Law and Justice
GHOSTS OF GRBAVICA'S WARTIME PAST
By Irena Antic
While grenades and snipers from Serb posts all around the town were
daily killing people in the parts of Sarajevo under siege, Serb executioners in the
occupied quarters of Grbavica, Vrace and Kovacici were slaughtering them openly. For
non-Serbs the life in these quarters equaled waiting for death to come any moment and
dying at the very sound of some unfamiliar step or a slammed door. No matter how absurd it
sounds but people's only chance for survival was in crossing from the occupied part of
Sarajevo to that under the siege. On May 7, 1992 Latifa Musagic managed to escape from
Grbavica together with her husband and son. For them, that was their second birthday.
"Tanks on fire were on the Vrbanja Bridge. Corpses were floating on
the Miljacka. When all communications were ended, when the main post office was set on
fire and when I saw para-military troops coming down from Pale all I dreaded was what
could happen to my son who was 20 at the time. Many young men had already been taken away
and the word had it that people were butchered in skyscrapers," she tells.
From April 1992 till the spring of 1996 when Grbavica was reintegrated,
White Angels, White Eagles, Seselj's and other Serb para-military formations were ravaging
the occupied quarters. They plundered, raped, tortured and killed. Those who survived will
never forget the monstrosity of Veselin Vlahovic-Batko of the White Angels firstly under
the command of Zoran Vitkovic and then Predrag Jovancic.
Veselin Vlahovic, prewar boxer of the Zeljeznicar boxing club, came to
Sarajevo from Niksic on the eve of the aggression against Bosnia-Herzegovina. This
arrogant, self-conceited guy in early 20s proved on the first Sarajevo barricades of March
1-2, 1992 his eagerness to replace sports terrains and skills by guns and hatred for
citizens and the town that had welcomed his some years ago. A bard of the cry of the
Greater Serbia ideology that settled the smell of blood, death and fear in Sarajevo with
the first scents of spring, Batko with three raised finger and under the "four
S" banner in front of TV cameras, begun writing the bloodiest chapters of the wartime
orgy in the quarters of Grbavica, Vrace and Kovacici. People's blood froze at the very
sound of his steps or mention of his name. Always carrying a gun, a pistol and a saber, he
was the lord of life and death there.
"Grbavica was a concentration camp with no barbed wire, just
bordered by Miljacka, the Zeljo stadium and the Jewish cemetery. Many have tortured us but
Batko most of all," says a witness.
"Not a child or a man from Grbavica at the time forgot his name. He
was a holy terror of Grbavica. With him around hardly anyone dared stick his neck in the
street, especially women. He wouldn't refrain from anything: from killing, from cutting
people's throats, from plundering without blinking an eye. If he couldn't take off a ring
from someone's finger he would cut off the finger. We would go into people's flats and
demand money or gold to 'buy out' their lives as he put it. Even when getting the booty he
would beat up people, than kill them, he never had enough, always wanted more."
In his testimony before the tribunal in The Hague Radomir Neskovic,
former vice-president of the Social Democratic Party, called Batko an armed monster, a
pathological killer who always managed to return to Grbavica even after being relocated by
Batko raped tens and tens of girls, young women and women, he was
accomplice in more than 100 murders and prosecution of several thousands non-Serb
The women we talked to was a victim of the cruelest crime against women
- rape. "Nights were the worst. At nights people waited in terror for someone to come
and rape them, kill or rob, to throw bombs at their door, humiliate them, threaten to kill
their children.In the autumn of 1992, in twilight, Batko came to my house with three of
his mates. They raped me and forced my husband to watch. Then Batko, short as he was,
stabbed him in the throat. My husband struggled for his life but Batko finally cut his
throat. I didn't know they used to know each other. They had been neighbors. They used to
go to football matches together. That night he killed everything - he killed my safety and
the man I loved. When they left I took my two-year-old and sought refuge with a Serb
family next door. I dreaded he would come back to kill me and my daughter. Next morning my
neighbor took us to the Vrbanja Bridge. Thanks to him we crossed over to the free
territory. All these years the scene of my slaughtered husband haunts me. That same night
Batko and his men killed 28 youngsters and men who lived in our street."
To this very day bullet holes in garages and basements of Grbavica
testify of murders of innocent people committed by Batko. Stepping down in all those dark
places simply makes one sick. As if silhouettes of those tortured and killed float over
them, as if they cry and tell the story of the evil one man inflicted. Batko cruelly
killed Goran Cengic, once a handball champion of Yugoslavia, because he tried to protect
his Bosniak neighbor. Goran's mother, Natasa, tearfully speaks about the tragedy that
destroyed her life. Daughter of Dr. Husnija Cerimagic, whom Goran tried to save, was the
one to tell her that her son was dead. Batko had stormed into Dr. Cerimagic's flat and
ordered the sick doctor in his pajamas to follow him for "investigation" - which
meant death. When he heard the helpless doctor's cries for help, Goran stepped out of his
flat and asked Batko what it was all about. Swearing, Batko said, "Oh, do I see a
Cengic here. Well, the lamb has come by itself." He took them both. The famous
sportsman had planned to cross over to the free section of Sarajevo the next day. But the
monster from Grbavica took them to the Trebevic stream and shot them there. He left them
lying in bushes. He returned the next day. Goran was still alive. He had managed to tear
off a sleeve and bind up his wounded hand. He was too weak to run away from the spot and
try to get some help. Seeing Goran still alive, tell witnesses, Batko cried, "You,
Muslim, you thought you could live!" He shot him again, this time finally. Bodies of
Goran Gengic and Dr. Cerimagic were discovered in 2011 nearby the same stream where they
had been put to death. Almost whispering Natasa remembers the day she was called in to
identify her son. "They told me I need not do it if I could not stand it. I went in
nevertheless. I immediately recognized Goran's sweater, the same one he had bought in
Visoko. For years I was trying to collect some information about my son who had been
killed just because he tried to save his friends and neighbors."
On the same day he killed the famous handball champion, on June 14,
1992, Batko prepared a bloody feast for his neighbors in the Trebevicka Street. Batko took
his living shield - a large group of residents, including seven children - towards the
Jewish cemetery. Then, all of a sudden he began shooting them at random. Six-year-old Azra
Pecar died in front of her parents. Her granny was killed too, while her mother Sena,
severely wounded, tried to escape the monsters with Azra's six-month-old baby brother in
her arms. That afternoon only Batko murdered 20 people.
He turned a house in Vrace into a whorehouse. He used to bring in girls
and women and rape them there. Together with recently arrested Sasa Baricanin, Batko
committed a monstrous crime against five members of the Balvanovic family.
"Batko first tortured two brothers and then cut their throats in
front of their mother. Then he killed the mother too. He raped their wives. One of them
managed to escape through an open window. The other survived too thanks to an
acquaintance, Batch's mate, who told Batko to 'leave her to him.' Batko then went to the
balcony and roared like an animal, beating his chest like Tarzan, and boasted he had just
killed two Muslims." In the house in Vrace he kept student Manuela Kresic like a
slave for some time. He used to tie her to a radiator, torture and rape, and finally took
her to Zlatiste and shot in her head. He was boasting then about this "triumph"
against the unfortunate girl. He told he had asked her about her last wish. She hadn't
any, which was the last thing she said.
Apart from Sasa Baricanin, presently on trial for multiple rape and
complicity in the murder of three persons, Batko's closest associates were Zoran
Jeftimic-Centa and a man called Potato. The two are still at large. A woman known as
Jadranka Pejcic who also lived in Grbavica used to provide Batko the information about
"unsuitable" Muslims and Croats that had to be liquidated. Out of hundreds of
non-Serb civilians killed in these quarters occupied by Serb troops, 70 people were killed
in forced labor "groups" under the command of Zeljko Mitrovic-Glimar, already
released after two-year imprisonment and Milivoje Cavarkapa and Dimso Ristovic, who had
never been put on trial.
In her book "I testify," Biljana Plavsic, convicted by ICTY,
says Batko's mentors - Mico Stanisic, Momcilo Mandic and Radovan Karadzic - had authorized
all of his atrocities and murders.
When the war was over Batko left Bosnia for Montenegro. In late 1990s he
was sentenced there to three years in jail for robbery. He "escaped" from the
Spuz prison shortly before his due release. That was the time when Bosnian judiciary was
trying its best to have him extradited and put him on trial for war crimes. Last March
Batko was arrested in Spain as a criminal. In August 2010 he was extradited to Bosnia.
Though he had told the Spanish police about more than 100 people he himself killed in
Grbavica, he pleaded not guilty during first appearance in court. The trial of Veselin
Vlahovic began in late April. The prosecution announced 105 witnesses and two expert
witnesses. The indictment against Batko has 56 counts. It is hard to believe that
testimonies of the survived could be placed within legal frames. It is hard to believe
that legal qualifications of Batko's atrocities can be strong enough. Not even paper could
stand his doings.
Goran Cengic's mother is too weak to take a stand and look her son's
murder in the face. She is old, sick and has already suffered too much. And yet, she
scrutinizes every news story about the trial. She is upstanding and wise even when
speaking about the most painful times of her life and the hell in which a monster has
killed hundreds and left lasting marks on the lives of hundreds and hundreds of others.
"I groaned when I learned Batko was arrested. I cried and cried out
of relief. But there can be no appropriate verdict for him, there simply cannot be, for no
verdict could bring people's children back to life. All I have now are memories. Well,
justice is slow but sure," she says. Hours, days and months of painful testimonies
and looking the criminal in the eye within the four walls of the courtroom are now ahead.
Thinking about it is terrible, listening to it all is terrible, most terrible for those
who will take a stand to go through it all again so as to provide judicial epilogue to the
story of "the Grbavica monster." After 19-year traumatic living and waiting, his
victims might start breathing once his trial ends.