No End to Sanski Most Pain

Krajisnik trial witness breaks down as he recalls town’s wartime horrors and the lingering effects of Bosnian Serb policy.

No End to Sanski Most Pain

Krajisnik trial witness breaks down as he recalls town’s wartime horrors and the lingering effects of Bosnian Serb policy.

Wednesday, 9 November, 2005

When he entered the Hague tribunal courtroom this week, there was nothing about witness Faik Biscevic to suggest that his testimony would take the court by surprise and result in the trial against Bosnian Serb leader Momcilo Krajisnik adjourning a day ahead of schedule.


Biscevic, a strongly-built 64-year-old with a pleasant face framed by receding white hair, seemed calm and focused on September 6 as he began his testimony on how Bosnian Muslims were murdered and driven out of the north western Bosnian town of Sanski Most.


But his increasingly harrowing testimony culminated in a surprise rush of emotion for the Serb people whose leaders had originally cleansed his hometown of Sanski Most.


Citing “new evidence” brought up by the testimony, Krajisnik’s defence team asked for and was granted more time to prepare before cross-examining the witness.


Before the war broke out in Bosnia, Biscevic, a dentist by profession, was a wealthy man and a distinguished member of Sanski Most’s ethnically mixed community. He also served as the local leader of the Democratic Action Party, SDA, which represented mainly Bosnian Muslims.


Biscevic told how his colleague Nedeljko Rasula - leader of the local branch of the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS and later mayor of Sanski Most - was a close associate of the defendant Krajisnik.


In one photograph shown in the courtroom this week, Rasula stands proudly in the company of Krajisnik and one the tribunal’s most wanted fugitives, former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, and other senior party officials on the day the local SDS branch was established in early 1991.


Relations between the two men and their parties initially seemed good, but Biscevic testified that Rasula would at least once a week go to Sarajevo and Banja Luka, the cities where the SDS leadership was based. “We never doubted for a second that he was consulting someone from a higher level,” the witness said.


Biscevic described how the situation in his town deteriorated as the year progressed and the SDS in Sanski Most municipality, backed by the Serb-controlled Yugoslav National Army, JNA, began distributing weapons to local Serbs.


“JNA helicopters were landing in Serb villages, and a bus with thin metal plates instead of glass windows was regularly delivering weapons to Serb citizens,” Biscevic told the court, claiming that on one occasion, Rasula told Serbs in a nearby village that “in just two hours” he could “provide them with enough weapons to keep them fighting for five years”.


The prosecution hopes that testimony such as this one will help them prove that Krajisnik – the senior SDS figure and later speaker of the Bosnian Serb parliament - planned and coordinated the takeover of municipalities in Bosnia along with other SDS leaders.


Their ultimate goal, according to the indictment, was to create a Serb state in Bosnia which would be free of other ethnic groups.


Sanski Most fell to the Serbs on May 26, 1992, after the majority Muslim area of the town had sustained a full day of heavy shelling. Biscevic was arrested the following day.


Displaying no visible emotion, the witness told the court how he was first taken to the village of Magarice, where the Serb army was based, and was beaten so severely that his “handcuffs fell off”. After the beating, he was taken to the Serb-controlled radio station in Sanski Most where he was forced to read a prepared announcement.


As evidence, the prosecution presented two audio recordings of the statements Biscevic read out at the time.


In the recording, a radio presenter announced Biscevic as “the biggest Muslim extremist, finally caught by Serb forces”.


A shaky voice, which Biscevic confirmed was his own, then said, “I call on all Muslims and Croats to turn over their weapons to the legal Serb authorities, so that the shelling, for which I am solely responsible, can stop.


“We are to blame for everything that happened and the Serb Army was forced to do this [shell the town] because of our behaviour.”


While listening to the recording, Biscevic remained still and calm. On the other side of the courtroom, the defendant was every bit as composed. Krajisnik – smartly dressed in a dark suit, crisp blue shirt and a matching tie – sat still, occasionally taking notes, pressing a hand against his bushy eyebrows. He rarely looked at the witness.


After his unwilling appearance on the radio, Biscevic said he was taken to the central prison in Sanski Most and then to the notorious Manjaca camp - one of many in the area where Bosnian Muslims were starved, tortured and killed, their bodies buried in mass graves which are still being discovered in the area.


Two of Biscevic’s three sons were also transported to Manjaca. They never returned.


When prosecutor Mark Harmon asked the witness to describe how the loss of his two sons had affected his family, the first hints of emotion showed on Biscevic’s face. He sighed, and swallowed hard.


“We live because we have to,” he said simply.


“We are not dead, but it’s as if we were. We don’t know where our sons are buried, and all we do is wait for information on new mass grave sites, hoping we’ll find their bodies in one of them.”


Biscevic, who testified at a previous tribunal trial, explained that he had returned to Sanski Most after the town was retaken by Muslim forces in an offensive launched in early autumn 1995. At the time, the town’s Serb population fled, not even waiting for the Bosnian forces to arrive.


Biscevic, who reopened his dentist practice with his only surviving son, said that only a few elderly Serbs returned.


“I wish Serb leaders could come to Sanski Most themselves to see what they’ve done to their own people,” he said, slightly turning his head towards Krajisnik for the first time since beginning his testimony.


“A few days ago, a Serb man from a nearby deserted village died – he was lying dead for the whole day, and nobody even noticed. There was no one at his funeral - only one man buried him,” the witness continued, his voice shaking slightly.


And it was here where, all of a sudden, Biscevic broke into heavy sobs that seemed to take the whole courtroom by surprise. For a while, he struggled but failed to regain control, and kept on weeping.


A stunned silence settled on the courtroom. Presiding Judge Alphons Orie was the first to respond. “Mr Biscevic, do you need a break?” he asked.


The witness replied that he was fine, and wiped his tears away with a handkerchief.


“There was no one at that poor man’s funeral,” he repeated. “That is what the Serb leaders did to their own people. I wish they could see that.”


After the testimony ended, Krajisnik’s defence team asked for their cross-examination to be postponed, stating that the testimony had brought new evidence against their client, which they would need more time to prepare for.


The last day of the hearings was cancelled as the judges granted this request. The trial will continue on September 20.


Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.


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