“Complete Chaos” in Zvornik
A former member of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, told the trial of Mico Stanisic and Stojan Zupljanin this week that he had informed senior Bosnian Serb officials that atrocities were being committed in the Zvornik region in 1992.
Stanisic and Zupljanin are alleged to have participated in a joint criminal enterprise aimed at the permanent removal of non-Serbs from the territory of an intended Serbian state.
They are accused of crimes committed between April 1 and December 31, 1992, in 20 municipalities throughout Bosnia, including Zvornik.
Zupljanin, who in 1994 became an adviser to then Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic – now on trial in The Hague – is accused of the extermination, murder, persecution, and deportation of non-Serbs in north-western Bosnia between April and December 1992.
Stanisic is charged with the murder, torture and cruel treatment of non-Serb civilians, as well as for failing to prevent or punish crimes committed by his subordinates. The indictment against Stanisic states that he was appointed minister in charge of the newly-founded Bosnian Serb interior ministry, MUP, in April 1992 and was also a member of the Bosnian Serb government.
His identity protected, prosecution witness ST-215, a former member of the municipal board of the SDS from Zvornik, said that the murder and torture of Muslims there were well known to everyone, including Stanisic.
At the beginning of his testimony, ST-215 said that after the Serbs had taken power in Zvornik on April 8, 1992, “there was complete chaos on the town’s streets”.
The witness recounted that residents were talking about paramilitary troops breaking into apartments, robbing and killing Muslims they found there, or taking them to prison.
He claimed he heard that the prisoners were detained in the nearby village of Divic, the cultural centre in Celopek and the Ekonomija farm estate.
ST-215 said that everyone in Zvornik was aware of the murder, torture and pillaging carried out by a paramilitary group known as the Yellow Wasps, led by Dusan Vuckovic, also known as Repic (pony-tail).
Vuckovic was later convicted by the Supreme Court of Serbia for war crimes including atrocities against civilians in the Zvornik municipality.
The witness said that Stanisic was informed of these atrocities at a meeting in the spring of 1992 in Sekovici, in eastern Bosnia, attended by Stanisic and Momcilo Mandic, at the time a high-ranking party official in the SDS who held several positions in the Bosnian Serb government.
Mandic was acquitted in February this year by the Bosnian state court of war crimes against civilians and crimes against humanity.
“Did you talk to or provide any information to Mr Stanisic and Mr Mandic about the situation in Zvornik?" prosecutor Thomas Hannes asked.
“Yes, I very briefly told them what happened,” said ST-215, adding that he “clarified that there were paramilitaries in Zvornik and that they were carrying out searches and actions on their own, pillaging and killing”.
“What was their reaction?” Hannes asked.
“They informed us that the ministries were still at the stage of inception.. that they had no resources at all, that they are trying to establish ministries, that they have no personnel, no forces, that they cannot help individual municipalities at the time,” the witness answered.
“Do you remember whether Mr Mandic was at the time related to the ministry of interior?” Hannes asked.
“They presented themselves as ministries of defence and justice, I think at the time that Mandic spoke on behalf of the justice ministry, and Stanisic of the defence ministry,” the witness responded.
ST-215 said the meeting in Sekovici took place only a few weeks after the war began.
Asked by the prosecutor whether he had notified anyone else about the crimes in Zvornik in April and May of 1992, the witness answered that at an assembly meeting in Pale, which was also attended by Karadzic and Momcilo Krajisnik - a former senior Bosnian Serb official serving a 20-year sentence for war crimes - he had “spoken to the vice-president [of the Bosnian Serb assembly] Branko Simic, who promised to do his best to recount it ”.
Later, the witness said that in the spring of 1992 he took part in a meeting of Serb local authorities with Muslims from the village of Djulici, to convey a message from the Zvornik town commander, Marko Pavlovic, and the chairman of the crisis staff, Brano Grujic.
Pavlovic, real name Branko Popovic, is currently on trial in Belgrade along with Grujic for allegedly committing war crimes against civilians in Zvornik in 1992.
ST-215 claimed that Pavlovic and Grujic said that “we should tell them that they can feel safe and go toward Serbia if they wanted, but not elsewhere. They can take their personal belongings and all leave, which wasn't an order, but only if they wished to do so”.
The witness said that he was among of a group of “seven or eight” Serb delegates and that three or four Muslims attended the meeting. The Muslim representatives recounted “that they numbered 7,000 before the war and that only 2,500 were left, that they had no jobs, food, medicine and that their condition was desperate”.
They also complained that “their houses were being broken into on a daily basis, people coming in, arresting them. So they added that they were ready and willing to go”.
The prosecutor asked what happened afterwards.
“We told them that, just like Brane Grujic and Marko Pavlovic told us, they could leave if they wanted to,” the witness replied, explaining that they were told they should leave the Zvornik area in buses and travel towards Serbia, leaving all their property to the new Zvornik authorities.
“If I understand well, the message was that they could only leave to Serbia, only with hand luggage, in buses that were given to their disposal?” the prosecutor asked.
“Yes,” the witness answered.
Asked by the prosecutor what happened to the people who left, the witness said that he was not in Zvornik at that time.
“But I can say what I heard from people who were in Zvornik when they were leaving. A horrible thing happened. Marko Pavlovic ordered that the men, a certain number of them, be separated from the others. He sent the rest to Serbia and took the group he ordered to be separated into the technical school in Zvornik. The technical school was a detention place guarded by the territorial defence,” the witness continued.
The witness said that Pavlovic told him that he had planned to exchange these men in the school, in the Karakaj area of Zvornik, for Serb soldiers imprisoned in Tuzla. The exchange, however, never took place. According to what the witness heard at the time, members of paramilitary groups would come into the Karakaj school, take out and beat the imprisoned civilians, many of whom were killed.
Amongst the charges on the indictment, Stanisic and Zupljanin are accused of the killing of a large number of men at the Karakaj technical school in Zvornik, between June 1 and 5, 1992.
“Did you hear anything about what happened to the men imprisoned at the Karakaj technical school?” Hannes asked.
“They weren't exchanged,” the witness answered. “Every night different units, Repic's boys, Yellow Wasps, and others, would burst in. I heard that they tormented people there, taking them away to who knows where, and that many perished this way. Marko Pavlovic probably wanted to stop this and had organised their transfer to Serbia, but the paramilitaries took the upper hand and these people were killed.”
Stanisic surrendered to the Hague tribunal in March 2005, while Zupljanin was arrested by the Serbian authorities on June 10, 2008, after 13 years as a fugitive.
Both defendants – whose indictments were joined together in September 2008 – have pleaded not guilty to all charges.
The trail continues next week.
Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter.