"Bosniaks to Blame for 1992 Fighting" – Karadzic Witnesses
The trial of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic continued in The Hague this week with testimony from several witnesses who claimed that Serb forces acted only in self-defence when conflict broke out in 1992.
Instead, they said, it was the Bosnian Muslims (or Bosniaks) who were to blame for the outbreak of fighting in eastern Bosnia.
The defence witnesses’ testimony centred on events in Rogatica and Vlasenica, two municipalities in eastern Bosnia which feature in the indictment against the former Bosnian Serb president.
Karadzic is charged with planning, instigating, ordering, and/or aiding and abetting the persecution of Bosniaks and Croats in 21 municipalities, including Rogatica and Vlasenica.
According to the 1991 census, the population of Rogatica was 60 per cent Bosniak and 34 per cent Serb, while Vlasenica was 55 per cent Bosniak and 42 per cent Serbs. Today, both municipalities are predominantly Serb. The prosecution claims that most of the Bosniaks who survived the war were either forcible transferred elsewhere or were unable to stay, and that only a few have returned to their homes since the war.
The indictment alleges that Karadzic’s Serb Democratic Party, SDS, took over local government institutions in both municipalities by ejecting all their Bosniak members.
The first witness to testify in Karadzic’s defence this week was Zoran Durmic who, prior to the war, was a police officer in Milici, a town within the Vlasenica municipality.
"When the war broke out, it was the Muslims who started attacking Serb civilians in the villages, even in the town [of Milici] itself," he told the court. "Muslim troops were killing us Serbs every day. The reports from the field were horrifying.”
Durmic blamed “Muslim troops” for carrying out crimes that "forced the Serbs in Milici to organise themselves and take the appropriate steps to protect their existence”.
“We had to take up self-defence," he added, without providing any details of the crimes he ascribed to Bosniak forces in Milici or in the Vlasenica municipality generally.
Prosecutor Ann Sutherland, who cross-examined Durmic after his brief statement, asked whether the “self-defence” he referred to included the murder of more than 60 Bosniak residents of Zaklopace, a village near Milici, in May 1992.
She presented a 1992 report from the police station in Milici, in which an officer on duty said that the "entire [police] personnel” took part in a “clean-up operation” in Zaklopace on May 16 that year.
The witness replied that he did remember an operation in Zaklopace taking place on that day, but that he was only “securing a road” near the village.
He said he heard “some rumours” of crimes in Zaklopace after the operation ended, but he did not see any atrocities himself.
"There were some hearsay stories and rumours, but you know how people behave in war – they boast with many things – but these were basically just stories", he told the court.
The second witness testifying on Karadzic’s behalf this week was Slavko Veselinovic, a local politician from Rogatica who chaired the SDS board there until March 1993.
He told tribunal judges that in 1992, "Muslim forces attacked Rogatica and occupied the town illegally. That’s why the Serb structures in this town united to ensure its survival."
"This was done with the highest degree of respect for the Muslims' lives and property," Veselinovic added.
He told the court that the local Bosniaks were "kept safe in the high school in Rogatica” before being allowed to "go to their chosen destination".
"At the same time, we did use their homes to house poor Serb refugees who had nowhere else to go," Veselinovic added.
The indictment against Karadzic cites the Rogatica school as a detention centre where Bosniak civilians were detained, tortured and killed by Serb forces led by local commander Rajko Kusic.
During the cross-examination, prosecutor Katrina Gustafson asked Veselinovic why the Bosniaks were "kept safe" in the school, and who they were being protected from.
She put it to the witness that this made the claims that Bosniaks were attacking Rogatica sound "very implausible", and that it was actually Serb forces which were shelling the town and surrounding villages.
The witness said he was aware of "a murder of Serb policeman in Rogatica which was attributed to Muslims", but that he did not know anything specific about any other attacks.
"I do remember that there was general warfare, attacks on all sides, everyone was fighting everyone, but we Serbs managed to take control of the town," he said.
He added that he “was not in town at the time of the attacks", and therefore could not provide more information on the matter.
The prosecutor then asked Veselinovic why the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, was arming Serbs in Rogatica.
"JNA was not arming Serbs; it was arming its own soldiers, but they happened to be Serbs because Muslims had refused any form of [JNA] mobilisation," he replied.
The third witness who testified for the defence this week was Momir Deuric, who was a security guard at the Susica prison camp near Vlasenica in 1992.
This camp features in the indictment against Karadzic. Prosecutors allege that numerous crimes against non-Serb detainees took place at Susica, including the murder of around 140 Bosniaks on September 30, 1992, or around that date.
Deuric told the judges this week that Susica was not a prison camp for non-Serbs, but a "simple warehouse" serving as "simply a collection and transit centre set up to help civilians".
"Before Muslims would be exchanged, they would be taken to Susica from the surrounding villages, so that we could have them exchanged in an easier, more coordinated way," he said.
Deuric insisted that he "never heard of anyone having been killed at this collection centre” and that "residents" had been regularly visited by the Red Cross.
During the cross-examination, prosecutor Amir Zec asked the witness whether he was familiar with the guilty plea made by Dragan Nikolic, the former commander of the Susica camp, who was sentenced to 20 years in prison by the Hague tribunal in 2005.
Prosecutor Zec pointed out that Nikolic spoke about crimes committed in Susica in his guilty plea.
"This is very strange,” Deuric replied. “You see, I was there every day, and I heard nothing, not a single murder, a single crime.
"I only remember that two men died, but they were old and the doctors came in as soon as they could to try to save them. But to claim that crimes were committed there is simply preposterous."
The trial continues next week.
Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.