shot in the barnyard under the grape arbor. Late that afternoon, their bodies lay where they had fallen, covered with blankets against the gathering flies.
Inside the house, furniture lay smashed and and covered with blood. Shattered glass carpeted the floor and the smell of burning material hung heavy in the humid air. The walls leading up to the attic were scarred with bloody clawmarks made by human hands.
‘I ran into the field and I heard them screaming and screaming,’ said Idriz Rizvanović, the cousin, clasping his head in his hands. ‘I could do nothing, nothing.’
Villagers chose not to bury the four bodies immediately so that international relief workers could see the torture the dead had suffered. Almaz Turan died in the hospital late in the afternoon. But as police Monday refused to allow representatives of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees into town, villagers decided to tell their story publicly, although they believe they will suffer retaliation for doing so.
Local police and Serb military authorities declined to comment on the episode in detail, saying only that they are investigating the matter. Spokesmen for both agencies, however, said they were confident that the killings were the work of ‘outsiders’ operating independently and had nothing to do with the police or military.
The survivors have no doubt that the massacre was an attempt by Serbs to ‘cleanse’ their village to make way for Serb refugees. Even so, their anger is directed not at the Serbs, with whom many lived compatibly for generations, but only at what they call ‘extremists.’
‘Why should I hate?’ asked Djehva Rizvanović, Suljo’s widow. ‘I feel bad about those who committed the crime, but you cannot hate everybody. There are some Serbs who would like to help us, but they don’t because they are afraid.’
In the little red-roofed houses that line the single road through the village, there is nothing to do now but wait. Red Cross workers have set up a table and are creating files on villagers for whom they had not a single home last week. Villagers have posted a sentry on the road to alert others should the killers return.
At night, some drag their blankets into the cornfield. A few climb into the haystacks in the attic. But no one sleeps very much.