Feature: Naser Oric

Profile of Naser Oric, former commander of Bosnian government forces in Srebrenica, now charged with war crimes.

Feature: Naser Oric

Profile of Naser Oric, former commander of Bosnian government forces in Srebrenica, now charged with war crimes.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

They called him the Boss. A former bodyguard of Slobodan Milosevic, Naser Oric was revered by the people of Srebrenica for holding out against Serb forces.

But he is also remembered for tolerating the black marketeers who came to dominate much of the life of Srebrenica.

In 1992 Oric put together a crack force of armed men to hold Srebrenica, one of three eastern enclaves that escaped the ethnic cleansing steamroller that thundered over much of Bosnia.

I saw him for the first time in the summer of 1992. He made a striking impression on me, with his crew-cut and beard. His muscular physique was perfectly cast for his camouflage uniform.

He certainly had charisma. The group of people gathered around him eyed him as if he were a deity. He feigned indifference but obviously savoured the attention.

I got to know him better later on, while working as a translator for the Dutch forces in Srebrenica.

He is not someone you would want to engage in a pleasant chat. In fact, few people really talked to him: he issued orders, while others listened.

He brooked little opposition.

In summer 1994 one of his men entered a humanitarian aid warehouse and, using Oric's name, took away a sack of flour, sugar and some other articles.

When Oric found out about the theft he administered justice in his own way – by beating the man up. He then forced the man to walk through the town with a large card hanging round his neck with the inscription, "I am a thief. I stole humanitarian aid".

I myself saw this dark side of his personality when I unintentionally got in his way.

I was visiting a girlfriend whose uncle was a leading figure in the SDA, the Bosnian ruling party. At that time, political parties were banned.

On my way out, oric saw me as he drove by in his grey Renault car. He slammed on the brakes, jumped out, and demanded to know whether I was passing messages between the SDA man and officials he knew I translated for who came in and out of the enclave.

"Are you passing information to the SDA?" he asked, one hand close to the pistol in his belt. He warned me I was "done for" if his suspicions proved correct.

Early next morning I was summoned to the police headquarters where Oric, his chief of staff, the police chief and the town mayor were waiting for me. They questioned me for nearly an hour before I could convince them I was not a spy.

But he had his quirky side. Once, we were in a meeting with the UN commander, General Philippe Morillon, who was engrossed in some maps. Oric, a body-builder, was bored. He turned to Morillon’s translator, a young woman from Sarajevo, and twitched his pectoral muscles, saying to her with a smile, “can you do that?”

Despite Oric’s threatening manner, I still have respect for his wartime activities. It was his bravery and iron will that ensured that Srebrenica did not fall in 1992 and early 1993, before the UN troops arrived.

As long as he was there, the town was safe. But he left – or was ordered to leave by his superiors – in March 1995. That made things much easier for Serb forces when they launched their final, fateful, attack in July the same year.

After the war Oric became a businessman. Some of his soldiers who were not so fortunate resented the fact that he made a lot of money in the post-war period.

I felt that peace was not his natural mode of existence. He functions best in war, when the lines are clearly drawn. Anyone as suspicious as he was must see enemies all around him.

Emil Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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