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

COURTSIDE: Mostar - Dressed to be Killed

A former Bosniak prisoner recalls the horror of being used as a human shield on the front-line.

In Mostar, on one of the bitterest front-lines of the war, Bosnian Croat commander Vinko 'Stela' Martinovic dressed four Bosniak detainees in Croatian Defence Council, HVO, uniforms, gave them wooden rifles and bags filled with rocks to look like hand grenades, and then told them to march.

"Stela said that we had to run before an HVO tank followed by HVO soldiers," said protected witness J, giving a deposition before the war crimes tribunal last week. The explicit aim was to draw fire from the Bosnians. "The HVO did not know the precise positions of the BH army, and wanted to have them shoot first."

The testimony wound up two weeks of deposition-taking in the case against Martinovic and Mladen 'Tuta' Naletilic, for crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva convention for inhumane treatment of prisoners at the Heliodrom camp near Mostar, attacks on civilians and property at the villages of Sovici and Doljani, and other events in 1993.

Deposition witnesses are generally considered to be less crucial for proving charges and therefore are called to give testimony before a presiding legal officer instead of the full trial chamber. But in this instance the witness nevertheless accused the defendants of very serious misconduct.

Protected witness J, at the time a detainee at the Heliodrom, testified that on September 17, 1993, Stela personally 'instructed' three other prisoners and himself on how to act as human shields in the no-man's-land between the HVO and the Bosnian army in the centre of Mostar.

After running in front of an HVO tank, they found refuge behind the Bosnian army building that was being attacked. Asked by the prosecutor how he felt at that moment, the witness recalled: "One expects death. I wished for it badly, asking God for it to be real death, and not to be heavily wounded, since it would be very difficult for anyone to come to my rescue on the demarcation line."

With light shrapnel wounds, the four detainees eventually managed to hide in the cellar of a house where the headquarters of the Bosnian army was located. Other detainees were less fortunate. The indictment against Tuta and Stela says that about a dozen people were killed when used as human shields along that boulevard in Mostar.

Vjera Bogati is an IWPR special correspondent at the Hague and journalist with SENSE News Agency.