Waters of the Drina, guard their graves
When the artificial lake of Perucac was emptied, the remains of Bosniak victims from Visegrad thrown into the Drina River resurfaced 18 years after the genocide. Groups of volunteers rushed in a fight against time to recover as many skeletons as possible before the lake was refilled. Volunteers and investigators came across horrific scenes of brutal slaughter which was hidden under the cold Drina River for over a decade.
By Hikmet Karcic on Thursday, October 21st, 2010 - 979 words.
For more than a month, a search had been under way along the banks of the River Drina in eastern Bosnia for remains of victims of the 1992 massacre in the town of Visegrad. When repair work began in late July on a dam across the river downstream of Visegrad, at Bajina Basta, the water level in the reservoir behind the dam dropped, revealing several skeletons on the exposed banks – the bodies of murdered Bosniaks dumped in the Drina at Visegrad. It was decided that the whole area should be searched for any more remains. Over 200 bodies had been found before the Serbian authorities in Bajina Basta announced that the dam would be brought back into service on the 10th of September, when the river level would rise again and any still unretrieved remains would vanish beneath the water. Calls from Bosnia to halt the re-opening of the dam were ignored and on the 10th of September the sluice gates were closed. It was only after urgent calls from the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, Slovenian MEP (European Parliament Member) Jelko Kacin and Bosnia’s Foreign Minister Sven Alkalaj that the Serbian Prosecutor’s office finally issued an order to prevent the dam from being brought back into operation until all investigations had been completed.
On the second day of the Muslim feast of Eid two full busloads of volunteers and several packed cars set out from Sarajevo for Visegrad and Lake Perucac. We arrive in Omeragici, a Bosniak village destroyed by Bosnian Serb forces and its population deported in 1992. Mirzeta, a friend from Omeragici who now lives in Sarajevo, shows me around. She points out the local Partisan memorial where she and the other children from the village used to play. The memorial is empty now, its stillness disturbed only by the occasional passing car driven by an unfriendly local.
From Omeragici we hike several kilometers to Durevici, to a restaurant in the middle of nowhere – a place popular with tourists whose owner is a Serb from Gorazde. As I enter the restaurant, a middle-aged man who works as an investigator for the Missing Persons Institute asks me “Are you scared of water?”. “No” I reply. “Then you’re coming with us to the other side of the Drina” he says. A group of eight of us got into a rubber inflatable and speed upstream across the river to the far bank, to an area where a body was found a few days earlier. The body had been that of an elderly woman dressed in dimije – traditional Muslim women’s clothing – with a rope around her neck. Concealed in her clothes had been half a kilogram of gold. The old woman had most probably been tortured to tell her killers where she had hidden her gold necklaces and rings. They had eventually strangled her and disposed of her body into the Drina. Four of us dig for hours but we find just one bone and the remains of some clothes.
The volunteers working on the near bank are more successful; they find a number of items, including several bones and the victim’s lipstick. A few days before a plastic bag full of a child’s bones and a comb were found, a notebook and an amulet, a watch, and rope that had been used to tie a victim’s hands. The most horrific discovery was a boot with some wire tied around it – in all likelihood the owner’s feet had been bound together with wire before the victim was thrown into the Drina still alive. There was a foot bone still inside the boot.
On the bank Velija Hasanbegovic is carefully taking pictures with his camera of the volunteers and investigators as they dig and search through the mud. Velija, now 34, was a teenager in Visegrad when the war broke out. He managed to escape and joined the Bosnian Army as a volunteer. Today he is a professional photographer working in Sarajevo. Every day Velija drives the two and a half hour journey from Sarajevo to Visegrad to document the largest volunteer action undertaken in post-war Bosnia.
The Lake Perucac exhumations have been a unique event. Every day dozens of volunteers have come to the lake to dig and sift through the mud in search of more remains. Even so, there have not been enough of them to cover all of the area exposed. Preoccupied by forthcoming elections state institutions have ignored appeals for assistance. The Army have simply stood by and watched, offering minimal support. Saddest of all, in a pre-election period when every possible means has been used to secure votes, not a single political party has considered it worthwhile trying to exploit the Perucac exhumations – not to any extent worth mentioning. If this was Srebrenica, you can be sure Lake Perucac would have been swarming with politicians and party youth activists from all across Bosnia. Visegrad is simply not that important – only a few television cameras around and far too exhausting a journey to reach Lake Perucac for candidates to be interested.
Fortunately, though, there has been support from ordinary people instead – from people like Semira and Lejla, sisters from Zvornik whose father disappeared from Zvornik in 1992 and was later exhumed in Sremska Mirotrovica in Serbia; like Admir, Vernes and Almir, who spend every day in Visegrad, returning to Sarajevo only to snatch a few hours sleep at night; like Ibrahim Kustura, an 89-year-old who spends the day digging alongside much younger volunteers; and so on.
As night falls and we travel back towards Sarajevo over Mount Romanija I remember the words written on the Partisan monument: ‘Drino vodo, cuvaj im grobove’ – Waters of the Drina, guard their graves.
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