Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Marcus Helgers, witness at the Karadzic trial. (Photo: ICTY)
A former United Nations military observer this week described being held hostage and used as a human shield by Radovan Karadzic’s army during the Bosnian war.
Marcus Helgers, a captain in the Dutch air force, said that his observation post in Sarajevo was seized by Bosnian Serb soldiers on May 26, 1995, in the midst of a NATO bombing campaign targeting Karadzic’s armed forces.
Helgers said he, along with several colleagues, were transported first to the Grbavica neighbourhood of the city, where they were forced to change out of their military uniforms and into civilian clothes.
“What did you think would happen to you?” asked prosecuting attorney Ann Sutherland.
“I was quite afraid and worried,” Helgers replied. “We were quite close to the confrontation line.”
It seemed “very irregular” to be forced out of uniform, Helgers said, and he feared they might be “sent over the confrontation line to be shot by the opposing party”.
This did not happen, but Helgers said that later on, a Bosnian Serb soldier told them they were hostages and would be brought to the Jahorina radar station near Pale and used as human shields.
Sutherland asked what the witness understood this to mean.
“We would be placed at the station so if there was a NATO airstrike, we would be hit, too,” Helgers said.
He added that he was also told that “if there were airstrikes on other places [in Bosnia], we would be shot. And if there was an attack on the radar station and we did survive, would be shot afterwards”.
Prosecutors allege that Karadzic, the president of Bosnia's self-declared Republika Srpska, RS, from 1992 to 1996, planned and oversaw the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that ravaged the city and left nearly 12,000 people dead.
Karadzic’s army is accused of deliberately sniping and shelling the city’s civilian population in order to “spread terror” among them.
The indictment - which lists 11 counts in total - alleges that Karadzic was 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”. He was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 after 13 years on the run.
On May 25 and 26 1995, NATO forces conducted air strikes on Bosnian Serb military targets. In response, Bosnian Serb forces allegedly took over 200 UN military observers and peacekeepers hostage between May 26 and June 19 of that year, and according to the prosecutor’s pretrial brief, held them at “various locations in the RS, using them as human shields and maltreating some of them”.
Helgers said that on the journey to the Jahorina radar station, one of the Bosnian Serb guards was “quite drunk” while another was “not sober”. When one of Helgers’ colleagues didn’t answer a question quickly enough, one of the guards “hit him with the butt of the rifle from behind.
“Later, when had to walk to the radio station, [we were] kicked a few times, but not extremely hard - just to force us along.”
Once the group arrived, Helgers said that the Bosnian Serb commander in charge told the group that “he was very sorry about the situation.
“I remember playing two games of chess with him,” Helgers added.
On May 27, 1995, Helgers and his fellow hostages were taken to the radar tower – near the main radar dome - “in shifts of two, for two hours each”, said Sutherland, as she read aloud from a summary of Helgers’ witness statement. He was held at the station for 20 days and officially released on June 18 of that year.
“What impact if any has the period you were held by the Bosnian Serbs had on you?” Sutherland asked.
“At the moment of the events, it was quite stressful and my reaction was that I put off my emotions more or less until arriving on [June 19] in Zagreb [in Croatia],” Helgers said, adding that he then suffered from muscle aches and some sleepless nights.
After that, he said he had no problems until around 2001, when he became “quite stressed” and began experiencing a “recurrence of the events” as well as sleeplessness and irritation. He was subsequently diagnosed with post traumatic stress disorder by the Dutch military and provided with treatment.
When it was Karadzic’s turn to cross-examine the witness, he asked about details of Helgers’ testimony, specifically that Bosnian Serb soldiers forced him to change out of his uniform and into civilian clothes.
“Do you accept the possibility that during your transportation…you might have been faced with hostilities on the part of civilians, or renegades, or any other individual who might have been angry as the result of those [NATO] airstrikes?” Karadzic asked. “The fact that you had to change clothes was a measure to protect you.”
Helgers, however, countered that this particular action was against the Geneva conventions or “any other laws of war”.
“Wouldn’t it have been even more against the Geneva conventions if someone noticed your white clothes during the journey and opened fire at you?” Karadzic asked.
“I was not wearing white clothes,” Helgers answered. “I was wearing a Dutch [army] uniform with UN [insignia] on it.”
Karadzic then asked Helgers about suspicions that UN staff were cooperating with NATO, and “played the role of air controllers who selected targets and aimed at those targets with lasers.
“I’m not asking if you actually did that,” Karadzic continued. “I’m asking if those who captured you suspected you [of it].”
“I recall that several times we were accused… [of operating] as forward air controllers,” Helgers responded. “I never had any training in air controlling and never saw any of my colleagues being involved in that.”
In addition to Helgers, three other former UN hostages and a UN commander who led the British battalion gave evidence this week.
The trial continues next week.
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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