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

Tolimir's Defence Case Begins

Witness claims former army general played only consultative role in allowing convoy access to Srebrenica.
By Velma Šarić
  • Slavko Kralj, defence witness in the Tolimir trial. (Photo: ICTY)
    Slavko Kralj, defence witness in the Tolimir trial. (Photo: ICTY)

The first witness to testify on behalf of ex-Bosnian Serb army general Zdravko Tolimir claimed that the United Nations used wartime humanitarian convoys for “smuggling and spying”.

Slavko Kralj, a former officer in the Bosnian Serb army who worked as a liaison with foreign military representatives, is one of four witnesses that Tolimir plans to call during the defence phase of his case.

The accused was deputy commander of military intelligence and security in the Bosnian Serb army during the war, reporting directly to army chief Ratko Mladic, who is currently awaiting trial in The Hague after evading arrest for 16 years.

Tolimir 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. Some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were murdered after Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces, a massacre which has been classified as genocide at both The Hague tribunal and the International Court of Justice.

Tolimir is representing himself in court.

Kralj described his impression of the United Nations Protection Force, UNPROFOR, as a “very subjective force, close to the interests and wishes of the enemy side”.

“UNPROFOR was prone to abusing the authority they were given,” he said. “For example, so-called humanitarian convoys were used for smuggling and spying.”

The prosecution contends that Tolimir and other high-ranking Bosnian Serb officers deliberately blocked much-needed food, fuel and other supplies from reaching civilians in Srebrenica, which was designated as a demilitarised UN “safe area” in 1993. Because the enclave was surrounded by Serb-held territory, the convoys had to obtain permission from the Bosnian Serb army to pass through.

The witness said this “smuggling and spying” was the reason why the army “often prevented” the convoys from going further.

“We didn't want them to gather information on our positions and then give it to the enemy,” Kralj explained.

He added that there were also “some strange requests” from peacekeepers stationed in Srebrenica.

“In January 1995, the Dutch UNPROFOR battalion wanted us to allow them to bring in ski equipment into the enclave, but why would they want these skis?” Kralj said. “I mean, Holland is a flat country, you can all see that.”

He added that Mladic “personally objected to their effort to bring in the skis”.

“It was clear that they were destined for the Muslim troops, so that they could go around more easily and observe and attack Serbian positions,” Kralj continued.

The witness also said that at times “enormous quantities of food were being sent into the enclaves”. Asked by Tolimir where this food was going, the witness said it was “clearly to the Muslim people, and none of it to Serb villages. All they would get were attacks and raids from the Muslim troops.” He said the food was clearly destined to be stockpiled rather than consumed.

Regarding the prosecution’s claim that the accused played a key role in deciding whether a convoy would be permitted to pass, the witness said Tolimir’s role was “much smaller” than this.

“He simply acted in relation to the convoys being checked, acting from an intelligence point of view and proposing measures to be taken in relation to these checks,” he said.

Tolimir, he stressed, “played merely a consultative role”.

He said he knew Tolimir personally and saw him often, in particular during the different meetings with UNPROFOR, where the accused was “an active negotiator”.

The witness, in some detail, explained the work of the Joint Military Commission which included “UNPROFOR as chair, us [Bosnian Serbs] and the Muslim-Croat side”.

Part of the commission’s role was to “determine what would be let into the enclaves on a weekly basis”. He confirmed that Tolimir and he, along with other officials, attended these meetings on behalf of the Bosnian Serb army.

“We would determine the weekly ratios of food, of fuel [and] other things that could go into the enclave,” the witness said.

The first indictment against Tolimir was issued in February 2005 and he was arrested on May 31, 2007. On December 16, 2009, he pleaded not guilty to all counts and his trial commenced on February 26, 2010.

The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained journalist in Sarajevo.