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

Serb Paramilitaries Wrought "Havoc" in Bosnia

Yugoslav army’s security chief was aware of civilian killings and other abuses.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Aleksandar Vasiljevic, defence witness in the Karadzic trial. (Photo: ICTY)
    Aleksandar Vasiljevic, defence witness in the Karadzic trial. (Photo: ICTY)

The former head of security in the Yugoslav army told the Hague tribunal this week that he was aware that Serb paramilitary units in Bosnia were killing civilians and prisoners and committing other abuses.

Aleksandar Vasiljevic appeared as a defence witness for wartime Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic. From June 1991 to May 1992, Vasiljevic was head of the security department in the Yugoslav defence ministry. He retired when the Yugoslav People’s Army, known as the JNA, was dissolved in May 1992.

Vasiljevic has previously testified in the trial of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic, who died in 2006 before a judgement against him could be rendered.

Karadzic – who represents himself in the courtroom – read out a summary of Vasiljevic’s lengthy witness statement, and asked very few additional questions.

During the prosecution’s cross-examination, trial lawyer Hildegard Uertz-Retzlaff asked whether the Serb paramilitaries the witness had seen in Croatia “reappeared” in Bosnia in 1992.

The witness confirmed that they did, and agreed that one group known as the “Yellow Wasps” – associated with another tribunal defendant, Serbian nationalist politician Vojislav Seselj – caused “havoc” in the city of Zvornik.

“From these observations, you were aware that some of the volunteers and paramilitaries would loot and mistreat non-Serbs, and even kill prisoners-of-war or innocent civilians?” Uertz-Retzlaff asked.

“That’s right,” Vasiljevic responded.

The lawyer then turned her attention to the paramilitary leader Zeljko Raznatovic, otherwise known as Arkan. He and his “Tigers” were infamous for terrorising, murdering and raping civilians in Croatia and Bosnia. Arkan was indicted by the Hague tribunal but was gunned down at a Belgrade hotel in 2000 before he could be arrested.

Karadzic is accused of being part of a joint criminal enterprise together with Arkan and other paramilitary leaders.

Prosecutors allege that Karadzic, the president of Bosnia's self-declared Republika Srpska from 1992 to 1996, is 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".

Arrested in Belgrade in 2008 after 13 years on the run, Karadzic also stands accused of planning and overseeing the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead, as well as the massacre of more than 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995.

The witness confirmed that Arkan’s Tigers were the “dominant armed group” taking part in the Bosnian Serb takeover of Bijeljina, a municipality in northeastern Bosnia, in April 1992.

Karadzic is charged with responsibility for the killing of at least 48 civilians in Bijeljina, along with an additional six men who died in the Batkovic detention camp.

A member of Karadzic’s presidency, Biljana Plavsic, pleaded guilty to persecution charges at the tribunal in 2003 and admitted that she “invited and encouraged paramilitaries from Serbia to assist Bosnian Serb forces in effecting ethnic separation by force”.

“When we spoke last week, you mentioned that after the takeover of Bijeljina, Mrs Plavsic and a commander of the JNA Tuzla Corp met Arkan in Bijeljina, right?” prosecutor Uertz-Retzlaff asked.

The witness replied that Plavsic and “others” came to “calm things down in Bijeljina”.

“It’s true that Mrs Plavsic was there and she greeted [Arkan] by kissing him on the cheeks when they met,” Vasiljevic added.

Referring to the witness’s past statements, the prosecutor asked him, “Would it be fair to say that crimes against non-Serb people [in Bosnia] were tolerated by the political leaderships at certain times?”

“What political leadership?” the witness asked.

“I was referring to all political leaderships,” Uertz-Retzlaff said. “But we can go and take one particular example. You were aware that [members of] the Yellow Wasps were arrested and later on set free, correct?”

“I didn’t know they were set free. It was probably after I retired,” Vasiljevic said. He added that as far as he knew, “proceedings were initiated” but one of the defendants was released because he was “not mentally fit to stand trial”.

Uertz-Retzlaff pointed out that the witness had previously noted Milan Lukic, sentenced to life in prison by the tribunal for burning alive more than 100 Bosnian Muslim civilians, “was arrested and set free, then arrested again”.

“Yes, it all took place later, after I retired. However, it is true,” Vasiljevic said.

“In the Milosevic case, you in fact spoke about the ‘modus operandi’ at the time to avoid persecuting such perpetrators by transporting them back and forth over borders. Does that capture [the] prevailing attitude at that time?” Uertz-Retzlaff asked.

“I don’t know whether that was the prevailing attitude, but in both cases you mentioned, objectively speaking that is what happened,” Vasiljevic said.

The prosecutor noted that in his previous testimony, Vasiljevic spoke of the “spectre of ethnic passions” and said that “rather than stopping the passions and hostility, political authorities fanned them”.

She further quoted the witness as saying that “the pattern was, the other ethnic group was blamed for something that had been done, whereas one’s own people were, in the interpretation of leaders, victims”.

“That captures your observations during the events, right?” Uertz-Retzlaff asked.

“Yes,” Vasiljevic said.

The prosecutor asked whether this view also applied to Karadzic’s political party, the Serbian Democratic Party or SDS.

The witness did not give a direct answer.

“It’s one thing when we talk about groups and another when we talk about parties. There were parties that were quite extreme,” he said.

The trial continues next week.

Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.