Investigation: Justice Yet to be Done
The massacre of 46 people in a Bosnian village 12 years ago is a prime example of the kind of cases the local war crimes process is likely to take up.
Investigation: Justice Yet to be Done
The massacre of 46 people in a Bosnian village 12 years ago is a prime example of the kind of cases the local war crimes process is likely to take up.
“The men who killed my husband walk around Sokolac freely,” said Nura Ocuz. “They are rich and powerful. They have negotiated openly with international organisations, while no foreigner has interviewed us before.
“These facts alone make me sceptical about justice here in Bosnia.”
Ocuz is a survivor of the day in September 1992 when local Serb troops entered the village of Novoseoce, located in the Sokolac municipality of the Romanija region, and ordered everyone out of their homes. Forty-five unarmed men and boys from the village and one woman were shot dead.
This massacre stands out among many as it is not simply well documented, it is particularly fresh in local people’s minds as the bodies of victims were only unearthed four years ago.
A number of names of local officials from the civilian local government and military forces who had control over the area at the time keep recurring. Yet as Ocuz notes bitterly, not one person has been indicted for the crime.
The Hague tribunal will not be taking any more new cases as it winds down its work over the next few years.
Instead, local courts are being set up in Balkan states. A new War Crimes Chamber, WCC, has been created within the State Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina. The chamber will have the jurisdiction to take over the unresolved cases from The Hague as well as draw its own indictments.
Now that the WCC is in business – it was launched on March 9 - Nura Ocuz’s prayers to see the men responsible for the murder of her husband and son face questioning and trial could yet be answered. With significant casualty numbers, witnesses to the crime, and possible indictees still on the loose, Novoseoce typifies the kind of cases that will provide the WCC with much of its work.
There is always the possibility the Novoseoce case will not be brought to trial, at least not immediately. The new court will have many demands placed on it: it must first to handle the caseload devolved from the Hague; and its selection of new cases has to appear fair in terms of ethnic and geographical distribution.
Finally, there is the sheer volume of substantial new cases that the WCC must prioritise and pick from.
WCC prosecutors have told IWPR that when it comes to raising new indictments, they will prioritise cases from regions not previously dealt with by the Hague tribunal. That could raise the chances that Novoseoce will be given priority.
“I can’t imagine that the courts in Bosnia or elsewhere in the former Yugoslavia will be able to try all - or the majority - of those who committed war crimes,” Judith Armatta, an analyst who has followed war crimes trials on behalf of the International Coalition for Justice, told IWPR. “The sheer numbers and inadequate resources of the recovering country mean that many will walk free and [remain] unaccountable,” she said.
The name Novoseoce has figured in Hague proceedings, even if it did not constitute a discrete case. The amended indictment against Momcilo Krajisnik, a senior figure in the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, lists a number of incidents involving killings in parts of Bosnia where he held influence. “In the village of Novoseoce, approximately 44 non-Serb men were killed,” says one of the terse entries.
Survivors are keenly aware of Krajisnik's involvement in events in the area as the war got under way, yet they also want to see local leaders who they claim implemented ethnic cleansing in the Sokolac municipality generally, and permitted the massacre at Novoseoce in particular, brought to account.
“Hague investigators never interviewed us - the witnesses - about what happened,” former Novoseoce resident Munira Selmanovic, whose husband and son died in the massacre, told IWPR.
IWPR has traced events leading up to and including the massacre of September 22, 1992 by collecting evidence and eyewitness accounts. The body of information strongly suggests that a role in allowing the killings to take place was played by the Sokolac municipality “crisis staff”, a civilian/military local government structure of the kind replicated across the Bosnian Serb region. The crisis staff controlled local military forces and was the sole executive authority in the area it ran.
The Novoseoce massacre can be viewed in the context of the systematic removal of Muslim civilians elsewhere around Sokolac – the village was in fact the last in the Romanija region to undergo "ethnic cleansing". Since the women, elderly and children of the village were forcibly displaced, they fall into this category. Again, the crisis staff played a central part.
Of the three key actors in the Sokolac crisis staff, one, Radislav Krstic, is serving a jail term for another war crimes conviction, and a second, Milan Tupajic, could not be contacted despite IWPR’s best efforts to track him down. The third former official, Milovan Bjelica, vehemently denies his own complicity and that of Tupajic in the killings at Novoseoce.
But evidence obtained by IWPR about the institutional role of the crisis staff in Sokolac, and its activities before and during the events of 1992, indicate that it was monitoring and managing the Bosnian Serb leadership’s policies on the ground, and that it was thus in a position to know what was going on and prevent abuses from happening. Many questions are raised but none has yet been answered in a court of law.
EXECUTING KARADZIC'S POLICIES
In 1991, Novoseoce came under the control of a crisis staff set up in Sokolac, the main town of the municipality. The executive would rule Sokolac during the early stages of the war.
Crisis staffs were an institution originally created by Yugoslav leader Josip Tito during the Cold War to act as local coordinating bodies for “territorial defence” – a strategy for waging all-out war on foreign invaders using locally-raised guerrillas as well as regular troops.
As the conflict in Bosnia got under way, leaders in the Serb-held areas - headed by Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, now an indicted war crimes suspect - resurrected the crisis staff structure to bring local civil government and military affairs under one roof. They were transformed into mono-ethnic bodies dominated by members of Karadzic’s SDS, and took orders from the emerging “Serb Republic of Bosnia and Herzegovina” with its headquarters in Pale.
The senior officials were commonly structured as a triumvirate, mirroring the body's triple civil affairs-military-political role with one local government leader such as the municipality head, a military man, and an SDS representative who was the key link with Pale and the conduit for policy directives.
Crisis staff members were responsible for everything from employment and food distribution through to curfews and handing out arms to local civilians to form a military reserve. They also controlled military operations by local police and paramilitaries, and liaised closely with the command structures of the Bosnian Serb army.
Sokolac crisis staff was no different from the rest.
Here the triumvirate in charge of the crisis staff was Milan Tupajic, president of the municipality; Milovan “Cicko” Bjelica, chairman of the local SDS branch, and Colonel Radislav Krstic, commander of the Second Romanija BRIGADE of the Bosnian Serb army.
Krstic, later promoted to major-general, is already in jail for his part in the June 1995 killing of more than 7,000 men and boys from Srebrenica. Arrested by NATO peacekeeping forces in December 1998, he was sentenced to 46 years in prison by the Hague tribunal. The indictment against him did not touch on events at Novoseoce three years before.
As early as September 1991, Karadzic issued an order to the leadership of the regional Serb autonomous areas ordering the ethnic cleansing of, among others, the Romanija region within which Sokolac falls. “In Krajina, Romanija and northeast Bosnia, [use] your units [to] eliminate Ustase-like and other Muslim elements which are disrupting the setting-up of the sole rightful Serb government in all Serb countries,” read the order signed by Karadzic on September 22, 1991.
“In a case of resistance to this lawful and humane wish of the Serb nation, you have to be merciless (an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth).”
An intelligence document obtained by IWPR shows that Karadzic was in regular touch with his SDS chief for Sokolac, Bjelica, with whom he frequently exchanged references to the situation on the ground and “future moves”. In one such conversation dated December 27, 1992 - a transcript of which has been obtained by IWPR - Bjelica tells Karadzic that “Tupajic is doing a good job” and that “municipal authorities are functioning well under Tupajic’s command”. This was three months after Novoseoce.
Bjelica told IWPR in an interview that he was in fact closer to the Bosnian Serb president and his right-hand man than the average SDS regional head. “I was the person closest to Karadzic,” said Bjelica, sitting in a Sokolac hotel. “I enjoyed his full confidence and that of his deputy Krajisnik.”
IWPR has found numerous witnesses and supporting documents which demonstrate that members of the Sokolac crisis staff played an integral role in events leading up to the massacre at Novoseoce, including an orchestrated campaign to arm, train and mobilise Serb as reserve units, and to ethnically cleanse strategically important areas.
If the role played by the crisis staff's members on the day of the Novoseoce killings is unclear, the institution played a part in preparing the village for ethnic cleansing such as that which happened in other settlements in the area. And those actions made the killings possible
Sources within the new Bosnian state security services told IWPR that in autumn 1991, Tupajic was identified as one of the key SDS politicians responsible for the recruitment and clandestine distribution of weapons to the local Serb population in Sokolac in preparation for war. According to these sources, he worked closely with Bosnian Serb officers of the Yugoslav army at that time. Former Yugoslav army general Asim Dzambasovic testified at the Hague tribunal that Tupajic had regular meetings with now indicted Colonel Dragomir Milosevic, who was in charge of reserve units recruited with Tupajic's support.
According to survivors’ accounts gathered by IWPR it was these reserve troops – which included some of their neighbours - together with regular Bosnian Serb army units that surrounded Novoseoce on September 22. In most cases reserve units of this kind were controlled by crisis staffs, as previous war crimes cases have made clear.
In previous cases, the Hague tribunal has highlighted the key role played by crisis staffs in coordinating and implementing ethnic cleansing in 1992.
The Hague has so far convicted a number of senior crisis staff members from other parts of Bosnia, drawing on the tribunal’s Article 7 relating to superior orders and command responsibility.
For instance, in the case of Miroslav Deronjic - a senior SDS figure who pleaded guilty to charges of persecution in 2003 - the indictment against him said it was “in his capacity as president of the crisis staff of the municipality of Bratunac” that he issued an order to attack the village of Glogovo and forcibly displace Muslim civilians there. His post gave him “de facto and de jure control over the TO [Territorial Defence; the reserves] and de jure control over the police of the municipality”, the indictment said.
In recent testimony in front of the Hague tribunal, expert witness Dorothy Hanson, a specialist in crisis staffs, explained that they were created from 1991 by SDS-run municipal authorities, and “police and military authorities were then subordinated to them”. Hanson noted that although the relationship between the civil authorities and the military varied from one municipality to another, the crisis staff as a rule dealt with all military matters.
DISARMED AND DISCRIMINATED AGAINST
Eyewitness reports indicate that the crisis staff was implicated in ethnic cleansing in the broader Sokolac area, and that for several months, the civil-military authority was involved in discriminating against, then disarming and containing the population of Novoseoce.
“First, all the Bosniaks [Muslims] from Novoseoce working in Sokolac were fired in April 1991 by a municipal order signed by the crisis staff,” said resident Munira Karic, who would become a municipal councillor after the war. “Our children could no longer attend the municipality’s school and the local bus would no longer stop at our village.”
“Then the crisis staff forbade Bosniaks to go on their own to food shops in Sokolac, and the village shop was closed.”
Karic’s father, brother-in-law and uncles were killed on September 22.
Other Novoseoce survivors told IWPR how municipal services for which Tupajic and Bjelica bore responsibility were then denied to the village. The electricity was cut off in June, followed by the water the following month.
Tupajic and Bjelica came to Novoseoce on July 27 together with Bosnian Serb army commissioner Milorad Savic, some soldiers and a TV camera crew, to collect the villager's registered hunting rifles, eyewitnesses say.
Anxious villagers asked Tupajic and Savic for a bus so that they could leave the village and travel to Bosnian government-controlled territory.
“Tupajic said that wouldn't be necessary, and not to worry,” Selmanovic told IWPR.
“Savic said, ‘no one will do anything to you, not a hair on your heads will be touched’,” added Ocuz.
“I remember watching that visit on the Karadzic-run television channel when I was in Sarajevo,” recalled Karic. “Bjelica and Savic were there with Tupajic. They filmed it to show how they treated loyal Bosniaks.”
Munira’s sister Muniba Karic remembers how Savic told the villagers to stay where they were. “He said that the surrounding forests were full of Serb soldiers and that we should not try to leave the village but stay where we were,” she said.
From July to September 21, the villagers carried on as best they could, gathering in their crops. But it was an uneasy time.
“Neighbouring Serbs now in uniform and carrying guns would come to the village most nights to check on us,” said Muniba Karic. “The most frequent visitor was our closest neighbour, Rade Dubovina. We kept asking Rade if we should leave but he always said things would be fine. Later he was to be one of the soldiers who rounded up our menfolk on September 22.”
The villagers thought they should be secure as they had signed a document pledging allegiance to the Bosnian Serb government and to its representatives in Sokolac. In return, they received pledges that they would be left alone. Meanwhile, the other Muslim villages in the Romanija region were subjected to ethnic cleansing from April until August 1992.
Despite the assurances given by Tupajic and the municipal authorities, the villagers were scared.
“In the summer we heard shooting coming from other Bosniak villages,” said Selmanovic. “We always had a rucksack ready in case we needed to run away quickly. Sometimes we would leave our homes at night and go up into the woods to sleep, thinking they were about to attack us. At night, we would have two of the men keep watch on the main road so they could warn us if someone was coming.”
In spite of the lookouts, the villagers were caught by surprise on the morning of September 22 as Serb army reservists entered the village from several sides. “We never even thought they would come out of the forest behind our backs,” said Selmanovic.
Around 300 troops surrounded the village in three concentric rings. “Trucks then drove into the village carrying weapons and explosives,” she said.
Ocuz described what she saw,“The Serb soldiers surrounded the village. We were told to assemble on top of the hill so we all walked up there. The sun was shining on us, it was hot. After a while the children started crying. We had no water and we couldn’t leave the hill without an escort.”
The commander of the troops was identified by numerous witnesses as Momcilo Pajic, a local man serving as a reserve major in the military police. “Pajic came up to us and said, ‘if you have weapons, hand them over now’,” recalled Ocuz. “Then the soldiers started ransacking our homes and carrying off our harvested crops from our cellars,” she said.
Pajic communicated by radio, conversing with a crisis staff member, say eyewitnesses. “He went away for about an hour and a half,” continued Muniba Karic. “When he returned, he looked tired and ill at ease. He said he had got his orders and we could see it was hard for him.
“He took off his helmet and said that he had received an order that women, children and old men should go to Sarajevo while the men would be held for a prisoner exchange.
“After a couple of hours, the women were separated from the men. I bade farewell to my husband and walked down the hill towards the bus. When I came to the graveyard, I said goodbye to my son across the fence. I gave him the keys to our house, and his own and his father’s jacket in case they got cold. I never saw them again.”
Ocuz broke away from the bus to say goodbye to her husband, “I will never forget that sight. As I was walking up the hill to say goodbye to my husband, the sun was burning down really hard on the men. The old ones took off their berets and their white hair was shining in the sun. It was at this point that I saw reinforcements coming out of the forests,” she told IWPR.
Ocuz was to lose her 14-year-old son and husband Asim that day.
MASS KILLINGS AND BURIAL
Survivors witnessed one summary killing, that of a woman, Devla Karic, shot next to the village mosque. The remaining women were then bussed out of the villages to the front lines around Sarajevo.
Later in the afternoon, the male residents were herded in front of the village mosque. Forty-five men and boys aged between 14 and 68 were executed on the spot. Forensic examination would later reveal that they were riddled with bullets from automatic weapons.
Bullet holes in the recovered skulls indicate that the victims were shot in the back of the head in addition to other wounds.
The mosque was later dynamited and - with the bodies among the rubble - trucked out of the village.
The mangled bodies and mosque remains were discovered on September 8, 2000, ending the anguished eight-year search by the victim’s families, and dashing hopes that some of the missing could have survived. Forty-four bodies were exhumed from the municipality’s Ivan Polje rubbish dump on September 5-8, 2000.
The exhumation video, shown to IWPR by the Bosnian commission for missing persons, illustrates how the human remains together with the mosque rubble were covered by a layer of between one and two metres of rubbish.
A former Hague investigator who asked to remain anonymous believes, “The fact that the bodies were disposed of on municipal property is another indicator that the civilian authorities in Sokolac played a leading role in the massacre at Novoseoce.”
A WIDER PATTERN OF ABUSE
Eyewitnesses allege that Tupajic and Bjelica were complicit or active in ethnic cleansing elsewhere in Sokolac municipality.
Numerous eyewitness survivors from the villages of Knezina, Zulj and Vrbarje state that Milan Tupajic and Milovan Bjelica personally oversaw the decision-making process which brought about the expulsion of these Muslim populations.
Mustafa Imamovic, the community leader in Knezina at the time, was called to a meeting by Tupajic and Bjelica in July 1992 where it was first proposed that Knezina’s Muslims be removed.
Shortly before Bosnian Serb troops entered Knezina, Tupajic arrived in the village and announced that all Muslims should leave. “The order for our deportation was given by Milan Tupajic, president of Sokolac municipality,” said villager Ibrahim Secic in testimony given to the Hague tribunal.
“Muslims made up 30 per cent of Sokolac municipality’s pre-war population,” said a former Hague tribunal staffer, who declined to be named. “By 1995, virtually all Muslims had been expelled or killed.”
THE CIVILIAN ADMINISTRATOR
“Tupajic was one of the most senior SDS leaders in eastern Bosnia operating outside of Pale in the run-up TO and during the war,” said a former Hague investigator, speaking on condition of anonymity.
IWPR has been unable to contact Tupajic whose whereabouts are currently unknown, though his last known address was in Sokolac.
But his colleague Bjelica has denied that Tupajic bore responsibility for what happened at Novoseoce.
Tupajic went on to become deputy leader of the larger Serb Autonomous Region of Romanija which comprised much of eastern Bosnia in 1992.
After the Novoseoce massacre, both Tupajic and Krstic were promoted, the latter becoming the deputy commander of the Drina Corps, the unit that played a major role in the collapse of the United Nations’ “safe haven” at Srebrenica and the elimination of its male residents. Tupajic would also reappear there, the most senior SDS official to be present during the massacre.
After the war Tupajic became the head of the SDS parliamentary caucus in the Bosnian Serb Assembly before being blacklisted by the Office of the High Representative for what was described as his continuing support of Karadzic.
The Hague tribunal has never indicted him, and senior staff from the Office of the Prosecutor refused to discuss contacts between The Hague and Tupajic.
IWPR has, however, learned that the tribunal has issued a “Class A” ruling for proceedings against Tupajic on a separate war crimes charge other than Novoseoce. What this categorisation means is that the evidence is considered sufficient to justify arrest and indictment, although some such cases such as Tupajic's have not yet been brought to court.
“You cannot blame us for not indicting people like Milan Tupajic,” a senior Hague prosecution source told IWPR. “The [United Nations] Security Council has stopped us from investigating and prosecuting everyone except those at the very top who were responsible for killings,” the source said, referring to the UN decision last year forbidding the tribunal from issuing further indictments against lower-level figures.
“The continuing freedom of people responsible for grave crimes is not the fault of [the tribunal] but of those who seek to stop the work before the job is done,” the source concluded.
THE POLITICAL COMMISSAR
In November 2004, Bjelica met IWPR in a Sokolac motel to discuss his work as SDS regional supremo back in 1991, and talked openly about his close contact with Karadzic and Krajisnik.
He denied any role in the massacre.
“Novoseoce is a dark stain on Sokolac and on the Serb people in general,” he told IWPR. “We in the civil authorities were just concerned that the civil institutions should keep on working.
“Neither Tupajic nor I played any military role. We did not know or participate in military operations.”
Bjelica would go on to run the large municipality known as Serb Sarajevo, and later worked as chief accountant for Centreks, a business alleged to have acted as a financial conduit for the secret support network that helped Karadzic evade capture after the war ended in 1995.
Like Tupajic, he was blacklisted by the European Union and the United States because of his alleged support for Karadzic. The blacklisting resulted in his removal from political and state business positions, as well as a ban on travelling to the EU or doing business with US citizens.
STILL SEEKING REDRESS
The sense that justice is yet to be done is felt nowhere more keenly than in Novoseoce itself.
An unnerving silence envelops the traveller on the muddy road that leads to the village of Novoseoce, in shadow of eastern Bosnia’s spectacular Romanija mountains. The ruins of old stone houses that were once home to 160 inhabitants stand as mute witness to the crime committed there 12 years ago.
Forty-four shiny white gravestones at the foot of the road are a testimony to the fate of the men and boys that for generations worked the land in which they now lie buried. There is space for one more.
“I have found my son’s body, but not my husband Muharem,” former resident Munira Selmanovic told IWPR, opening her otherwise empty purse to show us her most prized possessions – photographs of her son and husband.
“I am still looking for him. The commission for missing persons thinks there are more bodies at the Ivan Polje municipal rubbish dump. They say they will start digging again - perhaps my husband is there.”
The relatives of victims are now firmly focused on the new war crimes chamber as a way of finding justice.
“I hope this new court will be interested in Novoseoce,” said Muniba Karic.
The survivors' concerns about seeing justice done are shared on a Bosnia-wide scale by observers who say that it will be many years before many war crime suspects are tried in court.
“If there is to be peace in Bosnia, the survivors of Novoseoce and numerous other villages throughout the country have to see the perpetrators face justice,” said Amor Masovic, chief of Bosnia’s commission for missing persons.
James Lyon, director of the conflict-prevention think tank Crisis Group in Serbia and Montenegro, agrees. “If the guilty go unpunished, we cannot talk about real reconciliation and peace,” he warned.
“Bosnia’s future as a peaceful country is dependent on a large number of fair trials which bear witness to what happened here and show citizens of all ethnic groups that justice has been done.”
Nerma Jelacic is IWPR project manager in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Hugh Griffiths is an IWPR investigations coordinator.This investigation forms part of the war crimes reporting and training activities IWPR and its regional partner the Balkans Investigative Reporting Network are running in Bosnia to coincide with the opening of the War Crimes Chamber in Sarajevo.
This project is supported by the Swiss foreign ministry and UNESCO's media fund, and implemented in partnership with USAID Media. This investigation was produced with a donation from the US embassy in Sarajevo.