Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Visibly shaken and in tears, Momir Nikolic, the first Bosnian Serb officer to plead guilty to helping organise the Srebrenica massacre, apologised to his victims this week.
"I am aware that my admission cannot bring back the dead or ease the pain of their families, but I wanted the whole truth about Srebrenica to be known," Nikolic said in an emotional address to the court on October 29.
"I want to express my sincere regret and repentance, I want to apologise to victims, their families and Bosniaks (Bosnian Muslims) for my participation in Srebrenica."
Carmen Argibay, an Argentinian judge, who was imprisoned by the junta in the early Eighties, asked the defendant a series of questions that any of his victims would have asked if they had had the chance.
"You say, Mr. Nikolic, you regret it. Why did you do it in 1995?" she asked.
Gasping for air, Nikolic said that he did it under orders and only in so far as he was ordered. He told the court that in 1992, when he stood up to "extremists" in Bratunac, he was abused and mistreated. Back then he quit the military and left for Serbia.
Nikolic said he spent several months living in Serbia, doing all kinds of jobs to support his family. "Out of fear that something like that should happen again, I stayed on (in the army) in 1995. I could not stand up. I am now regretful for not taking off my uniform and leaving," he said.
"Is that what you should [have done], but could not, take off your uniform and leave?" the judge persisted.
"I had nowhere to go," said Nikolic. "I could run, but my family could not. My younger son was four years old."
The courtroom froze when the judge asked her next question, "Can you think of the youngest son of all those killed in the Srebrenica massacre?"
Trying to pull himself together, Nikolic, who was a high school teacher before the Bosnian war, gave a heart-wrenching answer.
"The reason I pleaded guilty was the pain I carried with and within myself. I know I want to apologise once again to all victims, all children, all mothers...I especially want to apologise to my students," he said.
It was an emotional climax to three days of dramatic proceedings which saw seven witnesses, four for the defense and three summoned by the judges.
The defense witnesses, two long-standing friends of Nikolic from his home town of Bratunac, told the court that he had not been a nationalist before the war, and that he never took part in party politics leading up to the conflict.
In its closing argument, the prosecution said that Nikolic not only was the first Bosnian Serb officer to plead guilty to the worst massacre on Europe's soil after World War II, but gave an inside account of events in July 1995.
"There is no doubt that after Nikolic's testimony the picture is now fuller," said lead prosecutor, Peter McCloskey.
He also said that Nikolic's admission gave comfort to the victims, who now did not have to come to court and relive the dreadful days of July 1995.
But, most importantly, Nikolic's admission and testimony comes at a time when the government of Bosnian Serb entity, RS, is still refusing to accept that the crimes in Srebrenica actually took place.
"It leads the RS to face and accept the truth. I hope they will do it. Momir Nikolic and Dragan Obrenovic made the first step in this historical process of reconciliation," said McCloskey, asking for 15-20 years for Nikolic.
Nikolic's defense compared Nikolic to Biljana Plavsic, Bosnian Serb vice-president, who pleaded guilty to systematic persecution of non-Serbs in 37 municipalities of Bosnia and Herzegovina and was sentenced to only 11 years.
He read parts of the letter that the Muslim mayor of Srebrenica, Abdurahman Malkic, sent the court, explaining the impact of Nikolic's testimony.
"[Nikolic's] admission of crimes is all the more important in the light of the fact that RS authorities did not do it," wrote the mayor in his address.
Lead defense counsel Veselin Londrovic said that it would be unfair if Nikolic received a harsher sentence than Plavsic. "Defense seeks that the trial chamber impose a sentence no longer than ten years," said Londrovic.
Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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