Bosnian Serb Officers Covered Up Fatalities – Witness
A veteran soldier who served briefly in the Bosnian Serb Army testified this week that his superiors knew 800 Bosniaks had been killed during the capture of the northeastern town of Kozarac, yet they greatly understated the number in a report to army headquarters.
Osman Selak, a prosecution witness in the trial of Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic, is a Bosniak who joined the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, in 1955 and was still serving when the force was disbanded in May 1992, shortly after war broke out in Bosnia.
In Bosnia, JNA personnel and equipment went to form the Bosnian Serb Army or VRS, and units were simply renamed to reflect the change, Selak said.
The witness said he asked to retire because he knew that “some negative activities would ensue”, and was aware of media pressure for non-Serbs to leave the new army. However, his request was not approved until July 1992, and in the meantime he remained a commander for logistics in the Banja Luka area of command.
Selak said he was present at a meeting with other army officers on May 27, 1992, three days after the Bosnian Serb army launched an attack on Kozarac. During this meeting, Colonel Dragan Marcetic, who was assistant commander for operations and communications, briefed General Momir Talic, commander of the Krajina Corps.
“Marcetic said, ‘General sir, 800 people were killed today in Kozarac,’ and General Talic looked in my direction because I was the only Bosniak in that meeting,” the witness told the court. “[Talic] knew that only Muslims lived in Kozarac. He suddenly felt he did wrong to look at me. ‘Dragan, you must mean 80 people and that is what you want to report to the main staff.’”
Talic was indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity at the Hague tribunal, but proceedings ended with his death in 2003.
The witness said he made a note in his logbook that 800 people had been killed and 1,200 taken prisoner. However, the report to the main staff – of which Mladic was head – stated that “between 80 and 100 people” had been killed.
“The number was reduced for the commander [Talic] to avoid responsibility, because the laws of war were violated,” Selak said, adding that “everyone” knew this.
Selak said that he wanted to go to Kozarac and see for himself what had happened, but another officer told him he might be killed if he did that.
The witness said he was present at another meeting on June 1 when Talic ordered the establishment of the Manjaca detention camp, where previous judgements have found that prisoners were severely mistreated and killed,.
“When General Talic took the floor, he said that at the Manjaca training ground, a prison of war camp should be created to accommodate 2,500 people,” Selak said.
The witness said that he visited the camp shortly after this meeting, along with Talic and another commander.
“I went to the former stables – barns for cattle were now used for putting up prisoners of war. We… found 100 to 130 men there, some beaten up, you could see blood on their clothes and face, some naked to the waist. They were cleaning barns of cattle waste,” Selak said.
He said that when the guard gave an order for the prisoners to stand at attention, all the prisoners stood still and lowered their heads.
“It was terrible. The very image that I saw then, I tell you, it sends shivers down my spine to this day,” Selak said.
The witness said that Talic “basically wasn’t a bad man” but that he was obliged to carry out the orders of his superior commanders.
“He was not pleased by this number of citizens who lost their lives, [but] he had to report about that and take actions against the perpetrators. However, no measures were taken. Talic was carrying out orders of superior command,” Selak reiterated.
Prosecutors allege that Ratko Mladic, the highest authority in the Bosnian Serb army from 1992 to 1996, is responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which "contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory".
He is also accused of planning and overseeing the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead, as well as the massacre of more than 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995.
Mladic was arrested in Serbia in May 2011 after 16 years on the run.
During the cross-examination, defence lawyer Branko Lukic asked the witness about the report sent to the main staff on Kozarac, which stated that 80 people had been “killed in combat” and not “liquidated”.
Selak confirmed that this was what the report stated, but added that it was “false information sent to the superior command precisely because they were afraid of what the consequences would be”.
Lukic asked whether there had been cases where information sent from the field was incorrect.
“Yes, there were such cases,” Selak replied.
“At the time – in May, June, July – were communications interrupted?” Lukic asked.
“Yes, communication lines were cut off, but there were couriers, and units had to use such couriers… to communicate information and to forward reports,” the witness said.
Lukic also asked whether at the time the witness had heard about losses suffered by a Bosnian Serb military column passing through Kozarac, or about a Muslim attack on Prijedor on May 30, 1992. The witness said he had not heard about this.
While Selak was on the stand, Mladic loudly consulted with his defence lawyers, which led to a reproach from the bench.
“You should not only try, but even succeed to lower your voice,” presiding Judge Alphons Orie warned him.
On September 26, Mladic refused to enter the courtroom when a protected witness was scheduled to testify via video link from Sarajevo. According to his defence lawyers, Mladic felt that his rights were being violated because he could not see and hear the witness testify in person.
Judge Orie pointed out that when the decision was taken to allow the video link, the defence did not object, and that if Mladic decided not to come to court, he was voluntarily waiving his right to appear.
The witness, known as RM-145, proceeded with his video-link testimony in Mladic’s absence.
RM-145 was one of a few survivors of a massacre that killed some 47 men in Sokolina in June 1992. Because he has testified in other trials, prosecutors questioned him only briefly and read out a summary of his evidence.
The witness said he and his fellow prisoners were put on a bus which was then targeted by gunfire and grenades for about 15 minutes. Anyone who tried to escape was killed, prosecutors stated in their summary.
During the cross-examination, Mladic’s lawyer Miodrag Stojanovic asked whether the witness saw any of the men who opened fire.
“I didn’t – I was under a pile of dead bodies,” the witness said.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.