Sarajevo's War Without End
A former BBC journalist told the trial of Radovan Karadzic this week that civilians in the besieged city of Sarajevo were deliberately targeted by snipers and subjected to “appalling” conditions.
“I would say that [civilians] were subjected to three and-a-half years of an appalling ordeal,” said prosecution witness Martin Bell, who covered the wars in Croatia and Bosnia from 1991 to 1995.
“It was not just a question of being caught in the crossfire, there was deliberate targeting also, on both sides of the lines.”
Karadzic was the president of Bosnia’s self-declared Republika Srpska, RS, from 1992 to 1996. He allegedly planned and oversaw the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead, and his army is accused of deliberately sniping and shelling the city’s civilian population in order to “spread terror” among them.
The indictment - which lists 11 counts in total - alleges that Karadzic was 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”. In July 2008, he was arrested in Belgrade after 13 years on the run.
In one of Bell’s television reports screened during the hearing, Sarajevo civilians run past what are said to be Bosnian Serb sniper positions in order to reach the only available water supply, located in a nearby basement. One man who was making the journey is shot in the leg as he turns a corner. He collapses and appears to go into shock.
“He was shot for a bucket of water,” Bell narrates in the report.
“Was this a situation where someone was caught in the cross-fire?” prosecuting lawyer Carolyn Edgerton asked.
“No, the man who was wounded had clearly been targeted,” Bell answered. “…After all these years I still find the report difficult to watch… the images themselves called for international intervention.
“In terms of the situation for civilians in the city, do you find this report of yours to be an accurate depiction?” Edgerton asked.
“Yes, I am confident this is accurate and truthful,” Bell said. “You can see the woman wincing when she hears the sniper fire… I think this report conveys an accurate picture of suffering inflicted on innocent people.”
Edgerton then asked him to describe the “psychological effect” that the constant shelling and sniping had on civilians.
“This is anecdotal, but I have never seen such anxiety etched on everybody’s faces - they lost weight and some looked almost grey with fear,” Bell answered. “We [journalists] had it easy, we came in and out… [Civilians] were there all the time with no means to escape. They were trapped in a war without end.”
Bell also described his experiences reporting from other Bosnian cities and towns, including Zvornik, which borders neighbouring Serbia.
In one report from early April 1992, Bell says that “95 per cent” of Zvornik’s Serb population had already fled and that war was “unstoppable”. After the Serbs fled, he reported that the town was taken over by “Serbian irregulars” led by a man named Zeljko Raznatovic, otherwise known as Arkan, who is interviewed briefly in the report.
Arkan led a group known as Arkan’s Tigers, said to be one of the most notorious paramilitary groups during that time. He was assassinated in Belgrade in 2000 before he could be arrested and transferred to The Hague, but he is named in Karadzic’s indictment as one of the alleged members of a joint criminal enterprise that includes the accused and various other members of the Bosnian Serb and Serbian leadership.
On April 10, 1992, Bell filed a report where lifeless bodies are seen being dragged on the ground. He describes Arkan’s forces as “mopping up the last of Muslim resistance” and “making greater Serbia happen”.
The report also captures on film the flight of an estimated 20,000 Bosniak civilians from the area. One woman tells the camera, “We are unarmed and they are firing at us.” Another man begs the world to help them. Groups of women, children and babies huddle together, and many of them are crying. Bell narrates that “the ethnic map of Bosnia is being redrawn”.
“When you said that the ethnic map of Bosnia is being redrawn, what did you mean?” Edgerton asked.
“This was the first visual evidence of what came to be known as ethnic cleansing,” Bell answered. “This report did have considerable impact and actually, your honours, it still does.”
Bell said that earlier this year, he received a letter from a man, now living in Canada, who was one of the babies captured in the video footage that day.
“He was grateful for the existence of this report because it was the only evidence of what happened at this time,” Bell said.
After the events in Zvornik, Bell said he wanted “Dr Karadzic to know what was going on”.
“[The] fighting, as far as we know, was done by Arkan’s [paramilitaries], which was not under control of the accused,” Bell said.
“How do you know that?” Edgerton asked.
“I knew Arkan,” Bell responded. “Arkan took orders from nobody. He had a very tense relationship even with the [Yugoslav army]. Having said that, he couldn’t get across the border [from Serbia] without collusion somewhere… [but] I knew him really well, I knew his mind, Ms Edgerton.”
When it was Karadzic’s turn to cross-examine the witness, he asked if Bell agreed that until May 20, 1992, when the Yugoslav Army, JNA, pulled out of Bosnia, Karadzic had “no opportunities to gain insight or control on the developments on the ground” including the events in Zvornik.
“We were hardly able to find out what was going on, much less control it,” Karadzic contended.
“That was the very early days [of war],” Bell responded. “There was no Bosnian Serb army in existence at that time.”
He added that “anarchy” had reigned during “those early days”.
Karadzic also questioned Bell on his interpretation of the Zvornik takeover.
“You said the Serbs first fled Zvornik,” Karadzic said.
“First, the Serbs fled Zvornik across the river, and then I’m assuming that some of them returned, and then the fighting forces were commander Arkan’s,” Bell responded.
“Did you receive any information as to who Serbs were fleeing from?” Karadzic asked, adding that there were “numerous Muslim paramilitary formations” in the area.
“That’s your information, not mine,” Karadzic said. “Two or three days before the fighting in Zvornik, Serbs had fled and obviously they fled in fear.”
Karadzic contended that Bosniak civilians “didn’t even wait for Serbs to arrive, so they are refugees rather than displaced persons”.
“They either left before the Serbs came, or they left following instructions,” he continued. “In any case, they were not driven out, they were refugees.”
Bell responded that in his television report “you actually heard guns firing in background as [the Bosniak civilians] crouched there.
“I don’t doubt that some left before the Arkan attack, but others left because of it,” Bell said.
When Edgerton had the opportunity to ask some follow-up questions, she challenged Karadzic’s assertion that up until the JNA pullout on May 20, 1992 there was no “centralised control or command”.
She produced several transcripts from Bosnian Serb assembly sessions which suggested that Karadzic had organised crisis staffs, executive boards and reserve units in various municipalities by late March 1992.
Bell said that it would be “hard to overstate the degree of chaos and anarchy in early weeks of April 1992”.
“What I saw on the ground were bands of armed men on both sides, [and] very often they appeared to be undisciplined [and] improvised,” he said.
“But I will accept that by early May there was a degree of command and control in some areas,” Bell continued. “Armies are not formed and organised overnight, not even in times of war.”
Also testifying this week was Almir Begic, who said his father was killed in the first massacre at Sarajevo’s Markale market on February 5, 1994. His father wore a prosthetic leg, and Begic testified that it was the same prosthetic leg that appears in video footage of the massacre, already shown several times during the trial.
Karadzic contends that the massacre was staged by the Bosnian government and that the prosthetic leg was planted at the scene.
The trial is scheduled to resume the week of January 10, after the court’s winter recess.
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.