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

Former Bosnian President Blames "Greater Serbia Policy" for War

Sulejman Tihic says Bosnia was already in a state of war before independence referendum.
By Katharina Goetze
A senior Bosnian politician this week blamed Serb politicians for unleashing violence on his homeland by promoting their alleged policy “to annex parts or all of Bosnia” to Serbia.

Testifying at the Hague tribunal, prosecution witness Sulejman Tihic, previously a Bosniak member of the three-person Bosnian presidency, said his country was already in “a state of war” before its population voted for independence in March 1992.

Tihic told judges in the war crimes trial of Vojislav Seselj, president of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS, that even before the referendum took place, various Serb autonomous districts and municipalities were proclaiming independence all over Bosnia.

“There was a state of war precisely because of this policy of a ‘Greater Serbia’ [promoted by Serb politicians] which had as its objective to annex parts or all of Bosnia Hercegovina to Serbia,” he said.

The witness said that in April 1992, Serb paramilitary units seized his home town of Bosanski Samac. He told the court how Serb paramilitaries terrorised its residents until the Yugoslav army, JNA, took control.

“A lot of [the paramilitaries] were criminals, not patriots,” he said, describing them as groups of mercenaries and former prisoners.

Tihic blamed the JNA for serving the interests of Serb nationalists, by using paramilitaries to seize control of towns and villages.

While he acknowledged that other parties, such as the Croats, also bore responsibility for the outbreak of the conflict, it was the Serbs who controlled the JNA, he said.

According to Tisic, the JNA used Serb paramilitary groups like “Arkan’s men” and the “Grey Wolves” instead of its own special units. These so-called volunteers, which were controlled by Belgrade, were used to take over towns, he said.

“I think these volunteer units were created by [Belgrade’s] intelligence services, and were supposed to do the dirty part of the job, to come in before the JNA, to commit crimes and then after that the JNA shows up as some kind of saviour, and then again they leave and leave the matter to local Serb units and these paramilitaries,” he said.

During cross examination of the witness, Seselj, who is representing himself at the trial, said the JNA acted merely to try and stop the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

“The JNA wanted to retain Yugoslavia, and since it wasn’t able to retain Slovenia, it wanted to preserve the other republics,” he said.

Slovenia broke away from Yugoslavia in 1991, after a 10-day fight, which caused some 70 casualties.

Seselj denied the Yugoslav army was attempting to create a Greater Serbia, saying that he was the only one to propagate this idea.

“Yes, you stated your views loud and clear,” said Tihic.

“I am doing so today, too,” replied Seselj.

“Well, maybe other people didn’t do it officially and as loudly as you did, but they did [it nonetheless],” said Tihic, who is president of the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action, SDA.

The defendant then denied that his Greater Serbia propaganda had incited the Serbs to violence. Instead, he suggested to the witness that Bosniaks themselves had caused “a bloody civil war” with their referendum on cessation. The Serbs could not “allow” themselves to be outvoted on the question of independence, he said.

Seselj is accused of promulgating a policy of uniting all Serbian lands into a homogeneous Serbian state, which would include Serbia, Montenegro, Macedonia and considerable parts of Croatia and Bosnia.

The indictment states that the political leader “espoused and encouraged the creation of a homogeneous ‘Greater Serbia’ by violence, and thereby participated in war, propaganda and incitement of hatred towards non-Serb people”.

It also accuses him of responsibility for imprisoning and detaining non-Serbs in camps, in which detainees were held in inhumane conditions, beaten, tortured and killed.

This week, Tihic also testified that following the take-over of his town, he was detained and moved between prison camps, where he was severely beaten.

In late May, he arrived in Sremska Mitrovica, a prison camp in Serbia.

He said that food there was always insufficient, and that after each breakfast and dinner, the guards would beat them and force them to sing Serbian nationalist songs, or “Chetnik songs” as he described them, a derogatory term for Serb nationalists.

“We were beaten naked. They would hit me, especially on my surgical scars, until I passed out. Then they would bring me back to consciousness and beat me again,” he told judges.

During cross-examination, Seselj wanted to know whether the witness had ever come across people who introduced themselves as SRS volunteers or “Seselj’s men” while he was detained.

“Do you consider me to be personally responsible for everything that happened to you while you were in that camp?” asked Seselj.

The witness replied that the “responsibility is on the side of that policy you promoted inter alia national exclusiveness, the division of Yugoslavia, Bosnia and Hercegovina”.

Tihic said that he had been astonished that an ethnically mixed army like the JNA could be transformed so quickly into an instrument of Serbian nationalism.

“I was very surprised that the young men had this hatred just because my name was Sulejman and that they were beating me just for that,” he said.

However, Seselj argued that Tihic’s tormentors were actually communists pretending to be Serb nationalists, so as to discredit Seselj’s ideas.

“They beat you without mercy and forced the Chetnik idea so that one day you could ascribe all this to the Chetniks, whereas it was the military security services who were still hard-line communists,” he said.

The trial continues next week.

Katharina Goetze is an IWPR reporter in London.

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