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

Military Observer Describes “Random” Sarajevo Shelling

Karadzic accuses prosecution witness of bias and hostility during testimony.
By Rachel Irwin

A former United Nations military observer testifying in the trial of Radovan Karadzic said this week that Bosnian Serb forces shelled residential areas in Sarajevo even though there was “no military value” in doing so.

Prosecution witness Major Francis Roy Thomas said he personally viewed the shelling of civilian areas.

“I could see no military value in anything shelled in those cases,” he told prosecuting lawyer Patrick Hayden.

The shelling appeared to be random, said Thomas, and not followed by any analysis of what exactly had been hit. He added that he didn’t see how the shelling of residential areas related to the battle being waged at the city’s front line.

“The [shells] falling at random in the city, the military value of these rounds didn’t make sense to us,” said Thomas, who served as a senior UN military observer in Sarajevo between October 1993 and July 1994. He has previously testified in two trials at the Hague tribunal, including that of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic.

Thomas did note that the military observers, known as UNMOs, “couldn’t see everything” that was happening in the city and could not observe shelling that occurred at night.

In addition, he said that many of the shells fell into areas where it was difficult to see them hitting the ground.

However, Thomas maintained that he stood by the reports he created at that time.

“During your tour, was there any reason to think that the UNMOs were biased?” asked Hayden.

“If I had found a guy that was biased he would have left the site immediately,” answered Thomas, adding that he had ordered the removal of one individual for not following the rules.

Karadzic, the president of Bosnia's self-declared Republika Srpska from 1992 to 1996, is accused of planning and overseeing the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead.

The indictment against him - which lists 11 counts in total - alleges that he was responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which “contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory”. Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 after 13 years on the run.

When it was Karadzic’s turn to cross-examine the witness, he asked Thomas about instances when the Bosnian government army took up mortar positions near UN headquarters.

“We had to tell the Bosnians on several occasions to move the mortars away because they were too close to UN buildings and facilities,” said Thomas.

“And their firing on Serb positions prompted a response from the Serbian side and endangered the UN - is that right?” asked Karadzic.
“No more so than driving down ‘sniper alley’ and getting shot at by a Serb sniper,” answered Thomas tersely.

Sniper alley was the informal name given to the main boulevard in Sarajevo which was lined with sniper post and became a notoriously dangerous place to pass through.

Karadzic then turned to a claim he has made numerous times during his trial; that the Bosnian government army shelled and sniped its own people to court international sympathy and military intervention.

“Would you agree that there were rumours that Muslims were firing at their own people?” asked Karadzic.

“The rumours were never UNMO-confirmed,” said Thomas.“Major, Sir, did [UNMOs] conduct thorough criminal legal investigations into rumours about these incidents?” inquired Karadzic.

“It was not our mandate to conduct criminal legal investigations,” answered Thomas.

Karadzic went on to ask which of the two sides had an “interest” in causing an international military intervention.

“You’re asking for my judgement on this?” replied Thomas. “I have no evidence to make a case for either side. There were parties on both sides that had an interest in causing an intervention.”

Karadzic further alleged that the Bosnian government army shelled Bosnian Serb forces from residential areas, and that any return fire was retaliatory in nature.

“Why are you saying that Serbs were firing at residential areas for no reason, while Serbs were being fired at from residential areas?” asked Karadzic.

“We were aware that the Bosnians tried to provoke you into firing,” answered Thomas. “It was one of their favourite hobbies.”

However, Thomas once again asserted that the Bosnian Serb army did not do any “target assessment” after they returned fire. In addition, he said that there were more effective military tactics that could have been employed other than retaliatory fire.

“Where were the professional artillery officers to give you that advice?” asked Thomas. “Or if they gave you that advice [why] did you choose to ignore it?”

Karadzic said his army did indeed have “professional artillery men, professional gunners and fire observers”.

“Yes, I do agree, and that’s why I don’t understand the random firing into residential areas,” replied Thomas.

Thomas said that he was not given access to many areas under Bosnian Serb control, but Karadzic produced an order issued in 1993 by General Stanislav Galic, who at the time commanded the Sarajevo Romanija Corps of the Bosnian Serb army.

Galic was sentenced to life in prison by tribunal judges, while his successor, General Dragomir Milosevic, was given a jail term of 29 years.

“Two generals, colleagues of mine, were sentenced to quite serious [prison terms] because they did not manage to throw light on the truth, so we are trying to do that,” said Karadzic.

He proceeded to read from Galic’s order, which stated that Bosnian Serb forces were to allow “freedom of movement” to UN personnel.

Thomas asked why, if that was the case, Galic did not come to meet him to discuss this order, or give UNMOs access to the hospitals and morgues on the Bosnian Serb side of the front line.

“Major, Sir … it’s not customary for a major to reach a general,” said Karadzic. “I hear clear bias on your side.”

When Judge Howard Morrison pointed out that this comment was “completely useless”, Karadzic contended that Thomas was “broadening topics consistently and showing hatred towards my general”.

“A major cannot have access to a general,” continued Karadzic. “He cannot be slinging mud at him here like that.”

Karadzic then produced another order issued by Galic, which reinforced the message that members of international organisations must be allowed freedom of movement and treated with “good will”.

“I don’t think it means anything,” replied Thomas. He added that he knew of a Ukranian colonel, part of the UN force, who was detained for several hours during his journey to Zepa, where his soldiers were based.

“He was a colonel and deserved to be treated better, if you’re going to pull rank,” said Thomas. “By the way, I held a position that was held by a lieutenant colonel, if you’re going to throw insults.”

Karadzic complained to Judge Morrison – who was presiding in the absence of Judge O-Gon Kwon - that Thomas was “biased and has a hostile attitude towards our side”.

“The question of hostility from a witness is one for the court to judge,” responded the judge, who said that Karadzic was engaging in “argument and invective”.

Earlier in the week, a victim of sniper fire in Sarajevo briefly described her ordeal to the court.

Because the witness had already testified in two previous trials, prosecuting attorney Hildegard Uertz-Retzlaff read out a summary of her evidence before questioning her.

According to the summary, Alma Mulaosmanovic-Cehajic was shot in her left arm while riding on a crowded tram as it moved from the Bascarsija section of Sarajevo towards Cengic Vila. At the time of the February 1995 incident, the witness was an 18-year-old student.

Mulaosmanovic-Cehajic previously testified that she heard shots coming from behind her as the tram passed the Marshall Tito Barracks, and she thus concluded the fire had come from the direction of Grbavica and Vraca, areas controlled by the Bosnian Serb army.

“How were living conditions throughout [the] war?” Uertz-Retzlaff asked the witness.

“They were very difficult, primarily for reasons of safety and security, but also due to a lack of water, electricity and everything else that was needed—needed for a normal life that is,” said Mulaosmanovic-Cehajic. “Psychologically, depression was felt because no one knew how long this would last.”

She said she knew several people who were killed by the sniping and shelling, including an uncle, who she said was killed in front of his apartment building. One of her friends, she continued, was hit and killed while making lunch on her balcony.

“What effect, if any, did the fate of these relatives and schoolmates have on you?” asked Uertz-Retzlaff.

“Well, it was very hard,” responded Mulaosmanovic-Cehajic. “It could have been any citizen, myself included, and [there were] also my feelings for these people, and for their nearest and dearest who lost family members. These are strong emotions.”

When it was Karadzic’s turn to cross-examine the witness, he said didn’t dispute what happened to her, but claimed that the shooting was not intentional.

“[She] just happened to be in middle of the cross-fire,” said Karadzic.

“Would you really be angry if somebody were deceiving you and if someone had ascribed something to the Serbs that was done to you?” Karadzic asked her. “Would that be very bad for purposes of reconciliation?”

“Well, if that were to happen, I would be angry,” she replied.

Mulaosmanovic-Cehajic’s testimony concluded after a final question from Judge Morrison.

“I state the obvious: you are wearing a headscarf today,” said the judge, referring to the white fabric that covered the witness’s hair and neck, leaving only her face visible. “Were you wearing a headscarf on the day you were shot?”

“No, I wasn’t,” she answered. “I’ve been wearing one since 2003.”

A third witness, Dr Bakir Nakas – who was director of Sarajevo’s State Hospital during the war – also testified this week for the prosecution.

Because judges granted Karadzic additional time to review recently disclosed documents, the trial will recommence on September 27.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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