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Milosevic Trial: Firing Squad Survivors Testify

Witnesses provide extraordinary accounts of how they managed to escape execution.
By Emir Suljagic

The two men who testified against Slobodan Milosevic last week should not have lived to tell their stories - both narrowly escaped death by Serb firing squads and lived to tell their stories.


B-1455 is from the eastern Bosnian village of Kostijerevo. Sometime in April 1992, Yugoslav National Army, JNA, troops came into his village and confiscated the residents’ hunting rifles.


"During the disarmament, there were two tanks with Yugoslav flag in the village," he said.


On May 30, 1992, the JNA troops returned and rounded up about 150 of the villagers, took them to a cultural centre in Drinjaca, a village just outside of Zvornik and locked them inside.


Shortly after, B-1455 said, a JNA lieutenant named Branko Studen came into the hall, and ordered that the women and children be sent to Bosnian-government controlled territory. Studen assured the remaining 91 men that nothing would happen to them.


"He said: 'Men, I know you are not guilty of anything and I guarantee that nothing bad will happen to you. Still we will have to move you from here and most likely you will be exchanged for the Serb population from Zenica'," the B-1455 recalled.


After his words of reassurance, Studen left. Shortly after, six men armed with Scorpion pistols, batons and knives walked in. B-1455 said the leader of the group ordered him and his fellow prisoners to sing Serb nationalist songs. None of the detainees knew the songs, but they were ordered to sing anyway.


The soldiers then picked out a few prisoners, dragged them on to the stage and started beating them with their assortment of weaponry. "The beating lasted until nine or ten o'clock in the evening," the witness recalled.


That group of six left and as darkness fell, another arrived. "They were wearing uniforms like Chetniks in World War Two and they asked for volunteers," B-1455 said.


This new unit began taking the prisoners outside in groups of ten. Each time, those who remained inside heard shots.


B-1455 was in the fifth group taken outside for execution. As they neared the execution site, one of them yelled, “They are going to kill us all!” At which point the detainees attempted to escape by running into the forest.


The Serbs opened fire on the fleeing prisoners. B-1455 said the first bullet hit him in the leg and forced him to the ground. “They noticed I was still alive and shot once again, this time hitting me in the right shoulder," he said.


The soldiers assumed B-1455 and the others who tried to escape were dead, so they went inside to get another group. The witness’s father and three brothers were killed that night.


Despite his wounds, B-1455 managed to get to his feet and scurry away in the darkness. He first made his way Mijatovo Brdo, where a Serb friend, Milan Ignjatovic, tended to his wounds. Ignjatovic promised to help the witness by taking him to a neighboring Muslim village that had not yet come under attack. But although Ignjatovic offered his assistance, he would soon betray B-1455.


While attempting to make their way to the Muslim village, Ignjatovic walked behind B-1455. At some point, the former stopped and the latter turned around to see what was the matter. He found that his erstwhile friend was cocking his weapon at him. “He was taking aim at me,” the witness said.


Once again, B-1455 managed to escape by running away. He spent the next six weeks wandering around deserted villages scavenging for food and finally made it to Bosnian-government territory in July.


Although he survived, B-1455 still bears the scars of both personal betrayal and repeated attempts on his life. "I am an invalid now. I am taking humiliating jobs, but the important thing is that I am alive, that my mother can see me alive, even in this shape," he said.


The next witness to take the stand was known to the court as B-1098, who survived an excruciating saga of personal betrayal.


He was born in a Muslim village outside of Zvornik, but had been living in Belgrade for many years before the war began. In April 1992, he traveled to his native village (the name was withheld) for a few days to celebrate the Muslim holiday of Bajram.


While he was there, B-1098 said JNA troops commanded by an officer from Valjevo (whose name was also withheld), came into the village, confiscated the residents’ hunting rifles, and sealed off the area.


B-1098 was trapped and could not return to Belgrade.


For the next two months, nothing happened. Then, on June 1, 1992, the Serb troops – JNA, police and paramilitaries – forced the witness and everybody else to leave the village. They were taken to the nearby village of Klisa where Serb troops had detained some 4,000 Muslims from 13 surrounding villages.


Once again – in a pattern that would be repeated throughout eastern Bosnia – the Serb troops reassured the prisoners that they would not be harmed. B-1098 said the soldiers told him that they were going to be exchanged for Serbs living in Bosnian government territory.


"They promised that UNHCR and Red Cross would come to evacuate us to Tuzla," he said.


Shortly after, all 4,000 people were put on buses. But they did not head towards Tuzla. Instead, they were taken to another village where a new group of soldiers “in JNA and camouflage uniforms” separated the men from the women and children. Some of the soldiers, B-1098 said, were wearing face masks. “I think they were our neighbours, who had not wanted to be recognised," he said.


The women and children were taken to Tuzla, but the 700 or so men were transferred to Karakaj, which lies five kilometres outside Zvornik. "I saw three trucks, and they were driving very fast, probably to prevent us from jumping off," B-1098 said.


As the men got out of the vehicles in Karakaj, a crowd of women standing on the other side of the road cheered the soldiers. “They were yelling, 'Kill the balija!’” the witness recalled.


All 700 men were forced into a three-room building. They were squeezed so tight that by the next morning, about 20 of them had suffocated.


Over the next four days, June 1-5, the 24 Serb soldiers assigned to guard the men would go on a ruthless killing spree, killing 180 prisoners. "They would take people out, usually the rich. The shots would be heard and then they asked for volunteers to take the bodies away," B-1098 said.


The witness said that he and the other prisoners were fed only occasionally during those four days. "They would throw few loafs of bred and cans, but we had nothing to open them with," he said.


Then, on June 5, the guards told them that they would be exchanged in Odzak, a town in northern Bosnia – but this was not to be.


Instead of traveling to Odzak, the prisoners were taken to the village of Pilica, also near Zvornik. Serb soldiers forced them into a cultural centre then locked the door and left them. B-1098 said nobody guarded them there, but none of the prisoners tried to escape.


Three days later, the troops returned with a truck and said that this time the prisoners were really going to be exchanged.


B-1098 and 63 others got into the truck. Shorlty before reaching their destination, one of the prisoners on the vehicle peaked through the tarpaulin. "He said that everyone outside was dead and we knew then that were going to be killed," B-1098 recalled.


Once again, the soldiers had not taken the prisoners to be exchanged. They had taken them to a Karakaj slaughterhouse.


The truck drove to the edge of the building and the soldiers ordered the prisoners to jump off and into a corridor in the abattoir. There were three rooms inside. B-1098 and 20 others went into one on the right, the remainder into one on the left.


A few minutes later, a soldier with an automatic rifle appeared in the doorway of the room B-1098 had entered and ordered the men to face the wall. The witness complied, but before he did, he took a good look at his would-be executioner.


"He was a JNA soldier; he wore a cap with a red star on it, somewhere around 175 centimetres tall, 19 to 20 years old, curly hair," he said.


When the soldier opened fire, B-1098 fainted. When he came to a few seconds later, he realised the bullets had missed him. He had not been shot, but kept silent lying on the floor beneath a pile of corpses. B-1098 said the body directly on top of him was his nephew.


The soldiers got back into the truck to go get another group of prisoners, leaving the slaughterhouse unguarded. B-1098 sneaked out into the yard and jumped over the wall surrounding it, and hid there for the rest of the day. "I heard the truck come twice more that day and I heard the shooting," he said.


He wandered aimlessly for the next few days avoiding Serb patrols and scavenging for food in deserted Muslim villages. At some point, he went into house and took a bag of clothes. Unfamiliar with the terrain, B-1098 lost his sense of direction and mistakenly wound up near the execution site again.


He saw that the soldiers were still there, along with a truck and a bulldozer. "I think they were loading the bodies, but I don't know where they took them," he said.


He fled back in the direction he came and for the next few days hid in the forest. As he was hunting for food, a Serb patrol found and captured him.


Two of the three soldiers tried to reach the headquarters on a small hand-held radio; it did not work and they climbed up a small hill, leaving B-1098 with only one guard. B-1098 threw his bag of clothes at the guard and startled him. That bought him just enough time to disappear into the woods.


Starving and confused after days of roaming around, he made his way to a Muslim village, which had already been cleansed of its inhabitants. Feeling safe for the first time in days, he picked a handful of cherries and hid in the woods to eat.


A moment later he heard branch snap behind him. It was another Serb patrol. This time, B-1098 ran and was able to escape.


He said none of the men executed in the Karakaj slaughterhouse the day he got away were ever found. B-1098 remains the only witness of the massacre.


During the cross examination, Milosevic accused B-1098 of making up the whole story.


Lead prosecutor Geoffrey Nice later asked the witness if he had ever been accused of lying about his ordeal. “No,” the witness answered. “Nobody before Milosevic.”


Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.


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