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

Comment: Methodology of Murder

Landmark report details systematic killings at Srebrenica - but local people have yet to tell their stories.
By Emir Suljagic

It is no easy task to kill several thousand people in just a few days. A new report on the 1995 massacre at Srebrenica, presented in evidence at the Hague tribunal, provides an extraordinary account of the logistics of systematic murder.

What is disturbingly absent from the report are cases where Bosnian Serbs involved in transporting Muslim prisoners from the United Nations "Safe Area", or in the subsequent mass killings, objected to their role.

The report is the result of six years' work by a UN team, and was compiled by United States expert on military intelligence Richard Butler, who used thousands of Bosnian Serb documents captured by NATO to show that there was a pattern and method to the massacre. It details the movement of military units and key officers, the use of killing sites, and the requisitioning of buses to carry the living and bulldozers to bury the dead.

Up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslims died in a series of mass executions and summary killings in a few days in July 1995.

The document is of immense importance as a piece of evidence.

In practical terms it links two Bosnian Serb officers, Vidoje Blagojevic and Dragan Jokic, to the massacres for which they are now standing trial. Butler testified in court earlier this month.

But the report has a broader significance, too. It shows that the massacre was not ordered on a whim by Bosnian Serb army commander General Ratko Mladic and a few subordinates, but was planned and organised. There were many people involved - politicians and officials as well as commanders, civilian workers such as drivers and fuel supply staff as well as soldiers. There were considerable logistical demands for food, fuel and ammunition.

Butler has mapped out the activity of the Drina corps, the major Bosnian Serb force in the area, over those few fateful days. Naming battalion commanders as well as senior officers in the corps, he shows how its units - principally the Zvornik and Bratunac brigades, can be linked to specific execution and burial sites.

Some of the individual soldiers who took part in executions are also identified. The report shows that one of them, who helped kill over 1,000 men and boys at the Petkovci dam, was killed in fighting with a Muslim column that broke out of encirclement a few days later.

The report shows something else, too - in all the files and reports drawn from Bosnian Serb archives, it is hard to find instances of anyone - military or civilian - refusing to obey orders.

Nowhere in these thousands of pages detailing military unit logbook entries and fuel and bulldozer requisition orders, is there much sign of protest.

There were no cases of unit commanders refusing to order their men to shoot in cold blood hundreds, then thousands, of unarmed men and teenagers.

If there were protests - a refusal by a bulldozer driver to dig a grave, or of a bus depot manager to hand over his vehicles - they are not recorded.

It is clearly wrong to suggest that the entire local Serb population was in some way implicated in the war crime, but it is hard to credit the claims heard after the war that people there had no idea what was going on.

Srebrenica sits in a long narrow valley, surrounded by mountains and woods. There are few roads, and only one metalled highway running from there to the main Serb town, Bratunac. It was along this road that Muslim men were driven to their deaths. So were the bulldozers and army vehicles used by the death squads. The vehicle and troop movements needed to kill so many people must have been visible to anyone in the vicinity. The biggest single massacre, of more than 1,000 men and boys, took place in a roadside warehouse.

The geography of the massacre covers a relatively small area. It is 42 kilometres between Zvornik and Bratunac, again with only one road linking the two, which was used to transport thousands of men. Hundreds of buses with Muslim prisoners stayed in Bratunac on the night of July 13, 1995 before leaving in a long convoy the next morning for Zvornik - and an appointment with death.

Unless the soldiers, drivers, officials, police and mechanics all kept silent, it is hard to believe that local residents did not get to hear about the massacres themselves.

Of course, hearing about the crime and doing something to oppose it are different things.

The Bosnian Serb republic was a harsh state. Those involved in the killings have testified that they feared they might be killed if they refused to take part in the executions. It is understandable, perhaps, that nobody wanted to be the first to protest.

But that was in 1996. The former regime has since broken up and many of its leaders are in jail. Both Mladic and the former president Radovan Karadzic are on the run from war crimes charges. NATO and the UN are in charge, and there are few grounds to fear reprisals.

Now would be a good time to speak out. Many Serb authorities still deny that the Srebrenica massacre happened, or attempt to dilute its full scope and horror. It would mean a lot to the victims' families, and to all Bosnians including hopefully the Serbs, if the people of Bratunac would now speak out about what they witnessed.

Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

More IWPR's Global Voices

FakeWatch Africa
Website to provide multimedia training and resources for fact-checking and investigations.
FakeWatch Africa
Africa's Fake News Epidemic and Covid-19: What Impact on Democracy?