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

Grabovica Survivors Testify

Units under Muslim army commander’s control terrorised and killed Croat villagers, witnesses claim.

Anyone driving south from Sarajevo these days towards Mostar and the Adriatic coast is unlikely even to notice Grabovica, which lies some 60 kilometres from the capital.

It is easy to overlook the scorched, roofless houses facing each other from the Neretva river’s plunging banks which, overgrown with moss and shrubs, blend so well with the landscape.

This week the trial of Sefer Halilovic - the highest ranking Bosnian army officer yet to appear before the Hague tribunal - heard two elderly women speak of the September 1993 massacre that turned this once-picturesque community into a ghost village.

And another Bosnian army commander, Salko Gusic, told the court that the responsibility for what happened in Grabovica rested firmly with the accused.

Prosecutors allege that in September 1993 Halilovic was in charge of the “Neretva 93” operation against Croat forces in Hercegovina, which was designed to ease the blockade on Mostar.

It is alleged that soldiers under Halilovic’s command in the course of the operation murdered 33 civilians in Grabovica on September 8 and 9, and a further 29 in nearby Uzdol just a few days later.

Halilovic is charged on the grounds of command responsibility - that he failed to prevent the killings from taking place or punish the perpetrators afterwards. He has pleaded not guilty to all counts in the indictment against him.

Testifying under protective measures designed to ensure her anonymity, one Croat woman told the court that there was no trouble when Grabovica was first occupied by Bosnian army troops in May 1993. They accommodated themselves in workers’ huts belonging to the local power plant, she said, and she even used to cook for them and wash their clothes from time to time.

But the atmosphere apparently changed later in September when Sarajevo units allegedly under Halilovic’s command arrived in the village.

“They looked frightening,” the witness told judges. “They were camouflaged and wore red bandanas. The most unruly of them were accommodated in the houses on the other bank of the river, opposite my home.”

Prosecutors allege that Halilovic ordered the deployment of the notorious Sarajevo-based units of the army’s First Corps to Hercegovina despite the fact he knew they had been terrorising civilians in the capital for months.

It was also Halilovic, prosecutors say, who ordered that the troops should be billeted in Croat homes in Grabovica from September 8, 1993.

The witness told judges that she and other villagers were deeply disturbed by the celebratory fire, raucous singing and yelling that marked the arrival of these units.

On the afternoon of their appearance, she said, her cousin Marinko - who lived on the opposite bank - came to her house and asked for her help. “He was terrified by those soldiers,” the witness said. “He told me he didn’t think he would survive the day.”

The witness said she went to bed at around ten o’clock that evening, but was unable to sleep as “horrible screams” began to be heard from across the river and continued through the night.

“I just lay there in the dark, petrified, waiting for my turn to come,” she told the court.

In the morning, she learned from Muslim refugees who were staying in her house at the time that a number of Croat villagers had been killed. She was told Marinko and two members of his close family were among them.

Just hours later, she said, a “young, visibly distressed Muslim soldier” came to her own house. She told the court that he had announced, “Granny, I have an order to kill you.”

When the witness demanded to now why, he apparently replied, “Because you are a Croat”.

But in the end the young man couldn’t bring himself to go through with it and, instead, he told her to put on typical Muslim clothes in order to deceive any other soldiers who might come later. The witness did as she was told.

That afternoon, she told the court, she and her husband were transported to a Bosnian army camp in the town of Jablanica, some 12 km away.

There, she heard details of the killings from neighbours who had been brought to the same camp, and was told that some of the troops admitted their involvement. “I heard some Muslim soldiers were boasting about the murders – [they were] crazy, they must have been drugged or something,” she told judges.

Earlier in the week, the court heard from another survivor of the Grabovica massacre, 68-year-old Kata Miletic, who testified via a video link from Sarajevo.

She told judges that she lost two members of her family in the Grabovica massacre, and personally saw their bodies lying in a roadside ditch near Jablanica on September 9, 1993.

Also this week Gusic, wartime commander of the Bosnian army’s Sixth Corps, formally in charge of the area around Grabovica, told the court that Halilovic was “the highest authority in the field at that time” and “was able to issue any order related the Neretva 93 operation”.

Halilovic’s defence counsel Peter Morrissey retorted that Gusic himself was “deeply involved in the Neretva 93 operation” and accused him of “intentionally trying to minimise [his] role in it”.

But Gusic insisted that all units in the area, including members of his own corps, were subordinated to Halilovic.

The trial continues.

Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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