Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Nermin Karagic, prosecution witness in the trial of wartime Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic. (Photo: ICTY)
The survivor of a mass execution carried out by Bosnian Serb forces described his ordeal to Hague judges this week.
Nermin Karagic appeared as a prosecution witness in the trial of wartime Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic.
Karagic was 17 when war broke out in Bosnia in 1992. As fighting intensified near his village in the northwestern municipality of Prijedor, he and other family members fled on foot, hoping to reach territory held by the Bosnian government army.
He told the court that the group was ambushed by Bosnian Serb forces and taken to the premises cultural centre in a village called Miska Glava.
The prosecution asked Karagic to describe what happened when a “Serb asked for ten volunteers to come out”.
“Well [the Serb guards] said what would happen to [the “volunteers”] in advance. While I was in the doorway, I heard about the way they would be eliminated. They said they were going to gouge their eyes out,” Karagic said.
The witness has previously testified in the trial of Milomir Stakic, the former president of the Bosnian Serb Crisis Staff in Prijedor. Stakic was convicted of extermination, murder and persecution in 2003 and initially sentenced to life in prison. That term was lowered to 40 years on appeal. Stakic is currently serving his sentence in France.
Karagic’s previous testimony was admitted as evidence in the Mladic case, so the prosecution asked only a limited number of additional questions this week.
The witness still seemed very shaken by what he experienced during the war, and had someone described as a “support person” present while he testified.
He would often ask for questions to be repeated and at one point addressed judges, saying, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m lost; I get carried away because of this tragedy.”
According to his previous testimony, Serb guards took 12 “volunteers” away from the group Karagic was in at Miska Glava. None ever returned. After that, the remaining prisoners were transferred by bus to a football stadium in Ljubija.
As the prisoners were getting off the bus, they were forced to run, and the bus driver hit them as they passed by, the witness said. He added that there was a Bosnian Serb army major who appeared to be in charge.
The prosecution asked whether Karagic and the other Muslim detainees were in military uniform or civilian clothing, to which he replied that all the prisoners were dressed as civilians.
Karagic said the prisoners were made to line up in rows, and he was kicked on the bridge of his nose and on the back of his head.
Many of the prisoners were killed that day, the witness said. He saw the man next to him beaten to death.
“I saw him being killed by rifle butts…. I remember while he was dying, he said, ‘You motherfuckers.’ I knew they wanted to finish us off too and [they] asked if we would be willing to carry dead bodies. So that’s what we did and loaded them into a bus,” Karagic said.
According to Karagic’s previous testimony, the surviving prisoners got on the bus along with all the dead bodies. At a certain point, the vehicle stopped moving and they were told to get off in groups of three. While this was happening, one of the prisoners jumped a guard and held him down.
In the ensuing chaos, Karagic managed to escape, but some days later he was arrested and brought to a Bosnian Serb army office. He was beaten and forced to become a grave-digger, until he was able to escape once again and get on a convoy to free territory.
Prosecuting lawyer Arthur Traldi asked how the events that Karagic experienced had affected his life.
“It was hard for me. My marriage was doomed. I’ve been having nightmares all these years,” he said.
“Does it continue to impact you?” Traldi asked.
“Yes, yes,” Karagic said, blinking back tears.
Prosecutors allege that Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army from 1992 to 1996, is responsible for crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which "contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory".
Mladic is also accused of planning and overseeing the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead, as well as the massacre of more than 7,000 men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995.
He was arrested in Serbia in May 2011, after 16 years on the run.
During the cross-examination, Mladic’s defence lawyer Branko Lukic asked the witness about the time he spent at the cultural centre premises in Miska Glava, before he was taken to the stadium in Ljubija.
Karagic said he and other prisoners “had to sing to get water and when we’d go out we’d get beaten up”.
“About this water, did anyone urinate into it before it was given to you?” Lukic asked.
“No, no… maybe, I don’t know. Even if someone had urinated into it, we would have had it anyway. We were so thirsty. The temperature was unbearable,” Karagic said, reiterating what he explained in his previous testimony.
“You didn’t see anyone doing that,” Lukic said to the witness.
“No way, I did not see anyone doing that,” Karagic said.
Lukic made repeated attempts to poke holes in the witness’s earlier statements. He pressed him about the number of prisoners present at the various sites he mentioned, and claimed that in a statement given in 1998, Karagic never said that prisoners were called out and killed at Miska Glava.
“I’m surprised by all these contradictions. I know how many people were taken out, beaten up and never returned,” Karagic said.
Mladic seemed bemused during parts of Karagic’s testimony, and at one point presiding Judge Alphons Orie told the defendant to “refrain from loud laughter”.
The trial continues next week.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.
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