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

UN Official Speaks of Zepa Exodus

Witness says that civilians were “forcibly transferred” by Serb troops.
By Velma Šarić

A former United Nations official described wartime conditions of uncertainty and fear in the eastern Bosnian enclave of Zepa at the Hague tribunal trial of Zdravko Tolimir this week.

Prosecution witness Edward Joseph visited Zepa as a civilian affairs officer for the UN peacekeeping force, UNPROFOR, in July 1995. He previously testified about that visit in August 2007 in the trial of Vujadin Popovic, and the transcript of that earlier testimony was included onto the record this week.

Tolimir, the former assistant commander for military intelligence and security in the Republika Serpska, RS, army general staff, is charged with eight counts including genocide, conspiring to perpetrate genocide, extermination, murder, expulsion, forced transfer of population and deportation of Bosniaks from Srebrenica and Zepa in July 1995.

Joseph’s superior at the time was David Harland, the chief of the UN civilian mission in Bosnia, who informed the UN about events in Zepa. After the prosecutor showed Joseph some reports by Harland, the witness confirmed that he and a Ukrainian man, Victor Bezruchenko, who visited Zepa with him, were the source for some of the information in Harland’s reports.

In 1995, Zepa became one of three Bosniak enclaves – along with Srebrenica and Gorazde – along the Drina river valley in eastern Bosnia which were surrounded by Bosnian Serb troops.

“In July of 1995, I went to Tuzla, to visit the local air base which hosted thousands of women and children who had arrived from eastern Bosnia by bus. They seemed starved and very worried,” the witness said.

“We stayed there about a week, before going to Zepa. On July 26, and acting by UNHCR (UN refugee agency) regulations, we asked the women whether they were leaving the town of their own free will… with most of them answering yes, but one said she would love to stay but was too afraid that nobody would protect her. She then started crying, and all the others started crying too.”

Among material included by Harland in his reports was the suggestion that the “Serbs would not opt for an infantry attack against the enclave until they fully drain its power”.

Joseph explained to the prosecutor that Harland was referring to the isolation of Zepa, with the Bosnian Serb army, VRS, “creating an atmosphere in which basic resources were lacking, and carrying out shelling not only targeted against military targets”.

Expanding on his description of the atmosphere in the enclave, Joseph added, “As the UNHCR convoy was leaving, some women in the centre blocked it because they were fearing that it would be the last convoy to leave and that they would be left back in town at the mercy of the attacking Serb forces.”

The witness said that he and Bezruchenko had frequently seen Bosnian Serb army commander General Ratko Mladic and Tolimir supervising events, adding that he knew that they were the highest ranked officials in the VRS.

Mladic, the commander of the main staff of the Bosnian Serb army from 1992 to 1996, is wanted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity.

Prosecutor Nelson Thayer asked the witness whether he still remembered that both the VRS and the Bosnian army had threatened to attack the Ukrainian UNPROFOR forces, an issue he had testified about in the Popovic case.

“I remember it, it’s exactly as it’s been written down in the reports,” he replied, adding that it had been particularly significant since Bezruchenko was a Ukrainian citizen.

Joseph claimed that the civilian population of Zepa was not “evacuated, but forcibly transferred”.

The prosecutor pointed to one of Harland’s reports, which used the word “evacuation” in quotation marks. Joseph said that move reminded him “more of forced transfer than of evacuation in case of a natural disaster”.

When Judge Prisca Matimba Nyambe asked him whether it was possible to carry out such an evacuation during a time of war, the witness answered, “Sure, you can compare it to what is going on in Libya at the moment.

“I was also particularly worried as to what would happen to the Zepa men, if the transfer of population was the outcome of the negotiations [that were ongoing between the Bosnian army and VRS, under UN auspices, on the future of the enclave].

“I was wondering how they could be securely transported from the area in question to the area under Bosnian forces’ control.”

He added that his worry “was based on three years of experience in the war, as well as the fresh memory of the recent events in Srebrenica where, at the time, the only thing there was in relation to the destiny of the men who never returned was a huge question mark”.

“Where were these [Zepa] men on July 29?” asked the prosecutor.

“Hiding somewhere in the hills, as far as we know, it’s a dense forest,” the witness replied.

“Did the UNPROFOR or the VRS have any control over these men, were they being held in some way?” the prosecutor asked.

“No, neither we nor the Serbs,” the witness answered.

The testimony then turned to Avdo Palic, the Bosnian army colonel from Zepa who disappeared in 1995 after going to meet senior Serb and UN officials and was never seen alive again. His remains were only conclusively identified in 2009.

“I remember very well the effort Victor [Bezruchenko] and I made as soon as Colonel Palic was imprisoned,” Joseph said. “We were speaking to Mladic by radio, we were in the town and he was somewhere on a hill above it, and as far as I understood him, he said that Palic was dead.

“Later, when Victor and I saw Mladic’s interpreter, she confirmed to us the same thing, if I remember correctly. Maybe there was a discrepancy in the translation, maybe Mladic meant ‘he ran away’ instead of ‘he was killed’, that's possible too.”

Jospeh also recalled that Tolimir personally told an UNPROFOR general that “the men could be evacuated from Zepa if the [Bosniaks] consented to an all-inclusive exchange of prisoners”.

The witness said, however, that he could not comment on exactly what Tolimir’s real intentions were.

The first indictment against Tolimir was presented in February 2005, and he was arrested on May 2007. In December 2009, he pleaded not guilty to all counts.

The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.

More IWPR's Global Voices