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

Halilovic's Vanity Caused Croat Deaths

Prosecution claims that senior Bosnian army commander’s last-ditch attempt to revive military career led to a fatal error of judgement.
By Merdijana Sadović

A number of military officers have passed through the Hague tribunal over the past decade, but the opening statement heard at the start of the trial of Bosnian army officer Sefer Halilovic suggests that he may be the one to stand out from the crowd.


In court this week, prosecutors painted the former Bosnian army chief of staff - the most senior Muslim official to appear so far - as a vain and ambitious officer with little personal courage.


They claim that Halilovic attempted to revive his faltering career by conducting an important military operation using troops notorious for their disobedience – and that the price of this was ultimately paid by more than 60 civilians, who were allegedly killed by the unruly men under his command.


“[Halilovic was] the commander who wanted to have the glory of victory but not the responsibility of command,” prosecutor Sureta Chana told the court on January 31.


The elegantly dressed 53-year-old former general sat silently, listening carefully to the prosecutor’s opening statement, which focused on his alleged responsibility for the murders of 62 Bosnian Croat civilians in the villages of Grabovica and Uzdol in September 1993.


The killings took place during the Bosnian army operation dubbed “Neretva 93”, whose aim was to capture territory in Hercegovina held by the Bosnian Croat army, HVO, thereby ending the blockade of the town of Mostar.


The prosecutors claim that as “an armed military force is a powerful and dangerous thing – it must at all times be kept under firm discipline and control”, Halilovic should be held responsible for failing to either prevent these crimes, or to punish the perpetrators afterwards.


The prosecution claims that the military units that Halilovic personally picked from Sarajevo and brought to Hercegovina to take part in the operation were neither disciplined nor controllable.


Instead, they were notorious for terrorising the citizens of Sarajevo for months by mistreating them, forcing them to dig trenches on the front lines, robbing their property and spreading the atmosphere of general insecurity and lawlessness in an already divided and besieged city.


Ignoring the potential threat these units could pose to the local Croat population, the prosecutors claim that Halilovic ordered that they be stationed in Croatian homes in the village of Grabovica - a move that the accused himself later described as “a monumental mistake”, because it resulted in the murder of 33 civilians on September 8 and 9, 1993. The youngest victim was aged only four, the eldest 87-years-old.


Some observers in Sarajevo who followed Halilovic’s career throughout the war agree with the prosecution’s assertion that that he consciously chose units with a criminal past for this operation.


“Halilovic had huge ambitions – to become not only a military but a political leader as well – and he probably hoped these units would be instrumental in achieving these goals both before and after the operation,” said Sead Numanovic, a journalist from the Bosnian daily Avaz.


At the time operation Neretva 93 took place, Halilovic was already seen by many as an outcast. The most senior commander of Muslim armed forces at the beginning of the war, he was later publicly criticised by the late Bosnian president Alija Izetbegovic for a lack of personal courage and was replaced by another officer, Rasim Delic, who became the commander of the Bosnian army in June 1993.


And while a fading minority of Bosnian observers still claim that Halilovic fell victim to an elaborate conspiracy designed to eliminate him from public life and send him to The Hague, the majority believe he simply saw operation Neretva 93 as an opportunity to regain former glory and power.


But the witnesses who testified in the trial’s first week spoke of just how wrong it all went.


Two prosecution witnesses who testified under protective measures described the attack of Halilovic’s forces on Grabovica on September 8 and 9, 1993.


Witness A - who was only ten years old at that time - told the court how his grandparents, parents and a four-year-old sister were executed in their family house by men allegedly under Halilovic’s command.


The prosecutors claim Halilovic found out about this massacre on the evening of September 8, but failed to take appropriate steps and punish the perpetrators. The killings continued the next day.


Halilovic is also accused of ignoring an order issued by his superior, General Rasim Delic, to immediately identify and isolate those who committed the crimes in Grabovica.


In one of his public statements, quoted this week by the lead prosecutor, Halilovic explained that he had not carried out a proper investigation into the incident because he was “scared” of the troops he described as “dogs of war”.


Several days later, on September 14, Halilovic sent soldiers of the Prozor battalion to attack the Croat village of Uzdol, even though these troops “had recently suffered a crushing defeat by HVO and had a strong feeling of revenge”, the prosecutors told the court.


The attack resulted in the murders of 29 Croat civilians, mostly women, children and elderly people. An amateur video with gruesome images shot on the day of the attack was shown to the court this week.


The prosecution claims that Halilovic was not concerned that civilians might have been hurt in the attack - even on hearing from his soldiers that they “had surprised the enemy in their pyjamas, killed them and liberated Uzdol”. Instead, he claimed that he had found out about the massacre only a few days later.


Again, no serious investigation into the incident at Uzdol was carried out. Prosecutors allege that Halilovic, in front of his troops, even tore up an order from General Delic to stop the operation until the investigations into these crimes were completed.


The defence did not take the opportunity to make an opening statement at the beginning of the trial, but have told IWPR that they intend to point out that Halilovic’s command responsibility “could not be established beyond reasonable doubt”.


But if the first week of the trial is anything to go by, the defence team may be in for a difficult job.


In their opening statement, prosecutors presented a radio interview Halilovic gave to a local reporter just a few days after the massacres in Grabovica and Uzdol took place.


Introducing Halilovic, the reporter is heard to say, “With me is the man who has organised, coordinated and commanded this important operation.” During the course of the interview, the accused never denied he was behind the Neretva 93 operation.


“Halilovic was too vain and felt too powerful,” Adnan Buturovic, a Sarajevo-based journalist, told IWPR.


“He may now have to pay a high price for his lack of judgement.”


Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.