Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

No Justification” for Oric Attacks

Prosecution attempting to prove that Oric’s troops led ruthless attacks on a weak Serbian peasantry.
By Lauren Etter

Judges trying Naser Oric, the former commander of Bosnian Muslim forces in Srebrenica, heard testimonies about two separate attacks on Serb villages in the area, and of the conditions in detention areas allegedly run by Oric’s subordinates.

Their testimonies, which started on October 15 and continued throughout this week, have been the first opportunity for the prosecution to start presenting the facts of their case.

Prosecutors spent the first days of the trial trying to dispel claims by the defence that the documents they submitted for this case were false, often forged. (See: Doubts Cast on Oric Evidence, TU No 377, 15-Oct-04).

Oric, 37, is charged in connection with crimes allegedly committed against Serbs by him and by soldiers under his command, and for the alleged mistreatment and murder by his subordinates in 1992 and 1993, before Srebrenica became a United Nations-protected safe area.

In the summer of 1995 - more than two years after the alleged crimes took place - Bosnian Serb forces attacked the enclave, killing some 7,000 of its Muslim men and boys in the biggest war crime on European soil since the Second World War.

This week, the judges heard witnesses Dragan Duric and Miladin Simic talking of Muslim attacks on the Serb village of Jezestica and nearby Kravica.

According to Duric, on August 8, 1992, men dressed in green camouflage uniforms descended from the hills surrounding the Jezestica hamlet amidst gunfire, driving out its Serb villagers and burning their houses.

“The people who managed to get out survived; those who stayed behind were killed,” said Duric, who testified in a live video link which distorted his appearance.

The attack on the village of Kravica came on the morning of January 7, 1993 - Serbian Orthodox Christmas. This time the attackers were wearing white, rather than green, uniforms to blend with the snowfall, another witness said. But their tactics - as he described them - were similar to those applied in Jezestica.

“There was shooting all over the place,” said Miladin Simic, a small-framed elderly man in corduroy trousers. His face remained expressionless for most of his testimony, except for a brief moment when he cried, “They were coming down from the hill. Those in white were walking in front.”

After raining the village with gunfire the attackers proceeded to steal food from the homes that were preparing a traditional feast for the holiday, the witness said. He described how the Muslim women who came with the soldiers carried goods out of the houses and away on their backs. They also noted that Muslim soldiers stole and slaughtered their livestock.

By summoning these two villagers, the prosecution attempted to prove that Oric’s troops led ruthless attacks on a weak Serbian peasantry - at best a rag-tag of elderly guardsmen armed with mere hunting rifles, and not members of the Bosnian Serb armed forces or any other military and paramilitary group, as the defence claims.

The prosecution hopes to prove that there was no military presence in these villages, removing any military justification for the attacks Oric is accused of.

But the defence maintains that the villagers were part of local Serb territorial defence units, and that many were on the payroll of the Bosnian Serb army brigade, with headquarters in the nearby township of Bratunac.

Oric’s lawyer John Jones presented the trial chamber with names of those who were conscripted and who received salaries from the military - including Duric, who eventually conceded under cross-examination that he was indeed a member of Serb armed forces.

The portrayal of the Serb villagers as helpless people besieged by the Muslim army will have to be squared with the case of Miroslav Deronjic, a Bosnian Serb official from the Bratunac municipality, who recently pleaded guilty to cleansing the predominantly Muslim village of Glogova in April 1992.

Deronjic confirmed that Bosnian Serbs at the time were well-armed and enjoyed the support of the Yugoslav army and of volunteer units from neighbouring Serbia. This statement was invoked during the defence team’s cross-examination.

“This tribunal sentenced Deronjic … for attacks, burning and forcibly displacing Muslims in Glogova. That is across the road from you. Are you saying you didn’t see tanks and artillery being moved along the road?” Jones asked Duric, who staunchly denied any knowledge of official military actions. “Were you not aware of intimidation and killing of Muslims in your very municipality?”

The testimonies of the first two witnesses – especially the part about the women grabbing the food from the Serb houses - may paradoxically play into the hand of the defence, which is trying to show that the Muslim attacks were legitimate and necessary to prevent the Bosnian Serb forces from starving and shooting Srebrenica civilians to death, what they described as “slow-motion genocide”.

The defence does not deny that the attacks on the villages occurred, but suggested they were necessitated by the mass hunger in the beleaguered enclave. “While the Serbs were preparing a [Christmas] feast, as is their custom, the Muslims were starving,” Jones said.

Oric’s defence argues that any destruction that may have been caused in these attacks was collateral damage rather than a war crime, and deny that the defendant had effective control over those who staged the attacks.

Aside from attacking and plundering the villages around the enclave, the prosecution has charged Oric for his subordinates alleged cruel treatment and murders of prisoners taken in these attacks.

On October 21, the trial chamber heard from Milenja Mitrovic, a 55-year-old woman who was captured by Muslim troops and kept in a cell in Srebrenica for three weeks until she was exchanged for dead Muslim soldiers. She described her cell as cold and without electricity, noting that she “sat in the corner petrified and crying”. In spite of this, she said that the guards had treated her well.

When she was released, her Muslim captors told her “to send greetings to her people”, she recalled.

“They told me to tell them that Srebrenica would once again be a mixed municipality as it once had been and that they would have given us more food had it been available.”

Lauren Etter is an IWPR intern in The Hague.