Serbs Chase 14,000 Muslims and Now Hold a Ghost Town; Two-Thirds of Visegrad Dead, Seized or on the Run

The Washington Post
September 10, 1992

VISEGRAD, Bosnia – This is a Muslim city without Muslims.

They are gone, all 14,000 who made up two-thirds of the city’s population. The lucky ones fled two months ago in buses or on foot. The unlucky ones were arrested by Serb militiamen and killed in one of Bosnia’s most notorious “ethnic cleansing” campaigns.

Now, Visegrad looks like a ghost town. Houses are vacant, their windows smashed, their front doors left ajar by looters. Even the light bulbs were stolen. When it is windy, shutters clatter against walls. Wild dogs scavenge through rotting piles of rubbish.

A few thousand Serbs still live here, scattered about, but it isn’t much of a life. Grocery stores are shut, and so are the restaurants and barber shops. Water and electrical service are sporadic. There is one phone line to the outside world.

“The town is very sad and very poor,” said Vladimir Radjen, a Serb carpenter. “I’m sorry for what has happened. Life will never be as good as it used to be.”

Before local Serb authorities purged the town of its Slavic Muslim community, Visegrad was a leafy city of old world charm and great tolerance. Tourists would come to visit its spas and stroll on its famous arched bridge over the Drina River. About two-thirds of the population was Muslim, the rest Serb, and they all lived together like family.

But now, local Serbs live in fear of the Muslims who were their friends a short while ago. The hills around Visegrad are a no man’s land, the domain of stealthy Muslim guerrillas. There are Serb barricades at the city outskirts, and all adult males carry firearms.

It is possible to drive into Visegrad from the east, but the road heading out of town to the west is unused because it traverses unsecured wilderness. Two months after the Serb expulsion campaign began, Visegrad is a dead-end city.

Longtime residents like Radjen wish they could go back in time. But there is a buzz of forward-looking activity at Visegrad’s city hall. With the purge complete, Mayor Branimir Savovic is busy rewriting history.

“I don’t know what you mean by ‘ethnic cleansing,’ ” he said. “The Muslims left voluntarily. We even supplied the buses. We didn’t force them to leave, I swear.”

The Muslims who fled Visegrad do not agree. In interviews with foreign journalists and relief officials, they have made allegations of atrocities that, if confirmed, would stand out as among the worst in blood-drenched Bosnia: husbands murdered in front of their wives, houses set alight with people inside.

Some Muslims were said to have been dragged to the arched bridge, shot in the back of the head, then dumped into the river; others reportedly were killed by having their throats slit.

Mayor Savovic, who wore a pistol tucked into the backside of his pants, said that he can explain everything, including the razing of Visegrad’s mosques. It happened, he said, during the fight for control of the city. “The mosques were used as machine-gun nests and hideouts for {Muslim combatants}, so we had to blow them up,” he said.

But there are no signs of fighting around the patches of black earth where the mosques once stood — no tell-tale bullet holes in adjacent buildings, no mortar damage that would have been expected if the Muslims were fighting from the mosques.

The rubble has been carted away, and weeds have begun sprouting in the places where the mosques had stood for centuries. The vacant land is to be turned into parks.

Here and there, some Muslim homes were burned down. Serb officials explain that too. “There was a wounded Muslim inside this house,” said Momcilo Mirkovic, the executive mayor, as he drove past a blackened three-story building. “He heard that soldiers were coming to arrest him, so he burned his house.”

Most Muslim homes are still standing, but, like the one that belonged to a railroad worker named Asim Ahmetspanic, they have been ransacked and picked clean of anything valuable. Flies buzz into the house through open windows or the broken door. Floorboards have been ripped up by looters searching for hidden riches. Drawers have been pulled out of cupboards and emptied onto the ground.

There are bits of paper and family photographs lying about, including color pictures of a baby and old black-and-white shots of grandparents. A baby’s sweater lies buried in the floor’s carpet of leftovers.

Radjen, the Serb carpenter, who lives around the corner from the Ahmetspanic home has been trying to tidy up the neighborhood. It is an unpleasant job, and the chubby carpenter struggles to hold back tears when he is asked about the Ahmetspanic family.

“They were wonderful people,” he said, almost in a whisper. “They ran away because they were scared of what was happening. Lots of innocent Muslims had to run. It makes me feel poor and sad. I want to cry every day.”

Author: Peter Maass

I was born and raised in Los Angeles. In 1983, after graduating from the University of California at Berkeley, I went to Brussels as a copy editor for The Wall Street Journal/Europe. I left the Journal in 1985 to write for The New York Times and The International Herald Tribune, covering NATO and the European Union. In 1987 I moved to Seoul, South Korea, where I wrote primarily for The Washington Post. After three years in Asia I moved to Budapest to cover Eastern Europe and the Balkans. I spent most of 1992 and 1993 covering the war in Bosnia for the Post.