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

Susica Camp Chief Names Mass Grave Site

Bosnian Serb prison commandant tells mother where her murdered sons lie buried.
By Emir Suljagic

A former Bosnian Serb prison camp warden this week told a mother how her two sons were killed, and where they were buried.

Dragan Nikolic, 47, who was known by the nickname Yankee, was commandant of the infamous Susica camp near Vlasenica in eastern Bosnia from about June, when it was established to imprison local Muslims and other non-Serbs, to the end of September 1992, according to the indictment against him.

Nikolic pleaded guilty on September 4 this year to four counts of crimes against humanity. The first person ever to be indicted by the Hague tribunal, he admitted guilt to some of the most gruesome crimes of the Bosnian war.

In one of the most dramatic moments of tribunal history, Nikolic was confronted at his November 3 sentencing hearing with a woman who asked him to reveal the whereabouts of her two sons.

The witness, Habiba Hadzic, 60, spent three months in the Susica camp. When she left the camp in July 1992, her two sons Enes and Bernes Hadzic remained behind. She never saw them again.

“They are not alive,” she told the court. “Yankee knows that, and I would beg him to tell me what mass grave they are in, so I can give them a proper funeral.”

The presiding judge, Wolfgang Schomburg adjourned the proceedings and advised Nikolic’s defence to ask him whether he would answer the question.

After a short break, he came back and told Hadzic and the court what had happened to her sons. “As far as her sons are concerned, they were taken on September 30, 1992 to Debelo Brdo, and there they were liquidated,” he said, his eyes lowered.

The camp was being closed down, and the Hadzic brothers were among a final group of about 40 prisoners who had survived months of torture at Susica.

“Most of them did not have any identity papers. As far as I can remember, one of her sons wore a denim jacket,” Nikolic told the court.

He told Habiba Hadzic that the 40 prisoners were buried where they were killed, on the slopes of Debelo Brdo, a hill near his home town of Vlasenica.

The court also saw two other Susica victims testify, both under pseudonyms, about living conditions inside the camp.

A woman, referred to in court only as SU-032, told of how she was repeatedly raped by camp guards while she was held at the camp with her eight-year-old son.

The first time this happened, she said it was Nikolic who picked her out and took her to a guard's hut, where she was raped by one of the camp guards. This happened the next day and the day after again.

Su-032’s son found out later what had happened. She told the court that he had sustained psychological damage and now suffers from depression. "He often talks about suicide," she said.

When the women were released from the camp, SU-032's sister was taken off the bus at a Serb checkpoint and she never saw her again.

A witness for the defence, psychologist Nancy Grosslfinger told the court that judging by her conversations with Nikolic, he now feels remorse for what he did. "He told me he could not explain why he had done it," she said.

According to Grosslfinger, Nikolic told her that he started feeling shame for what he had done at the time the camp was closed in late September 1992, and that he felt relieved by admitting his guilt.

The psychologist said that when she asked Nikolic what he could do now, he told her that "it would be too little and too late".

As a result of his guilty plea, prosecution and defence asked the court to sentence Nikolic to 15 years in prison.

In his closing arguments, lead prosecutor Upawansa Yapa told the judges that Nikolic had behaved brutally towards his victims. Some of them were forced to wash his feet, others were beaten and refused food.

The court also called as its witness Dr Ulrich Seiber, a law expert from the Max Plank Institute, who has researched legal practice in former Yugoslavia. Dr Seiber said that someone who committed similar crimes in the former Yugoslav republics could expect courts there to hand down a sentence of between 33 and 36 and a half years in prison, depending on whether he pleaded guilty.

Addressing the court, Nikolic expressed his remorse once again.

"I only know how I feel about what I have done,” he said. “I feel ashamed, because in the Susica camp there was myself on one side, armed and uniformed. On the other there were women my mother's age, children, and friends I grew up with."

Apologising to his victims, Nikolic said he hoped that his victims would understand that his remorse was sincere, "We should never forget the victims. I had many friends among them. I hope I will be given the opportunity to contribute to lessening their suffering."

Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.