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Srebrenica Civilians Told "Not to be Afraid"

Witness describes reassurances from Bosnian Serb commanders.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Prosecution witness Mirsada Malagic in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
    Prosecution witness Mirsada Malagic in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)

A Bosnian Muslim woman whose husband and two sons died in the 1995 Srebrenica massacre testified this week that she heard defendant Ratko Mladic speaking to crowds of refugees who had fled the enclave after it fell to his troops.

Srebrenica, a town in eastern Bosnia, was designated a demilitarised United Nations “safe area” in 1993. Despite the presence of Dutch peacekeepers, the Bosnian Serb army which General Mladic commanded began shelling the enclave on July 6, 1995. It fell a few days later, on July 11.

Afterwards, thousands of Bosnian Muslims fled to the UN compound in nearby Potocari. The women and children were evacuated on buses while most of the men were separated from their families and, over the following days, killed at various sites in the surrounding area.

The indictment against Mladic says more than 7,000 men and boys were killed by members of his armed forces in July 1995. He is charged with genocide in relation to the massacre.

Prosecution witness Mirsada Malagic has testified in several other trials at the tribunal, including that of wartime Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic. (For more on that testimony, see "Every Shell Found its Target" – Srebrenica Witness.)

Malagic was in Potocari on July 13 when she heard Mladic address the crowds gathered there.

“It was enormously hot, there was a huge crowd. It was impossible for everyone to come close to where the Serb soldiers and General Mladic were. We were told not to be afraid,” she told the court. “In response, people closest by applauded. Probably they believed that to be true, but it seems this was only for the cameras, and nothing that happened later was even remotely close to what we expected.”

At that point, the witness had already been separated from her husband and two older sons, who had decided to head off through the woods to reach Bosnian government held territory. Her younger son and her elderly father-in-law went with her to Potocari, but the latter was taken away by Bosnian Serb soldiers and she never saw him again.

Prosecuting lawyer Grace Harbour asked the witness about the period after she was evacuated to Bosnian government-held territory.

“What was it like not knowing where they were – your husband and sons?” Harbour asked.

“Well, that was a great shock,” Malagic said. “I looked at every man arriving there, but you have a premonition that the one you’re waiting for would not be there. I was equally shocked and disappointed and I had some bad premonition that something terrible had happened to them and they would never appear again.”

Years ago, when she came to give testimony in The Hague for the first time, Malagic was looking round the city when she came across the statue of a woman.

“I asked what was written on monument and [the guide] said it was a monument to fishermen, and so many of them were killed that wives and sisters waited for them for years and years,” she told the court. “I saw myself in the statue of that woman, who had such a lost look on her face. I didn’t know [at the time] what was the destiny of my husband and sons and other relatives.”

She decided to buy a small replica of the statue to take back to Bosnia. Some time later, she learned that her husband and two older sons had been found in mass graves.

“All my close relatives, my entire family, were under the ground. There was no one I could wait for. The truth had come out, and it became apparent that I’m really alone,” she said. “I’m still cherishing this statue that I bought in this city.”

During the cross-examination, defence lawyer Miodrag Stojanovic asked whose idea it was to flee to Potocari.

“Well, at first, this whole crowd of people spent maybe one or two hours in the UN compound in Srebrenica. It was total commotion. It was too hot, the area was packed with people, we heard the sound of aircraft, and that is when two Dutch soldiers showed us with their hands towards Potocari. They also pointed at the aircraft, trying to reassure us not to be afraid because as far as we were able to understand, bombing was going to happen. Anyway, they showed us the direction of Potocari and we understand we should go towards there,” Malagic said.

Stojanovic asked whether the witness was able to see the Bosnian Serb army during the ensuing air strikes, and she replied that she could not.

“At that point, on July 11, were your late husband and your sons already on the way in a different direction, as you put it, towards the woods?” Stojanovic asked.

The witness said they were, but she didn’t know what happened after she left for Potocari.

The lawyer then asked the witness about her recollection of Mladic speaking to the crowd in Potocari.

“When General Mladic was saying these things, did you personally have an opportunity to see and hear him?” he asked.

The witness said she was able to hear Mladic but could not see him.

“Were you able to hear from anyone that his statement was recorded on camera?” Stojanovic asked.

“Yes,” Malagic replied.

The trial continues next week.

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

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