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

Former Serb Officer Says Sarajevo Combat Actions "Defensive"

Witness says his side only fired back in response to shooting, and denies claims of abuses against local civilians.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Dragan Maletic testifying on behalf of wartime Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic at the Hague tribunal. (Photo: ICTY)
    Dragan Maletic testifying on behalf of wartime Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic at the Hague tribunal. (Photo: ICTY)

A former officer in the Bosnian Serb army testified this week that he was unaware of women being raped in the Serb-held part of Sarajevo, and that any non-Serbs who left that area were not expelled but left voluntarily.

The witness, Dragan Maletic, was testifying on behalf of wartime Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic at the Hague tribunal.

Prosecutors allege that Karadzic, the president of Bosnia's self-declared Republika Srpska from 1992 to 1996, planned and oversaw the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that ravaged the city and left nearly 12,000 people dead. Karadzic’s army is accused of deliberately sniping at and shelling the city’s civilian population in order to “spread terror” among them.

The indictment alleges that Karadzic was responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which "contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory".

He was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 after 13 years on the run.

The accused, who represents himself in the courtroom, read out a brief summary of Maletic’s evidence and said that the witness held a range of posts in the Bosnian Serb army during the war. This included commander of a company in the 3rd battalion of the Sarajevo Romanija Corps and then assistant commander for security and intelligence in that same battalion.

Karadzic asked no additional questions except whether the witness was able to “defend” the Bosnian Serb-held area of Grbavica where he was stationed.

Maletic said his unit only conducted defensive operations and that it was “the enemy” who “used random sniper fire, regardless of whether they would hit civilians”.

During the prosecution’s cross examination, lawyer Carolyn Edgerton asked whether Maletic was aware of approximately 300 Bosnian Muslim civilians being expelled from Grbavica in a single day.

“They probably wished to move to the other side [of the front line] of their own accord,” Maletic replied.

“Perhaps we could look at conditions of life inside Grbavica,” Edgerton said.

She then read out an excerpt from the wartime notebook of Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic, who is also standing trial at the tribunal. The entry, dated March 25, 1993, stated that “some soldiers even rape Serbian women in Grbavica”.

The witness replied that this matter lay within “the remit of the civilian police”.

“When your superior command told you about certain things that were prohibited, did they tell you that sexual violence was prohibited?” Edgerton asked.

“Yes. None of my soldiers were involved in such activities,” Maletic said.

“Despite that warning [from superior commanders], it was still going on, don’t you agree?” the lawyer asked.

“No, I don’t,” Maletic said.

“Your assertion is that General Mladic was ill-informed?” Edgerton said to the witness.

“I can only speak about my part of the territory, i.e. the part of Grbavica that was under my control,” he responded. “There were other battalions in the area… so I couldn’t know everything that was happening. As far as I know, there were no rapes of any women at all. Or at least, I knew nothing.”

Edgerton pointed out that the witness was the assistant battalion commander responsible for security and intelligence, and asked, “But you knew nothing about allegations that even Serbian women were being raped in Grbavica?”

“No,” Maletic replied.

Edgerton then asked whether looting was another activity prohibited by superior command, and the witness confirmed that it was.

“Yet looting and crime in Grbavica were rampant, Mr Maletic, isn’t that the case?” she asked.

“Do you consider it a crime if a Serb… found shelter in a flat or brought his own furniture to an empty flat? Do you consider that to be a war crime?” Maletic retorted.

Edgerton ignored his question and referred to another entry of Mladic’s notebook from January 1993. The entry, read out in court, stated that Dragomir Milosevic, a Bosnian Serb general who would later become commander of the Sarajevo Romanija Corps, “did not cope well at Grbavica because he did not prevent looting and crime”.

“Does this not reflect that looting and crime did take place but were not being prevented [by] military command?” Edgerton asked.

“The civilian police was in charge of what was happening inside the territory,” Maletic said.

Edgerton pointed out that he had not answered her question.

“As far as the military was concerned, looting was prohibited, and I told you what was going on with soldiers who occupied flats. We were deployed along front line and didn’t know what was going on,” the witness said.

Edgerton then turned to the topic of snipers and recalled that the witness had said he did not know what types of sniper assignments were given to his battalion or how they were carried out.

She noted that the court had previously heard evidence that the United Nations Peacekeeping Force UNPROFOR was “very familiar” with sniper positions. In addition, she said the court had heard evidence that “civilian residents knew not only about the snipers but also their names and where they operated”.

“So Mr Maletic, I wonder how you can maintain that UNPROFOR and civilians in Grbavica were actually better informed than you about snipers in the battalion,” Edgerton put to the witness.

“I said that I didn’t remember their names and I can only repeat that today,” Maletic replied tersely.

The Karadzic trial continues next week.

Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.

More IWPR's Global Voices