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

Bosnian Serb Leaders Expelled Muslims

Witnesses speak of a systematic campaign to drive non-Serbs out of Vlasenica and Pale.
By Merdijana Sadović

A procession of displaced Bosnian Muslims testified in The Hague this week as the trial of top war-time Bosnian Serb political leader Momcilo Krajisnik resumed after the tribunal’s summer recess.

They painted pictures of a months-long campaign to expel the non-Serb population from different Bosnian towns in 1992, and the role of the local Serb party leaders in those operations.

People who once lived in the towns of Pale and Vlasenica – once ethnically diverse but now wholly Serb - claimed the expulsion was not a “spontaneous” result of combat operations, but the consequence of systematic efforts by Krajsinik’s Serb Democratic Party, SDS, to drive them out of their homes.

The prosecution is trying to prove that Krajisnik, the ex-speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament who was the right-hand man of former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, was one of the masterminds behind the “joint criminal enterprise” to rid Serb-controlled parts of Bosnia of other ethnic groups.

Krajisnik, whose trial began in February this year, is charged with two counts of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and one of violations of the laws or customs of war. He has pleaded not guilty to all charges.

The first witness to take stand this week was Izet Redzic, who at the time was president of the Vlasenica municipal government. A small and wiry man in his late sixties, Redzic was at the time also a leading member of the mainly Bosnian Muslim Party of Democratic Action, SDA. In his dual role, Redzic participated in negotiations initiated by the local Serbs and designed to divide Vlasenica into two ethnically clean areas.

The talks, he said, started in March 1992, a month before the outbreak of hostilities in Bosnia.

"Muslims were forced to take part in [the talks],” he said, recalling how Tomislav Savkic, the SDS president in the Vlasenica municipality, threatened the Muslim negotiating team with tanks if they didn’t turn up for the talks.

“But how does one divide a town, its streets, schools, playgrounds? The Serbs asked for something that was impossible,” said Redzic, adding that in his view these negotiations were only meant to complicate the Muslims’ lives in order to drive them out of the area.

Krajisnik’s defence counsel Chrissa Loukas attempted to draw a parallel between the negotiations on dividing Vlasenica and the then ongoing negotiations on partitioning Bosnia, administered by Portuguese diplomat Jose Cutiliero. But the presiding judge, Alphons Orie, lost his trademark patience at this point and interrupted her, halting the flow of her cross-examination.

“Ms Loukas, I can’t remember all the details of Cutiliero’s plan, but I don’t think that anyone working on it threatened to use tanks if one of the parties refused to negotiate,” he said.

Counsel Loukas then tried another approach and asked Redzic to explain whether Muslims were “leaving” or “fleeing” Vlasenica, because he had used both terms in different statements given to the tribunal. If Muslims were “leaving”, she suggested, that would mean they did it of their own volition.

“That’s not the right question,” Redzic said, turning towards her. “Why were Muslims forced to leave? Because the tanks were directed at them, they were being killed,” he said.

Before the war, the Vlasenica municipality was half-Serb, half-Muslim, but after the take-over by Serb forces, conditions for Muslims and other non-Serbs in the municipality deteriorated and many of them fled. Those who did not were either forcibly expelled or arrested, and their fate was described in detail during the recently finished trial of the commander of the nearby Susica camp, Dragan Nikolic. By September 1992, virtually no Muslims or other non-Serbs remained in this town.

In testimony chillingly reminiscent of the Second World War, the next prosecution witness, Ibro Osmanovic, told the court how all Muslims who remained in Vlasenica after it was declared a “Serb town” in April 1992 had to have special passes in order to move around.

Osmanovic, tall and well-dressed, is a veteran Hague tribunal witness. Calm and composed, he has repeatedly testified in trials dealing with the events in eastern Bosnia, where he lived to see his many family members being detained and some dying in various camps.

At Krajisnik trial, he told how he was given only a “local pass”, signed by the Serb mayor, with which he couldn’t leave his town. “For that I needed a transit pass, and only those with enough money or good strings to pull were able to obtain it,” he explained, adding that he was forced to remain in Vlasenica, where he was soon arrested and taken to the notorious Susica camp.

At the same time, a couple of hundred kilometres to the west in the tiny ski resort of Pale, life was just as difficult for Muslims, prosecution witness Sulejman Crncalo told the court.

During the war, Pale - situated just a dozen kilometres east of Sarajevo - housed the headquarters of the Bosnian Serb government.

Serb leaders, including the defendant Krajisnik, moved to Pale after they left Sarajevo.

Crncalo described how Serb authorities hung written announcements in public places informing Muslims that they had to leave the town. “A Serb policeman told me it was better for us [Muslims] to leave Pale now than to have Serbs running after us and catching us in the woods later,” said the witness.

But instead of obediently leaving their homes, the local Muslims gathered in small groups and regularly visited local Serb officials to discuss the problem.

Crncalo also went to see them with a group of friends and neighbours, only to discover that Nikola Koljevic, a high-ranking SDS official and close Krajisnik associate, was present. Upon hearing the Muslims’ complaints, Koljevic lost his patience and bluntly said, “It doesn’t matter what you want - Serbs don’t want you to stay here.”

“I didn’t wish to leave my home,” said Crncalo, “But I decided that my own life and the lives of my family members were more important than my house. So that July I left Pale.”

In the end, only 12 Muslims remained in Pale. According to Crncalo, they were all killed.

The trial is scheduled to continue next week.

Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.