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

Death Squad Man Recalls Srebrenica

Bosnian Serb soldier says Milosevic's army trained a unit later involved in massacres.
By Emir Suljagic

The trial of former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic started up again last week with a low-ranking soldier in the Bosnian Serb army talking about how he was trained in Serbia - and later took part in the Srebrenica massacre.


Although he was a foot soldier rather than a commander, Drazen Erdemovic has played a prominent role in Hague tribunal proceedings. First, there is the enormity of his crime - he was part of a firing squad that executed more than 1,000 people. Second, the fact that he confessed to it. Third, he was the first person to plead guilty at The Hague. And lastly, since that time he has fulfilled a pledge to help prosecutors jail his former commanders.


On August 25, he took the stand again, giving evidence in the Milosevic trial. Prosecutors hope to prove that Milosevic held overall command responsibility for the Srebrenica killings, in which 7,000 Muslims were murdered after Serb forces overran the town. It was the worst atrocity of the Bosnian war.


Erdemovic could offer no proof of a formal link between the Bosnian Serb military and Milosevic as commander-in-chief of Yugoslav armed forces. But as well as talking about the horrors of the massacre, he testified to links between his unit in Bosnia and the army in Serbia.


Erdemovic's story became well known during his own trial, ending with his conviction in 1998, as well as that of Bosnian Serb general Radoslav Krstic, convicted of genocide in 2001. An ethnic Croat, he fled the Bosnian army for Bosnian Serb territory, where he was conscripted into a special unit, the 10th Sabotage Detachment. This unit was sent to Srebrenica in July 1995, and some members including Erdemovic given the job of machine-gunning Muslims who had surrendered when Serb forces captured the town.


Erdemovic said after he was conscripted into the Bosnian Serb army, his unit, commanded by Milorad Pelemis, was sent for training to the Yugoslav army base at Pancevo, near Belgrade. He was certain that this temporary redeployment had official sanction, "They did not need anyone's permission to enter Republika Srpska - but to enter Serbia, someone had to know about it."


When the sabotage unit returned to Bosnia, it was based at the town of Vlasenica. There Erdemovic saw more evidence of links with the Milosevic's military, when in early 1995 three Yugoslav army officers came to Vlasenica. "The first time I saw them, they were visiting the main staff, and the second time they were training us," he said.


The three officers asked Erdemovic's commander, Pelemis, to replace the Serbian license plates on their vehicles with Bosnian ones. After that, fresh supplies of weapons and uniforms came from Yugoslavia.


On the morning of July 10, 1995, platoon commander Franc Kos ordered Erdemovic and other soldiers in the unit to go to Srebrenica.


When the town fell, civilians were forced to march to a nearby football pitch. "They walked in front of us, and then they went on further. I did not know it then, but I know now that Potocari was in that direction," he said.


One civilian stayed behind, and when soldiers from other units started mistreating him, Pelemis ordered one of Erdemovic's fellow soldiers to kill him by slitting his throat.


Serb civilians followed the soldiers into town, recounted Erdemovic, "Local Serbs who were in Bratunac or Vlasenica took TV sets and video recorders."


The unit returned to Vlasenica, but on July 16, one of his commanders, Brano Gojkovic, told him that they were going into action again. "He did not explain anything, nor did he say what it would be," said Erdemovic.


Eight soldiers including Erdemovic got into a car and left Vlasenica for Zvornik. At Zvornik, a lieutenant-colonel he did not know joined them and they drove to a farm outside the town.


"Then Brano [Gojkovic] said what was going to happen - he said buses with prisoners from Srebrenica would be arriving."


"What were you to do with them?" asked prosecutor Geoffrey Nice.


"We were supposed to execute them," said Erdemovic.


Between ten in the morning and two in the afternoon, the eight soldiers killed between 1,000 and 1,200 people.


"Not just me, but at least two other guys could not understand why it was happening. I could not believe, I could not understand what was taking place," he said.


The execution squad used a machine gun at one point, but it proved inefficient, mutilating prisoners rather than killing them outright, so that the had to be finished off with single shots. So many were killed that the soldiers ran out of material to bind and blindfold them. "The first groups of people had their hands tied and blindfolds put on, but later groups did not," said Erdemovic.


When his unit grew tired, they were replaced by Serb soldiers from Bratunac, a town close to Srebrenica.


At this point, a prisoner approached Erdemovic and asked him for mercy, because he had helped Serbs to escape from Srebrenica. The man showed him some names and phone numbers as proof. Erdemovic went to Gojkovic to plead for the man's life - but without success, "Brano said that he wanted no witnesses."


When the shooting was over, the lieutenant-colonel showed up again. He wanted the sabotage unit to kill 700 more Muslims then being held in a cinema. But Erdemovic and some others refused, so the Bratunac soldiers carried out the killing instead.


There was a cafe across the road from the cinema, and Erdemovic waited there as the massacre took place across the street. He told the tribunal of his shock that local Serb villagers simply went about their business as it happened. "There were people in the street, in front of the building. I did not notice anything out of the ordinary, except for the people killed that day," he said.


Ten days later he was wounded, and taken to a hospital in Yugoslavia. Here he met a man who claimed to be a member of Serbia's secret service, and part of the interior ministry.


"He said that he had been in Srebrenica, that his unit was in Srebrenica, that they had taken Srebrenica, and that his unit was a unit of the Ministry of Interior Affairs of Serbia," said Erdemovic.


In the cross-examination, Milosevic accused Erdemovic of being an unreliable witness who had received a lighter sentence in return for a deal to give evidence for the prosecution.


He did not deny that the Srebrenica killings took place, but reiterated the position he has always taken - that Serbia and its armed forces played no part.


This is the third time Erdemovic has taken the stand. As well as testifying in the Milosevic and Krstic trials - and his own - he also gave evidence in the indictment of former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic.


He is the only war criminal to have come forward to The Hague voluntarily, and his original 1996 sentence was halved to five years in 1998 because he told the court if he had refused to carry out orders to shoot people, Serb forces might have killed him.


Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.