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

UN Observer Recalls Removal of Srebrenica Civilians

Witness suggests arrangements for taking men and boys away were approved in advance.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Prosecution witness Joseph Kingori in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
    Prosecution witness Joseph Kingori in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)

A former United Nations military observer testified this week in the trial of former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic that the removal of thousands of Bosniak civilians from the Srebrenica enclave in July 1995 appeared to have been pre-planned.

Prosecution witness Joseph Kingori, a major in the Kenyan air force, was stationed as a military observer in the eastern Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica from March 1995. About two years earlier, Srebrenica had been designated a demilitarised UN “safe area”.

Despite its protected status, Bosnian Serb forces began shelling the town in early July 1995, officially capturing it on July 11. In the days that followed, some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed at various sites around Srebrenica. The massacre has been classified as genocide by both the Hague tribunal and the International Court of Justice.

Kingori was present as the enclave fell, and also when thousands of Bosniak civilians fled to the UN compound in nearby Potocari.

Around this time, Kingori said, he met General Ratko Mladic, commander of the Bosnian Serb army.

“I remember [telling Mladic]… that the UN will provide transport [for civilians] out of the enclave, and he declined and said he had his own buses, and within a short time, the buses were there,” said Kingori, who has already testified at three other trials at the tribunal. “For me, because the buses were not being sought from [other] towns, this was something pre-arranged.”

The witness noted that securing such a number of vehicles would have been a “big logistical issue”.

Kingori said he talked to Mladic about conditions in a building known as the “white house” where a large number of Bosniak men and boys were being detained.

“To me it looked very sad because [the men and boys] were huddled in one place and there were too many of them for that particular area, so I thought conditions were not good and I wanted [Mladic] to do something about it,” Kingori said.

Mladic then offered to take Kingori to the house. When they arrived there, “men were still cramped together and there was no space for them to do anything,” Kingori said.

At that point Mladic offered “candies, drinks and beers” to the prisoners, but Kingori said this gesture was just for the benefit of accompanying TV cameras.

“Did you ever get inside the white house?” asked prosecuting lawyer Kimberly West.

“General Mladic denied me that request,” Kingori said.

Mladic was arrested last May 26 after 16 years on the run and is currently awaiting trial in The Hague.

His wartime political leader Karadzic, who was Bosnian Serb president from 1992 to 1996, is charged with individual and superior responsibility for Srebrenica, as well as for the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead.

The indictment – which lists 11 counts in total – alleges that he 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”.

Karadzic was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 after 13 years on the run. Witness testimony in this trial got under way in April 2010, and the accused represents himself in the courtroom.

When it was Karadzic’s turn to put questions to the witness, he focused on the issue of weapons inside the demilitarised enclave, and pointed to UN documents that apparently stated that Srebrenica was a “stronghold” of the Bosnian government army.

Kingori dismissed this claim entirely.

“One thing that is certain is that what was on the Muslim side was minimal,” Kingori said. “There were small arms, and we reported about them, even some machine guns… but obviously you can’t compare that kind of weaponry with what was on the [Bosnian Serb Army] side.”

The Bosnian Serb army had “heavy artillery, tanks and other weapons like heavy machine guns and rocket launchers,” the witness continued.

Kingori said that the enclave had been demilitarised prior to his arrival there, but to his knowledge the “Muslim side” had handed over all heavy weaponry to the UN.

Karadzic then produced an apparent statement by Naser Oric, a well-known Bosniak commander in Srebrenica who was tried for and acquitted of war crimes in The Hague.

According to Karadzic, Oric stated that “we handed over weapons that were not in order, and all the rest we kept”.

The witness said that he never met Oric, and that his apparent statement could be chalked up to wartime propaganda.

“In a war for sure, propaganda is very important, so someone can say ‘We have important weapons’ [but] that does not have to translate to the actual truth,” Kingori said.

Karadzic then presented a report from February 1995, which he said described weapons – including mortar shells and bullets – that the Bosnian government army received after Srebrenica was demilitarised.

“Would you have considered this to be demilitarisation?” Karadzic asked.

“This does not mean that demilitarisation had not been done – this is nothing to wage war with. If you compare it with what was in hands of the [Bosnian Serb Army], this is peanuts; this is nothing,” Kingori said.

Karadzic made repeated reference to the 28th Division of the Bosnian army, but Kingori said this formation existed more on paper than in reality, since a division typically consists of several thousand soldiers.

“You could not have had such a division in an enclave such as Srebrenica,” Kingori said. “The division could have been there in writing, but on the ground, there is nothing to show such a division… and it could not have been there [without] personnel and heavy weaponry.”

In contrast to this, the witness said, on the Bosnian Serb side, “you could see the weapons they had, the structure they had – it was quite different”.

The trial continues next week.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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