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Prlic Trial hears of Mostar's Destruction

Former United Nations police officer says Croat paramilitaries’ shelling and siege of Mostar made life almost unbearable for Bosniaks.
By Merdijana Sadović
A witness testifying in the trial of six Bosnian Croat officials, which resumed this week after the summer recess, described the appalling conditions endured by the Bosniak, or Bosnian Muslim, population during the Croat siege of the city of Mostar 14 years ago.

Larry Charles Forbes told the court that Bosniak civilians were not just expelled from the Croat-held part of Mostar on the west bank of the Neretva river to the east side, but were also exposed to constant shelling and sniper fire from the Croat positions during the time he spent in this city.

Forbes, who was a member of the United Nations civilian police during the 1993-94 Croat-Muslim conflict in Bosnia, said Bosniaks were forced to live in concrete basements without running water and electricity, and were cut off from food and medical supplies for months.

Jadranko Prlic, Bruno Stojic, Slobodan Praljak, Milivoj Petkovic, Valentin Coric and Berislav Pusic are charged with crimes committed against the Bosniak population during the 1992-95 Bosnian war.

The indictment against the six states that the authorities of the self-proclaimed Croat territory of Herceg-Bosna claimed Mostar as its capital when it came into existence in 1991.

It says that in May 1993, the Herceg-Bosna forces or HVO attacked and expelled “hundreds, if not thousands” of Bosniak men, women, children and elderly into east Mostar, while hundreds of others were detained at the “Heliodrom” prison in the town.

This action resulted in Mostar being divided between HVO and Bosnian army forces, with most of the Bosniak civilians of the town surrounded in a small area east of the river, while Bosnian Croats and HVO forces occupied the west bank.

“By June 1993, the Herceg-Bosna/HVO forces had commenced a siege against east Mostar which continued to April 1994 and involved continual shelling, sniper fire, blocking of humanitarian aid and horrible deprivations, directed against the Bosnian Muslims in east Mostar,” the indictment continues.

Forbes told the court this week that he arrived in the Balkans in May 1993 and was transferred to the Mostar region on June 28, where he was based until the end of that year. His task was to liaise with the local police and also to assess the situation on the ground.

Forbes said that before he arrived in Mostar, he had been told that “Bosnian Croats and Muslims fought together against Serbs”, but once the Serbs were driven out from this area, “Croats attacked the Muslims, and they started fighting against each other”.

He said the attack caught the Bosniaks by surprise. “A lot of Bosniak police officers who were over on the other side were captured and taken prisoner or shot dead,” he told the court.

When Prlic’s lawyer Michael Karnavas said the witness’s claim that the Croat forces attacked first was hearsay and could not be admitted into evidence, Forbes said he had heard the same thing from many Bosniak police officers and civilians he talked to while he was in Mostar.

He said when he arrived in east Mostar, he was shocked by the devastation he saw. This part of the town was exposed to “savage shelling and sniper fire from HVO positions on the west bank and on Mount Hum, which overlooks the city”, Forbes said.

According to the witness, the targets of these attacks were not military objects, but civilian buildings and the Bosniak population. He said he never saw any military barracks on the east side of the river, nor large number of Bosnian Army, ABiH, troops.

Forbes added that HVO forces sometimes aimed at UN vehicles as well, and that in one of these attacks, which took place just before he arrived in Mostar, a Spanish soldier was killed. He said he was involved in the investigation into this incident, which concluded that the fire came from HVO positions on the west bank.

The witness told the court that due to the constant shelling of east Mostar, Bosniaks were forced to live in basements and shelters with concrete floors and walls, which were “overcrowded, very dusty and dirty”. He said there was no running water there, no electricity, and he hadn’t seen any toilets either.

Forbes also said the HVO controlled the power in the area, which, according to him, explained why the electricity was cut off in east part of the city.

He stated that from his armoured vehicle parked on the streets of Mostar, he often witnessed civilians’ daily struggle to escape HVO snipers.

“They used various methods to get across the street - some would crawl, some would stand tall and run as fast as they could, and some ran in a zigzag pattern to avoid the bullets,” he said.

HVO snipers shot at “everyone - women, children and the elderly”.

When asked by Judge Jean-Claude Antonetti how he could tell the snipers were positioned in the HVO-controlled area, Forbes said he knew by the “the angle of fire”.

“Also, I’m sure that the ABiH would not be shooting at their own soldiers, let alone women and children,” he added.

Forbes said the last time he saw east Mostar, in winter 1993, “it was being shelled from HVO positions on Mount Hum, the buildings were burning and there were fires everywhere”.

“That particular night I left was as bad as ever.”

During cross-examination of the witness, one of the accused, Slobodan Praljak – who represents himself in court – put it to Forbes that some of the heavy shelling he witnessed was, in fact, an HVO response to ABiH attacks on their positions.

“In the course of your testimony, you said several times that the ABiH did not have heavy weapons. How do you know that?” asked Praljak.

“What I meant is that I never saw any heavy weapons on the east side of Mostar,” Forbes responded.

“Do you claim that if you didn’t see any heavy weapons, that means they didn’t exist?” Praljak continued.

But the witness appeared unmoved. “I didn’t hear any heavy weapons firing from their side, nor did I see any. That’s all I know”, he said.

The trial continues next week.

Merdijana Sadovic is IWPR’s Hague project manager.

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