Mladic Trial Witness Describes Escaping Mass Killing
The first prosecution witness in the trial of wartime Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic gave harrowing testimony this week, telling the court how he fled his village, got captured by Bosnian Serb forces and avoided a massacre in which his father was killed.
Prosecutors allege that Mladic, commander of 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”.
Elvedin Pasic, 34, lives in the United States and has already testified in two previous trials at the Hague tribunal.
On the first day of testimony, July 9, Pasic told the court that he grew up in the Muslim village of Hrvacani in the Kotor Varos municipality of Bosnia and Hercegovina. Until war broke out in spring 1992, Pasic said, he shared “great times” with his Serb and Croat schoolmates, with whom he celebrated religious holidays and played sports.
In June 1992, just as Pasic turned 14, his village was attacked with bombs and shells, he told the court.
It was the second night of the Muslim festival of Eid- al-Adha, called Kurban Bajram in Bosnia, but instead of celebrating, Pasic and the family spent the night crouched down in fear. He covered his head with a pillow to avoid being hit by shrapnel.
He and his mother escaped from the house through a window and spent the following months travelling from village to village, looking for a safe place to stay.
They were reunited with his father, and returned to Hrvacani with a group of about 50 others, only to find that much of the village had been destroyed.
“Everything was burned. The whole thing scared me,” Pasic recalled, adding that there were dead cattle left lying there. They had become bloated and “smelled horrible”.
Pasic went to the family home because he wanted to see his pet dog.
“When I got to the house it was burned completely. There was nothing left. The dog was shot,” he told the court.
Pasic said he later found out that five elderly people, too infirm to escape, had either been burned or shot in their houses. Their families then tried to bury their remains, he said.
A group of Serbs with automatic rifles came upon his group, addressing them as “balijas” – a derogatory term for Bosnian Muslims.
“They said there was no place for us except in Turkey,” Pasic said.
His family then left Hrvacani, and when they passed through a Serb village, Pasic said the residents cursed, spat and screamed at them.
By the beginning of November 1992, Pasic and his parents were in the village of Vecici, the last local pocket of Muslim-Croat resistance.
An agreement was reached with Serb forces that the civilians could surrender, but there were fears about what would happen to able-bodied men. Pasic said his father remembered stories of teenage boys being removed from convoys of women and children.
They decided that Pasic and his father would leave with a group of men for free territory in Travnik, while his mother would depart in a civilian convoy.
“My father decided to take me, and he hugged and kissed my mum, and said to her, ‘If I have ever done anything to you, I want you to forgive me. We don’t know what will happen,’” Pasic recalled, his voice breaking with emotion.
“My mom said, ‘Don’t say that.… You’ll survive.’”
Pasic began shaking and tears fell down his face, which he covered with his hands. Presiding Judge Alphons Orie told him to take his time, and Pasic spent the next few minutes quietly sobbing.
Mladic sat silently, occasionally wiping his face with a tissue, holding the arm of his glasses to his mouth, or studying the contents of his large, black briefcase.
The witness then described fleeing into the woods with his father and a large group of men, along with about ten women and five or six boys his own age.
Suddenly, he said, the group was ambushed and bullets started flying.
“I was so shocked,” Pasic said.
The flying bullets resembled fireflies, and he even tried to catch them, he told the court.
His father grabbed him and shoved him under a large tree. The shooting stopped at around four in the morning, but resumed shortly afterwards. Pasic and his father made their way down a hill with other men, trying to dodge the bullets.
Pasic had been given a heavy coat that weighed him down.
“I was so exhausted from the coat,” he said, so he asked his father if he could take it off and then ducked down to do so.
“Maybe God wanted it to be like that,” he said.
The men who went ahead walked into a minefield, and about ten of them were killed.
Pasic saw one man with his legs blown off, shouting out for someone to kill him.
“My dad said, ‘Don’t look,’” Pasic said, his voice again breaking.
After making their way through a waterfall, Pasic said the group encountered a large group of people being led in prayer by a Muslim cleric.
Shortly afterwards, he heard an announcement that the “balijas” could either surrender or die.
Pasic’s group, which now numbered about 200, entered a tunnel, where Serb soldiers wearing camouflage and carrying Kalashnikov rifles ordered everyone to leave all their belongings, including valuables and any weapons.
The soldiers ordered them to form three lines and then lie face down in a puddle of muddy water.
Pasic’s father lay next to him. The soldiers noticed the boots his father was wearing, and asked him whether he had killed a Serb soldier to get them. They kicked him and took him away for questioning.
“He came back, but he kept screaming, ‘Are you okay? Are you okay?’ He’s a strong man, so I know he was asking that because he was hurt,” Pasic said.
The soldiers then ordered women and children to get up, and Pasic’s father told him to stand.
“I said, ‘No, I don’t want to go without you,’” Pasic said.
His uncle also urged him to go, and Pasic said he was the last boy to get up and follow the women and children to the courtyard of a school in the village of Grabovica.
They were made to line up, and Pasic said he thought they would be executed. Instead, a man arrived and said that the group would spend the night in the school and nothing would happen to them. The man added, though, that the men “would pay”.
Pasic and his fellow captives were then taken to a classroom. Pasic looked out of the window and saw the men outside with their hands tied behind their backs, with the bright lights of military trucks shining behind them. It was raining heavily, Pasic said.
The women and children were told they could go and see the men.
“Did you go see your dad?” prosecuting lawyer Camille Bibles asked.
“No, they did offer us, and there was a woman who was a newlywed and she’s the one who went to see her husband. She said he was all blue,” Pasic recalled.
He said that earlier, while he and his father were lying in the mud, the soldiers had asked his father whether he was with anyone else in the group, and his father had said no.
Because of this, Pasic said, he feared that he might be placing himself in danger if he went out and saw his father.
“I wish I would have gone,” he said, breaking down in tears.
Pasic tried to sleep, but he was freezing and his clothes were soaking wet. The next morning, the women and children were led outside and instructed to walk slowly to waiting buses. To get there, he said, they had to go through a mob of Serb villagers armed with sticks and axes.
“I was the last one to start walking and my goal was to reach that bus. I felt a beating on my back, but I kept walking,” he said.
When he was close to the bus, a woman grabbed Pasic and pulled him to the ground, he told the court.
“She said, ‘Let me kill one balija.’ I was trying to pull her off, and the guard pushed her aside and threw me onto the bus,” he said.
The villagers banged on the windows and shook the bus, and Pasic was afraid it would tip over.
After the engine started, he looked up and saw a hand waving from the second floor of the school.
“I see that hand in my dreams,” Pasic said.
According to the indictment, the captured male prisoners were killed on the second floor of the school. Previous rulings at The Hague have placed the death toll at 150.
“After being there that night, there is no doubt in my mind that they were all killed,” Pasic said.
During cross-examination, Mladic’s lawyer Branko Lukic asked Pasic about his movements after fleeing his village.
At the end of the July 9 hearing, Judge Orie said it was unclear what the defence was disputing.
When the trial resumed on July 10, Lukic said he wanted to demonstrate that the killings at the school did not happen, that there were no bodies, and that Pasic was not at the scene.
“If anything happened, it was only [carried out] by local civilians,” Lukic said.
Lukic also challenged the witness’s account of running the gauntlet of Serb villagers that he had to pass through to board the bus in Grabovica.
“At that moment, you were saved by a soldier who grabbed you and threw you onto bus. Would you say this soldier saved your life?” Lukic asked.
“I would say that he saved my life, I don’t know whether I would have lived,” Pasic responded.
Lukic noted that after boarding the bus, the witness would not know exactly what happened in Grabovica.
Pasic said he later learned that the men were killed, adding that part of his uncle’s finger was found and identified a few years ago.
The prosecution then asked whether the remains of Pasic’s father had ever been found.
“I had a dream about my dad last night,” Pasic responded. “For the first time, I was able to see his face…I miss my dad, even more so now with being a father and having my own kids. Everything I do brings those memories back,” he said.
“I urge people to listen to this and watch this. If they have any information, please come forward. I’d like to find my dad,” he said.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR Senior Reporter in The Hague.