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

Srebrenica Survivor Confronts Tolimir

Former Bosnian government soldier calls for defendant to confess to “killing so many people”.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Prosecution witness Osman Salkic. (Photo: ICTY)
    Prosecution witness Osman Salkic. (Photo: ICTY)

A Bosniak man who fled Srebrenica at the beginning of the July 1995 massacre this week demanded defendant General Zdravko Tolimir own up to his alleged crimes for the sake of future Bosnian co-existence.

“You killed so many people, you should stand up and acknowledge that so we can go on living in Bosnia,” prosecution witness Osman Salkic said, addressing Tolimir directly during cross-examination.

The accused was deputy commander for military intelligence and security in the Bosnian Serb forces during the war, reporting directly to General Ratko Mladic, who remains wanted by the Hague tribunal.

Tolimir, who represents himself, is charged with eight counts, including genocide, extermination, murder, and the forced transfer and deportation of Bosniaks from the Srebrenica and Zepa enclaves in July 1995.

The witness, who during the war was a member of the Bosnian government army, said he was part of a column of several thousand Bosniaks who fled Srebrenica on July 11, 1995, as Bosnian Serb forces were taking over the town. Over the next several days some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were captured and murdered at different execution sites in the surrounding area.

After his column was ambushed, Salkic said he spent six days in the forest before he was able to reach Bosnian government-held territory.

“Did you carry a weapon when you set out [with the column]?” asked prosecuting lawyer Nelson Thayer.

“Yes, I did have a hunting rifle,” Salkic responded. He said that probably one in three men in the column also carried a weapon.

The witness said that after Srebrenica was demilitarised and declared a United Nations “safe area” in 1993, Bosniak soldiers withdrew from their positions in the town and most weaponry was handed over to the United Nations Protection Force, UNPROFOR.

“Did you ever hear about Bosniak forces from within the enclave exiting the enclave to execute sabotage missions on Serb targets outside [of it]?” Thayer asked.

“No, I never heard of that, but I know people sometimes left … to bring back food or livestock,” Salkic said.

“Does that exclude the possibility that small units of Bosniak fighters were engaged to perform such activities?” Thayer asked.

“I don’t know anything about that,” the witness answered. He reiterated that “after the arrival of UNPROFOR there was no military activity anymore, except locally people stood guard and things like that”.

Salkic said he fled Srebrenica with some family members, including his father and his 16-year-old brother-in-law, Azmir Alispahic, who was captured after the column was ambushed.

The boy was later identified as one of the six Bosniaks who were shot and killed by members of the Scorpions, a paramilitary group. A videotape of the murders – shot by the perpetrators - was first shown publicly on June 1, 2005 during the trial of former Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic. The now infamous video also aired on television across the former Yugoslavia, and a subsequent trial in Belgrade convicted four members of the Scorpions for the murders.

“When was the last time you saw Azmir Alispahic?” Thayer asked.

“The last time I saw him was at Kamenica, near Bratunac, before the fierce shelling [of the column],” answered Salkic, who also testified during the Scorpions’ trial in Belgrade.

“He was still a child, he couldn’t dodge shells,” Salkic continued. “He was overwhelmed by panic.”

Thayer then showed photographs of a dark haired boy in a soiled t-shirt, standing in profile with his arms behind his back. It was Azmir, the witness confirmed.

“You mentioned in your Belgrade testimony in the Scorpions trial ….that it was very painful for you when [you] saw people … using the word ‘balija’ [a derogatory term for Bosniaks] towards Muslims,” Thayer said. “Is there a difference between using the word ‘Turk’ and using the word balija, and if so, what does it tell you about attitude of someone who uses word balija?”

“Well, if someone calls you a balija it means you are the lowest of the low, and that that person does not see you as human being or anything positive for that matter,” Salkic responded. “When they say Turk, they probably believe we have Turkish ancestry. It was very difficult for us to be so humiliated, because in Srebrenica before the war there were exceptionally good neighbourly relations among the people.”

At the beginning of his cross-examination, Tolimir followed up on this point.

“You explained to Mr Thayer the difference between balija and Turk, and you said there were good neighbourly relations in the town, but can you tell us whether Muslims wanted to remain in a joint [Yugoslavia]?” he asked.

“General, I think you know well the statement made by Mr Karadzic in the assembly session, and you know who levelled threats against whom and whose existence was threatened,” said Salkic, referring to statements ex-Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic made during an October 15, 1991 session of what was then a multi-ethnic Bosnian assembly.

In the video-taped speech, Karadzic – who is currently standing trial at the tribunal – said that those pushing for an independent Bosnia were taking it “to hell, and maybe the Muslim people into extinction, because if there is war, the Muslim people will not be able to defend themselves”.

“You know well that there was a referendum and that Bosnia opted for independence,” Salkic told the accused. “Why you did not equally defend both peoples? Why did you allow the war to take place?”

Tolimir appeared to ignore the inquiry, and instead asked the witness if “even before the war, Muslims asked to secede from [the former Yugoslavia]”.

“Sir, I must say that there is a very strong political note to your questions,” Salkic responded. “Even now, we still live together, Serbs and Muslims. In Srebrenica today no Serb touches me and…we do share a common life. It is our destiny.”

The trial continues next week.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.