ON June 14, 1992, in the eastern Bosnian town of Višegrad, 70 people were herded into an empty house in Pionirska Street. Their valuables were stolen. Women were strip-searched. Some were raped. As night fell, doors were locked and the house set on fire. Of the few who escaped through a window, some were shot as they fled. A further 57 died in the inferno. A few weeks later, 60 others – mostly women and children – were murdered in a similar atrocity at nearby Bikavak.

It took until July 2009 for former Serb paramilitary leader Milan Lukic and his cousin Sredoje to be convicted of this and other crimes at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY).

“In the all-too-long, sad and wretched history of man’s inhumanity to man,” said the judge, “these horrific events stand out for the viciousness of the incendiary attack, for the obvious premeditation and calculation that defined it, for the sheer callousness and brutality … and for the degree of pain and suffering inflicted on the victims as they were burnt alive.”

Milan Lukic was sentenced to life imprisonment, Sredoje got 27 years.

They hadn’t acted alone, however, and at the end of last month former Serb Army serviceman Radomir Susnjar was extradited to Bosnia-Herzegovina in connection with his alleged involvement in the Pionirska Street fire. And today, one of the people who helped secure his capture is sitting in front of me in a quiet office within Glasgow Caledonian University.

Human-rights campaigner Bakira Hasecic is here to receive an honorary degree for her tireless efforts to secure justice for up to 50,000 women raped during the 1992-95 Bosnian conflict. As founder of the Association of Women Victims of War (AWVW), she dedicates her life to tracking down war criminals. So how did she find Susnjar, nicknamed “Lalco”, a former Višegrad neighbour who had moved to France? “The truth is I found his wife on Facebook,” she tells me. “I sent her a message saying, ‘Please, are you my neighbour, Lalco’s wife?’ And she said, ‘I am’. Then she deleted herself from Facebook.

“I gave this piece of information to the BiH [Bosnia-Herzigovena] prosecutor’s office, and thanks to our friends in France, we managed to locate him. I went three times to the court in Paris and gave a statement about his identity. I knew from the beginning he would be extradited because we had a very good lawyer in Paris who was representing our organisation.”

Susjnar has pled not guilty, but Hasecic will never forget the night of the Pionirska Street fire, or her family’s desperate attempts to help a badly-burned woman who had escaped from the pyre.

“We gave her a bath, my daughter cut her hair, we took worms out of her hands. She was in a difficult, difficult situation. We managed to administer some first aid. She didn’t even know if her son had survived the fire. Ever since then, it’s been my huge desire to locate the people who burned that house.”

Before the war Hasecic’s life had been happy and peaceable. “I was born in Višegrad. I had a beautiful marriage and we had two daughters. We built our family home together. I worked for 20 years in the municipality of Višegrad. It was a decent, normal family life. And I never divided people by ethnic or national background.” (Like 60 per cent of the town’s population before the war, Hasecic was Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim), but the vast majority of her friends were Serbs.) Then on April 21, 1992, the Hasecics heard a knock at the door. It was a local police officer accompanied by about 15 men. “When a police officer comes into your house you feel safe, because he is there to protect you,” she says.

But everything had changed since the multi-ethnic republic of Bosnia declared its independence from disintegrating Yugoslavia and Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, backed by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and Slobodan Miloševic’s Serbian government, began a brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing.

By then, Višegrad was under JNA control and while that police officer and many of his associates had been neighbours and family friends, these were not the people Hasecic used to know. Bearded, long-haired, heavily armed and dressed in assorted uniforms, they stormed into the house and demanded money. Then Hasecic and her elder daughter, 18, were brutally raped.

In the past, Hasecic has talked openly and emotionally about that night and its devastating aftermath. How her screams were heard for miles around. How her house was burned down. How, after sending her daughters to safety, she was later raped repeatedly at knifepoint in the basement of the local police station by Milan Lukic. A quarter-century on, it’s plain that the memory still tortures her but she is reluctant, these days, to talk about the attacks, in which her elder daughter was also savagely beaten with a rifle butt.

“Her children are now grown up and I am trying to protect them because it hurts them,” she says. “So I am going to tell you everything in one sentence. It’s very difficult for a mother and father to watch their daughter being raped and not be able to help her.”

That spring and summer the people of Višegrad were subjected to what the ICTY later described as “one of the most comprehensive and ruthless campaigns of ethnic cleansing in the Bosnian conflict”.

Some 3,000 Bosniaks in the area – including 600 women and 119 children – were murdered, many of them lined up and shot on the famous Mehmed Paša Sokolovic Bridge before their bodies were dumped in the River Drina.

Then there were the rapes. Many women and girls were imprisoned in detention camps such as the notorious Vilina Vlas Hotel, where around 200 females were brutally and repeatedly abused. Only 10 survived. Hasecic’s sister was serially assaulted and eventually killed in a camp at Vlasenica.

I’ve heard Hasecic described as a formidable woman with “a face carved out of stone”, but the 65-year-old I meet today has a quiet, gentle demeanour.

She is undoubtedly determined, however, and her eyes flash with anger when she recalls returning to Višegrad after the war, only to find that men who had raped and murdered in the town were living and working there – many of them as police officers.

Having fled Višegrad to Goradze and later moved to Sarajevo where she still lives, Hasecic had longed to return home and, in 1998, she led a group of survivors back to eastern Bosnia to visit graveyards and their burned-out homes.

“We recognised those war criminals who had been killing and raping, who, as a reward for their deeds, had got jobs as police officers and become the keepers of public peace and order. They laughed in our faces and one of them said: ‘Have you come back so that we can finish what we started?’ “I borrowed a camera and took photos of a couple of these war criminals. On the way back to Sarajevo I took short statements from people in the convoy – ‘Whom did you see, who did your recognise?’ – compiling a sort of a daily report with signed statements.”

She sent the statements to ICTY, twice gave evidence at the Hague and in 2003 founded the Association for Women Victims of War, which now operates from a small Sarajevo office, its walls plastered with pictures of wanted criminals and its door always open to survivors – whether male or female – who are ready to share their testimony.

An estimated 3,000 men and boys were also raped during home raids and in concentration camps.

“There were even cases of father and son being forced into sexual acts,” says Hasecic’s translator, Resad Trbonja, a teenage soldier who defended Sarajevo during the siege. “All this was happening within quite a patriarchal society. Women find it difficult to come forward and talk about these crimes – imagine how hard it must be for males.”

It’s a taboo subject that remains shrouded in secrecy and shame.

“Many victims don’t say anything because they don’t want to be left by their husbands, by their kids,” says Hasecic. “They carry it in themselves, not realising that this trauma is actually destroying their life and their family.”

In the 2014 documentary Mission Rape: A Tool Of War, survivors are filmed sharing their testimony inside the AWVW office. “He broke me and put a stop to my life when I most needed to live,” says Meliha, who was raped aged 13. “Eleven men raped me, in the concentration camp at Kamenic,” says Zlatka. “When I cried out they gagged me. Then I couldn’t be heard.” Many people would rather the victims remained silent, others insist the attacks never happened at all. In fact, denial was a hallmark of the Bosnian conflict, in which atrocious genocidal acts were hidden from the world until the mass graves were uncovered years later. As recently as last January, Višegrad mayor, Mladen Djurevic told The Guardian he’d never heard of rape, torture, or murder at the Vilina Vlas, which had then reopened as a spa hotel.

In the same report, deputy director of the Commission for International Justice and Accountability, Nerma Jelacic, described the “systematic denial of the undeniable” as “another way of waging a war” against survivors, by traumatising them anew and damaging any hope of rebuilding their lives.

“Only those who deny that anything happened in Bosnia-Herzegovina can deny that the rapes happened,” says Bakira Hasecic now. “Rape happened on a massive scale. It was used as a weapon of war to fulfil the ethnic cleansing. And they managed to do it.”

Today, less than 10 per cent of Višegrad’s population is Bosniak.

Mirsad Tokaca, director of Sarajevo’s Research and Documentation Centre, describes rape as a primitive but deliberate war strategy, designed to dehumanise, demoralise and ethnically cleanse. In Bosnia, victims were often taunted that they would now bear only “Serb babies” and many did become pregnant.

It’s a strategy with a long and brutal history, having been deployed in Rwanda, Congo, Colombia and Sudan, and right now aid agencies are preparing for a rush of births among Rohingya refugees gang-raped by Myanmar military personnel.

When the reports first emerged, Myanmar military official Colonel Phone Tint dismissed them, saying: “Look at those women who are making these claims – would anyone want to rape them?”

Determined to confound such deniers, Hasecic and her associates take huge risks, photographing war criminals and gathering evidence that has so far been used to bring 82 men to trial – 29 at the Hague and 53 in Bosnian courts.

It rankles with her that although Milan Lukic is serving life for crimes including murder, torture, assault and looting, rape wasn’t mentioned in his indictment.

As one of his victims, that offends her dignity. “It hurts,” she says.

But her organisation’s efforts were instrumental in having rape internationally recognised as a crime against humanity, and their determination was bolstered by the 2006 conviction of Boban Simsic.

“He is one of those police officers from Višegrad who was actually greeting his neighbours who were coming back,” says Hasecic.

“These first sentences given by the Bosnian court for wartime rape gave me hope and determination to continue. “I can’t say I never thought about revenge,” she adds thoughtfully.

“But at the moment when I was recognising the war criminals in Višegrad, my revenge towards them flipped into gathering evidence about the war crimes. And I think I’ve chosen the right path. Because the only revenge for the victim is justice and truth.”

The day after our meeting, Hasecic is on stage at the Glasgow Royal Concert Hall to receive her honorary doctorate. Glasgow Caledonian University’s vice-chancellor Pamela Gillies – who met Hasecic in Bosnia as part of a Remembering Srebrenica Scotland delegation – introduces her as a “courageous, inspirational woman” who “has succeeded in giving the many traduced women of the war a voice, companionship, care and support, as well as bringing the guilty to justice in the courts”.


Watching Hasecic receive her degree from the university’s new chancellor, Annie Lennox, I can’t help thinking of the UN ambassador’s famous song, Sisters Are Doing It For Themselves, and about the monumental achievements of a group of women who have suffered unimaginably, but work tirelessly to ensure that wherever it is perpetrated, rape will be recognised as a war crime, and its perpetrators brought to justice.

Now back in Sarajevo, Bakira Hasecic’s battle continues. “The work is risky for us, but there is nobody else to do it,” she told me.

Asked how long she will continue campaigning, she said: “For as long as I can, for as long as I am healthy, to see as many as possible of the war criminals behind bars. As long as I’m alive, we will be chasing them.”

Remembering Srebrenica Memorial Week begins today www.srebrenica.org.uk