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

Human Cost of Sarajevo Shelling

Mladic trial hears story of children killed and injured by a handful of artillery shells.
By David Nelson
  • Muhamed Kapetanovic, prosecution witness in the Mladic trial giving evidence in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
    Muhamed Kapetanovic, prosecution witness in the Mladic trial giving evidence in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)

After a two-week hiatus, the trial of Bosnian Serb military leader Ratko Mladic resumed this week with testimony from a witness who was injured in a 1994 artillery attack during the siege of Sarajevo.

Muhamed Kapetanovic was nine years old on January 22, 1994 when he and three friends decided to go sledging outside their apartment building in the Sarajevo neighbourhood of Alipasino Polje.

After only a few minutes, “We heard an explosion and started running,” Kapetanovic told prosecutors.

He said the boys had run only a few metres before another shell exploded directly behind them. All four fell to the ground.

When Kapetanovic realised he had been wounded in the leg, he turned to see how his friends were. Two were injured, while the third had been killed instantly.

“As I turned around, I saw that his head had been severed from his body by shrapnel,” Kapetanovic recalled.

According to the prosecution, the shells were fired from territory controlled by the Bosnian Serb Army or VRS, which Ratko Mladic commanded from 1992 to 1996.

Prosecutors allege that Mladic is responsible for the siege of Sarajevo that lasted 44 months and took the lives of 12,000 people including Muhamed Kapetanovic’s friend.

Mladic is also charged with crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and the forcible removal of Bosnian Muslims and Croats from Serb-claimed territory in Bosnia. He is accused of planning and overseeing the massacre of more than 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995.

The prosecution showed the court a graphic news report from TV Sarajevo, filmed just hours after the shelling in Alipasino Polje. Several other children playing near Kapetanovic and his friends were killed when a third shell landed.

In the report, people can be seen clearing away a long, slushy trail of snow and blood off the sidewalk. At one point, the camera focuses on images of what a TV reporter refers to as “brain matter”. A forgotten sledge sits nearby in the debris.

“Today on this spot in Sarajevo, six boys and girls were killed by two criminal shells,” the TV reporter says before moving on to criticise the “diplomatic scum” in both Europe and Serbia.

“The children in Serbia and Europe today do not know that their fathers are criminals,” the reporter states. “We are six times sadder today than we were yesterday. Today we have to be six times stronger.”

The court also saw footage filmed at a makeshift morgue which residents of Kapetanovic’s building had set up for the dead children. There, dressed in snow pants and boots, the children were lined up beside each other. The camera pans in several times on pale faces and limp hands.

Kapetanovic’s father, Hamed, was interviewed for the TV report.

“At that moment, I was in the bathroom and the little one [Muhamed Kapetanovic] was outside,” Hamed says in the report. “And when my daughters looked outside, they screamed, saying, ‘The little one is getting killed.’”

With help from neighbours, Hamed was able to find a car to take his son to a local hospital for treatment.

Kapetanovic was interviewed while he lay in hospital waiting for medical attention. He was injured in the leg, arm, and jaw.

On the news report, a crying Kapetanovic tells the reporter about his injuries and about how his friend was killed in the attack. On his cheek is a large bandage where shrapnel had struck him.

Before the news footage was played a second time for the court translators, Judge Alphons Orie told Kapetanovic that he could have his screen turned off if watching it was too difficult for him.

A seemingly emotionless Kapetanovic said, “I will look at it again.”

After the incident, Kapetanovic spent two years in Italy where he underwent seven operations. One of his injured friends had a leg amputated as a result of the shelling.

During a short cross-examination, defence lawyers questioned Kapetanovic on the exact origin of the incoming shells.

“You didn’t know what sort of shell it was and what weapon fired it?” the defence lawyer asked him.

The witness said he was not certain where the first shell came in from, or where it landed.

The defence team pointed out that there was a Bosnian army headquarters located close to the scene of the attack.

During cross-examination, the prosecution questioned Kapetanovic further about the military headquarters.

“Did you hear any shells or gunfire that came from your neighbourhood or this [military] building?” the prosecution asked.

“No, I didn’t hear any explosions,” Kapetanovic replied. “That day was peaceful, and that’s why we were outdoors.”

Earlier this week, the court heard testimony from another witness, Grgo Stojic, a Bosnian Croat living in the Sanski Most municipality in northwestern Bosnia.

Stojic described to the court how he survived an execution at the hands of a group of teenage Serbian paramilitaries in November 1992.

He said that he and five other men were taken prisoner by a paramilitary group in camouflage calling themselves “Seselj’s men”.

Vojislav Seselj, a Serbian politician, is accused of helping recruit paramilitary units to help carry out atrocities in Bosnia and Croatia in the early Nineties. His trial at the Hague tribunal ended in March this year and he is currently awaiting judgement.

When the paramilitaries opened fire on the captives, Stojic was wounded in the hip and stomach and, according to his testimony, left 70 per cent disabled.

Mladic’s defence lawyers questioned Stojic about the young age of the killers.

“Would you agree that he [one of the executioners] would be too young to serve officially in the army, based upon the rules of conscription in the former Yugoslavia?” the defence asked Stojic.

“That’s too young under regular circumstances and when a country is in a regular state,” Stojic said. “However, this is not a regular army; we are talking about criminals who were armed and committing crimes at the time.”

Although he was in court for most of the proceedings this week, Mladic waived his right to be present for the remainder of the day on Thursday and Friday, November 1 and 2.

The trial continues next week.

David Nelson is an IWPR-trained reporter in The Hague.

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