Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The trial of Srebrenica war commander Naser Oric this week heard the testimony of a defence witness who described how, at the age of 15, she was raped and beaten by Bosnian Serb soldiers while being held in a detention centre.
`Edina Karic, from the hamlet of Lasovac in eastern Bosnia, also told how fellow Muslim detainees were forced onto lorries and driven away from the Serb camp, never to be seen again. Her evidence is intended to support the defence’s claims that there was a “pattern of ethnic cleansing” carried out by armed Serb forces against the Muslim population in east of Bosnia from 1992 to 1995.
Oric, who was commander of the Bosnian Muslim forces in the besieged enclave of Srebrenica, has been charged with the murder and mistreatment of Serb prisoners and the destruction of Serb villages in Bosnia throughout 1992 and 1993.
However, the defence claims that Oric acted in response to the genocide of Bosnian Muslims by Serbs, which started in “slow motion” 1992 and culminated in the massacre of 8,000 Muslim men and boys in Srebrenica in 1995. In light of these events, the defence argue that Oric was in fact a brave and charismatic commander who “did his very best to alleviate suffering” caused by Serb aggressors.
Karic told the court how in mid may 1992, her family fled their home after a night of heavy shooting by Bosnian Serb forces. Afraid that they would be targeted if they stayed in the village, the Karics sought refuge in nearby woods.
Ten days later, the witness was on her way home with her father and aunt when she was captured by armed Serbs. They were taken to a mine in the village of Sase, which the Bosnian Serb army had claimed as their military base. Karic was detained there for about two weeks.
The witness looked pale and shaken as she told of how, on the day of the rape, she and two other girls had been tricked into thinking they were being sent to do a cleaning job in the local village of Bratunac. “Three soldiers took us to an abandoned Muslim house…we were raped and abused and beaten throughout the night, and I myself had a gun pointed at my head all the time,” she said.
The ordeal continued the next evening, when the girls were forced to sit on the soldiers’ laps while being driven around Bratunac. Finally, they stopped at a house belonging to one of the soldiers, and were raped again repeatedly.
Defence counsel Vasvija Vidovic questioned the witness extensively about the behaviour and appearance of the Serb forces in Lasovac and the surrounding villages.
Karic described a well-armed and highly organised Serb military command. She told the court that there had been about 100 Serb soldiers stationed at the Sase mine, all of whom were wearing the uniforms of the JNA (the former Yugolsav army) or camouflage fatigues. The mine was equipped with a mortar for firing shells, and a tank with a mounted machine gun.
Even the Serbs who gathered around a roadblock in Lasovac were in uniform, and armed with automatic rifles. When Vidovic asked, “Were the Serbs that you saw peace-loving individuals who were just sitting in their villages and keeping a watch on their property in the months of May and June 1992?” Karic’s answer was unequivocal.
“No, these were not village guards,” she said. “It was an army with lots of weapons. They were killing, looting, raping, setting houses alight, and they perpetrated a great many crimes.”
In order to explain the actions of Oric and his fighters, the defence has sought to show that Serbs dominated the Muslims militarily. On July 4, the judges in Oric’s trial ruled that “the military superiority of the Serbs” was one of eight issues the defence no longer needed to address. The ruling was subsequently overturned by the appeals chamber.
Many of the Serb soldiers at the mine were locals whom Karic had known since she was young. However, the witness’ description of Miroljub Todorovic, a commander from Nis in Serbia, who was in overall control of military activity at the Sase mine, gave support to one of the defence’s arguments - that the campaign against Bosnians of non-Serb origin was controlled by Belgrade.
During the cross-examination, prosecution counsel Joanne Richardson avoided discussion of the wider military scheme and focused on the Serb shooting Karic claimed to have heard in her village of Lasovac. In an attempt to discover whether Muslim villagers had been involved in similar firing incidents, Richardson asked the witness whether her father used to “hunt for sport”, but was told that Karic’s father did not hunt or own any weapons.
The prosecution then produced an account by former president of the Municipal Assembly of Srebrenica, Besim Ibisevic, which documented how in March 1992, one month before the start of the Serb military action described by Karic, Serb villagers had complained of being intimidated by rifle fire from a group of Bosnian Muslims. One of the main alleged perpetrators was the witness’ cousin, Kadir Mujic.
The cross-examination was not extensive, however, and the witness was not questioned about the abuse she had had to endure. The court repeatedly acknowledged that it was aware how distressing the process of testimony could be for Karic.
Despite being offered the opportunity to give evidence in private session, the witness was adamant that she had “nothing to be ashamed of”, and that her experiences should be made public.
Defence counsel Vidovic finished her examination by asking, “Do you know whether anyone ever has been held accountable for those killings and murders and rapes that you told us about?”
“Nobody has been held accountable for those acts, ever,” replied the witness.
Helen Warrell is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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