Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
A former member of the Bosnian Serb army testified this week that his unit only fired defensively on Sarajevo and that any civilian casualties were “collateral damage”.
Slavko Gengo, who served in the 1st Romanija Infantry Brigade, was testifying as a defence witness on behalf of Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb army from 1992 to 1996.
Mladic is charged with planning and overseeing a 44-month siege that ravaged the Bosnian capital and left nearly 12,000 people dead. His 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”.
Because Gengo has previously testified for wartime Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, a brief summary of his evidence was read out in court and Mladic’s lawyers asked only a few additional questions.
According to the witness summary, “the only war objective of [the Bosnian Serb army] was to protect its own people [and] territory and did not involve any offensive attacks against the army of Bosnia and Herzegovina [ABiH] in Sarajevo. ABiH forces fired to provoke return fire [and] positioned themselves in settlements inhabited by civilians…. [Bosnian Serb] units returned fire when fired upon exclusively against enemy combat positions,” said Mladic’s lawyer Branko Lukic.
Despite allegations to the contrary, during the siege “the water supply was never deliberately switched off” by the Bosnian Serb army, Lukic said.
During the cross-examination, prosecuting lawyer Adam Weber asked the witness what precautions he took “to minimise civilian casualties when firing”.
“When it comes to my side, I did not have anything to discuss with the opposing side. If the other side opened fire at my positions, they were supposed to secure that place to make sure that the returning shell wouldn’t hit civilians. A mortar placed in a school or a settlement – it was a legitimate target. The opposing side was supposed to do that to avoid casualties. All I could do was target well,” Gengo said.
“Is it correct that you that you did not take any precautions? That you merely left it up to the opposing side? Is that your evidence?” Weber asked.
“What was I supposed to do on the opposing side? I couldn’t do anything, could I? I could not remove their own civilians away from their weapons,” Gengo said.
At this point, presiding Judge Alphons Orie interjected, and asked whether the witness had authorised fire “exclusively” when his unit was fired at, and then only targeting the origin of fire. Gengo confirmed that this was correct.
“So if that fire came from an area which was inhabited by civilians, the measure you took was to be as precise in hitting your target as you possibly could, but if civilians were hit in that area, you considered that to be the responsibility of the opposite party,” Judge Orie put to the witness.
“Yes, your honour, because in that case they would be collateral damage, not a specific target,” Gengo said.
The prosecutor asked if it was correct that the witness “viewed the Muslim population living in areas” he shelled as collateral damage.
“No, there was no intentional targeting,” Gengo said.
Judge Orie then pointed out that “not intentional” was the definition of collateral damage.
“Were potential victims of collateral damage the Muslim population that lived inside the inner ring [of the city]?” Weber asked.
“There were Serb inhabitants, Muslim inhabitants and others. There was no way for me to know,” Gengo said.
“You mean generally, the population inside the inner ring?” Weber asked.
“Yes,” the witness said.
The prosecutor later produced a situation report which he said showed that the Bosnian Serb army was firing on Sarajevo, “and not in response to incoming fire”.
“I don’t know about this report but I don’t think it was the case. We never opened fire without a good reason,” Gengo said.
Judge Orie again interjected.
“You fired at targets without that being a response to incoming fire?” he asked.
“Only if we were trying to improve our tactical position, to have the enemy withdraw further away from any roads,” Gengo said.
“So your answer is yes – that you fired not in response to incoming fire but for other reasons,” Judge Orie said.
The trial continues next week.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.
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