Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Enes Sakrak, 32, pleaded guilty before a Bosnian court in November 2003 to killing a woman and her four-year-old daughter during the outbreak of violence, which left some 33 civilians dead.
He and one other soldier – Mustafa Hota, who also admitted two murders and was sentenced to nine years in prison in December 2003 – are the only people convicted so far in connection with the crime.
As a member of the Bosnian army’s Ninth Brigade at the time, Sakrak’s vivid description of the massacre before tribunal judges this week supports prosecution claims that those who carried out the killings were under Halilovic’s command.
Prosecutors claim that Halilovic – who is also charged with responsibility for a second massacre in the village of Uzdol just a few days later, which left a further 29 civilians dead – handpicked the notoriously lawless brigade to join an operation against Bosnian Croat forces in Hercegovina, intended to relieve their blockade of the town of Mostar.
And they draw a direct link between his decision to billet the troops in Grabovica, which he later described as a “monumental mistake”, and the slaughter that ensued.
Halilovic’s defence counsel have suggested responsibility might lie with other units of the Bosnian army, or even vengeful Muslims who had previously been held captive by Croat forces and were later living in Grabovica.
Sakrak appeared in court this week using image distortion to hide his face from public view. But his voice remained calm as he recounted the killings.
The witness was only 20 years old when he and some 60 other soldiers from the Ninth Brigade together with its deputy commander Ramiz Delalic Celo arrived in Hercegovina from Sarajevo on September 8, 1993, to join other units who were involved in the so-called “Neretva 93” operation.
The brigade had already developed a reputation in the besieged capital for criminality and mistreating civilians.
Sakrak told the court that on their arrival in Grabovica soldiers from his brigade were at first told to accommodate themselves in two deserted Croat houses. But since the houses were too small for them all, his platoon commander Nihad Vlahovljak “conveyed an order” that he and others should find shelter in other Croat homes in the village.
The witness and seven other soldiers, including Hota, decided to stay in a house belonging to Pero and Dragica Maric, an elderly couple “in their late seventies”. And at first, he told the court, “there were no problems at all”.
But the situation became tense, he said, after one of the soldiers found a photo of the couple’s son wearing a Bosnian Croat military uniform.
Not long after, while they were all “sitting and talking at the table outside the house”, Hota shot the old man with an automatic rifle. Sakrak said he was “shocked” at what happened and supposed that “others were too”. But they put a blanket over the body and went to sleep.
Sakrak told the court he heard shooting in the house during the night, and when he got up around nine o’clock in the morning he found Dragica “dead in her bed”. He said he didn’t see who killed her.
The same morning, he said, Vlahovljak came to the house and “conveyed an order from the ‘higher ups’ that the villagers had to be killed”.
“What was your reaction to that order?” asked prosecutor Philip Weiner.
“We took our weapons and set off in the direction of other houses in the village,” was the witness’s matter-of-fact reply.
He confirmed they saw “two to three dead bodies already lying by the road” before reaching a house belonging to a family named Zadro, consisting of an elderly couple, their son, and his wife and three young children.
Sakrak said two other soldiers led the younger man to his barn – along with his parents – and demanded to have his cow, before shooting all three of them.
Next, Sakrak and the two other soldiers entered the house, where they found the young woman holding her four-year-old daughter in her arms.
“What happened then?” the prosecutor asked.
“I killed them both,” replied the witness.
“Why did you do that?”
“I don’t know,” he said.
He quickly added that he felt “deep remorse” for what he had done. “I would bring them both back if I could, but I can’t,” he said.
Sakrak told the court that he didn’t know who issued the order for Croat civilians to be killed. But he said an officer named Vehbija Karic told them to hide the bodies.
Another member of the Ninth brigade, testified in the same trial this week and said that Karic told his troops to “throw [the Croats who refused to fullfill their requests] into the [nearby] Neretva [river]”.
Prosecutors say Karic was a high-ranking Bosnian army official at the time the Grabovica massacre took place, and was a direct subordinate of the accused Halilovic.
Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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