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

Karadzic Clashes With Sarajevo Witness

Hospital worker tells court how children suffered in siege of Bosnian capital.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Fatima Zaimovic, prosecution witness in the Karadzic trial. (Photo: ICTY)
    Fatima Zaimovic, prosecution witness in the Karadzic trial. (Photo: ICTY)

A former head nurse at a large Sarajevo hospital this week denied that the facility was used to terrorise Serbs and told the Hague tribunal that war crimes defendant Radovan Karadzic was “speaking untruths”. 

“You are not being honest and sincere,” said witness Fatima Zaimovic, 63, who worked as head nurse in the children’s surgery department at Kosevo Hospital throughout the Bosnian war.

“You destroyed the city that brought you your education and your life,” she told Karadzic, her eyes filling with tears. “Why don’t you repent? Just say, ‘I did that.’ You killed innocent people!”

The exchange between Zaimovic and Karadzic was marked by a degree of familiarity. Karadzic worked in the Kosevo hospital for some years as a psychiatrist, and even studied with Zaimovic’s husband at one time. The two men had been friends, Karadzic said.

Zaimovic appeared at the Hague tribunal this week to speak about her experience living and working during the 44-month siege of Sarajevo. Karadzic is charged with overseeing the shelling and sniping campaign that killed nearly 12,000 people.

Because the witness had testified previously in the case of Bosnian Serb army general Stanislav Galic – who was sentenced to life in prison for the shelling and sniping of Sarajevo - she was questioned only briefly by prosecutors this week.

During the siege of the city, Zaimovic said that the hospital was regularly shelled and had no electricity or running water.

“Can you imagine what it was like to work in those conditions?” Zaimovic asked.

She also said the children in the hospital – usually injured by shrapnel or sometimes phosphorous shells - were often so traumatised that they regularly wet their beds and would jump up at any loud noise.

In 1992 alone, she said 163 children were brought into the clinic and nine died.

“All those children are constantly with me,” Zaimovic said. “I remember them.”

When it was his turn to question her, Karadzic challenged Zaimovic’s version of events. He said the hospital was a “torture place” for Serb patients and that staff members of Serb ethnicity were intimidated and forced to leave.

Zaimovic said that most of the Bosnian Serb staff left of their own accord at the beginning of the war and “no one was threatened”.

 She said she had no knowledge of his allegations regarding the torture of Bosnian Serb patients and called the claim a “pure fabrication”.

“Do you know that gun powder was smuggled in oxygen bottles?” asked Karadzic, who insisted that the hospital was used by the Bosnian army to mount attacks.

“How could I know of that kind of thing?” she retorted.

Later, Karadzic asked about a Bosnian Serb doctor who he said was thrown out of a window. Zaimovic said she heard the doctor in question had suffered a nervous breakdown and committed suicide by jumping from the window.

“I think you’re telling lots of lies,” Zaimovic said. “I find it horrific to listen to.”

Karadzic also presented Zaimovic with several military documents intended to disprove her statements that the hospital – and her home nearby - were shelled by Bosnian Serb forces.

Zaimovic repeatedly said she had no knowledge of military matters, and grew increasingly frustrated when Karadzic continued to question her about documents and people of which she had no knowledge.

At one point, she accused Karadzic of “taunting” her.

“Mr Karadzic, you are asking me about things I don’t know, and you expelled thousands upon thousands of people,” she exclaimed. “How are you not ashamed of asking me things like that?”

Before Zaimovic concluded her testimony, she looked directly at Karadzic and asked him how he could sleep at night after everything he had done.
“I am looking you in the eye. Look at me!” she exclaimed, as he avoided her gaze. “I’m talking to you as a mother.”

Before she left the courtroom, Zaimovic said that she “told only the truth from my soul”.

“I believe it will be proven before this trial chamber,” she concluded.

The next witness, David Harland, began his testimony shortly afterwards.

From June 1993 to December 1995, Harland was a civil affairs officer and political advisor to the commander of the United Nations Protection Force, UNPROFOR, in Bosnia. He has testified at the tribunal on two previous occasions, including the trial of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.

He told prosecutors that the Bosnian Serb leadership, including Karadzic, controlled Sarajevo with a “spigot of terror”, modulating the sniping and shelling levels when it suited them.

“When there was an explicit threat of [NATO military] intervention against the Bosnian Serbs … the pressure would go dramatically down until the immediate threat of military intervention had passed,” Harland said. “When there was little threat [of NATO intervention], the application of the spigot of terror would go up.”

The questioning turned to the two mortar attacks on Sarajevo’s Markale market on February 5, 1994 and August 28, 1995 that killed a total of about 100 people and wounded nearly 250.

Karadzic has repeatedly contended that the attacks were staged by the Bosnian army to incite foreign intervention and that the mortars could not have come from Bosnian Serb positions.

According to documents presented in court, Momcilo Krajisnik, part of the Bosnian Serb leadership, even claimed after the first attack that the dead bodies were “dummies dressed up to look like victims”.

Harland called these contentions “completely bizarre”.

“I dispatched from my own staff a medical doctor who’s very well qualified to [tell] the difference between dead bodies and a mannequin,” he told prosecutor Carolyn Edgerton. “The whole suggestion is outlandish.”

After the second Markale attack in August 1995, UNPROFOR commander Rupert Smith issued a statement saying it was unclear where the mortar fire had come from, Harland said.

Harland said this was done even though there was “no doubt” in their minds that the mortars had come from Bosnian Serb positions.

As Harland previously testified at the trial of Bosnian Serb army general Dragomir Milosevic, Smith wanted to “buy time” before launching a NATO offensive against the Bosnian Serbs.

Smith wanted to make sure he could remove any NATO country UN troops from Bosnian Serb territory so they would not be taken hostage and used as human shields.

“[It seemed that] the best way to ensure that the Bosnian Serbs didn’t grab hostages [was] to make a bland statement implying we didn’t know who fired the shell and wouldn’t imply we were … preparing large scale airstrikes,” Harland said this week.

 “I believe it may have contributed to the enduring myth as to who fired the mortar bomb,” he continued.

Karadzic’s cross-examination of Harland is expected to continue into next week.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.