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19 December 2008

Killer’s Memory Still Haunts Grbavica

‘Batko’ Vlaholic’s name was synonymous with terror in Grbavica in 1992, but years on, he apparently remains a free man.
By Merima Husejnovic

The name Veselin Vlahovic “Batko” continues to inspire fear among those who endured terror in the Sarajevo district of Grbavica during the war years, because none of the arrest warrants issued so far have led to his actual arrest.

Judicial organs in Montenegro and Bosnia and Herzegovina have been unsuccessful in locating him for years on suspicion of committing war crimes.

Early in October 2008, Bosnia’s State Court, acting upon a Prosecution’s motion, issued a warrant that “ordered him into custody”.

But while the Bosnian prosecutors believe Vlahovic may be in Montenegro, the authorities there deny this. They say they have also issued a warrant for his re-arrest, following his escape in 2001 from a Montenegrin prison where he was serving a sentence.

“Whenever he appeared, I froze,” a woman from Grbavica said. “When I turned around and saw him standing there, I almost died- but then became alive again.”

This woman survived her fleeting encounter with Batko, but interlocutors told Justice Report that many others were less fortunate. Taken away, they never returned.

R.T., who also lived in Grbavica at the timere calls one of them: “In June 1992, he took a person named Alagic from my building. He was killed.”

A former senior official with the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, who testified before the Hague Tribunal, described him as an “armed monster”.

His sadistic behaviour during the war was also referred to in a book titled “Balija”(an abusive name for Muslims), written by a former Serbian soldier, Bozidar Debelonogic.

Reign of Terror:

Vlahovic lived in Grbavica in early 1992. The settlement, located on the left bank of river Miljacka, was the only part of the city centre of Sarajevo under the control of the Republika Srpska Army, VRS, which held it from spring 1992 to January 1996.

A front line area, several detention centers were established in the area, at the shopping centre, in garage premises and in various shop basements such as the “Digitron- Buje” shop.

As a result, many locals, Bosniaks and Croats especially, were keen to escape to other parts of the city controlled by the Bosnian Army. Some succeeded. But other Bosniaks and Bosnian Croats say they were forcibly detained in their homes and in some cases forced to “perform hard labour”.

“I was exchanged on March 30, 1995. They did not let me leave earlier because they needed me to perform work for them,” one former Grbavica resident who divulged his identity to Justice Report said.

The Jukic family said they endured a reign of terror in Grbavica before fleeing across the river to the city centre in June 1992. “I would have left Grbavica in time had I realized their real intentions,” Ante Jukic recalls. “But they blocked the roads, using buses and closed Grbavica, and then started terrorizing residents in their homes.”

Batko never terrorised Ante Jukic in person but the body of his brother, Josip, and those of 27 other people were later found in a mass grave on mount Trebevic. Others told him that Batko murdered his brother in the detention centre located at the Digitron shop.

Jukic is still seeking hard information about the man who abducted and killed his brother but has not had much success because his neighbours are afraid to talk. “There are some people who stayed in Grbavica through the war but do not want to give statements,” he said.

“There are even some survivors among the people who were taken away but nobody wants to speak up. People are afraid. One of them was supposed to be key witness at a trial, but he did not want to do it.

“They may be afraid but I am not. We have only one life,” Jukic said.

Batko’s name has also been mentioned in verdicts passed down by the Hague Tribunal. The first-instance verdict against Momcilo Krajisnik, sentencing him to 27 years’ imprisonment, alleges that while searching apartments in Grbavica, “from June to September 1992 an armed man known as Batko raped three women”. The same indictment alleges that, in June and July 1992, the same Batko “committed a few crimes, including robbery and banditry”.

Although Vlahovic has probably not lived in Bosnia and Herzegovina for 15 years, the victims who lived in Grbavica during the war are still reluctant to talk openly about him.

Justice Report contacted several war time residents of Grbavica, some of whom were rape victims, but many would not talk,unwilling to go over the events of 1992 again.

Although he did not want us to publish his full name, “R.T” decided to speak about Vlahovic, maintaining he would “be looking for him forever if need be”, because he “shortened my life by 10 years at least”.

R. T. said people were also afraid to talka bout him “because some said they recently saw Batko in Lukavica, [an area near Sarajevo]”.

He said Batko and a person named Zdrale had visited his Grbavica apartment in June 1992.

“They took me to the [crisis] staff. I wanted to take my coat but they said I would not need it. I knew that it was over. They said they were taking me to Pale,” he recalled.

R.T. thought he would never survive but managed to escape from the vehicle after it broke down not far from his home. He says he hid in the attic of his apartment building for 12 days, exchanging cigarettes for bread to survive.

“They came looking for me every day but my neighbours Vojo and Radovan wanted to save me,” he recalled. “They said I should beware of Batko and Zdrale because nobody else would do me any harm.”R.T left Grbavica in July 1992.

Edina Kamenica, a journalist with Oslobodjenje who returned to Grbavica after the war, is also interested in Batko fora reason.

In November 1993, after having crossed the river into Grbavica, she wrote a number of articles entitled “Silent disappearances from Grbavica and Vraca”, writing about the fate of families that Vlahovic had taken away.

In late 1993, Kamenica found out that Batko had knocked on her own door at the beginning of the war.

“When I interviewed his boxing coach for my last article, the coach showed me some photos. Then I realized this man had come to my door,” Kamenica recalled.

She remembers the meeting well because when Batko came to her apartment, where she was together with her mother and neighbour, he asked “if there are any Turks around”. (Turks was another abusive Serbian term for Muslims).

Interlocutors who spoke to Justice Report can not remember precisely when Batko left Grbavica, though according to Edina Kamenica, he might have left in late 1993.

“Allegedly, he was no longer there in late 1993 but I don’t totally believe that. As they were isolated in their apartments, the Grbavica residents may not have given the correct information about it,”she said.

Investigations and warrants:

In spite of the wall of more or less complete silence on the subject among his victims, Batko’s former comrades and some senior SDS officials have been more forthcoming about the events in Grbavica in which Batko took part.

“He was an armed monster, a pathological person,” said Radomir Neskovic, a former vice-president of the SDS executive board, testifying about Vlahovic at The Hague. “We wanted to relieve Grbavica of this man but he kept coming back and terrorizing the locals,” he added.

In his book Balija,written in 1997, Bozidar Debelonogic, former Serbian soldier from Grbavica,dedicated an entire chapter to Vlahovic’s bloody escapades.

“Batko liked driving cars and killing Muslimsthe most. However, he also liked to beat them, but would only do it in front of others, to show off his skills and boxing techniques.

He added: “He tortured and killed Muslims but every time in a different way. He conducted physical and mental experiments.”

Bosnia’s State Prosecution says an investigation into Vlahovic, opened in 2005 reveals he is suspected of having committed 54 crimes in Grbavica.

Till then, Vlahovic’s case was under the jurisdiction of the Cantonal prosecution in Sarajevo,which had requested Montenegro to extradite him on several occasions. They issued a warrant for this earlier this year but no indictment against him has yet been filed in Montenegro.

The Montenegrin authorities do not accept or act on extradition requests, saying their constitution does not allow them to,except when done as part of an international agreement with another country on that specific subject.

No such agreement exists with Bosnia, Tea Gorjanc-Prelevic of Akcija za ljudska prava (“Action for Human Rights”) an NGO from Montenegro, told Justice Report.

When the Sarajevo Court issued its first extradition request to Montenegro in 1999, Vlahovic’s location was well known, as he was then in a prison there, serving three-and-a-half years for banditry and violent behaviour. But two years later, in 2001, he fled from the prison in Spuz and has been missing since then.

Merima Husejnovic is BIRN – Justice Report journalist. [email protected]. JusticeReport is online weekly BIRN publication.
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