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Sarajevo Siege Recalled as Mladic Trial Starts

Prosecution sets out opening arguments on siege of Sarajevo and detention camps where non-Serbs were held.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Ratko Mladic on the first day of his trial. (Photo: ICTY)
    Ratko Mladic on the first day of his trial. (Photo: ICTY)

As prosecutors began their opening statements in the long-awaited trial of former Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic, they showed wartime footage of the accused apparently boasting that he killed people “in passing” whenever he visited the besieged city of Sarajevo.

The grainy footage, which according to the Office of the Prosecutor, OTP, was shot in August 1994, was shown in the courtroom as the trial opened on May 16.

The OTP says the film shows General Mladic in a car with a Serbian man who was visiting from Canada.

According to the court’s English translation, Mladic tells the visitor that “we brought tanks here and kicked the hell out of the Turks” – a reference to Bosnian Muslims.

“Whenever I come to Sarajevo, I kill someone in passing. Who gives a fuck for them?” Mladic said, in the translation.

When the clip finished, prosecuting lawyer Dermot Groome addressed to the courtroom, saying, “Mladic talks about personally sniping the people of Sarajevo as if it’s a sport.”

Prosecutors allege that Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army from 1992 to 1996, planned and oversaw the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that ravaged the city and left nearly 12,000 people dead. Mladic’s army is accused of deliberately sniping at and shelling the city’s civilian population to “spread terror” among them.

He faces charges of genocide for his alleged role in the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, during which some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed.

The indictment – which contains 11 counts in total – alleges that Mladic was responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which “contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory.”

After 16 years as a fugitive, Mladic was arrested in Serbia on May 26, 2011.

Speaking about Sarajevo, Groome told the court that “from the start, it was clear to victims and the world community that the bombardment of [the city] was a grave criminal act.”

Mladic, he said, claimed to have “blocked Sarajevo from all four sides. There is no exit.”

The prosecution showed video footage, mainly culled from wartime news reports, of civilians running down streets to escape the snipers positioned in the hills above the city. There were also images of bombed-out buildings and dead bodies on the pavement.

Other news footage shown in the courtroom, from former Sky News correspondent Aernout Van Lynden, showed a stocky Mladic near one of the army’s firing positions in the hills above Sarajevo.

In the film, Van Lynden describes Mladic as “unrepentant”, while the accused states, “”We have the right to defend ourselves.”

Groome also showed a slide of excerpts said to come from a phone intercept of a conversation between Mladic and one of his commanders.

Mladic is quoted as asking his subordinate about the possibility of attacking Bascarsija, the historic old part of the city.

“How soon could you fire? Can you also shell Bascarsija? Fire a salvo at Bascarsija as well,” the transcript has Mladic saying.

Indiscriminate shelling and sniping formed part of a larger purpose, Groome told the court. The “division of Sarajevo into Serbian and Bosnian Muslim parts” was, he said, one of the six strategic war goals devised by the Bosnian Serb leadership, which included Mladic’s then superior, President Radovan Karadzic, who is now also standing trial at the tribunal.

The prosecutor also gave an overview of the crimes of which Mladic stands accused in various Bosnian municipalities during and after they were captured by Bosnian Serb forces in spring 1992.

In the eastern Bosnian town of Foca, women were “systematically raped,” Groome told the court. He quoted the testimony of one anonymous witness who said “they had killed my mother and brother, and up to that day I had been raped by almost 50. Whenever they would come back, I would just tear my hair and say, ‘Oh, what are they doing to us?’”

Next, the prosecutor described conditions in Bosnian Serb-run internment camps, including those at Omarska, Keraterm and Trnopolje in northwest Bosnia. Video footage was shown of emaciated men standing behind barbed wire and crowded into hangars.

Mladic and his subordinates, Groome told the court, were “fully aware of what was taking place in the camps”.

“There was great suffering, food was insufficient, detainees were the subject of beatings, torture and rape, and other crimes of sexual violence and murder,” he said. “The [conditions] were insufficient to sustain farm animals, let alone humans.”

He described the testimony of one witness who recalled seeing a massacre in the Keraterm camp. Beforehand, Groome said, the witness saw more than 500 men crowded into one room where people licked perspiration from the walls because there was no water.

“None of us can imagine a thirst so vicious that it [would make] us lick condensed sweat off the wall,” Groome said.

While the prosecutor spoke, Mladic – wearing a grey suit – mainly sat quietly, at times rubbing his eyes or dabbing his face with a tissue.

However, towards the end of the session, he looked into the public gallery, and the numerous victims sitting on the other side of the glass became visibly upset.

Afterwards, they claimed that Mladic had looked at them and moved his finger across his throat.

Presiding Judge Alphons Orie warned Mladic not to make “inappropriate gestures” towards those seated in the gallery. The judge warned that if he continued to do so, a screen might be set up to block his line of sight.

The prosecution will conclude its opening statements on the morning of May 17 with an overview of their case regarding the Srebrenica massacre.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.