Outlaws: Sonja’s Place

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Photo by Zack Lee.

In 1992, as summer bled into autumn, Sonja’s Kon-tiki, a restaurant-bar in the Sarajavo suburb of Vogosca, stood ten kilometers north of Sarajevo and less than one hundred meters from a cement bunker that held captured Bosnian Muslims and Croats. A familiar watering hole for Serb soldiers, the restaurant offered many distractions from the wartime chaos: food, drink, television, trafficked women.

Rifat Durak, a Muslim policeman in the town, was chopping wood one early evening when UN Protection Force (UNProFor for short) vehicles pulled up in front of the restaurant. The blue-helmeted soldiers left their vehicles and stayed in the restaurant for a raucous 90 minutes before walking back out with a trail of young women behind them. The girls, all in their early 20s, were put in a red Volkswagen that followed the vehicles out. Durak had recognized one of the girls, a Croat. He also recognized the fear in her face as they put her into the Volkswagen.

Prisoners from the detention camp run by Commandant Branislav Vlaco tell similar stories of recognition: watching girls they knew from Vogosca and the nearby villages of Svrake and Semizovac, girls who had been dragged from their homes at gunpoint and detained at the restaurant.

At the Park Hotel, to which the girls were taken, U.N. soldiers were seen drinking and dining with Serb paramilitary leaders, surrounded by women.

Borislav Herak — a 22-year-old Serbian soldier captured, tried, and sentenced to death by the District Military Court in Sarajevo for the rape and murder of girls at Sonja’s in the summer of 1992 — testified that many of the girls had been raped, then murdered. Herak’s testimony served as the first official confirmation that rape had been a part of the Serbian policy of ethnic cleansing, and he became the first person to be convicted of genocide since the Second World War.

Commander of the UN Peacekeeping force in Bosnia, Canadian Major General Lewis MacKenzie, was also alleged to have been involved. But Herak recanted much of his testimony, his sentence reduced to 20 years imprisonment, and MacKenzie, who retired from the military in 1993, was never brought to trial.

Vlaco was put on trial for war crimes on January 16, 2013. Among the material evidence presented was a bevy of witness testimony, and the broken bones exhumed from Vlakovo cemetery in Sarajevo, bones belonging to victims who have long since become impossible to identify.

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