Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Two former Muslim fighters from the Srebrenica area who participated in the raids on Serb villages in 1992 and 1993 said this week at the trial of the enclave’s wartime commander Naser Oric that “armed groups” they belonged to “were not under anyone’s command”- including that of the accused.
Hamet Tiro and Nesib Buric, from the villages of Gornje Orlice and Osmace respectively, also said no one was conscripted, but those who had weapons “joined any armed group of [Muslim] fighters they liked and did that of their own will”.
With testimonies like these, the defence hopes to prove that the accused didn’t have effective control over the armed forces in the area at the time relevant to the indictment.
The prosecutors allege that between June 1992 and March 1993 the troops under Oric’s command destroyed at least 50 Serb hamlets and villages in the wider Srebrenica area, expelling thousands of their inhabitants and plundering their property - mainly livestock and food supplies.
They also claim that Oric personally planned and participated in at least some of those attacks; that he demonstrated “both de jure and de facto command and control in military matters”; and had “effective control over his subordinates”.
But this week’s defence witnesses challenged these prosecution claims and raised some serious doubts as to how much control the accused could have had in the villages that were surrounded by Serb forces and almost completely isolated from one another and from Srebrenica.
Both Tiro and Buric insisted armed groups they belonged to gathered around local commanders who “didn’t obey anyone’s orders”. Those groups, they told the court, “were not part of any proper military structure, either”.
“We didn’t have any uniforms, ranks, barracks – let alone arms depots”, said one of them.
Nesib Buric, a large-framed maths and physics teacher with a military-style haircut, couldn’t hide a bitter smile when defence counsel John Jones showed him a Bosnian army document dated September 19 1993, which refers to the armed group in his village as “the Independent Osmace Battalion”.
“A battalion should have between 300-500 fully armed soldiers, and the village of Osmace had only about 50 self-organised men at that time, who were trying to defend it,” he said.
This document - whose authenticity has been disputed by the defence - states that the territorial defence force of Osmace “consisted of three companies”, implying that there was a proper military structure in the village after all, but the witness dismissed this as “a fantasy, wishful thinking on our side”.
“In reality, we didn’t have even 1 per cent of that!” he added.
The Osmace territorial defence force is specifically mentioned in the indictment against the accused as a military formation, which, together with other “units under the command and control of Naser Oric”, allegedly took part in the attacks on several Serb villages, including Ratkovici, Jezestica, Fakovici and Kravica in 1992 and 1993.
Buric also disagreed with the prosecution allegations that these raids were well organised and coordinated, and said there was hardly any communication between Muslim villages in the wider Srebrenica area, due to the proximity of Serb forces and land mines “that were everywhere”.
Another defence witness, construction worker Hamet Tiro, supported this argument by saying that “there was no communication whatsoever” between the village of Mocevici, where he was in summer 1992, and Srebrenica.
He told the court that his local commander Ejub Golic - who was formally under Oric’s command - “refused to be put under anyone’s control”. The witness added that he personally wasn’t aware of the existence of any military command in Srebrenica to which his “group of armed men” was supposed to be subordinated.
Oric’s defines co-counsel Vasvija Vidovic also used Tiro’s presence in court this week to challenge the credibility of two prosecution witnesses, cousins Stanisa and Milenko Stevanovic, who appeared at Oric’s trial last November.
They had testified about a June 1992 attack on their village of Bradjevina - also listed in the indictment against Oric - in which, they said, the whole village was looted and burnt down by Muslim forces in front of their own eyes.
In court, the defence had shown there were considerable differences between their earlier statements to the tribunal’s investigators and their testimonies in court, even openly accusing the cousins of collaborating after their arrival in The Hague in order to fabricate testimony – a concern also expressed by the judges at the time.
From the beginning of the trial, Oric’s defence counsel have claimed that some prosecution witnesses are not reliable, because they personally participated in the killings of Muslim population in the Srebrenica area during the war and were lying to the court in order to conceal their own crimes.
Tiro provided some weight to that claim when told the court that his neighbour had seen Milenko Stevanovic – at that time a company commander with the Bosnian Serb army – in Srebrenica in July 1995, when the massacre of about 8,000 Muslim men and boys took place.
The witness described Milenko as “a Serb nationalist and extremist who hated Muslims”, and reportedly insulted Muslim detainees – but it’s not clear whether he participated in the massacre itself.
Tiro and Buric also testified that just before the war in Bosnia broke out, they each saw weapons being transported from Serbia to Serb villages around Srebrenica in Yugoslav army helicopters and military trucks.
Their testimony supports another defence argument that the villages raided by Muslims in 1992 and 1993 were actually military outposts and therefore legitimate military targets.
The trial continues next week with the cross-examination of witness Nesib Buric.
Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR contributor.
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