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

Bosniaks Shot "Ten by Ten"

Witness testify about abuses committed by Serb paramilitaries, and allege linkage with Vojislav Seselj’s volunteers.
By Denis Dzidic
A protected witness this week gave an eyewitness account of how Bosniak detainees in the village of Drinjaca were taken out and shot in batches of ten, and how he managed to escape.



The witness, identified as VS 1064, was giving evidence to the Hague tribunal in the trial of Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS.



Seselj is accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Serb paramilitaries, as part of a project to carve out a “Greater Serbia” between 1991 and 1993. Prosecutors say he was involved in “recruiting and funding SRS party volunteers” as paramilitaries.



Seselj is also accused of encouraging the creation of a homogenous “Greater Serbia” and inciting Serbs to fight Bosniaks and Croats as part of a “joint criminal enterprise” to force non-Serbs out of parts of Croatia and Bosnia.



The witness told the court that at the beginning of the Bosnian war of 1992-95, Bosniaks from villages near Zvornik were rounded by Serb forces and detained in the hall of a cultural centre in Drinjaca.



According to the witness, the detainees were told that they would be questioned by “military investigators”, who never materialised. Instead, he said Serb paramilitary forces whom he described as “Arkan’s men” entered the facility.



Arkan’s “Tigers” were a Serb paramilitary force led by Zeljko “Arkan” Raznatovic, who are suspected of committing numerous crimes during the Bosnian conflict. Raznatovic was murdered in Belgrade in 2000.



“Arkan’s men beat about 30 Bosniaks severely, and when they left, their leader warned us that later that day we would be visited by the Chetniks,” said the witness.



The term “Chetnik” originally applied to Serbian guerrillas in the Second World War. In the early Nineties, nationalists and paramilitaries identified with them and appropriated the name, but this was not a cohesive group.



To complicate matters, the other sides in the Croatian and Bosnian conflicts used the term Chetnik as a blanket pejorative term for Serb forces.



That same evening, witness 1064 said, a large group of men dressed in grey uniforms, some with Chetnik-style insignia, entered the hall and asked for ten volunteers.



“No one volunteered, so they picked ten Bosniaks and took them outside, after which we heard shots, and I assumed that they’d killed those ten men, and then they came back and picked another ten,” said VS 1064.



The witness himself was in the fifth group to be picked out.



“When we reached the place from where the shots had come, one of the people up front yelled for us to start running, and then the Chetniks started shooting,” he said.



“I got shot in the hip and fell to the ground. After a few minutes one of the Chetniks … saw that I might still be alive. He fired several more shots and one hit me in the shoulder,” said the witness.



According to VS 1064, once the soldiers had left he managed to escape.



The witness said he lost his father and three brothers in the Drinjaca massacre. One of his brothers was a minor.



When asked to describe “Chetnik” soldiers, the witness 1064 said he believed Chetniks and Seselj’s men were one and the same thing.



“I consider them one army with one commander,” he said.



In the courtroom, defendant Seselj objected to this testimony and claimed that this particular witness had never “mentioned Seselj’s men before, not to the OTP [Office of the Prosecutor], or the Hague court investigators or even when testifying at the trial of [former Yugoslav president] Slobodan Milosevic in 2003”.



The judges also heard this week from another protected witness, identified as VS 1060, whose testimony related to the activities of a group of Serb paramilitaries in Grbavica, a suburb of Sarajevo.



According to this witness, after Grbavica fell into Serb hands in April 1992, he and other Bosniaks were forced to work for the Bosnian Serb Army.



“We worked digging trenches and building bunkers – there was no choice about it. Serb soldiers with guns came and took me to work,” recalled the witness.



He recalled seeing one group of men memorable for their “black uniforms, long beards and hair and Chetnik insignia”.



“The Chetniks had their own commander, who was called Slavko Aleksic, and they were based near the old Jewish cemetery in Grbavica,” he said.



When asked whether this group operated independently of other Serb forces in the city, the witness replied that he believed it was part of the Bosnian Serb Army. However, he also claimed to have heard Serb soldiers saying that “Aleksic was his own boss and answered only to Vojislav Seselj”.



The witness testified that Bosniak civilians in Grbavica were beaten and killed by Serb soldiers. When asked whether Chetniks committed such crimes, he indicated he had not been present where these forces were operating.



During cross-examination Seselj thanked the witness for his testimony, describing it as “truthful and just”.



His only question was to ask the witness to restate the fact that he had no direct knowledge as to whether “Aleksic’s men murdered, tortured or plundered”.



The witness replied that he had no such knowledge, because he never worked either with Chetnik groups or near them.



“I only said what the word on the street was,” he added.



The witness also confirmed he did not know for a fact whether Aleksic really answered to Seselj or not.



The trial continues next week.



Denis Dzidic is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.