Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
A former UN commander said this week that civilians were “terrorised” by the sniping and shelling that barraged Sarajevo during the Bosnian war.
“There was terror on their faces,” Egyptian general Hussein Ali Abdel-Razek told prosecutors in the trial of Radovan Karadzic. “They were terrorised. They were running … out of fear of snipers. Life was very bad and desperate, especially for civilians in the Sarajevo region.”
Prosecution witness Abdel-Razek – who testified in Arabic - served as commander of the United Nations Protection Force, UNPROFOR, in Sarajevo between August 21, 1992 and February 20, 1993. He previously testified in the trial of Bosnian Serb army general Stanislav Galic, who was sentenced to life in prison for his role in the sniping and shelling of Sarajevo.
Abdel-Razek said he had numerous meetings with members of the Bosnian Serb leadership, including Karadzic, but that agreements the parties reached were often not implemented.
“We were met with respect and warm hospitality and good arrangements for our meetings, but the problem was always in the field,” Abdel-Razek told prosecuting lawyer Hildegard Uertz-Retzlaff. “Many of the arrangements we agreed to were not strictly adhered to in field. On the contrary, there was a degree of non-discipline by certain soldiers.”
The witness said he heard reports about large numbers of Bosniaks being expelled from certain areas of the city.
“Did the Bosnian Serb leadership…ever use the term ethnic cleansing?” asked Uertz-Retzlaff.
“No, they did not use that term as such,” responded Abdul-Razek. “But I heard from them continuously in many of the meetings that there was difficulty living together with the Muslim population.”
When Presiding Judge O-Gon Kwon asked the witness to elaborate on this point, he responded that in one meeting, he was given a map divided into different colours.
“They [said] they would consider this an ideal way to solve the problem,” said Abdel-Razek. He reiterated that the explicit term “ethnic cleansing” was not used in discussions, and he could not address whether it was a “general policy”.
When it was Karadzic’s turn to cross-examine the witness, he addressed the wartime meetings they had both attended.
“At the time you and I had very good cooperation, is that right?” asked Karadzic.
“I said precisely that my meetings with the leadership were met with great respect, and they showed respect to me and the UN in general,” responded Abdel-Razek.
“The problem was practices on the ground … not with talks with the leadership. What was on the ground was not at all acceptable.”
“However … can you say that you did reach agreements with us and that you never left our meetings empty handed, as it were?” asked Karadzic.
“Mr Karadzic, I have said that repeatedly. We all agreed on removing road blocks and [stopping] the shelling of Sarajevo …however the problems continued, and the shelling intensified and the roadblocks increased,” Abdel-Razek said.
He said he complained about the situation repeatedly to Karadzic, Galic and General Ratko Mladic, who was the highest authority in the Bosnian Serb army and is currently wanted by the tribunal.
“I heard so many positive words … but [they were] contrary to what happened on the ground,” said Abdel Razek. “…There was a failure in the command-control system. I didn’t really know why the agreements were not implemented. The meetings were positive, [but] the practices on the ground were something different.”
Judge Howard Morrison later asked the witness if he saw this practice “as a deliberate failure of good will or a lack of effective communication and control through the military command”.
“We can accept both possibilities,” responded Abdel-Razek. “As for discipline and rules of engagement that should be observed by subordinates - that was loose... In my talk with the [Bosnian Serb] leadership and [army] commanders, I urged them to make more efforts.”
He said that he saw the conflict as a “civil war” where civilians “were urged to fight side by side [with] their soldiers”.
“I think those people were not trained on the rules of engagement,” continued the witness. “There was a lack of control by the central command [and] no full coordination between the [Bosnian Serb] leadership and troops on the ground.”
During the cross-examination, Karadzic came back to the witness’s assertion that members of the Bosnian Serb leadership said they could not live with the non-Serb population.
“Will you allow for the possibility that we may have not been clear enough?” asked Karadzic. “We contributed to the confusion and misunderstanding of that sentence…What we meant to say is that we could not live under Muslims and Croats, or under a centralised government.”
Abdel-Razek responded by “reminding” Karadzic of an informal meeting the two had during Christmas 1992.
“I asked you, ‘What’s your bottom line?’ You said, ‘We cannot live together anymore,’” recounted Abdel-Razek.
Karadzic also asked the witness about statements he made to the press during his time in Sarajevo, expressing “frustration” with the situation there.
“What I said clearly at the time was that in the final days of my mission, I arrived at the conclusion that we had not been able to achieve much,” said Abdel-Razek. “We found ourselves in same situation as civilians… I was not reacting in anger to any party or any state, my reaction was to the [lack of] ability to deliver.”
“Did you confirm that it was in the interest of the SDA (Bosnian government) leadership to provoke foreign intervention?” asked Karadzic.
“I said that was my personal feeling,” replied Abdel-Razek. “Nobody prompted me and nobody alluded to me about that. What with all the shelling, and deprivation not seeing any glimmer of hope…it led me to the conviction and belief that the civilians wanted international intervention.”
The Karadzic trial will resume on August 17, after the tribunal’s summer recess.
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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