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

Herceg-Bosna Trial Hears First Witness

Prosecution calls Bosnian army secretary who spent months in Croat-run detention centres.
By Michael Farquhar
The first witness to testify against six Croat officials accused of involvement in ethnic cleansing during the war in Bosnia spoke this week about conditions in detention centres where she was held for several months in 1993.



Spomenka Drljevic was a secretary in the Muslim-dominated Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina, ABiH, prior to her capture by forces of the rival Croatian Defence Council, HVO, in May of that year.



She explained in court how the united front originally formed by those two organisations against the Yugoslav People’s Army and Bosnian Serb militias crumbled over time, until open fighting eventually erupted between them.



The witness went on to describe how her subsequent extended stay in two HVO-run prisons near her home town of Mostar left her with severe psychological problems and so undernourished that she required medical attention.



Prosecutors say the detention of thousands of Muslims in such centres during the war was part of an effort by the HVO to secure ethnic hegemony in a large slice of Bosnia, in an area labelled Herceg-Bosna which was earmarked for eventual incorporation into a “Greater Croatia”.



The campaign is also alleged to have involved murders, rapes, deportations, forced labour and the destruction of Muslim-owned property.



The six accused in the present case – Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic – are charged with being responsible for these crimes, by virtue of the senior positions they occupied within the military and civil wings of the HVO at the time.



Drljevic told the court that the military unit she joined in 1992 originally began as the Independent Mostar Battalion but evolved into part of the ABiH.



Cooperation with the Croat forces was initially good, she said, and she thought that in the early days the unit was even been considered to be part of the HVO.



By early 1993, however, she remembered that there were tensions between the ABiH and the Croat forces. In January that year, she said, her commanders were particularly displeased when the HVO declared itself the sole legitimate authority in the area and demanded that all other military units subordinate themselves to it.



The witness personally experienced direct combat between the ABiH and the HVO on May 9, 1993, when the local command post where she worked - in the Vranica complex in Mostar - came under attack.



The following day, Drljevic and others inside the command post gave themselves up. She was taken first to a local police station, then to a detention centre in Ljubuski, then to the Heliodrom complex near Mostar. She was eventually released in December.



She recalled that at the Ljubuski prison she was kept in a room with other women and received the same food as Croat soldiers. But from the contact she had with male prisoners elsewhere in the complex, she was aware that their conditions were considerably worse.



The men got poorer food and were also taken off to undertake heavy work. When the commanders of the prison were away, she said, troops – including those subordinated to a notorious local Croat commander known as Tuta – would turn up to beat the inmates.



Just this week, Hague appeals judges confirmed war crimes convictions against the same Tuta, whose full name is Mladen Naletic.



Prior to her transfer to the Heliodrom detention centre in June, Drljevic came into contact with the accused Pusic, who was involved at a high level in prisoner exchanges during the Bosnian war. She recalled that their conversation was informal – even quite friendly – and that he suggested the detainees were to be moved out and sent home.



At the Heliodrom camp, however, things only got worse.



The detainees Drljevic met there ranged from a boy just four years old to a woman who was over 70. She recalled seeing “hundreds and hundreds” of people lined up in columns outside the building where she was held and she also heard that detainees were taken off to work.



Drljevic recalled soldiers threatening her with weapons, and on one occasion she was forced to fend off a man who tried to assault her.



The food at the Heliodrom complex, she recalled, was very poor. And those who delivered it reported that the rations given to the male prisoners were even worse.



In the time that she was held at the centre, Drljevic said she lost 20 kilograms in body weight and had to be put on an intravenous drip. She also experienced psychological problems including hallucinations and paralysis of her limbs. She told the court that she still suffered from flashbacks.



In cross-examination, defence lawyers for the six accused underlined the fact that Drljevic was an active member of the ABiH when she was taken into custody by the HVO.



They also emphasised that she received medical treatment when she needed it during her time in detention. And they suggested that earlier statements she had given about the conditions of her detention were considerably less critical than her present testimony in court.



In addition, the lawyers attacked comments she made during her testimony, to the effect that Red Cross workers had difficulty accessing the two detention centres where she was held. They presented her with documentation suggesting that the Croat authorities had contacted the Red Cross as early as May 1993 to inform them about prisoners held at the Heliodrom facility.



Under cross-examination, Drljevic acknowledged that there were other witnesses who could speak with more authority than herself about military matters such as relations between the ABiH and the HVO.



Defence lawyer Tomislav Jonjic, who is representing Coric, also suggested that the psychological problems Drljevic had suffered could compromise the reliability of her testimony. She denied that this was the case.



Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in London.