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Former Bosnian Serb General Describes Command Structure

Tolimir trial hears testimony that Mladic alone had command over military.
By Velma Šarić
  • Petar Skrbic, defence witness in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
    Petar Skrbic, defence witness in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)

The trial of former Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, general Zdravko Tolimir continued this week with a defence witness who gave evidence on the army’s command structure.

Petar Skrbic, a retired Yugoslav People's Army, JNA, and VRS general, was a colleague of Tolimir’s during the 1992-95 war in Bosnia and Hercegovina.

Tolimir was assistant commander for intelligence in the VRS main staff, reporting directly to the army’s commander Ratko Mladic, while Skrbic was assistant commander for personnel, mobilisation and frontline organisation.

It was Tolimir who questioned the defence witness this week , as he is representing himself in court.

He is charged with eight counts including genocide, extermination, murder, and the forced transfer and deportation of Bosniaks from the eastern Bosnian enclaves of Srebrenica and Zepa in July 1995.

Mladic, the VRS commander, is also currently facing trial for genocide at the Hague tribunal.

Skrbic was formerly an instructor at the JNA military academy in Belgrade, and told the court he joined the VRS in 1993, although he did not give further details of the circumstances in which this happened.

“Mladic was the only one who was able to command in any way in the VRS. Everyone else in the chain of command had a ‘management and control’ function,” the witness said.

Expanding on this, he went on to explain, “Command means giving direct orders, deciding how things should be, and this is then valid all the way from the top down. On the other hand, management and control only meant administrating that implementation of commands, and controlling that the implementation was going as it should."

Tolimir commented that as an experienced military academy trainer, the witness would know exactly how each official's competence in the army was defined.

The witness said that “it may sound awkward to use the word ‘management’ in a military context in the English language, but that it also sounds awkward to use the word 'command' when translated back into Serbian”.

He said his own job was “not in any way related to issuing commands, but consisted only of issuing directions and guidelines to the subordinates and eventually recommendations or requests for the commander”.

Tolimir asked his witness whether it was he who had asked the Republika Srpska, RS, defence ministry “to urgently provide 50 buses” on July 12, 1995.

The prosecution states in the indictment that these buses were used to bring captured Bosnian men to places of execution in the Srebrenica area after enclave fell to Serb forces in July 1995.

The witness said that he “couldn't quite remember all the details” regarding the provision of buses, but that he did recall a phone-call with someone who ordered him to “draft such a document”.

He added that he thought that the phone call might have been with Mladic, “although the order itself was then issued by the ministry” to civilian structures within the RS municipalities charged with dealing with military affairs.

Asked about the purpose of these buses, Skrbic said he was not sure but that it was logical to assume that they were intended for transport – “probably of equipment or personnel, but not deportation of women or children”.

Skrbic also said that while someone in the VRS main staff had received news regarding this, it was categorically not Tolimir's department.

“That was easily speaking none of his business,” Skrbic said.

“These events that allegedly happened [as cited in the indictment against Tolimir] – I find it hard to believe that anyone could have a clear picture, because all I have are conflicting media reports, and that is clearly not enough,” he continued.

“I remember Tolimir as a guy devoted to the law, to morale and to the Geneva conventions,” he continued.

He described his interaction with the accused as “fair and correct”, stating that they were often in situations in which they had to work together.

In cross-examination, the prosecutor reminded the witness that events at Srebrenica were "the topic of a speech by Mladic" at a ceremony on July 20 – a few days afterwards. The witness replied that “generals are a little like fishermen” who like to “boast even [of] things they never did”.

But he added that he couldn't rule out having heard "in another way” – not via the media – about what had happened in and around the Srebrenica enclave.

Asked by the prosecutor to specify whether he knew what happened with the buses and how they were used, the witness said that he had been very busy and therefore “not quite interested or supposed to know”.

The witness said that he did know, however, “that the buses were being protected by the military police”, which was part of Tolimir's department.

Asked whether it would be logical to assume that Tolimir was in charge of monitoring and protecting the buses, the witness said, "Well, yes, but only in an administrative way." He ruled out the possibility that Tolimir could have “commanded anything to anyone”.

Tolimir's defence continues next week. 

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sarajevo.

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