Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Blagojevic Command Authority Questioned

Lawyers try to prove that Vidoje Blagoejvic exerted little control over his brigade.
By Ana Uzelac

In an effort to deflect blame away from their client, lawyers for former Bosnian Serb officer Vidoje Blagojevic this week called a number of witnesses who painted an unflattering picture of the brigade Blagojevic was in charge of during the fall of the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in July 1995.


The Bratunac brigade was depicted as poor, understaffed and plagued by conflicting chains of command.


Blagojevic is on trial on charges of command responsibility for the crimes allegedly committed by some of his soldiers as well as for complicity in genocide. Last month, Blagojevic was acquitted of personal involvement in the Srebrenica massacres, with judges concluding that there was not enough evidence that he was part of a group who planned or ordered the atrocity. The prosecutors have since lodged an appeal.


Now defence lawyers are apparently hoping to prove that - although formally in command of his brigade - Blagojevic wielded so little real authority at the time the enclave fell that he should not be found guilty even of command responsibility charges.


Bosnian Serb forces overran the UN-protected Muslim enclave of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995. In the days following the takeover, its 40,000 inhabitants were expelled to neighbouring Muslim-controlled territories, and some 7,000 Muslim men and boys were killed.


Recently, the Srebrenica killings were formally classified as genocide, in an appeals chamber verdict in the case of Bosnian Serb army general Radislav Krstic, one of the highest-ranking officers involved in the massacres.


Most of the witnesses called to defend Blagojevic, put in charge of the Bratunac brigade shortly before Srebrenica was attacked, were members of its officer corps. The highest-ranking among them the head of artillery Mico Gavric, testifying on May 3-4, described Blagojevic as "an unfortunate man, who took up his duties at an unfortunate moment".


Gavric claimed that even he once refused to obey Blagojevic's order. He said he had been told to deploy his men in Zvornik, where he was to link up with elements of the local brigade and secure the road to Tuzla, along which some Srebrenica men were believed to be heading.


Gavric protested that this would expose his men to unacceptable risk, "I did not want to take my men only with infantry weapons down the road where something ugly could have happened," he said. Finally, however, he consented to the order, after Blagojevic promised him that he would soon be sent on leave.


Gavric maintained that throughout the Srebrenica operation, his commander wasn't the one whose opinion counted. "It wasn't up to him," he said.


"There were many people who took decisions for him. There were far more superior people to order us what to do."


However, during cross-examination Gavric admitted he did not know that Blagojevic was given formal command of all "search parties" along one stretch of the road leading to Tuzla.


Thousands of Muslim men were either killed or captured - and later executed - in these search operations. Many were subsequently buried in mass graves, but some bodies remained on the hills around Srebrenica years after.


Gavric saw some of these corpses himself following the fall of the enclave. He had been ordered to comb the area around the enclave on July 17 and came across an "enormous quantity of bodies" of Muslim men lying in woods and meadows. "You could walk from the village of Kamenica to Konjevic Polje without stepping on the ground," Gavric said. "It was an absolutely dreadful sight to have witnessed."


But according to Gavric, these Muslims seemed to have committed suicide, suggesting that they had hung themselves on tree branches, shot themselves and blown themselves up with hand grenades. Some, he admitted, may have been killed by artillery fire. But he denied it was his unit who fired those shots and blamed special police units active in the area at the time.


An officer in the second battalion of the Bratunac brigade Zoran Kovacevic also sought to minimise the role of the unit in the Srebrenica campaign.


Kovacevic said his battalion got the orders on July 12 to comb the woods between their positions and the village of Potocari. When he and his men emerged at Potocari, they saw the mass of Srebrenica refugees gathered around the Dutch UN peacekeepers camp.


After passing through the crowd "out of curiosity", in search of people he may have known from before the war, Kovacevic ended up in the depopulated town. While searching for a place to rest, the unit saw the army commander Ratko Mladic coming in their direction. "He was angry, he was shouting to some to soldiers to 'move forward, to [other villages,]'" Kovacevic said.


"Me and my men moved behind a building, so that he wouldn't see us," Kovacevic said.


"General Mladic was that kind of man: you didn't want to cross his path when he was angry. I saw even colonels trying to get away from him. We also didn't really want to participate in any military operation."


The witness did not see Blagojevic at the time, "Probably Colonel Blagojevic also kept as far away as possible from General Mladic."


Blagojevic, he said, would not have known about the abuse of civilians in Potocari at the time. If anyone would know about them, he said, it would be Momir Nikolic, the Bratunac brigade's chief of security, who later became one of the prosecution's key witnesses after pleading guilty to charges of war crimes and crimes against humanity. "And Blagojevic did not give orders to Nikolic," the witness said.


Kovacevic claimed that he was also sent to the Zvornik brigade to secure the Zvornik-Tuzla road, but denied he ever got any orders to "commit atrocities".


He said he witnessed Muslims escaping toward Bosnian government-controlled territory, but never came across any corpses, "We saw groups of Muslim men going down the hills, crouching behind the houses, running across the road and heading towards Tuzla. We did nothing, [just] observed them."


The third witness this week painted an even grimmer picture of the apparently chaotic command structure within the Bratunac brigade. Radika Petrovic was commander of the fourth battalion in the Bratunac brigade - a unit "loaned" to it by the Zvornik brigade, as the former, the witness said, was so understaffed and under-resourced.


According to Petrovic's testimony, the fourth battalion, although formally under command of Bratunac brigade, also took orders from the Zvornik military command, "I never informed Bratunac what Zvornik ordered and the other way round. I never thought that was called for."


In depicting the apparent military chaos and confusion, the witnesses also, perhaps inadvertently, provided pointers to the disturbing indifference with which Serb soldiers who were not actively involved in the killings responded to the atrocity.


When one of Radika Petrovic's soldiers was killed at an isolated post, he transported his body to his family in one of the neighbouring village. As he drove there, Petrovic said, he saw "lines of policemen along the sides of the road, and many dead men lying in meadows along the road.


"I didn't stop. I just looked from the van window."


And when Mico Gavric passed by Kravica warehouse on the night when the bodies of executed Muslims were loaded on trucks, he said he saw nothing. The following day, though, he said he could smell the decomposing bodies, but it didn't pay it very much attention.


"And if I was now to be totally honest here... I would say I wasn't interested," he said.


Ana Uzelac is IWPR project manager in The Hague.


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