Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Prosecution witness John Wilson in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
A former United Nations military observer testified this week that Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic made repeated threats to “destroy” and “level” the city of Sarajevo.
Prosecution witness John Wilson said the threats came in May 1992, amid stalled negotiations about evacuating Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, personnel from barracks in Sarajevo.
According to the witness, who was a senior UN military observer from March to December 1992, Mladic said at a meeting on May 25, 1992 that “the evacuation had to be completed in three days or strong action will be taken against Sarajevo”.
“General Mladic was becoming frustrated that the negotiations over the evacuation of the barracks were protracted,” Wilson said. “He was making clear to me, and asked me to pass on to the [UN] Secretary General and the [Bosnian] presidency, that unless the barracks were evacuated, he would be taking strong action himself.”
Wilson recalled that during this same meeting, Mladic alluded to media reports of a possible international military intervention, and said this would only bring “catastrophe” to Sarajevo, which would be “levelled” in response.
“[Mladic] pointed to the [UN] badge on my beret and said ‘That’s the badge of death if there is an intervention,’” Wilson recalled.
Mladic had issued similar threats in earlier conversations and told the witness of his plans to “destroy half the city” if the JNA personnel were not evacuated from the city safely, Wilson said.
“Did he indicate how he would destroy half the city?” asked prosecuting lawyer Lorna Bolton.
“[Mladic] indicated that he would use the considerable artillery resources he had at his disposal. He talked about levelling half the city,” Wilson replied.
“Did you take his threat seriously?” Bolton asked.
“I always took General Mladic seriously. He was known as a man to deliver what he said, both good and bad,” Wilson said.
The prosecutor then showed the witness a transcript of an intercepted phone conversation between Mladic and an unidentified male dated May 25, 1992 – the same day the accused issued the three-day ultimatum.
In the intercept, Mladic is recorded as saying that if anything bad happened to the remaining JNA personnel, “Sarajevo is going to shake, and more shells will fall per second than in the entire war so far.”
Wilson said that these statements “accurately reflected” the sentiments Mladic expressed at their meeting the same day.
He told the court that when the remaining barracks were not evacuated by Mladic’s deadline, his army unleashed “the biggest night of shelling” since the war began. It commenced at about 5 pm on May 28 and lasted until early the next morning.
“It appeared that the whole city was being engaged, not just particular areas… literally thousands of rounds of all calibres, including [from] rocket launchers, were being fired into the city and distributed in such a way that there appeared to be no particular targets involved,” Wilson said.
He said the bombardment was a “really horrendous experience for inhabitants of Sarajevo”.
“Where were the shells falling relative to the confrontation line?” Bolton asked.
“There appeared to be no relationship between the shelling and the confrontation line. The city itself was the target…[but] the weight of fire seemed to be going into the old town,” Wilson replied.
Prosecutors allege that Mladic, the highest authority in the Bosnian Serb army from 1992 to 1996, planned and oversaw the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that ravaged the city and left nearly 12,000 people dead. Mladic’s army is accused of deliberately sniping at and shelling the city’s civilian population in order to “spread terror” among them.
The indictment – which lists 11 counts in total – alleges that Mladic 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". He was arrested in Serbia in May 2011 after 16 years on the run.
The day after the heavy shelling, Wilson said he met with representatives of the JNA and the Bosnian government.
The JNA representatives “indicated they thought Mladic was out of control” and apologised for his conduct, Wilson said. Later in the meeting, the Bosnian government representatives took out an audio tape which they said the group would be “interested in listening to”.
“It was a recording of General Mladic giving artillery fire commands and orders on the night of [May] 28,” Wilson said, adding that it was translated aloud into English by the officials present at the meeting.
In this recording, Mladic was “directing fire at individual target areas”, Wilson said.
“He is ordering fire at his command – which means you can’t fire unless he says so, and you fire when he says so…. The group was somewhat dismayed collectively at the contents of the tape, and there was much shaking of heads,” the witness continued.
He said that while he could not recognise Mladic’s voice, everyone else at the meeting did.
The prosecution then produced a transcript of an intercept where Mladic suggests to another army officer that the May 28 recording is fake.
“They probably have good pantomimes and impressionists who impersonated our voices,” the prosecutor quoted Mladic as saying in the intercept.
The witness responded that “they” probably refers to the Bosnian presidency, and that the six JNA officers present at the meeting “had no doubt that the voice in the tape belonged to Mladic”.
Wilson said that when he met Mladic again on May 30, the accused did not deny responsibility for the attack.
“His justification was that he was defending the Serb people and Serb neighbourhoods from attack by [Bosnian] presidency forces,” Wilson recalled. He added that in their conversations, Mladic never suggested that the May 28 recording was faked.
Throughout Wilson’s testimony, Mladic made loud remarks – despite repeated warnings not to do so from judges – and was eventually sent out of the courtroom. Earlier in the week, he was removed from the courtroom for laughing during the testimony of a protected witness.
During cross-examination, defence lawyer Nenad Petrusic asked about the witness’s meeting with Mladic on May 25, and whether he or the “Muslim authorities” did anything to help resolve the stalled negotiations before Mladic’s May 28 deadline.
Wilson said that negotiations continued but that it had been a “question of arriving at a plan that was acceptable to both sides”.
“General Mladic essentially refused to hand over weapons [inside the barracks]. The [Bosnian] presidency wouldn’t release the JNA from the barracks until they got the weapons. The barracks were not evacuated by May 28 and [Mladic] followed up on his threat…[to] attack the city,” Wilson said.
Petrusic asked whether Mladic was “justified” in asking for the weapons, given the risk that otherwise “they could be used against him the next day”.
“He can certainly adopt a position that he’s not prepared to hand over weapons, but whether that’s legitimate or not depends on what his higher authorities’ position was on the matter. Ultimately, the JNA and Serb political leadership directed that the weapons be handed over,” Wilson said.
Petrusic also asked Wilson what sources he relied upon when determining which side was responsible for “causing or provoking an attack” in Sarajevo.
Wilson said he and his team never relied on just one source and would not state something as fact unless they had personally observed it, or it had been verified by a reliable witness.
“We always found it useful to ask one side and then the other what happened. Sometimes, the truth lay somewhere in the middle,” Wilson said.
“Can you agree with me that… a lot of information was leaked through the media to shape public opinion and… was rather unreliable or biased?” Petrusic asked.
“Information manipulation was one of the weapons of war during the Bosnian war and virtually every other conflict. The accuracy of media reports is often questionable. It needs to be verified by reliable means before accepting it as fact. This is what we attempted to do,” Wilson said.
Petrusic then asked whether the “Muslim side represented itself as a greater victim than it actually was”.
“I can certainly confirm that the [Bosnian] presidency argued that they were victims and there is a value judgement as to whether they were exaggerating. I can’t comment further on that,” Wilson said.
The Mladic trial will resume on October 29.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.
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