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

"Every Shell Found its Target" – Srebrenica Witness

Testimony in Karadzic trial tells of hardship in enclave before massacre of 1995.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Prosecution witness Mirsada Malagic. (Photo: ICTY)
    Prosecution witness Mirsada Malagic. (Photo: ICTY)

A Bosniak woman who lost her husband and two sons in the Srebrenica massacre testified this week about the desperate conditions and constant shelling endured by people in the enclave before it fell to Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995.

Prosecution witness Mirsada Malagic, 53, appeared at the Hague tribunal to testify against former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, who is charged with individual and superior responsibility for the Srebrenica massacre, during which 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered by Bosnian Serb forces.

The massacre has been classified as genocide in previous trials at the tribunal and at the International Court of Justice.

Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 after 13 years on the run, and witness testimony in this trial got under way in April 2010. He represents himself in the courtroom.

Srebrenica, in eastern Bosnia, was designated a demilitarised United Nations safe area in 1993. Despite the presence of Dutch peacekeepers, Bosnian Serb forces began shelling the enclave on July 6, 1995. It fell a few days later, on July 11.

By that time, Malagic said, many thousands of people – she estimated at least 40,000 – were seeking refuge in the town, which was too small and ill-equipped to accommodate them.

When she heard the first shells fall on July 6, Malagic said her legs “buckled”.

“There were so many people that every shell found its target. It couldn’t miss,” she said. “It just had to hit Srebrenica and it would kill somebody.”

On July 10, her family decided that she, her 10 year-old son and her father-in-law would head towards the United Nations Protection Force, UNPROFOR, compound in Potocari, about four kilometres away, while her husband and two older sons would go through the woods towards free territory in Tuzla.

“We did not trust the Serbs but thought they would not harm women and children,” she said.

“Did you want to leave Srebrenica?” prosecuting lawyer Kimberly West asked.

“Things being what they were during those days, [nobody] wanted to leave Srebrenica for the sake of leaving, but because they felt unsafe, because of the chaos that reigned,” Malagic replied.

“[The Bosnian Serbs] had already taken one checkpoint held by UNPROFOR,” she continued. “The circle around the town was getting tighter and tighter, and Serb troops were getting closer and closer.”

On July 11, as Malagic and her family prepared to go their separate ways and joined the crowds of other people trying to leave, shells started falling, she said.

In the “complete chaos” that followed, there was no time to say goodbye to her husband and two older sons, and “no one knew where everyone else was”.

After the shelling stopped, in the “crying, screaming and commotion”, Malagic discovered that her young son and father-in-law were still alive, but that she was injured.

“I was wounded in my right shoulder-blade and I was bleeding, and my son got very frightened,” she said, adding that her kerchief and jumper had caught a lot of the shrapnel, and none was embedded in her.

After walking to the UN base in Potocari, they were denied entry because it was already too crowded, but ended up finding a nearby factory to sleep in, along with many other refugees, Malagic said.

During the night, “men were taken out and questioned”.

“For the most part, these people who they took never returned,” Malagic said.

“Did you sleep that night?” asked prosecuting lawyer West.

“No, there was no chance of sleep that night,” Malagic answered.

“By the morning of [July] 13, the following day, what was your state of mind? Did you want to stay or leave?” asked West.

Malagic responded that after the night in Potocari, she and the other refugees wanted to leave the “chaotic situation we were in” and they headed towards the buses waiting outside.

At that point, her father-in-law was taken to the nearby “white house”, where Bosniak men were being detained.

“In the yard they had to discard their bags, and I saw my father-in-law discard his bag and walk towards the house,” Malagic said.

“Did you ever see your father-in-law again?” asked West.

“No,” Malagic replied.

Her two older sons – aged 15 and 20 at the time– were later identified in mass graves, as was her 44 year-old husband.

During these events, Malagic was pregnant with a daughter who was born in January 1996.

“All the problems and torment that I [endured] throughout my pregnancy left a mark on my daughter,” Malagic said, adding that the girl has had numerous medical problems since then, though currently her condition is “relatively good”.

Malagic also gave detailed testimony about what she and her family experienced in the years preceding the Srebrenica massacre.

In May 1992, after being told by “Serb representatives” that their safety could no longer be guaranteed in their village near Bratunac, they fled to Srebrenica, which had just been recaptured by Bosnian government forces.

She said all the houses had been torched, and a “stench” filled the air.

“For me, that was more difficult than the day I left my home. I felt miserable,” she said, adding that she spent years working in Srebrenica.

“The city was deserted, it was sad,” Malagic continued. “We had now found ourselves in a vicious circle out of which there was no way. There was nowhere to go. Tears started flowing from my eyes. It was really terrible.”

For the following six or seven months, Malagic said that she and her family went to live with her brother in nearby Potocari after learning he was still alive. At the time, the area was still being shelled by Bosnian Serb forces, and her brother’s house was destroyed in one such attack, she said, so they had to go back to Srebrenica.

In the winter of 1993, the already dire food situation got worse, Malagic said.

“In January and February, there was barely anything, [and] we would go from home to home, and start begging, practically. We had to feed the children,” she said.

Her husband and older son would walk long distances to find food, and would sometimes return empty-handed.

“I tried to get whatever I could and used that food to feed the kids. And it wasn’t even really enough to feed them. It was just survival,” Malagic said.

“Was there much food left for you?” asked West.

“No, I never even thought about myself. My first thoughts were always about the kids. If there was nothing left after they ate, then there was nothing I would eat,” she responded, her eyes filling with tears.

Malagic said she became very ill due to malnutrition and had to take vitamin injections. The doctor who treated her was subsequently killed in a bombing, she said.

The situation became more bearable when humanitarian aid convoys began arriving and they were able to plant vegetables, she said. However, by the spring of 1995, she said, the convoys were arriving much less frequently and contained fewer supplies.

When it was Karadzic’s turn to cross-examine the witness, he asked Malagic about the night she spent in Potocari near the UN compound.

“There were awful screams and cries,” the witness said. “All this screaming was coming from everywhere, like in a horror film. The night was filled with it. People could not understand what was going on. The people around us all lost family members. Men were taken out that night and never came back.”

Karadzic questioned her assertion that some Bosnian Serb soldiers were wearing UNPROFOR uniforms.

“We had spent a lot of time with Dutch troops and not a single one of them knew our language that well,” Malagic maintained. “When we were asking [the soldiers] what to do or where to go, they were smiling. They spoke Serbian so perfectly, there was not a chance they were Dutch.”

The trial continues next week.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.