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

Harrowing Journey to Freedom

A survivor describes in court how thousands of Muslim men tried to escape from Srebrenica.
A Bosnian Muslim soldier this week told the trial of seven high-ranking Bosnian Serb military and police officers of his harrowing journey from the besieged Srebrenica enclave towards the Bosnian government-controlled city of Tuzla.

The man, a member of the Territorial Defence who’d defended the enclave for three years, testified at the tribunal under protective measures – his name and face concealed from the court.

On trial are the so-called Srebrenica Seven – Bosnian Serb military and police officers considered to be the most responsible for the 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which Serb forces who overran the enclave on July 11 executed more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

Ljubisa Beara, Vujadin Popovic, Ljubomir Borovcanin, Vinko Pandurevic and Drago Nikolic are facing genocide and war crimes charges. Radivoje Miletic and Milan Gvero are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity for allegedly blocking aid and supplies to Srebrenica. All seven have pleaded not guilty.

The witness told prosecutors that after hearing of the fall of Srebrenica, he joined a column of thousands of Bosnian Muslim men who set out on July 11 from the village of Susnjari, heading for the government-controlled territory of Tuzla. According to the indictment, about one third of the group were armed Bosnian Muslim military personnel, while the rest were civilians and unarmed fighters.

What followed was a terrifying ordeal along roads littered with bodies.

He said the column first came under heavy attack on July 12 in the Kamenica area. They were ambushed and shelled, he said, estimating 500-1,000 people died in the attacks.

He also saw suicides in the group and shootings. “People behaved strangely,” he said. “They were sleepy … anything you’d say to them they’d listen to you.”

They were ambushed again at Sandici and Snagovo, where the witness saw many more Bosnian Muslims killed, including some who were shot down as they surrendered to Serb soldiers.

The witness, however, managed to avoid capture or injury, and on July 16 he arrived in Boljevica near Zvornik, where he could see both the Bosnian and Serb lines. He said he stayed there for two or three days, not attempting to cross over to the Bosnian side.

Many survivors from this column who testified in previous Srebrenica trials said that after five days of walking through the enemy territory without any food and water, they became so exhausted and disoriented that in the end many of them – feeling lost and abandoned – gave up the attempt to reach Tuzla.

This week’s witness said the same.

“When we realised that everyone betrayed us, including the UN, we lost every hope. We didn’t even care what will happen to us any more,” he said.

The witness told the court his group didn’t put up resistance on its journey and did not fight Serbs. He said many were concerned about their families at Potocari, where the UN Dutch Battalion tasked with protecting the enclave was based and many women and children from the area had fled after the fall.

He continued the journey north, but on July 18 or 19 – he was too tired and confused to be sure – awoke from his sleeping place in tall grass to hear voices saying the group was surrounded.

Shots were fired over their heads and then directly into the frightened group. When soldiers began combing the area, the witness surrendered to men wearing badges of the Army of Republika Srpska, VRS, with its red, white and blue insignia and doubled-headed eagle.

He again saw several men who had surrendered being killed, but heard discussions that he was needed for a prisoner exchange. He was eventually taken to Zvornik, where he was interrogated.

From Zvornik, the witness was taken to a prison camp at Batkovici and was eventually released on December 24.

When asked by Miletic’s lawyer Natacha Fauveau Ivanovic why the group hadn’t given up earlier, the witness replied he’d seen with his own eyes people who had surrendered “executed in cold blood”.

He also speculated he would have been killed if he’d gone with his family to Potocari.

The indictment alleges that Ratko Mladic - believed to be the mastermind of the slaughter at Srebrenica - had developed a plan to murder hundreds of able-bodied men identified from the crowd of Muslims in Potocari.

One of the week’s other witnesses, a member of the Bratunac Brigade’s military police platoon, also testified under protective measures, giving much of his evidence in closed session.

Lisa Clifford is an IWPR editor.

As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.


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