Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Nikolic Testimony Under Scrutiny Again
Lawyers defending Vidoje Blagojevic and Dragan Jokic, the two Bosnian Serb officers on trial for the Srebrenica massacre, called several officials from a town close to the site of the atrocity and sought to discredit the testimony of Momir Nikolic, a Bosnian Serb officer who is one of the prosecution’s key witnesses, to deflect blame away from their clients.
Nikolic, who was indicted along with Blagojevic and Jokic for the killings in Srebrenica, pleaded guilty and agreed to testify against his fellow officers and, in exchange, the prosecution agreed to drop the most serious charges against him and recommend a lighter sentence.
Although he provided an extraordinary amount of detail to prosecutors in the statement he game them last summer, both his credibility and the prosecution’s tactics were called into question after it emerged that Nikolic had confessed to crimes he didn’t commit, presumably in the hope of getting the best possible plea agreement terms. His lie was quickly discovered and never included in the agreement, but it was quickly seized on by Michael Karnavas, the American lawyer defending Blagojevic.
Nikolic negotiated his plea agreement last May, but his lie wasn’t made public until five months later during cross-examination by Karnavas after he testified against Blagojevic and Jokic. At the time, Karnavas forced Nikolic to admit in open session that he had falsely claimed to have ordered the killing of 1,000 unarmed Muslims in Kravica and Sandici, and falsely identified himself as the man in a photograph presented to him by the prosecution.
Every witness Karnavas questioned last week witnessed part of the killing operation in Srebrenica between July 11-16, 1995 - but none of them recalled seeing Blagojevic during those crucial days. And almost all of those who took the stand called Nikolic’s credibility and character into question.
The first witness to take the stand last week was Aleksandar Tesic, a Bratunac municipal official who was charged with requisitioning civilian equipment and vehicles to the army during the war. Tesic testified that on July 12, he received an urgent order to procure all available buses and fuel in Bratunac for the Drina corps to aid with the “evacuation” of 20,000 Muslims from Srebrenica.
Tesic said Bratunac did not have many buses – Zvornik was much better equipped that way – but that he was able to requisition two or three from a local company.
While the Bosnian Serb army was taking control of Srebrenica, Tesic said he went to Potocari to see what was happening.
“There was no water, electricity, and there was a lot of damage,” Tesic said. “There were mounds of rubble and the conditions were unhygienic. When we arrived, we began scratching ourselves. There was a lot of lice, fleas, very ugly things. The people were hot and exhausted,” he said.
In Potocari, Tesic saw Bosnian Serb army general Ratko Mladic talking to the Muslims. “He was telling them not to be afraid, that the Bosnian Serb army would help them,” Tesic recalled. “He said to the people that if they wished to stay, they could, but if they wanted to leave, they just needed to say so and transport would be provided.”
In what appeared to be an effort to absolve both the witness and his own client of blame for the massacres that would follow, Karnavas asked Tesic whether he believed what Mladic was saying.
“Not for a moment did I believe anything bad would happed to those people,” Tesic answered. “I believed that General Mladic wanted to transport these people to where they wanted to go, so I didn’t doubt his words.”
By far the most riveting part of Tesic’s testimony concerned what he saw at the Kravica warehouse, where several hundred Muslims are believed to have been killed.
On July 14, Tesic said he was called upon to transport a group of 18- and 19-year-old military recruits to Zvornik. The young men had just been called up to serve their military service and Tesic decided to escort them.
En route to Zvornik, they passed the Kravica warehouse as the killing operation was underway.
“The site was a painful one and it surprised us,” Tesic said. “By the warehouse, almost its entire area, there were corpses lined up, the same way one lines up logs. I don’t’ know how many – perhaps 200 or 300. A lot.”
Tesic said the buses had to drive very slowly because there were soldiers all over the road, so he was able to observe everything with considerable detail.
“I didn’t want the children to see it,” he said, referring to the young recruits. “They were, after all, children, just 18- or 19 years-old and I felt very uncomfortable that they were seeing this.”
When Karnavas asked Tesic if the young men were being recruited for a “killing operation”, the witness grew exasperated.
“Oh, no,” he answered in English, in a haunted, painful voice, before continuing in his native Serbo-Croatian. “They were being called up for regular service. They were not reservists, but young men who had just been recruited. This was their first day of military service.”
Before concluding his questioning, Karnavas asked Tesic whether he recognised anyone from Bratunac at the scene of the warehouse killings.
“I didn’t recognise anyone,” Tesic said. “We were going slowly and if I saw some one I knew, I would have recognised him, but I did not despite the fact that I’ve lived and worked in Bratunac for years. I know hundreds of people, perhaps even 1,000. I would have definitely recognised them if I saw them, but I didn’t.”
Finally, Karnavas asked whether Tesic ever saw Blagojevic or received any requests from him for buses or earth-digging equipment during those fateful July days.
“No,” Tesic answered. “I don’t’ remember ever seeing him or getting any requests.”
The next witness to take the stand was Dragan Mirkovic, the managing director of Bratunac’s utility company. Mirkovic told the court that as the Srebrenica operation was underway, Bosnian Serb colonel Ljubisa Beara summoned him to the headquarters of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, in Bratunac.
He said Beara had been drinking and offered Mirkovic a glass of whisky. Mirkovic refused the drink and Beara asked if the utilities company had a backhoe and workers to operate. There were a lot of dead at the Bauxite mine in Milici, he said, and they needed to be buried.
Mirkovic said that he didn’t have the necessary equipment or men to do the job. When he suggested that Beara contact someone for another company that had the machinery, he said Beara became angry, cursed at him and told him to leave.
The following morning, he was ordered to the SDS office again and, this time, Beara ordered him and a military policeman to go look at the burial site. Although Mirkovic said he didn’t want to go, he did as he was told. When he arrived, he concluded immediately that the utility company’s backhoe was not sufficient to dig such a large grave so he requested a larger digging machine.
“I marked the site I had been told to mark. It was a fairly large area,” he said.
For the next three days, Mirkovic said, his workers from the utility company used company trucks to transport the bodies and buried them in the mass grave.
Karnavas asked whether Blagojevic ever came to the site. “No,” Mirkovic said. “I never saw Blagojevic there.”
Karnavas asked Mirkovic if he was aware of what happened at the Kravica warehouse. Like the previous witness, Mirkovic said he saw the massacre site when he passed by on the road. “It was a site I will never forget,” he said, looking down towards the floor. He said he saw a soldier order five men to lie on the ground face down, then shot them in the back.
Karnavas asked whether the witness tried to stop it or reported it to anyone.
“No,” Mirkovic replied. “I did not,” adding that he did not recognise the people doing the killings.
Finally, in what appeared to be an effort to discredit the prosecution’s star witness, Karnavas asked Mirkovic whether he had any dealings with Momir Nikolic between 11-16 July 1995.
When Mirkovic said that he did not, Karnavas drew the court’s attention to a transcript of Nikolic’s testimony, in which he claimed that Mirkovic gave him information about the location of between 80 to 100 bodies and said that they had been collected, transported bad buried in the village of Halilovici.
Mirkovic said he never told Nikolic any such thing and never saw him during those days.
After he concluded his testimony, Judge Liu Daqun thanked Mirkovic for coming to The Hague to testify. But before leaving, Mirkovic said he wanted to ask a question.
“Would it be possible for me to shake Colonel Blagojevic’s hand?”
“I am afraid this is not allowed,” the judge responded. “I’m sorry for this.”
With that, the witness left.
The third witness to take the stand last week was Jovan Nikolic, an elementary teacher from Kravica, who was working as the director of an agricultural coop in Bratunac in 1995.
When Srebrenica was being attacked, Nikolic said it was the middle of raspberry season and he was busy preparing the harvest and trying to get the berries to market.
On July 13 at about 10 am, Nikolic said he left his office in Bratunac because he was curious to know what was happening in Srebrenica. He went out to a nearby intersection and saw buses and trucks full of Muslims coming from the direction of Srebrenica.
While he was standing there, Momir Nikolic passed by in a blue Fiat Zastava and offered to drive him to Potocari to see what was happening. Out of what he described as “pure personal curiousity”, Jovan Nikolic accepted the ride.
He said he was horrified by the suffering he saw in Potocari and that he stayed there for only a half hour before returning to Bratunac.
Karnavas then told the court that the witness had provided a statement to tribunal investigators in 2001, but had failed to mention that he when to Potocari with Momir Nikolic. “Can you please tell the court why you did not mention this incident,” Karnavas said.
“When I was asked by the prosecution to speak about events in Srebrenica, I went with great pleasure because I wanted to state what I knew to enable them to uncover the truth. But Bratunac is a small town and some people contacted me and asked me not to mention their names. Momir Nikolic was among them,” the witness said.
When asked whether Blagojevic had ever requested such a thing, the witness said that he had not.
Finally, Karnavas asked the witness about the massacre at the Kravica warehouse, and once again, the testimony was chilling.
On July 14, the witness noticed that he had not received a report about raspberry sales from Kravica, so he went to the warehouse to inquire. When he arrived, he found the grounds covered with corpses and heard shooting.
“People were being liquidated,” he said, recalling that they were being lined up, forced to the ground, and “vaccinated”.
“There were lines of 5-6 men who were told to lie down. The man in charge said ‘I will vaccinate you’, and then he shot them in the back of the head. After that, another soldier was told to check the vaccinations and shot each man under the left shoulder blade,” Nikolic said.
He said he became upset and started yelling and cursing and demanding to know why the soldiers were doing this. At that point, he said, the men came towards him with their guns. “They were intending to kill me too,” he said.
He survived only because a group of elderly people who lived across the street from the warehouse saw the scene and came over to intervene.
After that, the witness said he went back to Bratunac to speak with the executive board at the municipal building to inform them that executions were taking place at the warehouse and that they should take appropriate measures.
Karnavas asked if by taking appropriate measures the witness was hoping the authorities might try to stop the killings, but this was not the case.
“The killing was nearly over by then,” he said. What he was interested in was making sure that the mess was cleaned up. “I was interested in making sure that things started functioning there again.”
Stacy Sullivan is an IWPR editor.
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