Testimony of a Crime
THE BLOODY TRACE OF THE DRINA RIVER
By Irena Antic
In early October the Drina River overflew its basin and flooded the
banks of the Perucac Lakes. The hopes of many Visegrad families that bodies of hunderds of
the killed and thrown in the Drina in 1992 would ever be found vanished with the floods.
For more than two months people from the Institute for the Missing Persons and volunteers
from all over Bosnia-Herzegovina have searched for these bodies with superhuman
commitment. And so it happened that after 18 years one of the bloodiest chapters of
Bosnian history emerged from the waters of the Drina River and the lake district this
summer and "spoke out" with a mute cry from the bottom of the Perucac Lake.
Everybody knew that throughout 1992 bodies of the Bosniaks were ending
up in the turbines of the Bajina Basta hydroelectric power plant, thrown there by
executioners, Milan Lukic's "Revengers" and members of other Serb formations,
who believed no one would ever find them in such a place. No one - some working for the
plant or in hydroelectric sectors of Serbia or Republika Srpska, or an official of that
Bosnian entity or the neighboring state - had ever suggested that the Drina lakes or even
its basin should be emptied in the search for the killed. Nothing would have changed was
there not for a tin boat stuck into the turbines: to repair the turbines the lake had to
be emptied. People from the Institute for the Missing Persons of Bosnia-Herzegovina
reacted prompty, aware that was their last chance to track down the bodies of hunderds of
killed citizens of Visegrad. What met them down there were difficult terrain, mines,
cracked soil in the area of Staro Brdo and Djurevic, vipers and piles of clay. Often earth
slid down on them while they were working or sailing in boats. But neither extremely high
temperatures in July and August nor rain, mud and wind in September stopped them. They
even took risk while transporting numbers of people in small boats.
Fifteen persons from all over Bosnia-Herzegovina made the investigating
team. Director of the Institute Amor Masovic says it was a multiethnic team sharing the
"They were moving on foot, down both banks of the Perucac Lake,
starting from the old bridge in Visegrad towards the Drina Canyon and the Perucac Lake in
Zepa. They were searching every milimiter of the terrain," he says.
At the beginning of exhumation at the Perucac Lake someone shot a
firearm at the team of the Institute's investigators while they were searching the terrain
in a boat. Fortunately, no one was hurt. These two shots at the truth and the courage of
these people showed that the warlords from Visegrad, free citizens now, are still not
brave enough to unburden themselves from the bloody legacy of the past, the burden of
several hundreds of the killed, whose souls cannot rest and let the town leave in peace
and coexistance as long as their bones lay scaterred in mass graves.
A team from Serbia also seized the opportunity of a drained lake to
search its territory. In the area of the Bajina Basta hydroelectric power plant this team
was primarily searching for the bodies of Kosovo Albanians killed by special units of
Serbia's police forces. The team tracked down parts of a refrigerator truck but not the
bodies. At the appeal of the "Visegrad 92" organization more and more volunteers
showed up to help investigators. And that's how an amazing action set in - hundreds and
hundreds of citizens from all over Bosnia-Herzegovina were unselfishly helping the
investigators for more than two months.
From August 4 till October 2 Hedija Kasapovic worked on the exhumation
day in day out.
"When I first set my foot on this road I thought to myself 'Dear
Lord, where are we going, what awaits us down there?' But the moment we dug the first
spade tones of bones emerged.And in the evening when I was going back home I couldn't
have waited for the morning to continue the work. And I spend many sleepless nights just
to be able to get up as early as possible and go to the lake.On some days hundreds of
people were searching one single location and found nothing. And then, all of a sudden,
they discover a body or a bone. It turns up from the cracks of the drained river bank as
if calling us, as if crying out 'Here I am, take me!'.And that's how it was for days and
days. Many and many horrible scenes have we run into. But finding a child's bones leaves
no one indifferent. The feelings overwhelming you at such moments were that all that evil
had actually happened. You simply forget that eighteen years have passed since. But those
investigators knew their job, they communicated with their eyes, no need for words, but
everyone knew what to do next. They worked as one. And the rest of us, down there, we were
actually stepping on bones. A bone emerged at every ten meters, literally. When they spot
it, people throw away their spades and start digging with their bare hands to find the
rest," tells Hedija.
I see all these people in my mind. They are trying to make small talk
just to divert their attention from all that hard work and dark thoughts about the reasons
why they are here in the first place. Every conversation stops the moment someone cries
out that he sees a bone. Dead silence sets in. All you hear are sounds of spades and their
echoes in the canyon. People are digging the ground faster and faster, they are digging
the bleak past to find human remnants. Hedija continues her story all in tears:
"When students from the Sarajevo University came to help out I told
them, 'You've never had such history class and you never will. You are now attending a
history class at the banks of the Drina River.' Those young and beautiful people were
standing at the banks of the dark Drina. An investigator named Milenko, a big fellow,
salutes the victims in his own way. Each morning he stops his car at the turn in the road
from which you have a view of the lake, raises his hand and says, 'Good morning, guys,
here we are coming for you.' And in the evening at the way back he stops at the same spot,
raises his hand once again and says, 'Don't you worry, guys, we shall be back for you in
the morning.' Fist time I saw him I cried my eyes the rest of the day.Everything was dug
by hand. When you stand here, Hrtar Grad is on your right and Stari Brod on your left.
There was no way for people to sail to the left bank and dig there. That's why a
helicopter crew of Bosnian Armed Forces stayed with us for seven days. They helped us by
transporting diggers and workers from one bank to the other," tells Hedija who hopes
bodily remnants of her twenty-six relatives would be found among the bones.
Thanks to the hard work of people from all over the country numbers of
bodily remnants of silent witnesses of the Visegrad hell were found in record time. They
set for work before the dawn and returned late in the evening, just for a nap. Amera Boden
from Olovo has been already volunteering two months on the day we interviewed her. She
was, nevertheless, aghast the same as she had been on her very first day.
"If these bones could speak up we might not bear to listen what
they have to say... One can hardly describe one's feelings when stumbling upon a skeleton
tied up with rope or wire, a baby slipper or all those tiny bones... I am not looking for
some relative of mine, all those people are ours. I wouldn't know how those searching for
their family members might feel. Probably they picture someone they loved in each and
every bone they see," tells Amera all in tears.
An elderly woman silently stares at the bottom of the lake. She starts
sobbing and tells us, "I hope to find my son. I am from Visegrad. My son disappeared
in 1992, at the onset of the war. My son, my husband, my brother, a sister and her husband
and three children, another sister and her husband, all of them have disappeared. My
father died of broken heart... I like to come here though it hurts so much."
Admir Sabanovic lost his father in Visegrad. His body has never been
found. For Admir, all the bones he or other volunteers found are his hope.
"Every day you find something. And we are then encouraged to
continue working. We feel motivated. See, there are days we dig round the clock and find
nothing. And then, when we are all tired out, someone finds a bone and we start digging as
mad. We would work nights had we lamps," says Admir.
Esad Hodzic, his wife and son would travel from Sarajevo on daily basis
just to help the excavation.
"These bones scattered in mud and hidden by it speak for
themselves. I found two skeletons today. A woman and a child, say experts. Probably a
mother and her child. Shall see. I knew about atrocities in Visegrad but couldn't have
imagined such hatred. A battlefront is a proper place for combat. But I can't imagine how
could someone take innocent people from their homes and kill them just like that," he
Enrico Gionni from Torino is experienced in the problematic of missing
persons from Kosovo.
"I am here to help the search for the missing. I am here to see a
bit of justice satisfied. There are so many emotions in this place... It's unjust seeing
that so many people were killed while the world said nothing. This is a heart of
Europe," says Enrico.
Ahmed was still a child when they expelled him from Visegrad.
Fortunatelly, he lost no one. Now he lives in Vienna. He decided to volunteer during his
this year's visit to his homeland.
"For me, finding bones means that someone can rest in peace. That's
a sorrowful irony. Bodies of our neighbors and friends were floating in this river. And
this is not the first time that our bodies float in the Drina River.We've learned
nothing from history, that's it. Every bone found, every scull, they are all evidence of
history that cannot and must not be erased," says Ahmed.
Workers of Sarajevo utility plants were working unselfishly, shoulder to
shoulder with citizens. Many of them have lost their fathers and brothers in Visegrad.
They came in the hope to find bodily remnants of their dearest. Firemen, spelologists,
rangers, deminers, special police forces helped too. Mat Venemayer of the Forensic
Department was here with his colleagues from the International Commission for Missing
"The terrain is huge, sloppy and dangerous. There are more than 50
kilometers of the banks. Everything is difficult from the angle of logistices. We had
extremely dangerous situations, particularly running into inaccesable rocks. The helping
hand from volunteers means a lot as more work can be done until water pour in again,"
390 bodily remnants were found during the excavation. And that's only a
part of the story of the killed Bosniaks. Amor Masovic says, "These 390 bags should
be added to 126 citizens of Visegrad excavated in the village of Slap ten years ago, who
were also thrown into the Drina in 1992. They were either thrown in alive and then shot or
thrown from the Visegrad bridge, some were brough to the river bank and then shot, others
were killed and buried somewhere else but dug out after the war and thrown into the river
in blankets. The Perucac operation helped a portion of the truth to emerge and once and
for all silence all those denying the Visegrad crimes. The very fact that they couldn't
find bodily remnants of their dearest has been killing the families for a decade and a
On the day when the water raised to its earlier level covering the basin
and the banks, when exhumation had to be ended, when people from the Institute and
families of the killed had to accept the fact that those who were not found would stay
here forever and when the battle against bad weather and fear ended, Hedija Kasapovic left
her message at the banks of the Perucac.
"We are out of time and cannot take you with us. We have run out of
time to take you to your children, your parents, wives, brothers and sisters... We shall
be reading Al-Fatiha for all of you remaining at the bottom of the lake, at the bottom of
this bloody Drina River."
Had the authorities in Serbia and Republika Srpska ever manifested some
good will and lent a helping hand in the search for those floating in the Drina River in
1992 many a mother would live to bury her son. As it is, instead of being cooperative,
they worry at the consequences of the lake drain on hydroelectic systems of Serbia and
Republika Srpska and turn down the appeals for draining the Visegrad Lake in the search
for bodily remnants. The time has not come yet for them to even think about draining the
Drina basin the bottom and the mud of which probably hide the biggest number of the