Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
A former member of the Dutch peacekeeping battalion deployed in Srebrenica told the Hague tribunal this week that he saw a man being killed shortly after the enclave fell to Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995.
Paul Groenewegen, a prosecution witness in the trial of Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic, said he saw the killing when he was in a cordon of “Dutchbat” soldiers from the United Nations peacekeeping force as they tried to form a buffer between Bosnian Muslim refugees and Bosnian Serb forces on July 13.
“I saw how a man was separated [from the group of refugees], and my attention was drawn [to this] from the screaming. It wasn’t the first time that day, so I didn’t think about it,” Groenewegen told the court. “When I had some more freedom of movement, I strayed further [from my position on the road] and my attention was once again drawn by turmoil and screaming, and I saw how the man concerned was being executed behind one of the houses.”
He said the three men surrounding the man were wearing “military attire” and one of them shot him in the head.
Groenewegen also described being present as thousands of Bosnian Muslims fled to the UN compound in Potocari after Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces on July 11.
In the days that followed, more than 7,000 men and boys would be killed by Mladic’s army in the worst massacre on European soil since the Second World War.
Prosecuting lawyer Abeer Hasan asked the witness to describe the state refugees were in when they arrived in Potocari from Srebrenica.
“To say the least, they were frightened, undernourished,” the witness replied.
Groenewegen said that as far as he could see, the injured were given priority access to the compound, and “people were allowed in until there wasn’t any space”.
Thousands remained just outside the compound.
“Do you recall an incident where someone inflicted injury on themselves to get into the compound?” Hasan asked.
“Yes. The man concerned had tried to enter the compound…. and ultimately he approached us again with a head injury,” the witness replied. “My colleague said, ‘I just saw him injure his head with a stone.’”
Groenewegen said he was present on July 12 when Bosnian Serb soldiers began separating men from their families and taking them into custody.
“Did you observe the impact of the separation of men on the other refugees?” Hasan asked.
“Most of the men being separated were possibly with their wives and/or children. Of course it is not a nice happening – there were tears, there was drama and there was a lot of fear,” the witness said.
“Did you have weapon with you at all times?” Hasan asked.
“Yes, I always had it with me until I had to surrender it under duress to the people from the Bosnian Serb army,” Groenewegen said. “I had already understood from colleagues that they had to surrender their weapons and it was a matter of time until it happened to me. We were requested to hand over our arms in a friendly manner.”
Hasan then asked the witness to clarify whether the arms surrender occurred “under duress” or was “friendly”.
“It was clear to us that we would be handing over [our weapons] in any case, and when you’re asked the first time by men who are armed and are clearly in the majority, then it’s logical to me to surrender at the first friendly instance, because it was expected that second request will not be friendly,” Groenewegen said.
The witness confirmed that he saw Mladic in Potocari on July 12 and 13, but he could not say how many times.
“I saw [Mladic] being escorted by others around him with camera crews. What he actually did – well, I was too busy to keep an eye on him constantly,” Groenewegen said.
“Did you see him on the day you witnessed the execution of the refugee man?” Hasan asked.
“I can’t say that any more, but it must have been the case,” Groenewegen replied.
Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb army from 1992 to 1996, is accused of planning and overseeing the Srebrenica massacre as well as the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead.
The indictment - which lists 11 counts in total - alleges that he was responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which "contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory".
Mladic was arrested in Belgrade in May 2011 after 16 years on the run.
During the cross examination, Mladic’s lawyer Branko Lukic questioned the witness’s account of the man being killed by Bosnian Serb soldiers.
“How many armed people were there around that man who was executed, as you said?” Lukic asked.
“Of the three men surrounding him, I know the man who shot was armed but I can’t say that with any certainty about the other two,” Groenewegen said.
“Other than the executed man and three men surrounding him, was there anyone else in the vicinity?” Lukic asked.
“No,” the witness said.
Lukic then pointed out that in his statement and previous testimony, Groenewegen stated that there were four soldiers around the man who was shot.
“Would you agree that you didn’t see this incident at all? Rather, perhaps you heard about it from someone else,” Lukic put to the witness.
“That’s your question?” Groenewegen retorted.
“Is it correct that you were not present during this incident?” Lukic asked.
“No, that’s not correct,” Groenewegen said.
“These four men, or these three men – today you don’t know if all of them were armed or not. You say that you saw one armed man. What about fourth man? Did you remember the fourth man today or not at all?” Lukic asked.
“My memory turned them into three but apparently there were four. I was focusing only on the one who shot [the refugee], so he’s the only one I can say had a weapon,” the witness said.
“You’re not sure whether two or three other men had been armed?” Lukic asked.
“That’s true. The focus was entirely and purely on the man who shot,” Groenewegen said.
“Was anybody else from Dutchbat present there where you were, and did anybody else see that killing?” Lukic asked.
“No, that was because I had strayed from the road further down alone,” Groenewegen said.
The trial continues next week.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.
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