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"Disproportionate" Bosnian Serb Attacks on Sarajevo

Ex-international observer said firing on civilian targets was of a scale he had not experienced.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is accused of orchestrating the 44-month-long shelling and sniping campaign against Sarajevo which killed about 12,000 people. (Photo: ICTY)
    Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic is accused of orchestrating the 44-month-long shelling and sniping campaign against Sarajevo which killed about 12,000 people. (Photo: ICTY)

A former United Nations military observer told prosecutors this week that some of the actions of Bosnian Serb forces in Sarajevo were “entirely disproportionate”.

The witness, retired Australian General John Wilson, was testifying in the trial of ex-Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, who is accused of orchestrating the 44-month-long shelling and sniping campaign against Sarajevo which killed about 12,000 people.

“The weight of fire against civilian targets was at a scale I had not experienced,” said Wilson, who fought for 12 months in the Vietnam War, and was later deployed to UN missions in Lebanon and Jerusalem.

“What forces were engaged in this weight of fire?” asked prosecuting lawyer Ann Sutherland.

“The overwhelming use of fire was produced by Serb forces,” responded Wilson, who served as chief military observer for the UN Protection Force, UNPROFOR, based in Sarajevo, from March to June 1992.

However, during the cross-examination, Karadzic repeatedly challenged Wilson’s assertions and alleged that Bosnian government forces took up positions near UN facilities.

“That’s correct,” answered Wilson. “When we raised objections with the appropriate authorities, those weapons were removed from the vicinity.”

Karadzic contended that the weapons were repeatedly removed and then repositioned later, but Wilson said he had no knowledge of that happening.

“The issue here about [the Bosnian government army] placing weapons in inappropriate places or having roving mortars around city ignores the fact that the response provoked [from the Bosnian Serb army] was entirely disproportionate … to the threat engendered by this activity,” Wilson said.

“I am not a soldier and don’t know anything about military institutions, [but] what is the point of proportionate response?” asked Karadzic.

“ You have to be certain that amount of force you’re using is proportionate to the threat and is appropriate for those particular circumstances,” Wilson answered.

He added that if there is conflict that involves a high risk of civilian casualties, it is a good idea for the military to employ a lawyer who specialises in international law and how civilians should be treated during war, as outlined in the Geneva conventions.

“I don’t know if Serb forces engaged [a lawyer] but the evidence is that they didn’t,” Wilson said.

Karadzic maintained that he did his “best” to “save and look after civilians”.

“Do you consider that I did not invest in any such effort?” he asked.

“On many occasions when the … treatment of civilians was raised with you, and the way city was being shelled, your standard response was that you were being provoked or doing it for defence of the Serb people,” answered Wilson, noting that Karadzic never denied what was happening in the city.

“My answer is that from time to time [you showed] a willingness to look after the civilian population,” Wilson continued. “But as a general rule, your response was that you were conducting operations in defence of the Serb people.”

Karadzic also contended that Hague indictee Ratko Mladic, who commanded the Bosnian Serb army, “made efforts to prevent casualties”.

“No, quite to the contrary,” Wilson responded. “He seemed to take actions that resulted in the deaths of a lot of people.”

Karadzic pointed to a phone intercept from May 25 1992, and he quoted Mladic as saying, “I don’t want to kill people, to destroy the city.”

Wilson said that he personally met Mladic on May 25, the same day as the phone intercept, to discuss the withdrawal of Yugoslav army, JNA, soldiers from Sarajevo.

“He said that if the barracks were not evacuated within three days, he would level the city,” Wilson said. “The city had lots of civilians in it. As it turned out, he carried out that threat on the 28th of May, and unleashed the most horrendous attack.”

“Put yourself in [Mladic’s] position,” said Karadzic, raising his voice and gesturing emphatically with his hands. “If you had three massacres after assurances for safe withdrawals … would you have warned the president not to let that happen again?”

Presiding Judge O-Gon Kwon noted that the question required the witness to speculate and instructed the accused to move on.

Earlier, Wilson spoke about his own experience during one particular shelling attack on May 14, 1992 in the neighbourhood of Dobrinja, where he was staying.

“I can only say what I saw,” he told the court. “I spent most of day in the bathroom lying on the floor because of the shrapnel flying into the apartment. It was a very heavy artillery attack.”

“How did you know who were the Serbs and who were the Muslims?” Karadzic asked.

“The Serbs were people in uniforms supported by tanks,” Wilson said. “The Muslims were in regular clothes with rifles.”

He added that he spoke with people in the stairwell of his building who identified themselves as Bosnian government soldiers.

“They told me … they were defending the area,” Wilson said. “I saw who was attacking – it was well organised and a good infantry attack. It required training.”

Karadzic then asked Wilson if he spoke with any Serb soldiers about “who was doing the attacking”.

“No, they were firing at me,” Wilson responded. “They weren’t looking for conversation.”

“Do you mean to say that the Serbs were firing at you and the Muslims weren’t?” Karadzic asked.

“Yes, I do mean to say that,” Wilson said.

“Do you consider yourself to be well informed and impartial?” Karadzic asked.

“Yes, I do consider myself to be sincerely impartial,” Wilson responded. “Everyone has prejudices but I’ve tried really hard as a professional to be impartial.”
Karadzic then invited Wilson to “quote” one of his prejudices for the court.

“I can assure you I don’t have a prejudice against the Serbs,” he said. “Unfortunately they were involved in bad politics led by bad politicians.”

Throughout the cross-examination, Karadzic asked Wilson very detailed questions about particular firing positions in the city, as well as which ethnic groups comprised each neighbourhood.

Wilson repeatedly said that he did not have “detailed knowledge” of Sarajevo’s geography, nor of the city’s ethnic composition. Karadzic also asked several questions about events that happened when Wilson was outside the region for several days in May 1992, which the witness could say little about.

“How is it possible you don’t know about all of this?” Karadzic exclaimed at one point.

Later, he said, “I give up. There are almost 100 key facts he had to know in view of his important position!”

“A military adviser doesn’t have to know all the facts, he just has to know where to find them,” Wilson said. “I did not have detailed knowledge of every event, on every day of the conflict … there were many unknowns and many grey issues.”

The trial continues next week.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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