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

Srebrenica Trial Hears of Burials at Mass Execution Sites

A witness said he had to participate in the burial operation of Srebrenica victims because he didn’t have a choice.
By Merdijana Sadović
A prosecution witness testifying this week in the trial of seven Bosnian Serb officials indicted for crimes at Srebrenica said he oversaw the burials of hundreds of Bosniaks executed after the fall of the enclave in July 1995.



Damjan Lazarevic, former engineer in the Zvornik brigade of the Bosnian Serb army, VRS, said he was present at three different locations where the victims were buried in the days following the massacre, and that he also assisted in a reburial operation later that year.



His remarks supported prosecution claims that bodies from mass graves around Srebrenica were later excavated and reburied at other locations in an attempt to cover the traces of the crime.



Lazarevic was giving evidence in the trial of seven high-ranking officials from the Bosnian Serb army and the military police - Vujadin Popovic, Ljubisa Beara, Drago Nikolic, Ljubomir Borovcanin, Radivoje Miletic, Milan Gvero and Vinko Pandurevic.



The accused are alleged to be among the most responsible for the July 1995 Srebrenica massacre, in which more than 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were summarily executed.



They all face charges for two separate, but connected plans: one to “force the Muslim population from the Srebrenica and Zepa enclaves” and the second “to murder all the able-bodied men captured from the Srebrenica enclave”.



The witness told the court this week that at the time Srebrenica fell to the Bosnian Serb forces he had “a few days off” and claimed he found out about mass executions only on July 15.



That morning, he said he had received an order from the Zvornik brigade engineering company command to go to Orahovac, because “there were some bodies there that had to be buried”.



“They said I had to go. I didn’t have a choice,” said Lazarevic.



According to the indictment, in the early afternoon of July 14, approximately 1,000 Bosniak men who had been detained in a school in Orahovac were brought to a nearby field and summarily executed by members of the Zvornik brigade, under the supervision of Nikolic and Trbic.



The witness said that by the time he arrived in Orahovac at around 8am, “all the machinery for digging was already there” and his task was “to see to it that the bodies [were] buried”.



He added that he saw lots of bodies “piled up”.



“Some of them were wearing uniforms, while others were dressed in civilian clothes,” he told the court.



When prosecutor Nelson Thayer asked him whether he tried to find out from some Serb soldiers he saw there how these men died, the witness said he “didn’t ask”. He said he saw some heavy machines loading the bodies and throwing them into mass graves already dug up by the excavators.



When he reported to his company command the next day, Lazarevic said he was given a similar task - to oversee burials in the village of Kozluk.



The indictment alleges that on July 15, 1995, Bosnian Serb military and police forces, under the supervision of Vujadin Popovic and Ljubisa Beara, “transported to an isolated place near Kozluk and summarily executed with automatic weapons about 500 Bosnian Muslim males who were captured from the column of men retreating from the Srebrenica enclave”.



It goes on to say that the bodies were buried the following day in a mass grave nearby.



“What had been done, had been done,” Lazarevic told the court, explaining why he had to go to Kozluk. “People were executed at that location and I had to go to finish the job off, to bury those people.”



He also said he received that order from Major Dragan Jokic, former chief of engineering of the Zvornik brigade. In January 2005, Jokic was sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment for aiding and abetting the murders of captured Bosniaks at Orahovac, Kozluk and Branjevo farm by “providing engineering resources and personnel to be used to dig mass graves for the executed victims”.



Lazarevic said the first thing he noticed when he arrived at the execution site in Kozluk was “unbearable stench that was spreading around”.



“The bodies were lying on the ground everywhere, they were decomposing,” he said, adding that he couldn’t come too close to them because he “couldn’t stand that smell”.



Lazarevic stayed in Kozluk for a while, overseeing the burial, and then went back to his base. But the next day, on July 17, he received another order to help with the burials. This time, he was sent to the Branjevo military farm, he said.



The prosecutors claim that on July 16, 1995, around 1,200 Bosniak men and boys who were captured while they were retreating from Srebrenica were killed at the Branjevo farm.



Lazarevic stayed at Branjevo for almost 12 hours, and by the time he left, bodies were still being thrown into a mass grave.



Thayer then asked Lazarevic whether he ever talked to Jokic about his assignments on those three days in July. The witness said he did, “many times”.



“Major Jokic would always tell me that someone had to do it, and since my men and I were there at that time, we were given that task,” he said.



He also said he never got the impression that the mass executions or burials were a secret.



“Everyone talked about them,” he said.



Lazarevic also testified that a few months later - he couldn’t recall when exactly that was - he received an order to “urgently go to the sites where mass graves were and oversee the excavation of the bodies”.



He said the bodies were then moved to secondary mass graves, but claimed he was not involved in the reburial operation, which, he said, was coordinated by Milorad Trbic.



The indictment alleges that “the reburial operation was a major undertaking” aimed at “concealing the killings and executions in the Bratunac and Zvornik Brigade areas of responsibility” and that Trbic, along with Popovic, Pandurevic and Nikolic “supervised, assisted and oversaw all aspects of this operation”.



The trial continues next week.



Merdijana Sadovic is IWPR’s Hague tribunal programme manager.