Two Days in Srebrenica

Bosnian Serb officer gives inside account of Bosnia's worst massacre.

Two Days in Srebrenica

Bosnian Serb officer gives inside account of Bosnia's worst massacre.

General Ratko Mladic needed no words when he was asked what fate awaited hundreds of Muslim prisoners at Srebrenica, one of his former officers told the war crimes court this week.


Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army, simply flattened his hand and made a slicing gesture - indicating that 250 prisoners standing behind him were to be wiped out.


The Hague tribunal is used to dramatic testimony, but few things have come close to this stark evidence, given last week by Captain Momir Nikolic, the officer who asked Mladic about the prisoners' fate.


In May this year, Nikolic made history as the first Serb commander to give the inside story on the massacre at Srebrenica. This week he implicated General Mladic and Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadjic, whose personal representative was present when decisions were made to kill all captive men.


His testimony focused on just two days in July 1995, when the massacre moved from planning to execution.


On July 12, a day after Mladic's forces overran Srebrenica, he spoke to a group of about 250 Muslims who had surrendered in Konjevic Polje, a village on the road between Srebrenica and Tuzla. He promised them swift evacuation, and assured them that no harm would come their way.


He then turned around and greeted Captain Nikolic. "General, what will happen to these men?" Nikolic asked.


Mladic made a swift move with his hand - "as if cutting grass," said the witness.


The prosecutor asked Nikolic what he understood by this gesture. After a moment's silence, he replied, "I knew what would happen to them. I knew that these men would be captured and killed. I knew it."


The court has heard evidence from the few survivors of the Srebrenica massacre. Nikolic's is the first testimony from an insider in the planning and execution of mass murder.


The witness, a former security officer in the Bosnian Serb Bratunac brigade, has pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity. He had originally been charged with genocide for his role in the massacre, but in May he changed his original not guilty plea, and prosecutors agreed to drop the genocide charge and seek a lesser sentence of 15 to 20 years.


In return, Nikolic promised to testify against the other co-accused - former Bratunac brigade commander Colonel Vidoje Blagojevic and Major Dragan Jokic, chief of engineering for the Zvornik brigade. A fourth defendant in the case, Zvornik brigade chief of staff Dragan Obrenovic, also changed his plea.


At the beginning of his three-day testimony, Nikolic told the court that the July 1995 capture of Srebrenica was the culmination of a year-long project to make life there untenable for the Bosnian Muslims.


He recalled a leaflet that Bratunac brigade commander Colonel Slavko Ognjenovic - replaced by Blagojevic in May 1995 - had sent to his officers and men in July 1994. It said the brigade should do everything possible to make life in Srebrenica harder, to the point that its population would have no option but to leave. "The enemy's life has to be made unbearable and their temporary stay in the enclave impossible so that they leave the enclave en masse as soon as


possible, realising they can not survive there," read the letter.


The Bratunac brigade was given the job of making incursions into the enclave, shooting at residents and preventing aid convoys from getting there.


Nikolic told the court that he first knew that the enclave was to be attacked in June 1995. He and other officers were told about it by Drina corps commander General Milenko Zivanovic, replaced by General Radislav Krstic in the first days of the operation.


Once the enclave had been overrun by Serb troops, Nikolic was given the job of organising the deportation of women and children who sought refuge at the United Nations base in Potocari, run by Dutch peacekeeping troops.


The Serb soldiers under his command first separated men from their families, and then deported women and children to Kladanj. The men were held in a house in Potocari and then transported to Bratunac.


On the morning of July 12, Nikolic found out what would happen to the Muslim men.


He was standing outside Bratunac's Fontana hotel, where General Mladic had just held a


meeting with Dutch officers, when Drina corps security officer Colonel Vujadin Popovic and intelligence chief Colonel Kosoric came up to him. "Colonel Popovic told me that women and children should be deported to Kladanj, and men should be arrested and temporarily detained," Nikolic told the court.


He then asked Popovic what would happen to them. "He said that all balija [an insulting term for Muslims] should be killed," said Nikolic.


There followed a discussion about possible execution sites. "I suggested a brick factory in Bratunac and mine in Sase. But they seemed to be informed of those locations already," said Nikolic.


The decision to kill all men was, said Nikolic, taken at a meeting held earlier that morning in Bratunac brigade headquarters, involving generals Mladic and Krstic, colonels Popovic, Kosoric and [Radislav] Jankovic and police colonel Dragomir Vasic.


Nikolic said he went to work making sure that all men who surrendered in Potocari were transported to Bratunac and held there in two school buildings. "There was physical and verbal abuse during the separation process. Soldiers called them balija, Turks, Ustasha [wartime Croatian fascists]," he said. "I did not do anything to stop the abuse. My behaviour contributed to it continuing throughout the evacuation."


When the day was over, Nikolic returned to Bratunac and told his commander, Blagojevic, what had happened in Potocari, "He said that he was aware of it and that those were the orders."


Next morning, the witness heard that a group of men from the Muslim column trying to break out of Srebrenica had been captured, and were being held in Konjevic Polje. He went to the village, where Mladic told him the prisoners were to be killed.


Travelling to the village with two military policemen from the Bratunac brigade, Nikolic picked up five or six Muslims who surrendered along the way. After arriving in Konjevic Polje, he ordered one of the soldiers, Mile Petrovic, to take their prisoners to join the large group of captives already there.


A few minutes later, he heard two burst of gunfire. Petrovic came back and said, "Chief, I've killed them; I've taken revenge for my brother." Nikolic admits he did nothing to punish the man, nor did he report the killing. "There was no point in reporting the murders, with all that was going on," he said.


Instead he went back to Bratunac, where in the evening he met with Colonel Ljubomir Beara, chief of the Bosnian Serb army's security service. Beara ordered him to find the security officer of Zvornik brigade, Drago Nikolic (no relation). "I was to tell him that the captured Muslims would be transported to Zvornik the next morning, where they would be held briefly and then shot," the witness said.


The situation in Bratunac was chaotic and local authorities feared that thousands of Muslim prisoners who had been captured that day would break out of buses and trucks parked in the centre of the town. Nikolic and Beara met Bratunac mayor Ljubisav Simic and Miroslav Deronjic, Karadzic's personal appointee for Srebrenica to discuss the problem.


Both Simic and Deronjic refused to let the prisoners be killed in Bratunac. This was neither compassion nor squeamishness - they wanted the murders to take place in Zvornik instead. To ensure that prisoners stayed on buses, local police and armed volunteers were called in to guard them until morning.


On July 14, a long column of trucks and buses formed up in the centre of Bratunac, and the vehicles set off for Zvornik.


Nikolic's part in the operation ended here, although the Bratunac brigade escorted the convoy to Zvornik and some members took part in killing the prisoners on arrival.


Once the war was over, the witness said he destroyed documents relating to the massacres, "I burned all documents that I though could compromise me or the brigade."


Emir Suljagic is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.


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