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

Serb Village Raid Recalled

Witnesses describe alleged Muslim destruction and looting of Serb village.
By Lauren Etter

The trial of Bosnian Muslim commander Naser Oric continued this week with witness testimony about a series of Muslim attacks on a Serb village in the Srebrenica area.


Two prosecution witnesses told how the June 1992 raids on the village of Bradjavina, near the Drina river, were preceded by Muslim intimidation of the area’s ethnic Serb population.


The victims of these attacks were not regular Serb forces, the prosecution alleges, but merely poorly-organised villagers who were trying to protect their homes.


Conversely, Oric’s defence team argues that villages such as Bradjavina were actually Serb military outposts and therefore legitimate military targets.


Oric is charged in connection with the destruction of these Serb villages, theft of property during the attacks and the failure to prevent or punish subordinates for mistreating Serb detainees.


The prosecution witnesses - cousins Stanisa and Milenko Stevanovic - told the court that the attacks on June 21 and June 27 followed a similar pattern to that described by previous witnesses.


The prosecution has characterised this as Oric’s “three step plan” – attacks on villages, followed by looting and then burning of the settlement.


Both witnesses said that, after they had fled their Bradjavina homes at the sound of gunfire, they saw smoke and flames rising from the village.


Stanisa claimed that, from his position in an uncultivated field some 200 metres away from his house, he could look down and watch Bosnian Muslim attackers stealing food, as well as items such as household goods.


In addition, the witness said that the Muslims chased the cattle away, stole the sheep and slaughtered all the pigs – which where then left in the road to rot.


“As soon as the houses were looted they started to burn,” said Stanisa, adding that he has not returned to his former home following the attacks.


“I could go as a tourist to see it, but I cannot live there,” he told the court. “Everything has been destroyed. The whole community is empty and the place is now overgrown with weeds.”


It is important for the prosecution to prove that the alleged attacks had serious and permanent consequences for their victims. According to the Geneva conventions, a limited amount of destruction can be considered collateral damage – but criminal liability may follow if the devastation is deemed to be disproportionate to military necessity.


The prosecution showed photos of burned schoolhouses, forestry buildings and homes in an attempt to prove that the destruction was excessive.


Both witnesses described the attackers as Muslim soldiers who were uniformed and armed.


Milenko, who had watched the raid from a hiding place at a nearby creek, described the attackers as “Muslim extremists” who “had a clear objective – to destroy everything that was Serb”.


The witness said, “They are all attackers, regardless of whether they were women, old men or young men. They were killing people, slaughtering and destroying.”


From the beginning of the trial, the defence has claimed that the people described as “attackers” by the prosecution were actually besieged and starved civilians who were driven from their homes by Serb forces as part of a larger plan to create an ethnically pure “Greater Serbia”.


It is a matter of record that the Muslims in Srebrenica were systematically starved and killed by Serb forces. Indeed in 1993, the area became a United Nations safe haven in order to protect the civilian populations, and humanitarian aid was distributed there in order to stave off mass hunger.


However, the prosecution maintains that Serbs were subjected to massive intimidation by the Muslim population.


Stanisa testified that the Muslims put up barricades to prevent Serb buses from travelling through the area. He also said that he had to relocate his children to a safer village.


The defence maintains that Muslim actions were in fact a series of defensive measures taken to guard against well-armed Serbs. Barricades were erected to keep Serb tanks out of Muslim villages, Oric’s team argues.


In an attempt to further illustrate the alleged atmosphere of intimidation, the prosecution presented a photograph of a mutilated corpse as evidence. As Stanisa has said that he had been an eyewitness to this killing, the prosecution hoped that this piece of evidence would corroborate his testimony.


But the defence contended that this actually contradicted prior signed statements given to investigators by the witness, which indicated that Stanisa was not even in the village at the time of the killing.


Rather than trying to reconcile this discrepancy, the witness simply denied ever giving the earlier statement. “I don’t know how my signature got there,” he said.


Milenko, who had also said in an earlier statement that his cousin had not been in the village during the attack, mysteriously changed his testimony to say that Stanisa had been at the scene.


Defence counsel then accused the two witnesses of collaborating after their arrival in The Hague in order to fabricate testimony. The judges also expressed similar concerns.


Lauren Etter is an IWPR intern in The Hague.