Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Srebrenica: Anatomy of a Massacre
Standing in a Hague courtroom in May 1996, former Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, infantryman Drazen Erdemovic struggled to retain his composure as judges asked him about the deaths of up to 1,200 captured men and boys on a farm near Srebrenica the previous summer.
“I had to do it,” he begged, looking even younger than his 24 years of age, as his voice trembled and his eyes flooded with tears. “If I’d refused, I would have been killed together with the victims.”
Erdemovic – who first volunteered his guilt to foreign journalists and pleaded with them to help him escape the Balkans for The Hague – was the first insider ever to tell the world candidly what happened in the days after the VRS overran the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica on July 11, 1995.
Before his confession, even many of the thousands of local residents whose male relatives went missing in the aftermath of the attack had struggled to accept the unthinkable truth.
But in the nine years since Erdemovic opened the floodgates, tribunal investigators have gone on to gather exhaustive evidence – including military records, radio intercepts, forensic analysis, video footage, photographs and testimony from survivors, VRS insiders and Dutch peacekeepers – which tells the story in all its horrific detail.
They have shown how VRS troops set about systematically separating men and boys from a huge crowd of refugees desperately seeking protection at the compound of the local United Nations mission in Potocari, while thousands more were snatched from a column trying to flee the enclave.
And as women, the elderly and young children were herded onto buses and shipped towards territory held by the Bosnian army, investigators have reconstructed the elaborate operation that was set in motion by senior VRS officers to slaughter those nearly 8,000 male detainees.
Finally, judges have seen proof of the massive effort later made by the VRS to exhume as many corpses as possible from the mass graves where they had first been dumped, and disperse them in remote locations across the surrounding region.
As a result, Erdemovic and several of his superiors have been given prison terms. And the episode has been definitively classified as the first legally-recognised genocide in Europe since World War Two.
In the foreseeable future, prosecutors hope to put at least eight more Bosnian Serb officers – all of whom are currently waiting in the UN detention unit – on trial together for their part in the killings.
And court president Judge Theodor Meron has vowed that the Hague tribunal will stay open as long as it takes to deal with the men considered the masterminds behind the plan, VRS chief Ratko Mladic and Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic.
In the meantime, proceedings against former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and ex-Yugoslav Army, VJ, chief Momcilo Perisic continue to deliver revelations about Belgrade’s complex relationship with the crime.
But in spite of all this effort to shed light on what happened in and around Srebrenica in the summer of 1995, the frustrating fact remains that so many in Republika Srpska, RS, and Serbia today continue to play down the vicious character and scale of the atrocity.
And observers say that even a decade later, much work remains to be done to address the emotional, social and political fallout of the massacre.
Besides Erdemovic – who has now completed a five-year prison term and is presumed to have begun a new life under tribunal protection – five other former VRS members have so far been sentenced in The Hague for their part in the Srebrenica massacre.
General Radislav Krstic, commander of the Bosnian Serb army’s Drina Corps at the time, is currently serving a 35-year prison sentence in Britain, having been found guilty by the Hague appeals chamber of aiding and abetting genocide.
Commander of the Bratunac Brigade Vidoje Blagojevic and chief of engineering of the Zvornik Brigade Dragan Jokic are currently appealing the results of a joint trial in which they were sentenced to 18 and nine years in jail respectively for their roles in the massacre.
And two other VRS officers – assistant commander for security and intelligence of the Bratunac Brigade Momir Nikolic and the Zvornik Brigade’s chief of staff Dragan Obrenovic – have confessed to playing a part in the slaughter and have agreed to cooperate with prosecutors in return for reduced sentences.
Obrenovic is currently serving a 17-year stretch in Norway. Nikolic, whose 27-year sentence was far higher than that recommended by prosecutors following his plea agreement, is in the process of lodging an appeal.
Over the past decade, tribunal investigators have carefully pieced together the horrors that began in Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, as the town fell to Bosnian Serb forces and up to 25,000 local residents swarmed around the UN compound in Potocari.
Witnesses who were in the crowds have recalled hearing screams and gunshots, and described coming across piles of dead bodies in the surrounding area, some with their throats cut. A Dutch medical orderly, appearing before the Hague tribunal, recalled seeing a Serb soldier standing guard while another raped a bruised and bleeding Muslim woman. And other eyewitnesses have testified to a spate of suicides amongst the terrified refugees.
At one point, witnesses recalled, Mladic appeared at the scene accompanied by camera crews and handed out sweets to children. But other than this televised stunt, judges have noted a complete lack of evidence that VRS troops did anything to alleviate the suffering of this mass of people in desperate need of food and water.
Despite years of investigative work, it remains an open question at what point VRS officers decided to wipe out Srebrenica’s male population. But within 24 hours of the town falling into their hands, events had already begun to gather momentum.
In testimony provided as part of his plea agreement, Momir Nikolic says that on July 12 he was informed by the Drina Corps’ assistant commander for security Vujadin Popovic – one of those currently awaiting trial in The Hague – that all able-bodied men were to be separated from the crowd at Potocari, detained temporarily in Bratunac and then shot.
Something of a question mark hangs over the evidence given by Nikolic, who has admitted lying to prosecutors during earlier attempts to organise a plea agreement.
But by July 13, Obrenovic also recalls being told openly by Zvornik Brigade chief of security Drago Nikolic – also now awaiting trial – that a “huge number” of Muslim detainees headed his way were not to be sent to prisoner of war facilities known to Red Cross observers. Instead, they were to be executed.
In response to Obrenovic’s protests, Nikolic apparently told him “that this order came from Mladic and that everyone... was aware of [it]”.
By this time, the prisoners in question included thousands who were being captured from a column of up to 15,000 men – about a third of them soldiers, though not all armed – who were trying to break out of the enclave and escape to territory held by the Bosnian army in the north.
A video made by a Belgrade journalist at the time, which was later entered into evidence by Hague prosecutors, provides a snapshot of the lengths to which VRS troops went in order to block their route.
Tanks lined up in a row along a road pounded a wooded hillside. Automatic gunfire rattles in the background as shouts echo up and down the valley. And Bosnian Serb troops mill around in the sunshine guarding groups of detainees. All the time, emaciated, shattered-looking men in torn civilian clothes continue to emerge from the undergrowth in dribs and drabs to give themselves up.
Witness testimony has revealed that VRS troops called up into the forests where the Muslim men were hiding, telling them they would be treated in accordance with the Geneva conventions. They also used stolen UN equipment to trick them into thinking their capture would be properly monitored.
As thousands of prisoners were gathered together in holding centres across the area, many of them in the small town of Bratunac, tribunal investigators have pieced together evidence including vehicle records, radio intercepts and statements from eyewitnesses documenting what happened next.
“Most of the mass executions followed a well-established pattern,” judges in the Krstic trial concluded in their judgement. “The men were first taken to empty schools or warehouses. After being detained there for some hours, they were loaded onto buses or trucks and taken to another site for execution.”
Besides members of the VRS who have spoken in court about the mass killings, a series of men who survived them by sprinting for cover or by playing dead amongst mounds of corpses have described the executions.
Witness I, appearing under protective measures with his face and voice distorted, testified that on his arrival at one execution site, he saw what he estimated to be between 1,000 and 1,500 bodies strewn across the ground.
“We turned our backs and lined up,” he said. “At that moment bursts of fire cut us all down.
“They drove up some six columns more... lining them up, and bursts of fire just cropping them down... You could hear bullets hitting bodies and this earth flying about, stones falling around, on my back, dust all around.
“When the shooting stopped, they inquired, ‘Is there anyone alive?’ Sometimes a voice would be heard, or two voices... And a soldier comes up, and just one bullet, bop, bop, and it’s all over.”
Another man, referred to only as Witness O, told judges that one of his overriding memories of disembarking from a truck at a site near Petkovci is how badly he wanted a drink of water.
“I was really sorry that I would die thirsty,” he said. “And I was trying to hide amongst the people as long as I could, like everybody else. I just wanted to live for another second or two... And I just thought that my mother would never know where I had ended up.”
“It is hard for me to describe it,” said another, Witness K, who survived a massacre of over 1,000 men by gunfire and grenades in a warehouse in Kravica. “I haven’t seen anything like it in any of the horror movies that I saw. This was far worse than any film.”
Judges have firmly dismissed any chance that the murders could have been spontaneous instances of revenge, as has so often been claimed by those who refuse to believe that VRS officers would have sanctioned such atrocities.
“The vast amount of planning and high-level coordination that had to be invested in killing thousands of men in a few days,” they said in their judgement against Krstic, “is apparent from even the briefest description of the scale and the methodical nature in which the executions were carried out.”
VRS communications intercepted by the Bosnian army at the time show efforts by senior officers to coordinate operations in the area, often referred to in flimsy code as the “distribution” of “parcels”.
On July 15, by which time thousands had already died in two days of slaughter, one such intercept reveals Ljubise Beara – currently awaiting trial – complaining to Krstic that he has been left understaffed for the task still in hand. “I mean it, Krle,” he says, referring to the general by his nickname. “There are still 3,500 parcels that I have to distribute and I have no solution.”
“Fuck it,” replies Krstic irritably, “I’ll see what I can do.”
In a separate intercept, which was played by prosecutors too late on in the case to be entered into evidence, Krstic allegedly gives the rather more explicit order, “Kill them all.” The accused, who denied ever saying these words, dismissed the recording as a “montage”.
Judges have said that there is, in fact, strong evidence to suggest the plan was directed by the VRS main staff including Mladic himself. Mladic personally oversaw the separation of male prisoners at Potocari, and witness testimony places him at other sites where thousands of men were being held captive. At least one survivor has said the general even watched as executions took place.
Forensic evidence gathered by tribunal investigators from mass graves around Srebrenica from as early as 1996 has shown conclusively that those buried in them were slain in cold blood. Hundreds of blindfolds and ligatures made from cloth, string and most commonly wire have been found amongst the bodies. When they were exhumed, many of the victims still had their hands tied behind their backs.
But the most significant sign that these remains belong to the victims of mass executions, judges have said, is the effort that the VRS invested in digging them up from their original resting places and hiding them in remote locations across the area.
Prosecutors have presented aerial photographs of this huge reburial effort underway in the autumn of 1995. And military records and testimony from VRS insiders have shown that this operation too was ordered by members of the main staff.
“Such extreme measures would not have been necessary had the majority of the bodies... been combat victims,” judges noted in the Krstic judgement.
Besides the effort to hide forensic evidence of the massacres, Momir Nikolic has testified that documents implicating VRS units in the killing were also later destroyed.
The exact number of men and boys slaughtered after the fall of Srebrenica remains unknown. Many graves sites which have been located remain to be exhumed, and there are likely to be others whose existence is not yet even known about.
It is impossible even to ascertain how many bodies have been dug up so far, since the efforts by members of the VRS to hide their crimes have led to individual sets of remains becoming broken up, intermingled and often even spread across several sites.
To date, the International Commission on Missing Persons, ICMP, has been able to use DNA testing to confirm the identities of 2079 victims whose remains have been found in graves across the region. In total, relatives have approached the organisation to register 7789 people as having gone missing in the immediate aftermath of the VRS assault on Srebrenica.
THE BIGGER PICTURE
Proceedings at the tribunal continue to produce a steady stream of revelations about how the massacre in Srebrenica fitted into the wider context of the Bosnian war, including mounting evidence that politicians and military figures in Belgrade shared responsibility for the crime.
Most recently, on June 1 this year, Hague prosecution lawyers played a home video showing members of a notorious Serb paramilitary group executing six prisoners from Srebrenica. Prosecutors argue that the so-called Scorpions unit in question was subordinated to the Serbian interior ministry when it carried out the murders.
Even as far back as 2003, however, prosecutors had already made public a document which potentially implicated Belgrade in the events in Srebrenica. The document, an order from Bosnian Serb interior minister Tomislav Kovac dated July 10, 1995, gives instructions for a unit including some Serbian interior ministry operatives to withdraw from fighting near Sarajevo and travel to Srebrenica to take part in operations there.
But the allegations that Milosevic was partly to blame for the Srebrenica massacre do not rest on any such involvement by his direct subordinates. Rather, prosecutors argue that Milosevic and others in Belgrade were responsible for what happened in the town because of the extensive financial and logistical aid they provided to the VRS, in full knowledge of its propensity to commit atrocities.
Former Yugoslav president Zoran Lilic - appearing as a witness in the Milosevic trial in June 2002 - confirmed that officers of Serb armies in Croatia and Bosnia were funded and supported out of the Yugoslav military budget.
Following a November 1993 decision by Yugoslavia’s top military and political decision-making body, the Supreme Defence Council, SDC, he said, special bodies known as the 30th and 40th personnel centres were even created within the VJ in order to provide formal channels for this aid.
Minutes from SDC meetings, which prosecutors have managed to secure from Belgrade after protracted negotiations, show that the VJ paid the salaries of VRS officers at least as late as 1998.
STILL IN THE PIPELINE
The work that remains to be done by the Hague tribunal in relation to Srebrenica could prove at least as significant as what has gone before.
Of the eight men currently awaiting trial in the UN detention unit, three – Ljubisa Beara, Radivoje Miletic and Milan Gvero – were members of the VRS main staff at the time the massacre occurred. A fourth, Vujadin Popovic, belonged to the command of the Drina Corps.
Also in the UN detention unit is Ljubomir Borovcanin, deputy commander of the Bosnian Serb interior ministry’s special police unit, which is alleged to have been involved in capturing members of the column of men and boys trying to escape Srebrenica.
The three remaining accused awaiting trial are Vinko Pandurevic and Drago Nikolic – the commander and chief of security respectively of the Drina Corp’s Zvornik Brigade – and Milorad Trbic, a deputy commander of one of the battalions of the same brigade.
Prosecutors have requested permission to put all eight men on trial together, with every one of them facing charges of conspiracy to commit genocide. If judges approve this approach, the joint proceedings would be by far the biggest ever conducted at the tribunal.
Also included on the proposed combined indictment is a ninth indictee, the assistant commander for intelligence and security of the VRS main staff Zdravko Tolimir, who remains on the run.
It should become clear in coming weeks whether judges will give the go-ahead for joint proceedings. (see Nuremberg-Style Trial Planned for Bosnia’s Worst Atrocity)
Allegations of links between Belgrade and the Srebrenica massacre are also likely to be explored in much more depth in the trial of another man currently residing in a cell in Scheveningen, former VJ chief Perisic.
The indictment against Perisic includes some of the clearest allegations yet about the Belgrade government’s wartime relationship with the VRS. It goes so far as to claim that the provision of logistical support, including weapons and ammunition, to the VRS was so well integrated that the Yugoslav and Bosnian Serb armies’ supplies were even logged on a joint balance sheet.
With regards to Srebrenica in particular, the indictment against Perisic alleges that the VJ provided “covert training” to members of the Tenth Sabotage Detachment, the very unit to which Erdemovic belonged. And it charges that officers from the VJ’s own Uzice Corps even assisted directly in planning and preparation for the assault on the town.
But the really crucial event, if and when it happens, will of course be the arrival in The Hague of Karadzic and Mladic themselves, both of whom have been on the run since they were first indicted by tribunal prosecutors in July 1995.
Tribunal president Judge Theodor Meron, in an address to the UN Security Council on June 13, insisted that the tribunal will remain open until both men – along with Croatian general Ante Gotovina – have faced justice.
TRUTH IS ONLY THE START
These days, it is stating the obvious to say that the continuing freedom of Mladic and Karadzic stands as an indictment of the international community’s efforts to dispense justice for crimes committed during the Balkans wars of the Nineties.
The Hague tribunal’s chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte has been amongst the most outspoken voices on the matter, and has refused to attend the Srebrenica anniversary ceremonies in Bosnia in protest if the two remain at large.
This fact aside, observers contacted by IWPR were broadly positive in their assessment of the Hague tribunal’s work so far in piecing together the Srebrenica atrocity.
“It’s hard to imagine other examples of recent conflict that have been studied in such great detail,” said Eric Markusen, a senior researcher with the Department for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at the Danish Institute for International Studies. He pointed also to a series of other investigations that have been carried out into events in Srebrenica, including by the UN and the Dutch government.
“Future historians won’t need to go much further than The Hague,” agreed Tim Judah, a journalist and author who has spent years covering developments in the Balkans.
At the same time, it had long been widely hoped that the tribunal’s work of establishing individual blame and creating an objective record of the Balkans conflicts might serve the further purpose of laying foundations for reconciliation in the region.
But nearly a decade down the line, there remains little sign of any genuine rapprochement between the ethnic Serb and Muslim communities, either in eastern Bosnia itself or in the wider region, over the issue of Srebrenica.
Under pressure from Western politicians, the RS parliament last year acknowledged that killings took place in the town in July 1995 and published a list of some 7,800 people who went missing.
But on June 30, Serb representatives in Bosnia’s central assembly blocked proposals for a resolution which would have explicitly called the massacre a genocide.
On June 15, the weak joint authorities of Serbia and Montenegro also issued a statement condemning the Srebrenica murders. But the same day, the Serbian parliament in Belgrade abandoned flagging efforts to agree on a resolution on war crimes, with most political parties opposing any proposals which would condemn the massacre without also referring to specific atrocities committed against Serbs.
Serbian deputies have also refused to label the killings genocide, a fact which many observers link with a case due to get underway in the International Court of Justice next February, in which Bosnia is suing Belgrade for genocide committed during the war. If Sarajevo is successful in its suit, the Serbian government could face significant reparations payments.
In the run-up to ceremonies to mark the tenth anniversary of Srebrenica, such defiant moves have gathered momentum.
On June 30, less than a fortnight before ceremonies scheduled to mark the anniversary, the Serbian tabloid Vecernje Novosti published a special supplement containing the names of 3,287 Srebrenica Serbs who it said were “sacrificed at the altar of fatherland, faith and freedom” in fighting between 1992 and 1995.
In Kravica – the site of one of the biggest massacres of Srebrenica prisoners –workmen have recently erected a seven metre concrete cross in memory of Serbs who died during the war. The opening of the site, which was originally scheduled for August, has been rearranged for July 12, the day after the official anniversary ceremonies.
And in the most dramatic development so far, police announced on July 5 that they had discovered two substantial bombs – containing some 35 kilogrammes of explosives – near the memorial centre in Potocari where the anniversary ceremony is set to take place. It remains unclear who planted them.
Observers contacted by IWPR noted various complex reasons behind the fact that many Serbs in both RS and Serbia remain determined to play down the slaughter of prisoners in Srebrenica, including “years of indoctrination” and a feeling that Serb victims of war crimes have been largely ignored.
Judah also pointed to a concern that acknowledging the atrocity could undermine Bosnian Serbs’ current claims to autonomy. “There are already people who say Republika Srpska is illegitimate because it was born out of genocide,” he said.
He expressed some hope that this feeling may gradually be easing, with Serbs having taken note of the proceedings also currently underway in The Hague against the wartime commander of Bosnian Muslim forces in Srebrenica, Naser Oric.
Some observers that IWPR spoke to also suggested that the slow pace of reconciliation in the region hasn’t been helped by a failure on the part of the Hague tribunal to get its work properly publicised in the Balkans.
Emir Suljagic, a Sarajevo-based journalist, told IWPR that partly as a result of a lack of transparency in the court’s work, this institution is often perceived by people in the region as “a way of advancing international humanitarian law, rather than administering justice for very specific crimes that affect specific people”.
Refik Hodzic, who ran the tribunal’s outreach office in Sarajevo from 2002 to 2004, agreed that the court has failed to properly get its voice heard. “In terms of communicating and working on this aspect of its mandate,” he said, “I think much, much more could have been done.”
As an example, Hodzic pointed to the failure even to publish Hague tribunal press releases in the Bosnian/Serbian/Croatian language for the first seven years of its existence. He also noted that outreach offices in the region had long been forced to function on a skeleton staff.
At the same time, it is clear to anyone that the Hague tribunal’s work – no matter how well publicised – could never have been expected to deal with the fallout of the Srebrenica massacre on its own.
Hasan Nuhanovic, who lost his family in the atrocity and only avoided the same fate because of his status at the time as a UN translator, told IWPR, “Justice in terms of putting someone behind bars is not all that justice is about... justice is [also] about restoring people’s lives, making their lives less painful.”
This might be done in the form of state-funded housing programmes, or even compensation payments to those who lost relatives, he suggested, but “apologies are not enough”.
Nuhanovic himself is currently involved in proceedings before the Dutch courts, in which he is seeking to file a suit against the government over the alleged negligence of its troops who were stationed as peacekeepers in Srebrenica.
Michael Farquhar is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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