Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Two former United Nations Dutch peace-keepers testified this week at the trial of seven high-ranking Bosnian Serb army and police officers about events surrounding the fall of Srebrenica to Bosnian Serb, VRS, forces on July 11, 1995.
The officers served with the UN peace-keeping mission in Bosnia in 1995, when the UN-protected area was overrun by Serb forces, after which an estimated 8,000 men and boys were executed and nearly 30,000 women and children were forcibly deported.
The seven accused are former VRS officers Vujadin Popovic, Ljubisa Beara, Drago Nikolic, Radivoje Miletic, Milan Gvero, Vinko Pandurevic, and former police official Ljubomir Borovcanin, all of whom stand charged with war crimes in the Srebrenica area in the summer of 1995.
Popovic, Beara, Nikolic, Pandurevic, and Borovcanin are also accused of taking part in a joint criminal enterprise, along with Bosnian Serb military commander General Ratko Mladic and others, to “murder the able bodied Muslim men” from Srebrenica.
The indictment alleges that, “On 11 and 12 July 1995, the Srebrenica enclave was taken over by VRS and MUP [ministry of the interior] troops and the plan to remove the Muslim population from Srebrenica was implemented, along with the plan to murder all the able-bodied men”.
When Serbs overran the enclave on July 11, around 25,000 Bosnian civilian refugees sought refuge in the UN-base at the village of Potocari, near Srebrenica. The following day, Bosnian Serb forces began the forcible deportations of the Muslim refugees from the base.
Paul Groenewegen, a former Dutch military officer serving as part of the UN Protection Force, UNPROFOR, in Srebrenica at the time relevant to the indictment, described in court this week how crowds of “exhausted and terrified” civilians descended on the Potocari base on July 11.
“I heard that a man committed suicide in the UN base, and that a pregnant woman died,” Groenewegen told the court, adding that he didn’t witness this personally.
The next day, July 12, said Groenewegen, UNPROFOR soldiers tried forming a “human shield” to keep Muslims at safe distance from the Bosnian Serb soldiers.
The soldiers were very aggressive, he said, and yelled and swore at the terrified Muslim civilians, many of whom were sobbing and distraught.
He described scenes of chaos as some refugees pushed their way through the “human shield” of UN troops, and onto the buses which awaited them, while others were forced onto the vehicles by VRS soldiers before being driven away.
This week, Groenewegen told the judges that on July 12 and 13, he saw approximately 400 Muslim men being forcibly separated from their families by Bosnian Serb soldiers and taken to a building called the White House.
It was established in the 2004 judgement of Bosnian Serb Commander Radislav Krstic, that “the men and boys in Potocari were separated from the women, children and elderly and taken to the White House for interrogation, and also forced to leave their belongings, including their wallets and identification papers, in a large pile outside the building prior to entering”.
The Krstic judgement went on to say that “the Trial Chamber also heard evidence that some of the men detained at the White House were killed and mistreated in sporadic attacks” and that “all of the Bosnian Muslim men who were separated were held in appalling conditions”
The trial of ex-Bosnian Serb officers Vidoje Blagojevic and Dragan Jokic established that from the White House, Muslim men and boys were bused to different execution sites.
Describing the events he witnessed, Groenewegen said, “I saw a man on the road - he was captured by four Bosnian Serb soldiers. Later that day, he was standing in the backyard of the White House, and one of these soldiers murdered him by shooting him in the head.”
Groenewegen’s testimony was followed by that of Eelco Koster, an officer in charge of the logistics with the Dutch battalion stationed in the Potocari compound in July of 1995.
Koster told the judges that over 4000 refugees took shelter inside the UNPROFOR base in Potocari, while over 15,000 remained outside, as Bosnian Serb forces laid siege to and eventually won control of Srebrenica.
Koster described conversations he had with Mladic whom, he said, came to the UN base on July 12.
“I asked [Mladic] what he planned to do in Srebrenica, but he just ignored me. Later, he told me that he could do what he wanted, and that he was going to transfer the refugees to another location,” said Koster.
Both Groenewege and Koster previously testified at the at the trial of Blagojevic and Jokic in 2003.
In January 2005, Blagojevic was sentence to an 18-year prison term by the tribunal for complicity in genocide, while Jokic got nine years for crimes against humanity.
The trial continues next week.
Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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