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

Bosnian Serb Forces in Chaos at Srebrenica

Protected witness tells the tribunal the accused Bosnian Serb officer had little control over events.
By Rachel S.

As the defence phase of trial of Vidoje Blagojevic and Dragan Jokic, Bosnian Serb officers accused of participating in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, entered its seventh week, Blagojevic’s lawyer called a protected witness before the tribunal.

Like many of the other defence witnesses who have testified about the days before and after the fall of Srebrenica, the witness described a chaotic scene in which weapons were out of working order, fuel was scarce, communication was shoddy, and the records kept were inaccurate.

Before and during the days when the massacre took place, Blagojevic was commander of the Bratunac brigade of the Bosnian Serb army. His brigade was responsible for providing security around the Srebrenica “safe area”.

The prosecution has argued that Blagojevic is responsible for crimes committed by troops under his command—troops, they charge, that played a role in the fall of Srebrenica and the subsequent execution of 7,000 Muslim men and boys. Blagojevic also stands accused of complicity in genocide.

Defence lawyer Michael Karnavas has responded to these allegations by disputing claims that his client exercised real control over the area.

He has done this by introducing a barrage of witnesses who have described the days surrounding the Srebrenica massacre as filled with confusion and disarray and Blagojevic as unable to control the situation.

This week’s protected witness fit that pattern.

The witness described Blagojevic as an “honorable man, an honorable officer” who was “burdened with great problems… as to how to resolve the situation.”

He “certainly never ordered me to commit any folly”, the witness insisted.

The witness told of an instance when he asked Blagojevic for help and the commander simply instructed him to solve the problem as best he could on his own. It was at that point, reported the witness, that he understood Blagojevic’s “hands were tied.”

What was happening on the field was “beyond our abilities” the witness explained.

It was a “large area” and there were “not enough people to defend it,” he told the tribunal, insisting that Blagojevic simply did not have the means to deal with the issues he faced.

Many of the problems had to do with a lack of equipment, fuel, and communication abilities, the witness said.

The witness told the tribunal, for instance, that at one point, when he saw a column of Muslims moving away from Srebrenica, he did not even call Blagojevic to report what he had seen.

Asked why not, he responded simply, “During those days, our official communications were very poor.”

Later, on cross-examination, he explained what he meant. Equipment was “very old, in poor working order, [and] batteries were often low or empty,” he said.

Defence lawyer Karnavas presented the witness with a number of documents, including several daily combat reports and an official map showing the Bratunac brigade’s zone of responsibility, and inquired about possible inaccuracies in them.

The witness was quick to find mistakes—a fact that the lawyer insisted had real significance for his case.

By showing that even official writings could be wrong, Karnavas hoped to persuade the judges not to “place too much emphasis on what is written, because it might lead us down the wrong path”.

He also warned them against relying on circumstantial evidence, a form of proof that the prosecution has used to try to show Blagojevic was aware of the murder operation and deeply involved in it.

In his opening statement on April 14, Karnavas railed against the conclusions drawn from such evidence.

“The circumstantial evidence in this case was that Mr. Blagojevic was the commander of the Bratunac brigade, Bratunac is next to Potocari, things are happening at and around Potocari and Bratunac, therefore he must be a member of the joint criminal enterprise…” the lawyer said.

It is a “proverbial wrong place, wrong time dilemma” continued Karnavas. “Unfortunately [Blagojevic] became the commander of the Bratunac brigade right before the attack on Srebrenica, and because of that location… there has been a rush to assume and to prejudge Mr. Blagojevic.”

In cross-examination, the witness, who told the tribunal that he was not aware that thousands of Muslims had been murdered until after the war when he heard about it in the media, was asked whether he knew mass graves—which were created on July 13 and 14—were located within just a few kilometres of the command post he had occupied for over a year, and which he had left only on July 12.

After debating how far exactly the grave sites were from his post, the witness said he did not know about them.

The witness was also asked about the observation post manned by the United Nations’ Dutch battalion, located just in front of his position. Prosecutor Antoinette Issa asked the witness whether he had fired on the post. “I’m not mad. What would I do that?” he responded curtly.

The prosecutor, who had earlier established that the witness and his troops possessed mortars, went on to refer to a UN report that found the Dutch battalion’s post had indeed come under mortar fire between July 7 and 12.

But the witness denied having knowledge of any such activity.

“It’s like a scenario from a film,” he said. “I have the impression it is somebody’s screenplay.”

Rachel S. Taylor is an IWPR editor in The Hague.