Geographical Notes: The Serbs are laughing in the Godfather Cafe

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
EERILY ENOUGH, Muslims still appear in the eastern Bosnian town of Visegrad. The Serb who runs the Godfather Cafe, once a Muslim-owned grill beside the Ottoman-era bridge over the river Drina, entertains his clientele by tuning in Turkish television on the satellite. The Muslim women swirl seductively; the men pluck long-necked lutes and croon songs of heartbreak.

The Godfather Cafe is the favourite hangout of the men who drove the Muslims from Visegrad and its surrounding district in a bloodbath in 1992. Milan Lukic was there. He was tall and olive-skinned, but bloated and greying and no longer handsome. Milan led the bloodbath. He may have killed more Muslims during the Bosnian war than anyone else. After emptying Visegrad, he entertained himself by abducting and murdering Muslims from Serbia and terrorising prisoners in a secret work camp down by the Drina. He showed up to kill again in Srebrenica in July 1995, when Serb soldiers massacred thousands of unarmed people.

Milan was leaning over a table just behind me, just outside the door. Across the street, a couple of French soldiers lounged in a jeep. They all looked oblivious to the fact that the war crimes tribunal in The Hague had probably issued a secret indictment against Milan.

From that vantage, six years earlier, these French soldiers could have watched Milan and his cousins leading Muslim men and women down to the Ottoman bridge. The soldiers could have witnessed Milan and his cousins pushing their victims over the limestone parapets and shooting at them as they bobbed in the turquoise water.

The Muslim husband of my Serbian wife's sister went to school with Milan. They played soccer together. They chased the same girls. Their stories about Milan intrigued me. What would have driven a young man in his early twenties to murder his neighbours en masse? What would have driven him to organise a rape camp in a nearby health spa and crowd women and children into houses and set them afire?

Milan's uncle, Rale Lukic, gave part of the answer. He lives in Steyr, an Austrian river town. He whimpered as he told me about how Muslims from a Croatian death squad had tortured and killed his father in 1941. Rale's Muslim neighbours said Milan's grandmother told that story. Milan had to have heard it time and again growing up.

So it was vengeance-driven bloodlust, at least partially. But Milan and his cousins also had something else: licence, the sense they were immune from prosecution for their actions, the licence that in Yugoslavia comes from kinship ties with powerful people. Two members of the Lukic clan of Visegrad are ranking officers in Serbia's police. One of them, Mikailo, ran the secret police in a Serbian district just north of Visegrad. Another, Sreten Lukic, is an officer in Slobodan Milosevic's police paramilitary. He is running the Serbian police operation against the Albanians of Kosovo today.

It was fascinating to see Muslims dancing and singing on the Godfather Cafe's television set in Visegrad. Some local Serbs laughed about it, perhaps because it enhanced their sense of superiority over the Islamic world. But perhaps these Serbs in fact were compensating for a part of themselves that has been missing in the absence of the Muslims who were once the majority in Visegrad. So much of the Serbs' identity is rooted in their resistance to the Ottoman Turks that it is difficult to define a Serb if he doesn't have any Muslims around - like a Deep South plantation owner left without his slaves or an emancipated slave left without his master.

Chuck Sudetic is the author of `Blood and Vengeance: one family's story of the war in Bosnia' (Norton, pounds 19.95)