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

'No Siege of Sarajevo', says Milosevic

Former Serbian leader says he tried to make peace in what was a battle around Sarajevo, not a blockade.
By Chris Stephen

Slobodan Milosevic this week told the Hague tribunal that there was no siege of Sarajevo during the Bosnian war, only a battle between Muslim and Serb forces ranged around the city.


"There was a struggle between Serbs and Muslims, and no siege of any kind," he said during cross-examination of a protected witness on October 28. "All this is the consequence of a civil war."


The former Serbian president, accused of responsibility for war crimes during the fighting in the city, said his conclusion was based on maps showing that the Muslim and Serb forces held positions that corresponded to their pre-war ethnic majorities.


He portrayed his own role in the battle as that of peacemaker. "The only thing that could be done was to put it to an end as soon as possible, and that is what we were trying to do," he said.


This drew an acerbic response from the witness, a Bosnian Muslim citizen of Sarajevo identified only as B-1345, who endured hardship, fighting, and the loss of both his father and wife in the battle.


"We all know it was blockaded. Not even a bird could leave Sarajevo," he told Milosevic. "On the hills around Sarajevo the Serbs were there. The Bosnian army was not there."


Witness B-1345 had a harrowing story to tell - his father was shot dead and his mother shot in the leg by a sniper firing from the Serb front line. His mother had one stroke of luck because she was shot during a quiet day. "Had there been fighting, her leg would have been amputated," he said. "But as the doctors did not have much work to do that day, they worked to save the leg."


But more heartbreak followed when his wife was also shot dead by a sniper firing from Serb lines. The loss of his wife ended his period with the army, "I was in the army for seven or eight months, until my wife was killed. I had a two-year-old child to look after. I was not interested in anything any longer except the survival of my child and myself."


Milosevic asked him about the death of his father, in 1993, "How do you know that that is where the bullet was fired from?" The witness said he did not see the shooting of his father, but was told by someone else that the bullet had come from Serb lines.


Witness B-1345 said he heard the artillery piece that fired a projectile which hit Sarajevo's Markale market on February 5, 1994, causing dozens of deaths and prompting NATO to talk of air strikes.


He said he had been in his garden, close to the Serb line, and had heard the weapon being fired well inside the Serb sector, on what was a quiet day with little fighting. Twenty seconds later he heard the shell impact in the centre of the city.


In cross examination, Milosevic asked him, "Do you remember that UNPROFOR [United Nations Protection Force] commander General Rose said after analysing the crater that there was no way to say who had fired the shell?"


At this point, Milosevic was stopped by Judge Richard May. "There is no point asking him any more than any other bystander," he told him. "They can't help directly in that sort of matter."


It marked a day of exchanges between Milosevic and Judge May, with the judge several times stopping Milosevic and telling him to restrict his cross examination to events about which witness had specialist knowledge.


When Milosevic began questioning the witness about the underlying causes of the February shelling, Judge May said, "Irrelevant - now just ask him something he can deal with."


"So he can't answer anything with regard to these events?"


"He didn't investigate it," said the judge.


Milosevic pressed on, "Do you know anything, Mr 1345, about the existence of eyewitnesses who claim the shell was fired from a Land Rover vehicle which had been adapted to fire shells?"


The witness said no.


Milosevic went on to ask the witness if he was aware of an incident at Visoko, a town north of Sarajevo. "Visoko was thirty-five kilometers from Sarajevo," said the witness. "We had no idea even what was happening at Cengic Vila [Sarajevo suburb]."


Judge May later reminded Milosevic about asking broad questions, saying the time for his defence case would come later.


"Mr May, the witness claims that the Serbs surrounded Sarajevo, and I would like to show that the Serbs lived in Sarajevo," said a defiant Milosevic, flourishing an ethnic map dating from 1981.


Chris Stephen is IWPR's project manager in The Hague.