Frustrated opponents of efforts to wring wellness-based tourism from a wartime house of torture and ethnic cleansing in eastern Bosnia-Herzegovina have turned their attention to Internet search giant Google to help discourage business.
Authorities in the mostly Serb region of Republika Srpska recently included the Vilina Vlas hotel — a spa resort that Bosnian Serb paramilitaries used to kill, rape, and abuse Muslims early in the Bosnian War — among places where citizens could redeem state vouchers to boost the tourism sector during the coronavirus pandemic.
The not-so-distant history of this hotel is trying to be systematically erased in the most inhumane methods possible…”
That move sparked an online petition signed by more than 25,000 supporters urging Google to “remove Vilina Vlas (as a tourist site)” from its popular search engine and its map tool.
“If somebody decided to turn Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps into a wellness retreat perfect for a ‘relaxing weekend getaway,’ would you let them promote this on Google?” the author of the change.org appeal, Amela Trokic, a guest lecturer at the University of Sarajevo, asked. “Would you allow it to appear on Google Maps as a tourist facility?”
Survivors from the hotel have repeatedly asked that the site become a memorial to victims of the 1990s atrocities carried out there.
A UN Special Committee concluded in 1994 that some 200 women were raped within the walls of Vilina Vlas in 1992. Some of those who survived were killed, while others committed suicide.
Many more people were reported to have been killed or driven to suicide at the site, some of them later weighted down and dumped in the nearby river.
“Sadly, the not-so-distant history of this hotel is trying to be systematically erased in the most inhumane methods possible with backing from the Republika Srpska government trying to promote it as a wellness spa and resort,” Trokic’s petition says. “Though we cannot stop mentally deranged people from knowingly visiting and staying at this disgusting building, we can stop the active promotion of it.”
It says “the furniture remains the same” and “not much has changed” at the hotel since its use as a center for torture.
“A quick Google search will yield great reviews and first-hand accounts of those saying it’s a ‘very nice and peaceful place in nature,'” Trokic wrote.
Google did not respond to RFE/RL inquiries as to whether it had seen the petition or planned to remove Vilina Vlas as a tourist locale.
The company also declined to explain its policies on advertising or glorifying places where war crimes took place.
One of the petition’s early signatories, Malik Husika, called the hotel “a grim reminder of why we need to push our truths instead of promote these places as wellness areas as they hold such deep and horrific reminders of the past.”
SPECIAL REPORT: The Faces Of The Genocide
In her book Genocide On The Drina River, genocide scholar Edina Becirevic cites the ethnic violence in the area around Vilina Vlas to argue that what took place there was a genocide against Bosniaks.
Vilina Vlas survivor Ramza Nisic was 22 when she was abducted in nearby Visegrad by Bosnian Serb forces occupying the area in 1992, early in the three-year conflict.
She was taken the 5 kilometers or so to Vilina Vlas, where she says she was raped daily by her captors.
“Many women ended up there. Many were killed, thrown into the water, and everything happened to them. Men were also brought there,” Nisic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. “When I was taken away, a group of men I didn’t know were also taken away [and disappeared] without a trace or a voice.”
Our job is to cast [our marketing] as far as possible, and getting on the Google search engine is a very important thing.”
A wartime commander of the Serb paramilitary group known as the White Eagles, Milan Lukic, was sentenced in The Hague to life in prison for his role in turning the Vilina Vlas into a site for torture, rape, and killings targeting local Muslims.
Republika Srpska’s Trade and Tourism Ministry has included Vilina Vlas on a list of catering facilities where citizens may spend $50 tourist vouchers intended to boost trade ravaged by the COVID-19 outbreak.
The vouchers are good through November 15.
Republika Srpska’s official tourism organization, Turizam RS, advertises the Vilina Vlas as home to waters for the “prevention and treatment” of a handful of rheumatic, respiratory, and other ailments. Its local-language page is limited to contact details, while the English-language page touts it as an alpine-style spa facility whose radon-infused waters — a byproduct of uranium — are suitable for all ages.
It makes no mention of its wartime history.
INTERACTIVE: Timeline To Genocide
“It is definitely an unavoidable destination in terms of health [tourism],” Turizam Director Nada Jovanovic told RFE/RL’s Balkan Service. “Now we have vouchers, and I really understand how many people go to Vilina Vlas precisely because of the nature in which it is located.”
The Vilina Vlas has been at the center of an ongoing effort by survivors and victims’ families to see the hotel shut down and the site instead dedicated to remembering those who suffered inside its walls.
“Our job is to cast [our marketing] as far as possible, and getting on the Google search engine is a very important thing,” Jovanovic said.
She added that she had no knowledge of the prominent Bosnian court verdict against Visegrad police officer Zeljko Lelek, who was sentenced to 16 years in prison for crimes, including rape, at the hotel in one of the first convictions punishing ethnic cleansing in the 1992-95 Bosnian War.
A witness in that trial described a 24-year-old woman leaping to her death from a window of the Vilina Vlas as Lelek approached her.
Australian actress Kym Vercoe spent years researching the wartime atrocities in Bosnia and wrote a one-woman play on “the (im)possibility of being an innocent tourist in a postwar context” after what she described as a bout of insomnia while staying at the Vilina Vlas in 2008, not knowing it was the scene of such horrific crimes.
Visegrad and its environs are part of the easternmost region of Republika Srpska, which along with the Muslim and Croat federation make up Bosnia-Herzegovina since the Dayton accords that ended nationally and ethnically fueled fighting in 1995.
Visegrad was home to around 21,000 inhabitants, according to a 1991 census, nearly two-thirds of them Bosniak and most of the rest ethnic Serbs.
The latest census, from 2013, showed around 10,000 residents, nearly 90 percent of them Serb and some 10 percent Bosniak.
Nobel Prize-winning Yugoslav writer Ivo Andric’s historical novel, The Bridge On The Drina, explored four centuries of Visegrad-area history and tragedy through the story of a young Serb boy stolen away by Ottoman occupiers and forcibly converted to Islam.