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Mladic Witness: Bosnian Muslim Civilians Moved "to Protect Them"

Wartime officer tells judges that officers feared paramilitaries would attack villagers if they remained.
By Daniella Peled
  • Defence witness Svetozar Andric giving evidence at the Mladic trial. (Photo: ICTY)
    Defence witness Svetozar Andric giving evidence at the Mladic trial. (Photo: ICTY)

A former senior Bosnian Serb officer testifying at the trial of Ratko Mladic this week denied orders he issued in May 1992 were aimed at permanently removing Bosnian Muslims from Serb-held Zvornik.

Defence witness Svetozar Andric held a number of senior posts in the Bosnian Serb army during the war, serving as commander of the Birac Brigade and chief-of-staff of the Drina Corps, and finishing with the rank of lieutenant-general.

Prosecutor Andrew Tieger began by asking him about the “six strategic objectives” adopted by the Bosnian Serb leadership at a session of the Republika Srpska assembly in May 1992. The prosecution has argued that these constitute evidence of advance planning for the crimes that were later committed against non-Serbs during the war.

Tieger pointed in particular to the goal that “the Serbian people must struggle for complete separation from the Muslim people and Croat people and form its own state”.

He asked the witness whether he had been made aware of “this position of the political and military leadership regarding the importance of complete separation from Muslim and Croat people”.

“No, I wasn’t informed about that,” Andric replied, explaining that he joined the Bosnian Serb military just a few days after the objectives were agreed and was busy settling into his new post in Birac.

Tieger produced an order dated May 28, 1992 that Andric sent to the Zvornik Territorial Defence staff.

“You direct that the moving out of the Muslim population must be organised and coordinated with the municipality through which the moving is carried out. Only women and children can be moved out while men fit for military service must be placed in camps for exchange,” he read. “You state that the order to remove residents refers ‘only to residents who expressed the wish to go’, correct?”

“Correct,” the witness said.

“The Birac Serbian autonomous region or district government adopted the same order, correct?” Tieger continued.

“That is correct,” Andric said.

The prosecution then turned to the witness statement provided by Andric where he claimed that Bosnian Muslims were moved out of the area to protect them from possible reprisals by Serb paramilitary units.

Tieger asked whether the reason given at the time of the order was that these people were to be moved “as a result of crimes Muslim extremists carried out against Serbs in the area”.

“One of the reasons,” the witness agreed, adding that the local government had called for particular care to be taken over “the protection of the three ethnic groups”.

“The intention to address the perceived problem of crimes carried out against Serbs by armed Muslims would not be addressed, General, would it, by a course of action to simply allow those Muslims who wished to leave to depart in an organised way, would it?” Tieger continued. “In short, if you are concerned about the people attacking you and want to fight, letting a certain number of other people who want to go is not going to address that problem.”

“Many paramilitary organisations were dangerous from the security point of view, not only for Muslims but for Serbs,” the witness explained, adding that “not for a single moment was [the order] written in order to have someone killed. On the contrary, the only aim was to protect people.”

Tieger turned to a report in the official Bosnian Serb journal Javnost dated June 6, 1992 in which the decision to move Bosnian Muslims out of the area was explained as being “a result of crimes Muslim extremists carried out against Serbs in the area, and no other reason is given”.

He also noted that “many people who moved out were rounded up or captured before they expressed any desire to leave”, and highlighted the section of Andric’s order which referred only to “men fit for military service”.

The witness repeated that the aim of his order had been to avoid “liquidations” because there were a number of paramilitary units operating in Zvornik.

He added that he had ordered screening to be carried out to identify anyone who had been involved in military activity.

“If someone had not committed a crime, taken part in armed conflict, then these people could be released; they could go to Muslim territory if that is what they wished. If they wanted to stay, they could stay,” he said.

Andric previously testified as a defence witness in the trial of former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, when he similarly claimed his order was meant to prevent harm to Bosnian Muslims in the Zvornik area.

Later, Tieger returned to the subject of paramilitaries, asking whether Andric blamed groups such as the notorious Yellow Wasps for the killings in the Zvornik area.

“For the most part,” the witness agreed, although he went on to emphasise, “I don’t know specifically who committed these things. I cannot say with any degree of certainty.”

However, Tieger argued that Andric had been aware that such paramilitary groups were supposed to be subordinated to the Zvornik Territorial Defence, later incorporated into the Bosnian Serb army as the Zvornik Brigade.

Andric responded that these units in Zvornik “did whatever they wanted – they even captured the president of the municipality”.

Tieger turned to other instances in the region where Bosnian Muslims were rounded up and men separated from women and children. “That was the implementation of your order to move out the men, and separate the women and children and putting the men in camps for exchange,” he said.

The witness denied this.

“This order of mine saved hundreds of people, I believe. If not, many would not be alive today,” he said, adding that later the men detained were exchanged for Bosnian Serb prisoners “and today they live together with their families”.

Mladic stands accused of crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible population transfer.  He is also accused of the massacre of more than 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995, and of planning and overseeing the siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead.

Daniella Peled is an IWPR editor in London.

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