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

"No Stench from Srebrenica Graves" – Witness

Thousands of bodies were removed and reburied elsewhere following massacres in the enclave.
By Daniella Peled
  • Dragoslav Trisic, defence witness in the trial of Ratko Mladic. (Photo: ICTY)
    Dragoslav Trisic, defence witness in the trial of Ratko Mladic. (Photo: ICTY)

A former Bosnian Serb army officer told the trial of Ratko Mladic that he never noticed the stench of corpses that hung over the town of Bratunac in autumn 1995 when mass graves were being exhumed in Srebrenica.

Mladic, the wartime commander of the Bosnian Serb army (VRS), is accused of genocide and other crimes relating to the killing of more than 7,000 Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys by troops under his command in the days that followed the July 1995 capture of what had been designated a “safe area” by the United Nations.

In September and October 1995, the bodies of thousands of Srebrenica victims were removed from mass graves and reburied elsewhere in an attempt to cover up the massacres.

Defence witness Dragoslav Trisic served as assistant commander for logistics of the Bratunac Brigade during the war.

According to a summary of his statement read out by defence lawyer Miodrag Stojanovic, the witness heard about the VRS capture of Srebrenica the day it happened, July 11, 1995. The following day, he received orders that “vehicles had to be deployed to transport those Muslims who had gathered in Potocari, and also those people should be provided with all the available quantities of bread”.

The lawyer noted that the witness then travelled to Potocari, “where he saw General Mladic [who] addressed the people there and told them that they would be transferred to Tuzla, and that there was no need for them to create havoc, and that was received by the people with approval. [The witness] stayed there for an hour, for an hour and-a-half, and he did not see that men were separated from the group, and nor that they were being forbidden from entering the buses.

“He did not see any force being used against the population, nor did he hear any derogatory words used to refer to those people,” Stojanovic read.

Some days later, the witness heard that there had been a shooting at the Kravica farm on 13 July in which “a Muslim had attacked a policeman, stole his rifle and killed him. The rest of the police who were providing security responded by opening fire in order to prevent people from fleeing”.

According to the indictment, some 1,000 men were killed at Kravica that day.

In her cross-examination, prosecutor Carolyn Edgerton asked Trisic about a meeting held on October 19 the same year, at which his superior officer Momir Nikolic announced that the Bratunac brigade was involved in a clean-up or “sanitisation” operation.

Nikolic was assistant chief of security and intelligence in the Bratunac Brigade when the Srebrenica enclave was captured in 1995. He pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity in 2003, and in 2006 was given a 20-year sentence, which he is serving in Finland.

Trisic acknowledged that he was aware that the VRS Main Staff had ordered that the bodies of those killed in Srebrenica should be exhumed and reburied elsewhere, but insisted that he was not involved in the operation.

At one point, presiding Judge Alphons Orie asked Trisic to explain why he stated that the Bratunac Brigade was not involved in “sanitisation” when Nikolic was on record as saying it had been.

“I assert as assistant commander for logistics of the Bratunac Brigade, I did not know, I was not informed of the sanitisation,” Trisic answered. “Captain Nikolic worked in the intelligence security service, so I cannot decipher what it was that he meant – that he would be doing it, that someone else would be doing it. But I, as assistant commander of logistics for the brigade, did not carry out sanitisation, and I was not aware of this being sanitisation.”

The prosecution went on to ask the witness whether he stood by evidence he gave in the defence case of Vujadin Popovic, the former chief of security for the Drina Corps who was found guilty at The Hague of genocide and sentenced to life in prison in June 2010.

In that trial, Trisic was asked whether he learned that the bodies of those killed at the Kravica farm had been buried in a grave in the village of Blodova. Reading from the transcript, Edgerton said, “Your answer is, ‘Yes, I did have that information a day or two afterwards. I found out from my friend who was engaged on that task that the burial was completed of those who were killed, in the Blogova village section.’”

Trisic said he stood by that evidence, and named the friend in question as one Dragan Mirkovic who had been working in civilian protection.

Edgerton went on to remind the witness of events during September and October 1995 in the area of for which his brigade was responsible. Thousands of Bosnian Muslim men who had been killed at various locations in the enclave “were moved from mass graves in Bratunac and Zvornik to other mass graves in Bratunac and Zvornik, and that included over 1,000 people who had been buried in Blogova”.

She then read out a statement from an unnamed witness interviewed by tribunal prosecutors in November 2001 who recalled that “there were lorries transporting bodies for hours. Even children along the side of the road were finding arms and legs.”

Asked by the prosecution whether he had seen the dead bodies being moved, this witness had answered that although he had not seen them, he could smell the “stench” from his flat in Bratunac.

“’I know what the stench was when I smelled it, because it’s a very characteristic smell of a human body which is decomposing,’” the unnamed witness said, in remarks quoted by Edgerton.

“Now here’s my question, Mr Trisic,” Edgerton continued. “I’d like you to explain how it’s possible when you had an apartment on the main road in Bratunac... that you didn’t know about the decomposing bodies that were being transferred throughout the municipality at that time, because everybody knew.”

“I said and I maintain that regardless of where I lived, I didn’t feel that or see that,” the witness replied. “Most of the time I was at the brigade command so I still maintain that I did not see that or feel that, what you said, this unpleasant smell.”

Daniella Peled is an IWPR editor in London.