Colonel Pyers William Tucker, who spent just over two weeks in Srebrenica as an assistant to the commander of UN forces in Bosnia General Philippe Morillon, said Oric repeatedly refused to go along with plans for a ceasefire in the area.
The witness said he could understand the local commander’s position on the matter, given the risks it would entail.
But he was less sympathetic when it came to describing the dire physical condition of a Serb prisoner Oric’s men handed over to UN troops after repeated requests to do so.
And he also said the militia leader admitted at the time that his men were sometimes rather trigger-happy.
Oric – who became a folk hero amongst Bosnian Muslims during the war for defending Srebrenica against all odds – is charged with responsibility for the murder and mistreatment of detainees in the town’s prison, as well as destruction and looting of nearby Serb villages, from June 1992 up to March 20 1993.
Having arrived in Srebrenica on March 11 to assess the situation in the besieged town, Tucker said General Morillon and his escort found themselves trapped there by hordes of desperate refugees who surrounded their vehicles, afraid their going would mark the resumption of Serb shelling.
On the second night Morillon managed to hide in a destroyed home, having arranged for Tucker to meet him there with an armoured personnel carrier and drive him out of the town. But again the witness, who found his every move watched closely by the refugees, was unable even to start the vehicle.
The French general, he said, spent that night watching a stream of refugees moving into the town past the house where he was hiding. And returning to his comrades early the next morning, the exhausted Morillon announced, “I’m going to stay.”
The witness said the situation in the town was appalling. He was told by a reliable source in the UNHCR that the pre-war population of 6,500 had swelled to some 20,000 with the influx of refugees and, surrounded by Serb forces who prevented food aid from getting through, life there had become a struggle for survival.
The nightly air drops of food operated according to “the law of the jungle”, he said. He heard that at least ten people were killed each night during knife fights for supplies, or when half-tonne pallets – which were dropped with only the smallest of parachutes – simply fell on them.
Over the following week or so, Morillon managed to get various important Muslim figures in the town to agree to a demilitarisation of the enclave, monitored by UN troops.
But Oric bluntly refused the plan, vowing his men would fight “to the bitter end”. He also said he would continue mounting raids outside the enclave, which were necessary to capture food, weapons and ammunition supplies to defend the town.
The witness appeared concerned that his testimony on this issue shouldn’t be taken as a straightforward criticism of the Muslim commander.
“I’m sure ‘Colonel’ Oric has far more and far worse experience of the Serbs than I do and I can understand why he did not want to consider demilitarisation,” Tucker told the court. “General Morillon and I were very aware that there were risks.”
A ceasefire was eventually agreed later in March, and on April 16 Srebrenica became a designated UN “safe area”. Two years afterwards, Serb forces massacred up to 8,000 residents after overrunning the zone, which was monitored by not much more than 100 Dutch troops.
During his stay in the town, the witness said Morillon also pressed Oric on the question of whether his men were holding Serb prisoners. The UN troops had heard this allegation from a Serb colonel and from rumours circulating amongst the townspeople.
On one occasion, the witness said, Oric told them, “Taking prisoners is not really practical and we don’t do it.”
But on March 21, as they were clearing snow off their vehicles in preparation for a trip to meet with Serb forces in Bratunac, they had a breakthrough.
“I suddenly heard a loud car engine,” the witness reported. “I looked up and saw... a [black] Mercedes with dark smoked coloured windows and low profile tyres, the sort of thing that looked totally out of place in Srebrenica.
“I was astonished. This car came screeching to a halt in a hand brake turn and out... climbed Colonel Oric and a couple of bodyguards.”
Oric and his men then took the UN soldiers to a nearby house and brought out a Serb prisoner, supporting him on each side as he struggled to walk.
“Take him back to his people,” the Muslim commander said.
The witness was clearly shocked by what he saw.
“This man looked like the Jews who were rescued in 1945 from the German concentration camps,” he told judges. “His arms were like sticks, his stomach was completely sunk, he was unable to stand, he appeared unable to speak.
“We laid him on this stretcher and he managed to move his arms up as if to protect his head... He opened his eyes and he was very, very frightened.”
Other than that, Oric apparently told Morillon he had just two more prisoners, both of whom were “common criminals and nothing to do with the fighting”.
The witness said the UN general also spoke with Oric about Serb allegations of massacres of civilians in the area.
Oric apparently replied, “Sadly, sometimes his men did go beyond what was necessary... sometimes they killed ten people when in fact it would only [have been] necessary to kill five to secure the supplies they needed.”
Oric is not charged with any such killings.
Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.