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

Fall of Zepa Recalled

Widow of Bosniak commander tells Tolomir trial of the final days of the enclave.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Prosecution witness Esma Palic. (Photo: ICTY)
    Prosecution witness Esma Palic. (Photo: ICTY)

During the trial of ex-Bosnian Serb army general Zdravko Tolimir last week, the widow of a popular Bosnian army commander gave emotional testimony on the fall of the Zepa enclave and the subsequent disappearance of her husband in July 1995.

Prosecution witness Esma Palic is the widow of Avdo Palic, who commanded Bosnian government forces in Zepa during the war. Shortly after the fall of the enclave in July 1995, he was taken prisoner by Bosnian Serb forces and never heard from again, his wife told the court.

His remains were finally identified in August 2009, after being found in a mass grave.

“…What I had craved in life but did not achieve was due to the fact that someone else made decisions about my life,” Palic said, as tears came to her eyes. “Since 1992, for the most part my life was reduced to what [Ratko] Mladic [the commander of the Bosnian Serb army] had decided, and all that machinery of the Serb forces, and the political circles who wanted to cleanse those areas of the Muslim population. My life was changed and lives of my children, too…I lived in agony for 14 years.”

Palic said that before Zepa became a United Nations designated safe area in 1993, it was repeatedly shelled and the casualties were mainly civilians, including women, children and the elderly. After the nearby enclave of Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces on July 11, 1995, her own house was shelled.

“A shell landed and … the door to the living room opened from the detonation,” Palic said. “I ran back to the shelter, and … [my] baby was crying, and at that moment the baby started vomiting and I was really scared for her.”

She said that around that time, the Bosnian Serb army would broadcast messages over a loudspeaker to the population of Zepa.

“That voice was calling out, ‘This is Ratko Mladic talking to you’ and then something like, ‘You cannot stay in Zepa…Do not listen to crazy Avdo. You are his hostages, he will take you to death,’” Palic recalled.

“The people were extremely upset,” she continued. “The atmosphere that prevailed in Zepa once Srebrenica had fallen can be described as a frenzy.”

“You said part of the message was, ‘You cannot stay in Zepa,’” prosecuting lawyer Rupert Elderkin said. “Did it surprise you?

“…We were very much aware that from the moment Srebrenica had fallen, we couldn’t stand our ground there because in Srebrenica there were far more UN troops…when Srebrenica fell, that automatically meant that Zepa would fall,” Palic said.

“It was clear to us all those years that the Serb authorities and Serb army couldn’t tolerate a place inhabited by Muslims so deep into the territory they had cleansed. There were repeated messages that we couldn’t survive on the border with Serbia.”

Tolimir, who represents himself, was deputy commander for military intelligence and security in the Bosnian Serb army main staff during the war, reporting directly to Mladic.

He is charged with eight counts, including genocide, extermination, murder, and the forced transfer and deportation of Bosniaks from the Srebrenica and Zepa enclaves in July 1995. Some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered at various execution sites in the days following the fall of Srebrenica.

Palic said that her husband had been in direct contact with Mladic in 1993, when the latter sent him a bottle of whiskey and a packet of cigarettes, with a “short message on the wrapping”.

“Did your husband ever say why Mladic sent this gift to him? What was the message Mladic was trying to get across to him?” Elderkin asked.

“[My husband] told me that on several occasions he had been offered to leave Zepa because Mladic knew Avdo, and he knew that while Avdo was in Zepa he wouldn’t be able to enter easily,” Palic said. “Not only due to his military abilities, because I must point out that Avdo had this influence on the population in Zepa that made them feel safe, they trusted him.”

She said her husband always refused to leave the enclave, even though he was offered “rewards” and the possibility of settling “wherever he wanted”.

After her own house was shelled in July 1995, Palic said she went to seek shelter in another village with her two small daughters, one of whom was four months old at the time.

On July 24, Bosniak representatives from Zepa signed an agreement which provided for the “immediate cease fire, demilitarization, registration of the male population for a prisoner exchange, and transportation of the civilian population” from Zepa, the pretrial brief states.

The Bosniak representative who signed this agreement, Hamdija Torlak, came to where Palic was staying, she said.

“[Torlak] made a deep sigh and he said, ‘I had to sign the surrender of Zepa,’” she recalled. “You could hear it in his voice, it was the voice of a traitor. Of course we all knew that anybody else who found themselves in same position would have had to do same thing.”

After that, Palic said everyone went back to Zepa town, where they would board buses to Bosnian government-held territory. As people crowded into town, she said she saw her husband standing in front of a cafe.

“Avdo told me everything would be ok,” she said. “He told me Tolimir was there, and he pointed at that man.”

Her husband had made arrangements with Tolimir to accompany the convoy in an automobile in front of the buses, she said.

“I told him not to believe [Tolimir],” she said. “It’s true that he looks civilized compared to the creatures around him, but I told him not to trust that man. My husband tried to be calm. I’m sure he himself was very well aware of everything. He knew he could not maintain Zepa, the UN was doing nothing, so he had no other choice.”

After that, she boarded the bus with her children, and at a certain point in the journey her husband came on board and remained with them until they reached Bosnian government-held territory.

When they reached the road to free territory, she said she and her husband said goodbye, and he returned to Zepa.

“I kept begging him to take care of himself, telling him he mustn’t trust Tolimir,” Palic said with tears in her eyes. “…I told him he should have himself in mind and that he couldn’t save anyone unless saved himself first. However, he clearly put it to me that he cannot allow for civilians to be hurt. He literally said, ‘Esma, I’ll do this job all the way to the end, no matter what happens to me.’ That was the sort of person he was. He thought he was responsible for those people and he never even thought of placing himself before anyone else.”

 A little while later, the presiding judge asked her why her husband did not go with her into free territory when he had the chance.

"...If he had left Zepa, and all his troops behind... people who trusted him and their families, according to his moral criteria and mine, [that] would have been unbearable …" she said. "Today my view is that one’s honuor comes above all other things."

Palic said she received confirmation that her husband had arrived in Zepa safely, but on July 28 she heard on the radio that her husband, along with other members of the Zepa leadership, had been taken prisoner. He was never heard from him again, she said.

When it was Tolimir’s turn to cross examine the witness, he referred to her earlier testimony.

“When you husband came on the bus did he tell you that I offered to [let him] go to [Bosnian government] territory with you, and it was because of that I allowed him to go to your bus?” Tolimir asked.

“He didn’t mention your offer,” Palic said. “Somewhere in my memory lingers that you were ready to let him go. He was hindrance to you in Zepa.”

“Mr Tolimir, if you were indeed of such good intentions, why didn’t you save my husband once he saved the people of Zepa?” she continued. “Instead, you offered him a dirty way out, a coward’s way out. Would you have abandoned your people? I know many would.”

At that point presiding judge Christoph Flugge interjected.

“I know this is a very emotional situation for you, but it is up to Mr Tolimir to put questions to you,” he said. “There is no possibility of him answering your questions.”

Tolimir also showed video footage of the negotiations between the Bosnian Serb leadership and Bosniak representatives in Zepa, during which Mladic mentions allowing “freedom of choice” for civilians.

“This was taped for Mladic’s purposes,” Palic said. “Why was Mladic not taped issuing orders to kill, butcher, and burn? This was recorded for his needs and you are relying on it now. As for freedom of choice, since 1992, we never had any freedom of choice … You killed, you torched, people went missing. Now you’re discussing freedom of choice as if we are idiots.”

“Mladic never issued orders such as kill, burn, or slaughter,” Tolimir responded.

Tolimir then alleged that Avdo Palic had organised “sabotage groups” to attack Bosnian Serb-held territory, and the accused presented a document from June 1995 which he said was signed by the witness’s husband.

“I am not familiar with all these details,” Palic said. “I don’t know what they did and how.”

She said that one Bosnian Serb prisoner of war she knew of was treated humanely, and that her husband did not allow people to go on raids for food and other necessities in Serbian villages.

The trial continues this week.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.