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

Srebrenica Puzzle Almost Complete

While Ratko Mladic is still on the run, enough members of his inner circle may now be in The Hague for the final questions about the genocide to be answered.
By Alison Freebairn

The arrival in The Hague of a number of key war crimes suspects may provide an answer to Srebrenica’s biggest mystery – when was the decision taken to slaughter more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys in July 1995, and who took it?


While the tribunal’s most-wanted indictee - Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, leader Ratko Mladic - is still on the run, analysts feel that enough of his inner circle may now be in custody to answer these questions.


Nearly ten years have passed since Srebrenica, which was supposed to be an United Nations “safe area”, was overrun by Bosnian Serb troops on July 11, 1995. In the days that followed, the Bosnian Muslim population was expelled. Many of the enclave’s men and boys tried to escape on foot through the surrounding forest, but the majority were rounded up by VRS troops and later executed and buried in mass graves.


It is generally viewed as one of the most complex war crimes ever committed during the conflicts that tore apart the former Yugoslavia in the Nineties, and is Europe’s only legally established case of genocide since the Second World War.


In recent weeks, five members of Mladic’s inner circle have arrived in The Hague to answer the charges against them.


Tribunal watchers are confident that when the trials of these men get underway, the final pieces of the puzzle will fall into place regardless of whether Mladic, the man widely believed to the massacre’s chief architect, is in custody or not.


The five transferred indictees are: Radivoje Miletic, acting chief of staff of the VRS Main Staff; Zvornik Brigade commander Vinko Pandurevic; Zvornik Brigade security chief Drago Nikolic and his assistant Milorad Trbic, and military police general Ljubomir Borovcanin. None have so far entered a plea.


They join VRS security chief Ljubisa Beara and VRS morale officer Milan Gvero in the tribunal’s detention unit. Beara was widely seen as Mladic’s right-hand man, while Gvero acted as the fugitive general’s unofficial spokesperson at the time. Both detainees are viewed as being among his closest associates. Both have entered a not guilty plea to all charges against them.


Pandurevic, Drago Nikolic and Trbic, as high-ranking members of the Zvornik Brigade, are accused of involvement in the capture and execution of thousands of the enclave’s men and boys, as is Borovcanin, in his role as commander of an interior ministry military police unit.


Among other charges, Drago Nikolic, Pandurevic and Beara are accused of genocide or complicity in genocide. Borovcanin is charged with complicity in genocide among other counts. Trbic is solely charged with murder as a crime against humanity.


Miletic and Gvero are charged with four counts each of crimes against humanity including murder and persecution, and one count of violations of the laws and customs of war.


The Office of the High Representative in Bosnia has welcomed news of the arrest and transfer of so many indictees, but stressed that these cannot be the last in connection with Srebrenica, warning, “This journey will only be complete when every indicted war criminal is in The Hague.”


On April 8, media reports suggested that the Drina Corps’ assistant security commander Vujadin Popovic had turned himself over to the Belgrade authorities and could be transferred to The Hague the following week.


One other indictee suspected of involvement in the massacre - Zdravko Tolimir, former Bosnian Serb army main staff assistant commander for security and intelligence – is still to be arrested. Another, Goran Borovnica, is presumed dead.


However, the recent arrests have been welcomed by analysts who believe that new light may now be shed on the fall of the enclave and the killings that followed.


Dr Jan Willem Honig, a senior lecturer in war studies at King’s College London and co-author of the book Srebrenica: Record of a War Crime, told IWPR that the arrest and transfer of Borovcanin and Beara in particular could prove to be pivotal.


“They are the key players that provide a link between the VRS regular military units and Mladic, and maybe, by implication, [the then Bosnian Serb president Radovan] Karadzic. These [arrested indictees] are people who were very closely involved in the decision-making process.


“They can bring clarity to when and why things happened – effectively tightening the noose around Mladic’s neck.”


Mladic has been on the run for nearly a decade and, with the tenth anniversary of the massacre approaching, the pressure on the authorities in Belgrade and Banja Luka to arrest him is intensifying.


The question of when the decision to massacre the men and boys of Srebrenica was made – and if it was taken before or after the enclave fell on July 11, 1995 - has long been debated by historians, analysts and politicians.


The Netherlands Institute for War Documentation, NIOD, published an exhaustive report, entitled Srebrenica: A Safe Area, in April 2002, which aimed to examine the role of the Dutch UN peacekeepers sent to protect the enclave, and the timetable of events surrounding its fall.


Professor JCH Blom, director of NIOD, told IWPR that while the recent arrests and transfers involved some important indictees, some key names were still missing - most notably that of Mladic himself.


“The arrest of Mladic would be very important, but you have to remember that there is no way of knowing what kind of stories he will tell [at his trial]. Perhaps some of the [accused] will be open and honest, but others may try to deny their roles,” he said.


“Our interpretation is that Mladic and his inner circle were most responsible for what happened in Srebrenica – but ultimately this will be for the judges to decide.”


The decision of many of the most recent arrivals to defer entering a plea for the 30 day period allowed under the tribunal’s statute has given rise to speculation in The Hague that one or more of the accused may enter a guilty plea. However, Dr Honig does not believe that this is likely.


“While we cannot guess the thought processes of the accused, I imagine that something quite significant would have to happen in their heads and in their hearts before they would be prepared to plead guilty,” he said.


Until recently, the authorities in the Bosnian Serb entity Republika Srpska refused to acknowledge that the massacre had happened, while many Serbs – including former president Slobodan Milosevic, himself on trial in The Hague – argued that the numbers of casualties had been exaggerated.


But The Hague’s Srebrenica trials have so far painted a clear picture of how the various VRS structures worked together to kill so many, and attempted to cover up the crime by burying and reburying the bodies.


Judges have noted that that the crimes in Srebrenica were “committed with a level of brutality and depravity not previously seen in the conflict in the former Yugoslavia and are among the darkest days in modern European history”.


The Hague tribunal has devoted a great deal of time and resources in establishing responsibility for the events in Srebrenica, and in ensuring the prosecution of indictees. This has already resulted in a string of convictions for Bosnian Serb officers.


The highest profile case to date has been that of former VRS Drina Corps commander Radislav Krstic. The trial chamber had pronounced him guilty of having knowingly participated in the expulsion of the Bosnian Muslim population and the murder of more than 7,000 men and boys in the days following the fall of the enclave. After appeal, he was found guilty of aiding and abetting genocide and sentenced to 35 years’ imprisonment in April 2004.


In January 2005, Bratunac Brigade commander Vidoje Blagojevic was found guilty of complicity in genocide. The trial chamber said that while he was not a main player in the massacre, the practical assistance he provided allowed the genocide to take place. He was sentenced to 18 years’ imprisonment.


His co-accused Dragan Jokic, the Zvornik Bridge’s chief of engineering, was convicted of providing the heavy machinery needed to dig the mass graves to conceal the bodies of the executed men and boys and was sentenced to nine years in prison. The duo has appealed against the sentences.


Two of their co-accused – Momir Nikolic and Dragan Obrenovic – changed their pleas to guilty during the course of the trial.


Obrenovic admitted involvement in the murder of thousands of civilians and the ill treatment and expulsion of the enclave’s women and children, and received a 17-year sentence, which he is now serving in Norway.


Nikolic pleaded guilty to charges of the murder of thousands of civilians and involvement in the exhumation and reburial of the bodies, as well as the beating and expulsion of the civilian population. He received a 27-year prison term – far higher than that recommended by the prosecutor. It is now under appeal.


And earlier in the tribunal’s history, Drazen Erdemovic pleaded guilty to being a member of a platoon which executed as many as 1,200 men and boys on July 16, 1995. He received a ten-year jail term in November 1996.


However, some key facts about the massacre remain unclear, and it is hoped that the eventual trials of those from Mladic’s inner circle could yield vital information about possibly the last great mystery about Srebrenica - when and why the decision was taken to murder thousands of men and boys from the fallen enclave.


In its epilogue, the NIOD report states, “It seems very likely that the decision to conduct mass executions, for which no written order has ever been found, was taken after July 11”, adding that while the killings would have been impossible without planning and organisation, this was unlikely to have taken place far in advance.


“In the Krstic trial, this question was quite deliberately left open,” Dr Honig said. “Beara and Borovcanin may know when the decision was put into place.”


In the Krstic case, the appeals chamber’s April 2004 judgement detailed the role of the indictee and that of the Drina Corps he commanded, but noted that there is no evidence that it devised or instigated the capture of Srebrenica and the massacre that followed it. Instead it laid the blame firmly on the shoulders of the military top brass.


“The evidence strongly suggests that the criminal activity was being directed by the [Bosnian Serb] Main Staff under the direction of General Mladic,” it reads.


However, for some survivors, the details of when and how the decision was taken to kill their loved ones pales into insignificance compared to the need to see justice done.


Sarajevo-based Srebrenica survivor Hasan Nuhanovic lost his parents and brother after they were forced to leave the Dutch peacekeepers’ compound after the fall of the enclave. He is now attempting to sue the Netherlands government in connection with his family’s death.


“To me, it doesn’t matter when the order [to kill the civilians] was given, or who made the decision,” he told IWPR.


He argues that, for the victims, justice for Srebrenica must extend beyond the trials of a handful of individuals.


“The whole system – the military and political structures, the civilian population that didn’t speak out against the genocide - was involved in what happened. It’s too simple to think that the problem can be solved just by putting the big fish behind bars,” he said.


“Karadzic and Mladic are important to the politicians, but it is the small fish who matter to us as they are still on the ground.


“Mladic doesn’t matter to my everyday life as I am unlikely to ever see him. But if I walk down the streets of Srebrenica – which I am sometimes forced to do – I might come face to face with the murderer of my mother.”


Alison Freebairn is an IWPR editor in The Hague.


More IWPR's Global Voices