COURTSIDE: Sarajevo Trial

American witness tells of Serb invitation to take pot-shot at Sarajevo.

COURTSIDE: Sarajevo Trial

American witness tells of Serb invitation to take pot-shot at Sarajevo.

Saturday, 12 January, 2002

After offering coffee and plum-brandy, John Ashton's Bosnian Serb hosts offered him use of a cannon to fire a couple of shots on Sarajevo. He thanked them, explaining he did not want to take part but they said he could "just fire into the city" and didn't have to kill anybody.

Ashton was testifying last week at the trial of General Stanislav Galic, former commander of the Sarajevo-Romanija corps of the Bosnian Serb army, accused of shelling Sarajevo and a sniping campaign against its civilians.

Ashton's hosts were soldiers of the Romanija corps deployed at one of the artillery positions around Sarajevo in March 1993.

He said they had explained that their president, Radovan Karadzic, had recently been on the same artillery position escorting "some Russian journalist, or writer", who had accepted the same offer and fired on the city. (This was Edvard Limonov, whose shooting from a heavy machine-gun was recorded in the BBC documentary "Serbian Epics").

The American guest said he agreed to look through the gun sights (which he described as a "celestial telescope") and expressed amazement about the view and said it was easy to hit targets precisely with such equipment. "Like sheep on pasture," one of his hosts boasted.

Ashton had arrived in Sarajevo in July 1992 as a freelance

photographer, intending to shoot photographs for the UN in two days and leave. He stayed almost two years, first as a photographer, and then as a founder of a humanitarian organisation, AMRA, which supplied medical and sanitary material to hospitals on both sides, in Sarajevo and Pale.

Moving frequently around Sarajevo and in the hills under Serb control, he saw and heard a great deal. He also took many photographs of artillery and sniping incidents, which he presented to the court last week.

Prior to that, Ashton spent three years in the US Coast Guard, during which he served in Vietnam. Then, with a camera, he had visited battlefronts in Beirut, Eritrea, Afghanistan, Somalia and Sudan. He also trained at the National Institute for Health Care in Washington, enabling him to occasionally help Sarajevo doctors treat the wounded.

During his stay in Sarajevo, he lived in the state hospital, and often complained to his Serb friends in the Romanija corps of the frequent shelling.

They told him to look elsewhere for accommodation, as the shelling would not stop until they "regained the hospital".

Ashton said his Serbian interlocutors explained the shelling of Sarajevo in similar terms. They did not want to completely destroy the city, but to force out the Muslims, so Sarajevo would "again become Serbian".

One of Ashton's Serbian connections was Major Indzic, the liaison officer in Galic's HQ. In his office in Lukavica barracks, Ashton saw a TV tuned in to the CNN. The prosecutor cited this in his opening statement as evidence that the accused knew what was happening in Sarajevo, as the shelling and the sniping campaign were broadcast live, and he did nothing to prevent the crimes, or punish the perpetrators.

Ashton also learnt from his "Serbian connections" about a specific form of shelling, or "punishing" Sarajevo, known as the Iron, or Orthodox, Cross.

This was used to retaliate for killings of Serb soldiers or for mortar fire from the Bosnian army. The technique, Ashton was told in Pale by an Iron Cross "specialist", was to raise the barrel of the cannon first by 0.2 degrees and fire the first shot.

When it was verified that the target had been hit, the barrel was raised slowly by a degree and six to eight shells were fired. The cannon was then recalibrated and six to eight shells were fired horizontally, from left to right, or right to left.

Ashton said he had mentioned the Iron Cross to Major Indzic, who was "very surprised" the American knew of the invention. Indzic confirmed it was a "kind of a punishment" and noted that the artillery soldiers were free to choose the targets and the way in which they would use their weapon. The trial continues.

Mirko Klarin is an IWPR senior editor covering the war crimes tribunal and editor-in-chief of SENSE News Agency.

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