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Bosnian Serb War Aims

Former Vance aide tells how Karadzic played on Second World War to justify Bosnian Serb goals.
By Alison Freebairn

Bosnian Serbs had several distinct war aims including the division of Sarajevo and the reclaiming of land where they had been in the majority before the Second World War, the tribunal heard this week.

The former Bosnian Serb president - the most wanted Hague indictee, who has been on the run since the end of the war 1995 - made this claim during a September 1993 meeting attended by Ambassador Herbert Okun, who served as Special Adviser to United Nations Special Envoy Cyrus Vance from 1991 to 1994.

Ambassador Okun was appearing as a prosecution witness this week in the trial of Momcilo Krajisnik, at the time president of the Bosnian Serb assembly and on the main board of the ruling Serbian Democratic Party, SDS.

The indictment against the defendant alleges that these roles placed Krajisnik in de facto control of both the Bosnian Serb forces that carried out war crimes and of the political structures that ordered them. It charges him with both individual and superior criminal responsibility for two counts of genocide, five of crimes against humanity and one of violations of the code or customs of war. He has pleaded not guilty to all.

Ambassador Okun came into contact with the Bosnian Serb leadership through his work with Vance, and had numerous meetings with the defendant during the course of his work on the Vance-Owen peace plan, which had been accepted by all sides in the conflict with the exception of the Bosnian Serbs.

He kept a detailed diary of his meetings with Karadzic, Krajisnik and others, and the prosecution asked the witness to talk the court through several of these entries dating from the autumn of 1991 into early 1994.

While the bulk of his conversations had been with Karadzic - who spoke fluent English, unlike Krajisnik - Ambassador Okun reported that the former had spoken for the entire Bosnian Serb leadership at the time - including, of course, the defendant.

The witness described the defendant as being opposite in character to the "wild and woolly" Karadzic, who was an "emotional and voluble character" prone to melodrama and exaggerations.

"In my meetings with [Krajisnik] he was reserved, and much more serious than Dr Karadzic ... he was much graver in his manner," the witness said, adding that the two had conferred regularly and easily, and that there had been no hint of animosity between them.

"It was very clear that Dr Karadzic regarded [the defendant] as his co-equal. There was no doubt of that."

The Bosnian Serbs had several distinct war aims including the division of Sarajevo and the reclamation of land where Serbs had been in the majority before the Second World War, the witness said, and Karadzic would continually speak of reasons why these aims were justified.

These justifications were invariably references to the genocide against the Serbs during the Second World War, Ambassador Okun told the court, or allegations that crimes were being committed against the Serbs in Bosnia - even going so far as to claim that Muslim forces had stolen Serb uniforms and had been raping their own women in an attempt to turn the international community against his people.

"Dr Karadzic would also say, 'Sarajevo is the biggest concentration camp in Bosnia and Herzegovina, where 60,000 Serbs are being held hostage by the Bosnian Muslims'," the witness said.

When asked by prosecutor Alan Tieger if there had been any difference of stance between the two men that he had seen in the course of their meetings together, Ambassador Okun replied, "There was perhaps a difference of emphasis.

"Krajisnik would emphasise, far more than Karadzic did, the need to divide Sarajevo into Serb and Muslim sections. This may have been because [the defendant] was born in Sarajevo, and represented it, while Karadzic was a Montenegrin."

Vance and Lord Owen had repeatedly told the Bosnian Serb leadership that the ethnic cleansing of Bosnia - and the operation of detention camps such as Omarska and Keraterm was not acceptable and had to stop immediately. But Karadzic would react by "trotting out the same old rant about genocide against the Serbs", the witness remembered.

The witness also spoke of how the Bosnian Serb leadership had stated on many occasions that if their wars aims were met, and they were allowed to keep the territory they wanted - including the areas historically populated by Serbs, from which Bosnian Muslims and Croats had been expelled - then all fighting would stop.

Under questioning by defence counsel Nicholas Stewart, Ambassador Okun said that these aims had even been included in the constitution of the fledgling Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska.

"[Recovery of the land lost after the Second World War] was something that the Bosnian Serb leadership deeply believed in. But this involved expelling or killing the people who lived there in 1992," he said.

When asked by Stewart if his client had explicitly said that fighting would stop if the Bosnian Serbs were allowed to keep the territory they claimed, Ambassador Okun replied, "I would not put those words in his mouth. But when you are meeting with three gentlemen and one of them [Dr Karadzic] speaks and the others do not raise objections, the assumption is that he is speaking for all of them."

The trial, under presiding judge Alphons Orie, continues.

Alison Freebairn is an IWPR editor in The Hague.