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

Serb Executions Recounted

Witnesses provide graphic descriptions of Bosnian Serb mass killings.
By Emir Suljagic

When two survivors of the Srebrenica massacre took the stand this week to testify against Bosnian Serb army officers Vidoje Blagojevic and Dragan Jokic, they told the court of a harrowing crime that was conducted with unimaginable precision.

They also gave evidence that, even if anecdotal, lends further credibility to recent allegations that forces from Serbia proper took part in the Srebrenica massacre, which occurred after Bosnian Serb troops overran the UN Safe Area in July 1995.

Blagojevic, the Bratunac brigade commander at the time of the atrocity and Jokic, chief of engineering in the Zvornik brigade, are charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war, for helping organise both the killings and the subsequent cover-up operation.

The first witness to testify, referred to only as P-105, told the court that in the last chaotic days in the enclave, he and his wife, daughter, daughter-in-law and her four children took shelter at the Dutch UN base in Potocari while his two sons attempted to flee on foot. One son is still missing, he said. He buried the other one in March this year in what was first of mass funerals in Potocari.

P-105's family spent their first night in Potocari, in a deserted factory building adjacent to the UN camp, hoping they would get protection from the UN forces. When the Serb troops moved into Potocari the following morning, July 12, the soldiers assured them that they were there just to check for possible war criminals.

However, as darkness fell, things took a turn for the worse. "When the night came, horror came too. You could hear people scream outside, sometimes you could hear a shot, sometimes not," he said.

P-105 also said that at one point, two Serb soldiers walked into the factory building, and asked for water. One of them had blood on his hands and he wanted to wash. "We survived that night in fear, but many lives were lost there," he said.

The next morning, July 13, P-105 tried to get on one of the buses that were taking civilians to the Bosnian-government controlled town of Tuzla. However, so many others were also jockeying for a position on the buses that he did not get a chance to board until one o’clock that afternoon.

P-105 managed to get past the first barricade in a big group of people, but when he got to the second barricade, the soldiers picked him out and told him he could not proceed. While his daughter-in-law and the children boarded the truck, he was taken to a white house by the road in which hundreds other men were already crammed.

An hour later, two buses came to the white house and took the men to Bratunac, a town five kilometres outside Potocari and stopped in front of a school building. "They told us to leave everything, bags and food at the entrance. Another group arrived soon afterward and we moved upstairs," he said.

Soon, Serb soldiers, some of them wearing military fatigues, others blue police uniforms, started taking men outside the classroom. "That is when we knew they were up to no good," P105 said.

Men were picked at random from the classroom, taken out and beaten, he said. "There was non-stop screaming outside, but you could not look through the window on the account that they would shoot," P-105 said.

The prisoners were given water, but no food that night. In the morning, more buses came and when the men boarded, they were each given a piece of bread.

The column of buses drove from Bratunac to Zvornik, crossed the border into Serbia and then drove north only to cross back into Bosnia near the town of Loznica. When the convoy stopped they were in Pilica, a village between Zvornik and Bijeljina.

The prisoners were again forced to leave the buses and go into another school building. They spent another night there, and the next morning, the Serb guards came in and told the prisoners that they would all be taken to Sarajevo, provided they could pay the 20 German marks fare.

"One of them men said he had had 100 marks, and he took four of his friends and cousins and boarded the bus," said P-150.

P-150 stayed on in the building and saw that the buses were coming and going far too quickly to be driving to Sarajevo. He also saw that the men were being given sheets of linen which they were told to rip up and use to tie themselves to the other men before boarding. As he was soon to find out, the buses were taking the men to a nearby military farm in Branjevo to be shot.

P-105 was among the last to leave the school building. The bus, he said, was marked with the logo “July 7”, which is a state-owned bus-company from Sabac, a Serbian town near Belgrade. The company name comes from the day Serbian communists rose up against the Nazis in World War II.

The bus ride took only a few minutes, stopping just two kilometres away, in Branjevo. The men were taken off the bus in small groups and forced into a field which was, “dark with corpses". Only then did P-105 actually realise that all of the men were going to be killed. "As they were taking us off the bus, some people said give us water first and then kill us," he said.

Each group was lined up in the filed in succession and shot at by firing squad.

The bullets missed P-150, but he fell down with the others. Covered with bodies, he played dead for the rest of the day as new groups of prisoners were executed.

Under cover of darkness, he fled the execution site with two other survivors. He and the others were eventually captured, and by dint of luck, were not executed, but exchanged months later.

The other witness who testified this week was Kemal Mehmedovic.

Unlike P-150, Mehmedovic was part of the column of men that broke out of the enclave on the night July 11 and tried to force their way to government-held territory.

As they were leaving the enclave, the column was ambushed several times and became fragmented. In the mayhem, Mehmedovic lost his brother. He has never seen him since.

On the morning of July 13, the group Mehmedovic was with was surrounded by Serb troops. He was not sure exactly where he was. The whole group, which included several wounded, surrendered and eventually wound up in a field in Sandici, a village on the road between Bratunac and Konjevic Polje.

About 1,000 prisoners were already there when Mehmedovic's group arrived. That evening, General Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb army, came to the field and gave them a speech, promising they would all be exchanged.

Soon, the soldiers who were guarding them were relieved by another group of troops. One of the former warned the prisoners as he was leaving that the new guards were "Arkan's boys".

"When they came, they forced us to lie on our stomachs and shout: 'Long live the king!'" Mehmedovic said. Later, a column of trucks and buses stopped near the field and the soldiers ordered the prisoners to run towards them and board.

The buses parked and the Serb guards called for detainees who had originally come from Srebrenica to get off. They took them to a near-by garage. "We would hear a thud, a man screaming, burst of fire, silence and then all over again the whole night through," he said.

In the morning, the men were taken to Zvornik in a convoy of about 30 buses, but instead of being exchanged as they had been promised, the buses and trucks drove to the village of Grbavci.

The routine was well rehearsed: off the buses and trucks, into a school building, out of there, back on the buses and trucks again. This time, the Serb troops told the men that they were going to a POW camp in Bijeljina. However, before boarding the vehicles for the final time, they were blindfolded.

"When it was time to leave, there was a uniformed woman at the exit who gave us each a glass of water," Mehmedovic said.

After a ride on a dirt road, the truck stopped, not in Bijeljina, but at a field in the middle of nowhere. The prisoners were forced off and then lined up. "I could see a dead man directly under my feet through the blindfold," he said.

Then the Serb soldiers opened fire. As he lay amidst the corpses, he peered through his blindfold and saw a group of troops digging with a bulldozer. He recognised one of them as his long time colleague, Gojko Simic and he heard him suggest that they go to the field nearby and kill the prisoners who were still there. They all agreed and turned off the bulldozer.

Most of the soldiers left, leaving only a few behind. Soon, another man from Srebrenica who had survived the execution squad got up and tried to escape. The Serb soldiers fired at him, and in the commotion, Mehmedovic also rose ran away. The soldiers fired at him, but Mehmedovic managed to escape and hid in a nearby cornfield.

A frail man, who was obviously traumatised by the event, Mehmedovic remembered his surroundings in great detail.

He recalled having to cross a railroad in order to get away, a crucial piece of information that led The Hague investigators to both the execution site and a mass grave in Orahovac, a village near Zvornik.

Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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