Milosevic Trial: Eyewitness to Ethnic Cleansing

Bosnian Muslim witness says forces from Serbia aided destruction of his village.

Milosevic Trial: Eyewitness to Ethnic Cleansing

Bosnian Muslim witness says forces from Serbia aided destruction of his village.

Tuesday, 22 February, 2005

Former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic has been confronted by witness testimony implicating the authorities in Serbia in the ethnic cleansing of a Bosnian Muslim village.

Milosevic contends that Serbia had nothing to do with the fate of Kozluk, a Bosnian village on the banks of the river Drina, in the summer of 1992. But if Fadil Banjanovic, a Kozluk resident called to testify against Milosevic on May 19. is to be believed, units from Serbia were responsible for destroying his village.

Banjanovic, a burly, middle-aged former factory worker, who is now a prominent refugee leader living in Tuzla, said his native Kozluk was typical of many towns in eastern Bosnia. About 5,000 Muslims and Serbs lived side by side there in harmony.

In the spring of 1992, as nationalist political parties grew in popularity, the Serbs and Muslims of Kozluk grew suspicious of one another and many fled to safety elsewhere.

Then, on June 26, 1992, soldiers, police and paramilitaries came into the village. Under cross-examination from Milosevic later in the day, Banjanovic said that these forces were from Serbia, not the Bosnian Serb entity. He said they had Serbian, not local, accents

These men went from house to house and forced the Muslim population to gather in front of the town’s cultural centre – like so many “heads of sheep”, Banjanovic said, continuing his testimony.

The Bosnian Muslim civilians were forced to sign their names on a sheet of paper, and then made to board a group of buses that the Serb authorities had assembled. There were 1,822 of them.

Prosecutors presented this list in their evidence. It bears the names of each head of household and the number of family members. It was stamped by the Bosnian Serb municipality of Zvornik and had Banjanovic’s signature at the bottom. At the time, Banjanovic was a member of Kozluk’s village administration.

Although the document stated that all of the people listed wished to leave the territory and were not doing so under duress, Banjanovic said he was forced to sign it.

In a convoy of 17 buses, three trucks with trailers, and two cars, the villagers and their police and paramilitary escorts went to Loznica, a border crossing with Serbia.

As they departed, they saw that several of their homes had been set on fire.

The convoy was halted just over the bridge, within Serbia. A gang of paramilitary soldiers – dirty and heavily armed – surrounded the buses and demanded that the villagers hand over whatever money they had. They also demanded that the women and girls get off.

At this point, Banjanovic spotted a police patrol. He told officers that the soldiers were harassing the villagers and asked if they could help. Soon after this, several police vehicles arrived and held the paramilitaries at bay.

A Serbian doctor from the Red Cross arrived on the scene and, Banjanovic says, he asked him to provide food and medical care to a few of the villagers who had been injured when police and paramilitaries beat them during the exodus.

The doctor did what he could and set a letter to Belgrade seeking permission for the column to move through Serbia to the Hungarian border. Five or six hours later a document carrying a stamp from the Republic of Serbia arrived, and the buses were allowed to move on.

The convoy, escorted by Serbian police, moved on to the town of Ruma. There the people from Kozluk were forced to get on a train, in “carriages intended for cattle”. As they boarded, a group of Serbian civilians assembled and pelted them with rocks and pieces of wood, yelling, “Turks from Alija’s army!” (Alija Izetbegovic was the then president in Sarajevo; Turks is a pejorative term for Bosnian Muslims). Several villagers were injured in the melee.

As the train traveled through Serbia, other angry crowds gathered and pelted the villagers with stones.

The following day, the train arrived in the town of Subotica. There, Banjanovic said, the villagers, tired and hungry, were forced into a field.

The Red Cross and a group of journalists visited the site. “They filmed us as if we were animals in a circus,” Banjanovic said. The bedraggled convoy spent several days in the field before being transferred to a refugee centre - another field with pitched tents – in Palic.

The guards at the Palic centre boasted that they had been in the battlefields of Bosnia and Croatia. “They said they had killed lots of Turks,” said Banjanovic. “They looked terrible. They were filthy and had beards.”

Those villagers who had money – about 800 of them – quickly received passports and permission to leave. Those who didn’t had to stay. Banjanovic was among the latter group.

Somehow he was able to contact some friends – Hungarians who managed the Suboticanka factory, whom he knew from their past business dealings with the factory in Kozluk.

“They brought us juice and lent us money to get passports. They sent a group of photographers to make pictures of the whole group, about 1,800 of us. They came with the chief of police and gave him a cheque to pay for our passports,” Banjonovic said.

Once they had all received their passports, the Kozluk residents were able to board a train for the Hungarian border, Banjanovic said in conclusion.

When Banjanovic finished giving his testimony, Milosevic was given a chance to cross-examine him.

“Mr. Banjanovic,” he said. “What did Serbia have to do with what happened to you?”

When Banjanovic began to explain that the soldiers and paramilitaries who came into his village were from Serbia, and that the paramilitaries continued to harass the villagers from Kozluk even after they had crossed the Bosnian border into Serbia, Milosevic interrupted.

“You just said that when the paramilitaries began harassing you, it was the police from Serbia who protected you. You also said it was the Serbian Red Cross that gave you food and medical care. And when you requested permission to travel to Western Europe, it was Serbia who helped you get passports so that you could leave. Isn’t that what you said, Mr Banjanovic? Were we wrong to help you?” the defendant said.

Banjanovic grew flushed and angry as Milosevic claimed that Serbia had nothing do to with what was then happening across the Drina in Bosnia.

“As far as I am aware, it was you who let the criminals out, and these vultures contaminated the relationship between the different nationalities in Bosnia,” Banjanovic said.

“My dear Mr Banjanovic, you are badly informed,” Milosevic shot back. “No one released any prisoners in Serbia.”

Milosevic then read from the document which Banjanovic signed when the paramilitaries rounded up the residents of his village. Banjanovic protested that he had been forced to sign it by heavily armed soldiers who were forcibly expelling all Muslims from the village. “That document you read out was … forced on us 15 minutes before were forced out,” he said.

That, Milosevic said, was something that happened in Bosnia, a separate state from Serbia, over which he had no control. “It was this letter that was sent to Serbia, so Serbia made it possible for you to go there and the authorities in Serbia tried to help you,” he said.

Stacy Sullivan is IWPR project director in The Hague.

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