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Escaping Muslims Blocked, then Killed

Bosnian Serb brigade commander describes how his troops were used first to fight Muslim forces, and then kill the captives.
By Emir Suljagic

Dragan Obrenovic, the second Bosnian Serb officer to testify at the Srebrenica trial now under way in The Hague, has described how a military operation to block an escaping column of Muslims tipped over into a massacre after orders were received to kill all prisoners.

Obrenovic, who pleaded guilty in May to crimes against humanity, gave testimony this week against two other Serb officers – Vidoje Blagojevic and Dragan Jokic – accused of genocide as well as crimes against humanity.

Obrenovic, who held the rank of major at the time, was acting commander of the Zvornik brigade, one of the units which overran the town, a UN Safe Area, in July 1995.

On July 12, the day after the town fell, he was told about a column of Muslim men and boys trying to fight its way through Serb territory from the town to Tuzla. “I thought there were elements of the 28th division [of the Bosnian army],” he said.

Intelligence reports suggested that the column was blocked by Serb units on the Bratunac-Konjevic Polje road. On July 13, Obrenovic deployed combat formations along a track he believed it would take. However, he then received news that there were no Muslim units in the area.

He returned to Zvornik, where there was news that a large Muslim column of 1,500 men was moving towards the town. He ordered reserve units to assemble on the outskirts of town to defend against any attack.

It was that evening, in his Zvornik command post, that he got a phone call from his security officer, Lieutenant Drago Nikolic, telling him that Bosnian army commander General Ratko Mladic had ordered Muslim prisoners to be executed.

On July 14, Obrenovic joined his troops on the front line, where he was told by an officer that prisoners had been brought into Zvornik by Colonel Vujadin Popovic, security officer in the Drina corps, and Colonel Ljubomir Beara, chief of the army’s security service.

The Muslim column, which was now estimated to contain 6,000 men and boys, was still moving closer to Zvornik, but Obrenovic told the court it was heading for Tuzla, not Zvornik.

The front of the column reached Baljkovica on July 15, and fighting started in earnest the next morning. In terrible weather, Muslim and Serb troops fought hand-to-hand, both suffering heavy losses. By the end of the day, Muslim forces had destroyed Obrenovic’s mortar company and captured three self-propelled howitzers, killing 40 and wounding 100 Serb soldiers.

On the morning of 16 July, Obrenovic ordered his troops to withdraw. His losses were so severe that at 2pm, Colonel Vinko Pandurevic – who had now returned to take charge of the Zvornik brigade – told him to open a gap in his lines to let the Muslim force escape.

Meanwhile, executions of Muslims had begun elsewhere. Obrenovic went on to describe his own part in facilitating this. He told the court that he received orders to send engineers from the front to help build a road near Zvornik.

“I was suspicious, and I had the message re-checked,” he said. “Five minutes later I was told that they were needed in connection with Beara’s and Popovic’s job.”

“What was their job?” asked prosecutor Peter McCloskey.

“The execution of prisoners,” replied Obrenovic.

On the morning of July 15, he had a meeting in Zvornik with the town’s police chief Colonel Dragomir Vasic, and a brief conversation with the accused Dragan Jokic, who was chief of engineering in the Zvornik brigade. “Jokic told me he had huge problems with burying the bodies and guarding the prisoners,” said Obrenovic.

Jokic told him that Popovic and Beara were in charge of killing and burying the prisoners, and added and that he had been told by Popovic not to speak about prisoners on the radio or put anything in writing.

“I told him it was none of my business,” said Obrenovic. “I told him that out of a sense of powerlessness.”

“Was it your business?” McCloskey challenged him.

“Of course it was. It was a completely inadequate response,” said Obrenovic.

Later in the morning he had a meeting with Colonel Vasic, Colonel Ljubomir Borovcanin, commander of the special police brigade, and Borovcanin’s deputy Milorad Stupar. Vasic and Obrenovic agreed that the Muslim column should be allowed to escape. “Otherwise, Vasic told me, they would fight tooth and nail,” said Obrenovic.

But Chief of Operations of the army’s Main Staff, General Radivoj Miletic, told Obrenovic that the column had to be annihilated.

Vasic called the Bosnian Serb interior ministry, where an official gave him the same answer, saying. “What’s wrong with you? Find soldiers. Call in air forces. They all have to be killed.”

Stupar then told Obrenovic about a massacre in which 1,000 Muslims were killed at a warehouse at Kravica, saying it began after a prisoner grabbed a gun and shot a Serb guard.

Obrenovic told the courtroom that he tried once more to get permission to open a corridor, calling Drina corps commander General Radislav Krstic, who turned him down. Finally, Pandurevic walked into the meeting, and also refused a request to let the Muslim column escape.

That afternoon, Obrenovic returned to the front. He met Lieutenant Lazar Ristic, who the day before had refused his request for reinforcements, and discovered that he had sent troops away from the front line to the village of Orahovac. “I asked him how come he did not have any soldiers for me, but he had soldiers to send to Orahovac,” said Obrenovic.

Orahovac was one of the execution sites for Muslim prisoners.

Ristic said he had tried to get the men back from Orahovac, but was prevented by Lieutenant Drago Nikolic, who had promised the soldiers new boots and uniforms in exchange for taking part in executions.

Obrenovic then told the courtroom what he knew about the subsequent reburial of the dead in secret locations. He said that in October 1995, he learned that the previous month there had been an operation to rebury bodies, with supervisors including Popovic and Drago Nikolic. Members of the Zvornik brigade engineering company took part in the operation. Drina corps military police provided the escort for trucks, and the drivers were changed regularly along the way to ensure each knew only a small part of the total operation.

Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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