Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Protected Witness Recalls Srebrenica Horrors

Another Srebrenica survivor gives his account of the events following the fall of the enclave in July 1995.
By Lisa Clifford
The trial of seven high-ranking Bosnian Serb military and police officers this week heard from a Srebrenica resident who described the humanitarian crisis in the enclave and told judges about his efforts to escape to Bosnian government-controlled territory.

The witness, his name and face concealed from the Hague tribunal for his own protection, was testifying at the trial of the so-called Srebenica Seven. Ljubisa Beara, Vujadin Popovic, Ljubomir Borovcanin, Vinko Pandurevic and Drago Nikolic are facing genocide and war crimes charges. Radivoje Miletic and Milan Gvero are accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity for allegedly blocking aid and supplies to Srebrenica. They have pleaded not guilty.

In spring 1992, Bosnian Serb forces ethnically-cleansed Muslim villages in the wider Srebrenica area as a part of larger operation to get control of eastern Bosnia. People from these villages then streamed into the town, and food and medical supplies soon became scarce.

Thousands of hungry, terrified refugees in the besieged enclave faced a major humanitarian crisis - not only were they exposed to daily shelling from Serb positions, but they were completely cut off from the rest of the world, without access to fresh supplies.

According to the indictment against the seven accused, this was all part of a plan to make life for the Muslim population unbearable and to force them to leave the enclave.

This week’s witness said that living and security conditions in Srebrenica were already “disastrous” by the winter of 1993. It was cold and snowy, he said, and some residents had died of starvation.

The March visit of Philippe Morillon, the former commander of UN troops in Bosnia, provided some hope for the residents and the witness was in the crowd that greeted the French general, who promised to protect the besieged enclave.

Srebrenica was declared a UN protected safe area soon after. Serb forces began allowing humanitarian aid into the town and some of the wounded to leave, said the witness.

The siege, however, continued for a further two years, and by early 1995 conditions had again deteriorated badly.

With increasingly fewer humanitarian convoys getting through, there was a shortage of food, fuel and medical staff and supplies. The witness said residents were forced to cross dangerous territory to reach Zepa - where there were more registered refugees and therefore more food - though many were killed in ambushes and by landmines attempting to do so.

The final Serb assault came in July 1995, during which Serb forces who overran the enclave executed more than 8,000 Muslim men and boys.

After the VRS attacked on July 11, the witness joined a two-kilometre long column going to the Bosnian-government controlled city of Tuzla. Asked by prosecutor Nelson Thayer why he joined this group instead of going to Potocari where the UN Dutch battalion tasked with protecting the enclave was based, he replied, “I felt if I went to Potocari something bad would happen to me. I was afraid.”

The indictment alleges that Bosnian Serb general Ratko Mladic – believed to be the mastermind of the slaughter at Srebrenica – had developed a plan to murder hundreds of able-bodied men identified from the crowd of Muslims in Potocari.

He told the court that the column became separated on July 12, with the end cut off by heavy shelling.

Hiding in the forest, those that remained could hear Serb voices ordering all Muslims to surrender and promising to take them to free territory if they did. But the witness was afraid to comply. “I expected something terrible would happen if I did. I felt safer in the woods,” he said.

The following day, the threats became more disturbing, with the Serb voices through the bullhorns saying those who didn’t give up would be killed on the spot if they were found.

After 11 days in the woods, the witness was finally captured on July 22. He said he saw four others with whom he surrendered shot and killed, while he was kicked and beaten with rifle butts.

“There was moaning, blood pouring out of noses, crying,” he said, describing the scene.

The witness said he was then singled out and taken away from the rest of the group. Soon after that, he heard shots and gunfire.

“I was so afraid that I started to shake, and the Serb soldier [who was with me] tried to calm me down,” he said.

The witness explained why he was spared in a session closed to the public.

After spending two days with Serb soldiers near Zvornik, he was eventually taken to a prison camp at Batkovic where he spent five months. Upon his release, he was transferred to Tuzla. There, he answered questions about his experiences, though didn’t provide a detailed account until speaking to tribunal prosecutors in May 2006.

When asked by Beara’s lawyer Christopher Meek why it had taken 11 years for him to speak out, his answer was vague.

“I don’t know,” he said. But then he added, “I went through this. I wanted this truth to surface.”

Lisa Clifford is an IWPR editor.

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