Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Serbs in “Disarray” After Srebrenica Capture
The first witness in the defence part of the trial against the former Bosnian Serb army officer Vidoje Blagojevic spoke this week about the chaos and disorganisation that followed the fall of the Muslim enclave of Srebrenica in 1995.
The defence is hoping his testimony will lend credibility to their argument that the disarray and confusion within the Serb civilian and army structures were at the time so great that Blagojevic could not be held responsible for the crimes then committed.
But the disturbing descriptions of the plight of Srebrenica civilians and the witness’ confused denials of some well-documented facts concerning the case may not necessarily bolster the accused, who spent the whole time in court diligently noting every word exchanged.
Vidoje Blagojevic, 54, was at the time the commander of the Bratunac brigade, whose soldiers are alleged to have participated in the operations leading to the fall of Srebrenica.
The prosecutors claim some of his soldiers were later involved in what would emerge as the greatest atrocity of the Bosnian war: mass executions of some 7000 Muslim men and boys in the days after the fall of the enclave.
Last week, the judges acquitted Blagojevic of his personal involvement in planning, ordering, instigating and committing these crimes, claiming the prosecution has failed to present enough evidence for the charges to hold. The prosecution intends to appeal this decision.
The judges, though, retained the charges of command responsibility for the crimes committed by his troops. Blagojevic is also still indicted for complicity in genocide.
Blagojevic’s lawyers said in court this week that they would try to prove that despite his high formal position within the Bosnian Serb army, he was still “the wrong man” to be accused of the crimes his soldiers may have been involved in.
“This is a proverbial wrong place/wrong time situation,” defence counsel Michael Karnavas said in his opening statement on April 14. “The prosecution rushed to assume that because of his formal position as the commander of Bratunac brigade, he must have been guilty.”
Tall and slender, with a thick moustache, Blagojevic seemed alert and totally focused on the proceedings. Five large trolleys filled with binders were lined in front of the bench and behind the prosecutor’s desks, containing the evidence presented so far in the case.
The first witness, a neatly dressed schoolteacher and a former chairman of the Bratunac municipal council Ljubisav Simic, seemed also to try to lend weight to the defence argument that its inhabitants were not ethnically cleansed but left voluntarily, exhausted by the years of “hard life” in the enclave surrounded by territories under Serbian control.
Simic painted a vivid picture of how the inhabitants of Srebrenica, in the hours after its fall, fled to the suburb of Potocari where they gathered in and around the compound of the Dutch UN peacekeepers battalion. They spent the first 24 hours following the collapse of the enclave in heat and squalor, trying to get a place on the hundreds of buses that were taking them to the territories under Muslim control.
Right after the fall of Srebrenica, Simic was summoned to meet the commander of the Bosnian Serb army Ratko Mladic and during this meeting given the task of seeing to the needs of the people gathered in Potocari. And this, the witness said, is exactly what he did the following day – gathering water, food and setting up a local ambulance.
“When I went there to see what the situation was I was amazed to see how bad the conditions were. It was hot, dirty and there was no running water and no sanitations. What I saw there remains shocking to me till today,” Simic said.
Over the next two days, the people from Potocari were packed into buses and “evacuated” to Muslim-controlled territories, he said. Simic insisted that the Srebrenica residents “badly wanted” to get away from the area as soon as possible - so badly, that they even left their elderly behind, “I had to carry the old people on my hands into those buses.”
When cross-examined by the prosecution, he denied any knowledge of a document issued by the Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic, four months before the fall of the enclave, ordering the Drina corps of the Bosnian Serb army to create the “conditions of total insecurity” around the enclave and make the life of the Srebrenica inhabitants “unbearable and without perspectives”.
He also stated that in the days following the takeover of the enclave he had no knowledge of the separation of men and women that was taking place, as well as of many of the executions. He said he knew of some of the latter, but could not say that the soldiers under Blagojevic’s command participated in them.
The only occasion when he saw the defendant was the afternoon of July 12, in the courtyard of the building where the local Red Cross had its headquarters, “He looked so fresh and rested as if he spent the whole day lying in the shadow. I felt envious about it. I thought: how can he look so rested, while I was exhausted after all day of work in Potocari.”
Simic said he didn’t see Blagojevic for days after that. “We knew that some Muslim men did not lay their weapons and wanted to go through the woods across Serb front lines. I know that the army had the task to deal with them, so I guess that’s why he was not to be seen anymore,” he said.
Many of those who tried to flee were later caught by the Serbian troops and executed.
Simic’s main worry in the days following the fall of Srebrenica was whether the short-tempered Mladic would notice that he was absent from Bosnia on a business trip on the actual day the enclave fell. On the way to a meeting with Mladic, he dressed in a camouflage uniform to make the commander think that he participated in the battles around the town the day before. Mladic asked him where he’d been - Simic insisted that he’d taken part in the operation.
Mladic appears to have believed Simic’s because he invited him for a short excursion into the surrounding hills on the day the witness said he was helping Srebrenica inhabitants at Potocari.
Mladic drove to a mountain spring above the enclave, took off his army boots and woollen socks and plunged his feet into the icy-cold water. “I remember noticing how pale his feet were,” Simic said. “And I remember that there were only two or three horses grazing around. Everything else on that meadow, like the stables for instance, everything that was built by human hands was destroyed.”
Ana Uzelac is IWPR project manager in The Hague.
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