Serb authorities in Bosnia are trying to erase the history of a rape camp by maintaining it as a hotel with a functioning spa, but some still want the world to remember.
On July 5, 2020, the public broadcasting service of Bosnia and Herzegovina – Radio Television of Bosnia and Herzegovina – reported that the Tourist Board with the support of the municipality of Visegrad started a promotional tourist campaign with the slogan “We are waiting for you in Visegrad”. They also provided gift vouchers as a way to attract tourists. It is reported that hotel Visegrad, hotel Vilina Vlas and Andricgrad are participating in the campaign.
Hotel Vilina Vlas, was one of the infamous rape camps in 1992. Though the incidents took place before the 1995 Srebrenica genocide, it is important on its anniversary to remember the dehumanisation that led us to that point, and how willing people are to forget the crimes.
It is suspected that at least 200 Bosnian girls and women were held at Vilina Vlas and systematically raped “in order to be inseminated by the Serb seed,” as one of the victims of rape from Visegrad was told by her rapist.
Visegrad is a small town in eastern Bosnia. In 1991, there were twenty-one thousand inhabitants. In what has come to be known as ethnic cleansing, Visegrad’s Bosnian Muslim population, a majority at the time (63 percent) was almost completely erased.
In a public spectacle, Bosnian civilians were brought on a mass scale to the famous Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic bridge, murdered and thrown into the Drina river.
The UNESCO World Heritage Site, Mehmed Pasa Sokolovic bridge, built in the 16th century by the Ottomans, which Nobel Award winner Ivo Andric wrote about in his book The Bridge on the Drina, was also used for the mass murder of Bosniaks in World War II. In October 1943 alone, around fifteen hundred Bosnians were killed at the bridge by Draza Mihailovic’s Chetniks.
The killings on the bridge in 1992 were so massive that Visegrad police inspector Milan Josipovic, as reported by Guardian journalist, Ed Vulliamy, received “a macabre complaint from downriver, from the management of Bajina Basta hydro-electric plant across the Serbian border.”
The plant’s director requested to “slow the flow of corpses down the Drina,” since “they were clogging up the culverts in his dam at such a rate that he could not assemble sufficient staff to remove them.”
Victims’ bodies were hidden in mass graves, sometimes burned in order to remove any evidence of the crime, and sometimes dug up again and transferred by trucks and mechanical diggers to several ‘secondary’ and even ‘tertiary’ mass graves. In many cases ravines, rivers and lake beds were used as mass graves.
Besides killing people at the bridge in the spring and summer of 1992, Bosnian civilians were burned alive. On two distinct occasions, on 14 and 27 June 1992, more than 140 civilians, mostly women and children including a two-day-old infant, were locked in two houses in Pionirska Street and Bikavac which were then set ablaze.
The rape was part of a systematic, genocidal set of crimes committed with the aim of exterminating the Bosnian population as Edina Becirevic pointed out.
One of the most infamous rape camps was the hotel Vilina Vlas, located seven kilometres from town. The Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina sentenced to sixteen years a member of the Republika Srpska police force, Zeljko Lelek, for crimes against humanity in Visegrad, including for the crime of rape.
One of his victims of rape in Vilina Vlas was Jasmina Ahmetspahic, who ended her life (and further rape) by jumping out of the window of the Vilina Vlas hotel, after being raped for four days.
In the process of the erasure of the memory, an important part of the ethnic cleansing, the Serbs who controlled Visegrad after the war reopened the Vilina Vlas as the spa hotel it used to be.
Foreign visitors were encouraged to stay. Kym Vercoe, an actress from Sydney, stayed in Vilina Vlas in summer 2008, after her Belgrade friends recommended her to visit Visegrad.
After a sleepless night and learning that a hotel was one of the most infamous rape camps in 1992, upon her return to Australia she wrote a play Seven Kilometres North East: Performance on Geography, Tourism and Crime, which deals, “simultaneously, with the concepts of ignorance, geography, tourism and crime”.
Apparently one of the guests was the Austrian writer, Peter Handke, who received the Nobel Prize for the Literature for 2019. Handke, a Milosevic apologist, continuously denied genocide and the other atrocities committed by Serbs against Bosnians. He described Srebrenica as a “revenge massacre“ for “earlier Muslim killings of Serbs” and in a manner of subtle denialism questioned the guilt and the role of Milan Lukic, by casting the doubt on already proven facts.
Milan Lukic was sentenced by the International Criminal Tribunal for Yugoslavia to life in prison for war crimes including murder, cruelty, persecution and other crimes against humanity committed in Visegrad in 1992 and 1993.
On the day when the survivors from Visegrad mourned the anniversary of the burning to death of around 140 people, the Public institution Rehabilitation Center 'Vilina Vlas' Visegrad announced that it was offering tourist vouchers for catering and health services.
A tourist voucher is a document issued by the Ministry of Trade and Tourism of Republika Srpska based on which the user of the voucher is entitled to a subsidy.
“We want to use digital promotional tools to show tourists from Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia that they can come and spend a few days in Visegrad, because it is a destination where they will have the most diverse tourist facilities,” it said.
Dusana Bukvic, the director of the Rehabilitation Center Vilina Vlas said: “The promotional campaign ‘We are waiting for you in Visegrad’ is a great opportunity to attract more tourists to our region and we supported the idea and gave our facilities as a prize. Thus we want to show that we have something to offer and expect all who come to come back and bring new guests.”
The fact that the rape camp is advertised as a place for rehabilitation, that the government of the Republika Srpska is subsidising people's accomodation and the fact that this is reported in the public service of Bosnia and Herzegovina show how far denialism has come.
While many of the survivors are still searching for the bones of their loved ones, hoping that Drina or the former neighbour will uncover the truth of what had happened to them, they have to fight yet one battle: for truth and memory. The committed crimes and their experience have been continuously denied, minimised, relativised, and belittled.
Genocide and the other crimes and their perpetrators are even celebrated and glorified and serve as an inspiration for terrorists and far-right extremists around the world.
All this points to the threat that Deborah Lipstadt warned us about in her book that the denial of the genocide is not an assault on the history of one particular group, but it poses a threat to all who believe that knowledge and memory are among the keystones of our civilization and to all who believe in the ultimate power of reason.
Visegrad is “a destination where tourists will have the most diverse tourist facilities” such as sleeping in the rooms and even beds in Vilina Vlas hotel where hundreds of women, many underaged, were systematically and cruelly raped. Many were not lucky enough to survive such a horrific experience and were swallowed up by the Drina river or disappeared in flames never to be found again.
Disclaimer: The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of TRT World.
We welcome all pitches and submissions to TRT World Opinion – please send them via email, to firstname.lastname@example.org