Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
The latest witness to give evidence in defence of wartime Srebrenica commander Naser Oric said this week that despite repeated attempts to give structure to Muslim forces in the area, the accused was only ever a commander “on paper”.
Ejub Dedic, who fought in the Vlasenica area, recalled that in early November 1992, Hamid Salihovic – described by prosecutors as the chief of security in Srebrenica – had suggested uniting local ad hoc fighting groups under one “central command”.
In a series of meetings held in the village of Konjevic Polje, Salihovic apparently planned the establishment of a war presidency in eastern Bosnia. Salihovic himself was to be its president and Oric its commander.
According to the witness, Salihovic thought this was “the only way to resist the enemy” at a time when Serb forces were launching increasingly aggressive attacks.
Dedic’s evidence thus far appeared to back up prosecution claims that by November 1992, Oric was commander of the Joint Armed Forces of the Sub-Region Srebrenica. It was partly in this role, prosecutors say, that he was responsible for war crimes in the area including murders and the destruction of Serb homes.
But Dedic went on to say that Oric hadn’t even attended any of the meetings, which Salihovic held to discuss the establishment of a local war presidency.
Oric was chosen as commander because of his bravery and his ability to fight, the witness said, rather than for any formal organisational ability. He added that all he had known about the accused at that time was that there was “some very young man from Potocari” who fought “like a lion, like a dragon”.
This description gave credence to the defence’s pre-trial brief, which claims that far from being a “desk officer”, Oric “rallied local Muslims by virtue of his natural leadership skills, charisma, military prowess and courage”.
Dedic went on to say that even if Oric had intended to exercise systematic command over forces in the area, the difficulty of communicating between groups of fighters would have made it impossible.
The witness explained that in November 1992, people in Cerska and Vlasenica were particularly isolated – having been fenced in by advancing Bosnian Serb forces – and that any kind of communication with other towns or villages “always involved casualties and loss of human life”.
Only people who were “very brave” or “totally crazy” managed to travel around the Srebrenica area, he said.
Dedic also spoke of plans made earlier – in September and October 1992 – for Nurif Rizvanovic, commander of an armed unit known as the 16th Muslim Brigade, to lead a “Drina Division” which would encompass territorial defence forces in Zvornic, Vlasenica, Bratunac and Srebrenica.
But when Rizvanovic toured the separate Muslim militias, giving instructions on how to dig trenches and criticising their previous efforts, the groups soon rejected this external command.
“Local leaders never accepted Nurif Rizvanovic as commander because he was imposed from outside,” said Dedic. “Before his arrival, we had dealt with problems without him.”
The success of the united enterprise was further compromised by the fact that the village fighters were not professionally trained soldiers. Dedic said that the Muslim groups had no choice but to “learn by example” and that their lack of expertise led to many fatalities.
As an example, he spoke of the success of a group of men and boys from Cerska in stealing a mortar and some shells from Serb-held territory nearby. In the event, Dedic said, the weapon proved useless because no one knew how to operate it. One man, who claimed to know what he was doing, ended up firing a shell so inexpertly that it landed ten metres away from the assembled group and knocked them all to the floor.
Prosecutor Jan Wubben sought to challenge Dedic’s credibility and the substance of his testimony by attacking his claims that he himself only fought in the Srebrenica area in an informal capacity.
Wubben showed the court an application, apparently completed and signed by Dedic, to serve in the Bosnian army. The document suggested that the witness had become a member of the army as part of the “crisis staff of Cerska” on April 6, 1992.
Dedic retorted that the Cerksa organisation was “not any kind of staff from the point of view of a military organisation”. Rather, he said, it just consisted of “a few people who met from time to time, and debated and discussed the situation that awaited [them] in that period”.
The witness also denied Wubben’s suggestions that he had been nominated for a “Golden Lily” commendation for his services during the war, or that he had “contributed to the advancement of the AbiH [Bosnian] forces”.
This was the first time he had received such high praise, Dedic commented wryly.
Helen Warrell is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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