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Former Soldier Recalls Branjevo Farm Killings

“There's no way you could count every single man murdered by every single one of us”, says Srebrenica death squad member.
By Velma Šarić

A former soldier in the Bosnian Serb army who admitted to participating in the mass execution of over 1,000 Bosniak prisoners took the stand at The Hague tribunal for the tenth time this week.

Drazen Erdemovic, testifying on behalf of the prosecution in the case against wartime Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic, pleaded guilty in 1998 to murder as a war crime and was sentenced to five years in prison for participating in executions at the Branjevo farm on July 16, 1995.

Most recently, he testified in the trial of former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic. (See Serb Soldier's Life "Ruined" by Srebrenica Killings.)

Erdemovic said he hoped this would be his last appearance at the tribunal as it was not at all easy talking “openly about these things”, and because his testimony had forced him and his family to “move and adopt a completely new identity”.

He has previously estimated that he personally killed about 70 of the approximately 1,000 to 1,200 men who were gunned down at the at the Branjevo farm on July 16, 1995.. He has said he carried out the executions because he was threatened with death if he refused the order.

The killings at the Branjevo farm were part of a larger massacre of more than 7,000 Bosniak men and boys who were captured after the town of Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces on July 11, 1995.

Prosecutors allege that defendant Mladic, as commander of the Bosnian Serb army from 1992 to 1996, planned and oversaw the Srebrenica massacre. The indictment further alleges that Mladic 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".

Erdemovic told the prosecution this week that the killings – carried out by himself and seven colleagues – took “five, five-and-a-half hours, because there were 15 or 20 buses bringing the Muslim men”.

He said the captives were brought by a “tall and athletic, somewhat older” army officer who “never introduced himself”. He added that this officer might have been Ljubisa Beara, who was convicted of genocide and sentenced by the tribunal to life in prison in 2010 for his role in the Srebrenica massacre.

During cross-examination, Erdemovic was asked by Mladic’s lawyer Miodrag Stojanovic whether he was familiar with the rumours that the commander of his squad, Milorad Pelemis, was being “paid in gold and money for the crimes”.

“I heard that, but really don’t know if he ever received the money,” Erdemovic said, adding that he personally “never received any money for the killings”.

Stojanovic also asked him how he could be certain that “1,000 or 1,200” Muslims were killed that day, since another member of his squad, Franc Kos, said that the number was closer to 600 or 700.

Erdemovic answered that his own estimate was “realistic” but “there's no way you could count every single man murdered by every single one of us”.

The defence lawyer then asked whether Erdemovic was sure that the “tall, athletic and somewhat older man” had given the order to murder the men.

“He came to the squad and spoke with Brano Gojkovic, who was the squad's de facto leader in that operation, and Aleksandar Cvetkovic. Gojkovic then came up to [me], Franc Kos, and Zoran Goronja, and we all protested saying that the killings wouldn't make sense. Gojkovic then answered, ‘Very well, if you don't want to, then give me your guns and stand right next to them,’” Erdemovic recalled.

In June 2012, Bosnia’s national war crimes court jailed Kos and Goronja to 40 years for their part in the massacre.

Erdemovic has previously testified that Cvetkovic suggested using automatic weapons to speed up the killing process.

Stojanovic, however, said that Cvetkovic had dismissed these claims as “nonsense”, in a conversation held in an Israeli prison where he is currently awaiting extradition to Bosnia on genocide charges.

Prosecutor Julian Nicholls said this was “not surprising” and that “other members of the squad who were arrested thanks to Erdemovic had little or no personal interest to support his statement”.

Nicholls said the conversation with Cvetkovic was therefore “unreliable”.

The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR contributor in Sarajevo.