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

Srebrenica Prison Misery

Bosnian Serb witness tells Oric trial of beatings and death at the hands of Muslim soldiers.
By Merdijana Sadović

A Bosnian Serb who suffered severe beatings in Srebrenica prison and witnessed a fellow inmate die in custody testified at the trial of Bosnian Muslim commander Naser Oric this week.


The court heard an account of the maltreatment that is alleged to have taken place in Srebrenica prison from three witnesses, including one former inmate, but the testimonies fell just short of implicating Oric in the crimes.


Oric, military leader of Srebrenica’s Muslims, is accused of responsibility for the mistreatment and deaths of prisoners held in the town’s prison in 1992 and 1993. He is also charged with looting and burning of nearby Serb houses during a series of raids, which the defence argues were necessary to save the enclave from starvation.


He has pleaded not guilty to all charges in the indictment against him.


At the time, Srebrenica sheltered some 40,000 Muslim refugees that had fled ethnic cleansing in eastern Bosnia during the spring and summer of 1992. The enclave had not yet been declared a United Nations safe area.


The strongest of this week’s witnesses, Ilija Ivanovic, described the severe beatings he was subjected to during his 40-day detention in Srebrenica in early 1993 - and claimed that on one occasion, while he was “lying on the floor, covered in blood”, the defendant had been present with a group of men carrying out the interrogation.


And although the witness’ description of the man who he said was Oric fitted the accused roughly, Ivanovic admitted he didn’t know the defendant at the time and couldn’t say with absolute certainty that the “very dark, good looking young man” was indeed him.


The prosecutors claim that Oric knew about the killings and the cruel treatment of Serbs detained in Srebrenica in 1992 and 1993, and that he failed to prevent them and punish the perpetrators.


Ivanovic - a 43-year-old with a rugged face and visibly disfigured nose which, as he told the court, was broken several times during his 40-day detention in Srebrenica in January and February 1993 - is named in the indictment against Oric as one of a number of specific Bosnian Serbs who were subjected to “physical abuse” and “inhuman treatment”.


Ivanovic described how he was captured by Muslim forces after an attack on his village of Cosici near Srebrenica on January 16, 1993. He confirmed he was a member of the village guard, who were armed with semiautomatic and automatic rifles and had camouflage uniforms.


The witness then told the court of the beatings he received almost every day while detained in Srebrenica. He said he and three cellmates were beaten most severely after dusk, when Muslim soldiers would return from the battlefield.


“They would come in a truck and we heard them saying ‘let’s beat the Chetniks!’,” Ivanovic told the court.


“They would beat us with anything they could – rifle butts, metal rods, and baseball bats. They would hit me in the head, face, and rib cage. I had scars from knives and my nose, two ribs and a cheekbone were broken.”


He said that on one occasion, “halfway through his detention”, he was taken to the reception room of the national defence building “for interrogation” and that was when he saw the “very dark, good looking young man with beard” he believes was Oric, standing with a group of around five soldiers.


“I was just lying there … all covered in blood,” he said, adding that these soldiers had asked him questions but had not beaten him.


“When I returned to my cell, the guards asked me whether I saw Naser. Some of them called him ’delija’, and some of them called him ‘boss’. I didn’t know the man, though, and I can’t say that it was Oric.”


Ivanovic told the court he had come to that conclusion only later, when he saw Oric on television and in newspapers.


This testimony could cast some doubt on defence claims that Oric was unaware of the mistreatment of the Serb prisoners in Srebrenica.


Not surprisingly, most questions asked by both the prosecution and the defence – and even the judges – revolved around this particular part of Ivanovic’s testimony.


Finally, when asked by defence counsel John Jones to clarify whether he could say with absolute certainty that the man he saw that day was his client, the witness replied, “I never said I was certain that person was Oric”.


Ivanovic also said he was present when another Serb prisoner, Milisav “Mico” Milovanovic from the village of Sase, died after he was beaten by a young man “between 16 and 20 years of age”, who wanted to know “where Mico had hidden the flour”.


He said Milovanovic had received the most severe blows in his chest.


“Maybe his lungs started bleeding, I don’t know,” he said. “Soon after the beating, he started talking to himself and died a day or two later. The guards then put his body in a blanket and took it away.”


Milovanovic’s wife Vojka also testified in court this week that she last saw her husband Mico in late 1992. She confirmed that he was a member of the Bosnian Serb army’s Bratunac brigade at the time he disappeared.


“My brother in law told me Mico was captured in Glogova on December 24, 1992. Later I found out he was taken to Srebrenica, where he was beaten to death,” she told the court.


Vojka Milovanovic said she had been given that information from another Serb prisoner who allegedly spent some time with her husband in Srebrenica prison in early 1993.


But defence counsel Vasvija Vidovic showed the witness a document from the Bratunac brigade, dated May 23, 1993, which stated that her husband, Milisav Milovanovic, was killed in Glogova near Srebrenica on 24 December 1992.


“No, he was captured that day and killed in Srebrenica in 1993,” Vojka Milovanovic insisted.


The third witness to testify at Oric’s trial this week, Vidosav Dokic, said his son Jakov had also died as a result of beatings he received in Srebrenica prison in 1993. But he too got that information from former Serb prisoners who allegedly saw his son in Srebrenica “in very bad shape, all bruised and beaten”. None of them confirmed seeing Jakov dead, and his body was never found.


The trial continues next week.


Merdijana Sadovic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.