Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
A prosecution witness in the trial of Bosnian Serb army general Zdravko Tolimir testified this week about plans for more than 1,000 missing Bosniak prisoners shortly after the fall of the Srebrenica enclave in July 1995.
The witness, Milenko Todorovic, was assistant commander for security and intelligence in the East Bosnia Corps of the Bosnian Serb army, based in the town of Bijeljina. He said that sometime after the fall of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, Tolimir sent him a telegram concerning a large group of Bosniak prisoners who had been captured.
“What did the telegram say?” asked prosecuting lawyer Kweku Vanderpuye.
“Something to the effect that those 1000 to 1200 prisoners … should be accommodated and that accommodation should be provided by the corps command and [the prisoners should be] placed at Batkovic [camp],” Todorovic said. “That was the content of the telegram more or less.”
Tolimir, who represents himself, was deputy commander for military intelligence and security in the Bosnian Serb army main staff during the war, reporting directly to General Ratko Mladic, who remains wanted by the Hague tribunal.
He is charged with eight counts, including genocide, extermination, murder, and the forced transfer and deportation of Bosniaks from the Srebrenica and Zepa enclaves in July 1995. Some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered at various execution sites in the days following the fall of Srebrenica.
The witness said he gave the telegram he received from Tolimir to his corps commander because he was the one was who “ordered respective organs to carry out preparations” for prisoners.
“Practically speaking, I simply transmitted the telegram from the main staff to the corps commander for further action,” Todorovic said.
“What preparations had to be made to receive these prisoners?” the lawyer said.
Todorovic said that the Batkovic camp, located near Bijeljina, was part of an agricultural compound that was comprised of several hangars. These hangars were normally used to store “wheat, fertilizer and agricultural machinery”, he said.
Some of the hangars were already empty and could house a few hundred people, Todorovic said, but with an influx of more than 1000 prisoners, more would have to be cleared out. In addition, the camp would need certain “minimal living conditions” to accommodate such a large group of prisoners.
“This was not under my competence,” Todorovic stressed, saying it was the responsibility of the logistics branch of the corps command to prepare the camp.
“Did these prisoners ever arrive at the camp?” Vanderpuye asked.
“No,” answered Todorovic.
He said that at the time, a group of Bosnian Serb soldiers had been taken prisoner by Bosnian government forces in Tuzla, and their relatives were eager to have them exchanged with the incoming group of Bosniaks from Srebrenica.
“At a certain moment the situation became very serious,” Todorovic said. “There was almost a mutiny of sorts and corps commander didn’t know what to tell [the family members].”
Todorovic said he was instructed by the corps commander to find out what was going on and when the prisoners would be arriving.
“I picked up the phone and I got hold of General Tolimir,” Todorovic continued. “I asked him when those announced prisoners were to arrive. He told me to drop all further preparations, [and that they] gave up on that idea. I didn’t inquire any further. I simply relayed the information to the corps commander and then further events took place.”
“How much time passed between the time you received the task and the time you called General Tolimir because the prisoners hadn’t arrived?” Vanderpuye asked.
“That’s a difficult question,” he said. “There must have been at least two or three days. Maybe more … I lean towards the figure of two or three days from moment the telegram arrived.”
Presiding Judge Christoph Flugge asked the witness why Tolimir would contact him and not the corps commander, given that the latter had to carry out the preparations.
“I don’t have a concrete answer,” Todorovic answered, but said he thought it might have been because the request would arrive more quickly if sent along “this line of control”.
The witness was questioned repeatedly about the timeline of events during the prosecution’s examination, but he had trouble giving consistent answers.
Vanderpuye noted that during the witness’s initial interview, he “hadn’t mentioned anything more than 48 hours” in terms of the time between the telegram arriving and the phone call to Tolimir.
“I don’t have a perfect memory of what I said,” Todorovic answered. “I didn’t come with any answers prepared beforehand. I am providing honest answers and am trying the best I can to recall as many details as possible. It was more than 24 hours. Whether it was two, three or even five days is not something I can tell you.”
When it was Tolimir’s turn to cross examine the witness, he asked the witness several questions about his service in the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, in Slovenia prior to the war, military structure, and the break-up of the Former Yugoslavia.
At one point, Judge Flugge interrupted the accused.
“What is the purpose of asking about the secession of Slovenia?” the judge asked. “We are not dealing with the conflict that started in 1991. We are discussing 1995. It’s a waste of time. Please focus on the facts Mr Todorovic can provide you with.”
Tolimir said he was trying to show that the witness came to serve in Bosnia voluntarily and that he was not “sent by the VJ”, referring to the Yugoslav army that formed after the JNA disbanded in May 19992.
The witness had said earlier that he was part of the 30th personnel centre of the VJ that allegedly sent soldiers to serve in Bosnia. Members of the 40th personnel centre were sent to Croatia, he said.
“Did you know that Republika Srpska was supposed to contribute to the budget of Yugoslavia, whereas Yugoslavia would pay out salaries to officers serving in Republika Srpska?” Tolimir asked.
“I suppose there was such an agreement,” Todorovic said, adding that all those “temporarily declared” to be in the Bosnian Serb army received their salaries and benefits from the VJ.
The trial will continue next week.
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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