Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Milosevic Trial: Paramilitary Sex Crimes Alleged
When witness B-1461 took the stand to testify against Slobodan Milosevic on May 6, he didn’t seem angry or intimidated by the prospect of confronting the former president in the dock.
Rather, the 35-year-old farmer’s tone was matter-of-fact as he told the court that how Serbian troops rounded up all the Muslim men in his eastern Bosnian village and locked them in a nearby cultural centre where they were beaten, stabbed and forced to perform oral sex on one another.
While stories of expulsion, imprisonment, rape and murder are almost commonplace at the war crimes tribunal, witness B-1461’s testimony shocked the most jaded observers – and even rattled the usually unflappable Milosevic.
Until the spring of 1992, B-1461 lived in Divic, a farming hamlet on the bank of the Drina River just outside of Zvornik. The village was home to around 300 families, most of whom were Muslim.
That March - shortly after Bosnia held a referendum on independence - B-1461 said the residents of Divic saw Yugoslav army troops digging in along the riverbank on the Serbian side of the Drina.
Soon, barricades went up in town, shelling and shooting began and corpses began to float down the river, he said. The worried villagers then formed a crisis staff, an ad hoc local administration, to defend Divic in the event of a Serbian attack.
B-1461 said the villagers collected around 20 rifles, some of which were privately owned and others which were “given to us by the municipality”.
On April 18, a Serb official visited Divic and demanded that the villagers hand over their weapons. They refused, and eight days later, Serbian troops attacked.
“The army came into the village and asked all men to assemble in front of the mosque,” B-1461 said. They were again asked to surrender their weapons, and this time they complied.
In May, the paramilitaries returned and told the residents to leave on the grounds that it was no longer safe for them to remain. The soldiers assembled 11 buses and forced 500 men, women and children to board them for what was to be a one-way trip to Olovo, a town in Muslim-controlled territory.
The convoy, however, was stopped en route in the village of Han Pijesak - where the Bosnian Serb army was headquartered - and forced to turn back because of fighting. A trip to Tuzla the following day was also stopped by hostilities, and the vehicles turned back for Zvornik.
There, 174 men were separated from the women and children and taken to a small room in the sports stadium’s administration building.
While the space was large enough to accommodate the men standing up, the witness explained, there was not enough room for them to sit or to lie down during the nearly three days they were held there - with little food and water.
At one point, 11 men were taken out of the room, allegedly to accompany soldiers to their houses to search for weapons. They were never seen again.
The remaining 163 were bused to Celopek, where they were locked up in the town’s cultural centre after being forced to give up their ID papers and all other personal documents, as well as belts and shoelaces, money, jewelry and anything else in their possession.
Over the next month, groups or men in military uniforms visited the building to interrogate, beat and torture the men, B-1461 said. The most regular visitor was Dusan Vuckovic, who was known by the nickname Repic - which means ponytail in Serbo-Croatian.
B-1461 told the court that Repic and his gang took sadistic pleasure in beating the torturing the prisoners, often stabbing them in the hands and thighs. The witness himself was stabbed in both hands.
During the Muslim holidays of Bajram on June 10-11, Repic came into the cultural centre and asked all the fathers and sons to assemble on the stage. The men were forced to strip, then perform oral sex on one another.
“First the fathers had to give it to their sons, then the sons to the fathers,” the witness said. “They made the rest of us watch.”
After a while, B-1461 said Repic began choosing people at random and sent them up on the stage to perform oral sex on one another.
In a description that shocked the courtroom, B-1461 described, without emotion, how Repic and the others forced the prisoners to bite off their friends’ genitals.
“The asked one man to show the penis he had bitten off, then forced him to swallow it,” B-1461 said. “They made one man push the handle of a broom into the behind of another.”
Also on Bajram, Repic asked several men to take part in fistfights. B-1461 said they ordered his father to fight his neighbour. When the two men refused to hit each other, Repic’s men said they would beat the prisoners instead.
B-1461’s neighbour was so severely injured that he fell into a coma and eventually died. The witness’ father survived, only to be killed during a later attack.
“I think it was June 26, St. Vitus Day,” B-1461 said, referring to a holiday commemorating the anniversary of the battle of Kosovo Polje when Serbian forces were defeated by the invading Ottoman army.
Repic had arrived at the cultural centre at around 4 pm and demanded information from the inmates. When none was forthcoming, the soldier opened fire, killing several and wounding many others. B-1461 later found his father among the dead.
The surviving prisoners were then transferred to Zvornik before being taken to a camp in Batkovic in mid-July.
During his year-long stay, the camp was visited by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which brought vital supplies to the inmates. However, the witness claimed that all prisoners aged more than 60 or under 16 years of age were taken away and hidden before each visit, returning only after the aid workers had left.
Although conditions were better in Batkovic than they were in Celopek, inmates were still subjected to abuse – regular beatings and interrogations. The witness was eventually released in a prisoner exchange.
During his cross-examination, Milosevic asked B-1461 if he was aware that Repic was a well-known criminal who had already been punished by the Serbian authorities.
When the witness replied that he had heard about this while he was in Batkovic, Milosevic snapped back, “It doesn’t matter where you learned it. Are you aware of it? I want to inform you that when the authorities in Serbia found out about their crimes, they tracked down the perpetrators and punished them.”
The former Serbian president then turned to address presiding judge Justice Richard May, saying, “These men were prosecuted for their war crimes, so I don’t understand why this witness has come to testify against me.”
Judge May then asked Milosevic if he wanted to cross-examine the witness or not.
Milosevic said that he did, and went on to ask the witness questions about membership of the Muslim Party of Democratic Action, SDA, whether he knew any of the municipal officials in Zvornik and if he recalled the outcome of the first multi-party elections in Yugoslavia – events B-1461 denied knowledge of.
Judge May again interrupted and asked Milosevic to limit his questioning to the witness’ testimony.
The defendant replied, “I and the authorities of Serbia punished [those responsible for what the witness suffered in detention] a decade ago. It’s sick what happened - enough to turn the stomach of any normal person - but I have nothing to ask about it.”
Stacy Sullivan is IWPR’s project manager in The Hague.
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