Ramiz Delalic, a notorious former deputy brigade commander known as “Celo”, also told the court about a power struggle within the Bosnian army in 1993, in which he took the defendant’s side and offered to kill a new commander who had been appointed over him.
Halilovic faces charges related to the massacre of 62 Croat civilians in the villages of Uzdol and Grabovica in southwestern Bosnia and Hercegovina in September 1993.
At the time, Halilovic, number two in the wartime Bosnian army, was running an operation, known as Neretva-93, in which Bosnian soldiers were fighting to relieve the blockade on the nearby city of Mostar.
Delalic was a loyal supporter of Halilovic – they both hail from the Muslim enclave of Sandzak in neighbouring Serbia – and is still a controversial figure. As deputy commander of the Ninth Motorised Brigade in Sarajevo during the war, he earned notoriety for his troops’ criminal activities, and was jailed twice.
The witness is also still under investigation for his own role in the Grabovica massacre. Previous Bosnian army witnesses have told that court that he stopped investigations into the events there because members of his unit were suspected of involvement. He made his appearance as a prosecution witness at the tribunal while on bail charged with an unrelated alleged murder.
According to Delalic, the whole Neretva-93 operation was designed to restore Halilovic to the top job in the Bosnian army – a position he had lost to Delic, who had been appointed commander. He told the court “Halilovic suggested the physical removal of Delic”.
Delalic told the court that he had volunteered to kill Delic himself, but instead it was decided that “something had to be done to restore the reputation of Halilovic and in turn undermine Delic’s”.
The operation to relieve the blockade on Mostar was chosen because soldiers in the Neretva Valley area were believed to be Halilovic supporters. And Delalic and his men were brought in from Sarajevo because they were also Halilovic loyalists. A local journalist was also invited to join the operation to help publicise the campaign to build up Halilovic as a leader.
While a local commander, Zulfikar Alispago, took command of the various units from his headquarters in the town of Jablanica in the Neretva Valley, Delalic told the court, “The commander at the end of the chain was Halilovic.”
The defence has argued that Delic was in charge of the operation. He also faces war crimes charges at The Hague, but on separate issues.
Delalic testified that the leaders of the Neretva-93 operation paid little attention when they were told about the killing of Croats in Grabovica on September 8, 1993. Thirty-two Croat civilians - mainly elderly, women, and children - died in the massacre.
The witness told the court that Alispago and he had visited Grabovica to see what had happened. He described finding a trail along an asphalt path, “as though something bloody was being dragged”. At the end of the trail, by the edge of the Neretva river, they found two bodies.
In the village, Delalic came across two young Croatian brothers whose family had been killed. The boys told him their parents, grandparents, and three-year-old sister were dead.
“They were cold and hungry and miserable,” he said. When the boys were asked whether they would recognise the person who killed his family members, Delalic said that one answered, “Uncle, as long as I live I won’t forget the face.”
Delalic said that he then ordered the soldiers who were present nearby to stand in line so the boy could see if he could recognise any of them. “I was prepared to kill someone right there, I was so revolted,” he claimed. The boys did not identify any of the soldiers as the perpetrator.
When Delalic and Alispago returned to the base where Halilovic was waiting, they informed the general that Croat civilians had indeed been killed in Grabovica.
“Not much attention was paid to the crime,” said Delalic.
“Halilovic did not react in the way he should have reacted. At no point did I hear an order to find those persons. We were given no instructions. Neither he nor his colleagues did anything to find out who the perpetrators were.”
Delalic also brought the two boys from Grabovica to Alispago’s base.
“Halilovic’s reaction was that he didn’t want to hear about the children and that they should be removed,” continued Delalic. “Almost everyone was in favour of removing the children so there would be no witnesses to the crime.”
The boys were later sent to live with relatives in the nearby town of Jablanica.
Once the boys were out of hearing range, the witness claimed, Halilovic had said, “Dirty laundry should be hidden, the offensive must not be exposed.”
A checkpoint was then set up to stop police and journalists from getting in to Grabovica see what had happened.
According to the indictment against Halilovic, it was Delalic who ordered that the bodies of those killed in Grabovica should be hidden. Some bodies were buried and others burned. In later cross-examination, Delalic denied those charges.
Delalic also told the court that he had witnessed Halilovic and Alispago tearing up an order from the army’s supreme command, which instructed them to stop the Neretva-93 operation and investigate the reported massacres.
According to Delalic, they also tore up an order from First Corps commander Vahid Karavelic to send the troops back to Sarajevo for questioning. Halilovic instead sent an order to Karavelic to get a further 300 soldiers ready to come to the Neretva Valley for combat duties.
“At the time I thought this order was quite strange. In my opinion the crime that happened down there should have been investigated first,” he said.
Delalic told the court that during the next month Halilovic was nervous about being arrested. ”He expected himself to be arrested and replaced,” said the witness.
In October 1993, Delalic was jailed for nearly eight months on charges relating to his unit’s criminal activity in Sarajevo – forcing civilians to dig trenches and to donate money, as well as charges of smuggling weapons and alcohol.
In cross-examination, defence counsel Peter Morrissey built up a picture of Delalic as an unreliable witness whose criminal record made him untrustworthy.
He put it to the witness that he and his men were hostile to any investigation of the Grabovica massacre, and that Delalic had ordered his troops to conceal the crime. Previous witnesses from inside the Bosnian army have told the court that Delalic himself tried to prevent any investigation.
The defence lawyer also alleged that Delalic may have his own motives for appearing as a prosecution witness in the Halilovic trial, as the investigation into the Grabovica massacre has not been closed and Delalic’s alleged role is mentioned in the indictment.
“The witness is intelligent and very well-informed of what kind of evidence exists against him,” said the lawyer.
The trial continues.
Samira Puskar is an IWPR intern in The Hague.