Sarajevo Blockaded "From Inside" – Serb Officer
The trial of Radovan Karadzic continued this week with testimony from a former Bosnian Serb officer who claimed that Sarajevo was blockaded “from within”, not by his army.
The defence witness, retired colonel Milosav Gagovic, served in the 4th Corps of the Yugoslav army, which in May 1992 was transformed into the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps in the Bosnian Serb army or VRS.
Gagovic has previously appeared as a defence witness in the Hague trial of General Dragomir Milosevic, who was given a 29-year sentence in 2009 for his part in the siege of Sarajevo. Milosevic was commander of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps.
As wartime Bosnian Serb president, Karadzic is accused of planning and overseeing the 1992-95 siege of Sarajevo, in the course of which over 12,000 people died in a concerted sniping and shelling campaign.
At the beginning of his testimony this week, Gagovic described himself as "an old-school military officer" who knew "what military discipline and responsibility mean”.
He began by talking about the Yugoslav army unit he served in, the 4th Corps, and suggested that the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps was not its direct successor.
"The JNA [Yugoslav People’s Army] did not play any role in the establishment of the VRS as an army,” he insisted. “VRS developed from the territorial defence and the self-defence groups of Serb citizens."
He went onto talk about the JNA’s actions at the beginning of the Bosnian conflict. The indictment against Karadzic says the JNA was involved in attacking Sarajevo on May 2, 1992.
"There were numerous provocations from the city to which we had to respond. We were being shot at. Of course, a certain level of disturbance of the civilian population could not be prevented,” Gagovic said.
As a professional army, he said, the JNA could not simply "stand by and watch how helpless people were being exposed to crimes".
"But you have to understand", he said, addressing Karadzic, "that it was clear to us that the blockade of Sarajevo had come from within, not from without."
Gagovic said the city was controlled "by a small group of people… who held all the power in the city.”
“It was this group of people with dubious pasts who had been harassing the civilian population of Sarajevo,” he continued. "For example, you could only leave the city by paying these people a large sum of money; it was them preventing people from leaving and holding the city under siege, not the JNA or Serb forces."
Gagovic confirmed to the court that he had known the defendant personally.
"Karadzic was a very responsible official and very dedicated to his work," he said.
Karadzic respected humanitarian law, he “always made sure his orders were in line with the law and not illegal," and always required his subordinates to "act honorably and in accordance with the law", the witness said.
In the cross-examination, prosecutor Alan Tieger challenged Gagovic’s claims that JNA was a "neutral army".
Tieger presented a recording of a live television news programme from May 11, 1992, in which a reporter asks Gagovic, as commander of a JNA corps stationed in Sarajevo, to stop troops shelling the city and firing on civilians.
In response, Gagovic told the court that "the JNA had always protected civilians, but at that particular moment it was impossible to know who was shooting at whom".
The prosecution also presented a transcript of an intercepted conversation between Gagovic and a member of the opposing side, Bosnian territorial defence unit commander Hasan Efendic. In that conversation, also dating from May 1992, Efendic asks Gagovic to "stop destroying Sarajevo". Gagovic replies, "Well, you know how the troops react; they shoot [with] whatever they have."
Commenting on this piece of evidence, Gagovic told the judges that it was "a strange conversation”.
“I can't really say much about it,” he continued. “But you couldn't be sure about any of the things being said.”
The prosecution alleges that Karadzic, who was the supreme civilian leader of the Bosnian Serb self-proclaimed entity, Republika Srpska, is responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer.
The trial continues next week.
Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.