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

Milosevic Faces Ethnic Cleansing Claims

Witnesses suggest accused was behind deportation of non-Serbs in northern Bosnia.
By Emir Suljagic

After receiving a full medical examination, following another bout of illness, Slobodan Milosevic was back in court this week to face witnesses accusing him of orchestrating campaign of ethnic cleansing of huge swathes of Bosnian territory.

Milosevic fell ill last week, causing a delay in the proceedings, the eighth since the start of the trial in February 2002 - the total loss of working days now amounts to 55.

The first witness to take the stand on September 9 was a woman from the northern Bosnian town of Zvornik. Known only as B-1058, she told the court how Serbian paramilitaries, led by Zeljko "Arkan" Raznatovic, rounded up and killed her son and husband along with ten other men.

They were all hiding in the basement of an apartment building in Zvornik when, early in the morning on April 8, the door was blown up from outside.

Ten soldiers, wearing military fatigues and ski masks, moved in, saying they were looking for weapons.

The soldiers first took men outside and then women and children.

B-1058 was the last to leave the basement. As she came out, she saw that men were all lined up against the wall, their hands up, and soldiers pointing their guns at them.

Soldiers told her and other women to move down the street and as they did, she had heard automatic fire.

She tried to turn back and look, but the soldier behind her ordered her to keep walking.

She walked with other women and children to the town library where Arkan spoke to all of them, promising buses to take them to safety. Later that day, women and children boarded the buses and were taken to Tuzla, in government-controlled territory.

B-1058 identified her attackers as Arkan's and members of another paramilitary group led by Vojislav Seselj, saying that based on their accents, she had been sure they were from Serbia.

During the cross examination, Milosevic told the witness that he was sure her son and husband were armed and taking part in the fighting. "If they'd had weapons they would have been in the woods, not in the basement," she said.

Milosevic went on, saying that B-1058 could not testify as to how her loved ones were killed.

Presiding Judge, Richard May interrupted him and said that "there was no doubt they had been killed", because the witness had seen them lined up and then heard shooting.

B-1058 was replaced at the stand by another protected witness, named B-1610, who accused the Yugoslav army, JNA, of collaborating with Bosnian Serb paramilitaries in the ethnic cleansing of Prnjavor of its Muslim and Croat residents.

B-1610 testified that his village, Lisnja, in the vicinity of the town, was surrounded by the Bosnian Serb paramilitary group known as the "Wolves from Vucjak", who gave the residents an ultimatum to surrender their weapons.

When the witness went to the town to hand over his hunting rifle, he saw truckloads of soldiers from Krajina, the Serb-controlled part of Croatia, in front of the police station.

The commander of paramilitaries, Veljko Milankovic, was there also, with several JNA officers. As he handed his weapon, B-1610 said he managed to overhear a conversation between Milankovic and an officer he could not identify.

Milankovic asked for the deployment of artillery on Pavlovo Brdo, a hill overlooking the town. The officer promised he would.

When they handed over their weapons, residents of Lisnja were told to leave the village and go to local sawmill. As they left, the JNA artillery pounded the village, in case anyone remained behind.

Men were beaten along the way and all of them were crammed in the local shoe factory. The witness stayed there for 45 days, under the watchful eye of the Bosnian Serb police.

After he was released, the witness returned to his village and a year later the local Serb authorities allowed him to leave for Croatia.

A further piece of the evidence jigsaw implicating the JNA in the ethnic cleansing came from the former mayor of Brcko, on the northern border between Bosnia and Croatia.

Brcko, a strategically important town on the Sava river, was taken over by combined Bosnian Serb and JNA forces in early May 1992, and remained in their hands until the end of the war, providing the only physical link between Serbia and Serb held territory in western Bosnia.

Appearing as a witness, Mustafa Ramic, who was elected as mayor in 1990, said that JNA armed local Serb population in the months leading up to the war.

JNA placed machineguns at key points in Brcko, dug in artillery weapons around the town as volunteers from Serbia poured into the town.

Ramic asked Colonel Milinkovic, commander of the local JNA garrison, why the army had done it. The colonel replied that his forces were acting to defend the area from an upcoming attack from the Croatian side of the border.

On May 1, both bridges linking Brcko to the outside world were blown up.

Local police reported to Ramic that men who'd destroyed one of them wore JNA camouflage uniforms and came from Serbia.

"Two JNA vehicles came to the bridge. One group of soldiers went about blowing up the bridge in broad daylight, the other captured the police officers at the bridge," he said.

Around a hundred people were killed in the explosion as they crossed the bridge, the witness said.

Ramic said he then called Colonel Milinkovic. He advised him to go and try and calm the population, or the JNA would take control of town.

Ramic took the advice. But as he addressed residents on local TV, the JNA moved into the town with tanks and started shelling Muslim districts.

Ramic said he left the TV studio and the town for one of its Muslim suburbs, where he tried to set up resistance to what he said was an "occupation" and an "aggression".

In the cross examination, Milosevic accused the witness of illegally arming the Muslims before the war. The witness denied the accusations, saying that the first Muslim unit was only formed on May 17, two weeks after the Serb onslaught.

In an attempt to discredit him, Milosevic produced indictments that Serb authorities in Brcko brought up against Ramic during and after the war. He also provided a Serb court judgment sentencing Ramic, in absentia, to 15 years in prison for "war crimes against civilian population".

Ramic replied that he only heard about the judgment, insisting that the Brcko prosecution and court never tried to serve him with the indictment, even after the war.

Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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