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

War, Crimes and Videotapes

A series of videos of apparent war crimes against Serbs stir controversy across former Yugoslavia.
By Merdijana Sadović
Videos aired this week showing abuses against Serbs in 1995 have triggered angry reaction in the region and sparked debate on whether broadcasting possible war crimes on national television is the best way to serve justice.

While most analysts agree that such videotapes coming to light is a positive development, they also warn against local authorities using them for political gain - manipulating the situation by releasing only what they see fit and when it suits them.

It is hardly a coincidence that the first in this series of videos was broadcast in Serbia on the eleventh anniversary of Operation Storm – a large scale operation carried out by the Croatian army in conjunction with Bosnian Muslim forces to recapture the Serb-held Krajina region in August 1995.

It was the Croatian army’s most successful military operation during their 1991-1995 war with Serb forces. Hundreds of ethnic Serbs were killed during the offensive, which also forced about 200,000 to flee Croatia, mostly into Bosnia and Serbia. Although it officially lasted only four days, smaller operations continued until November of that same year.

One of the videos released this week shows members of the Croatian army’s Black Mamba unit harassing Serb refugees attempting to flee Krajina. Bosnian Muslim soldiers, members of the Fifth Corps’ special squad Hamze, are seen apparently shooting dead a Serb man who had surrendered and was sitting down with raised hands.

This videotape - like the others - was broadcast on Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian television.

In Croatia, authorities reacted angrily, accusing the Serb media of deliberately choosing the date of the anniversary of Operation Storm in order “to spoil their celebrations”. They denied Croatian soldiers were involved in the killings, placing all the blame on Bosnian soldiers.

Serbia’s B92 was one of the stations that showed the disturbing images. Ljubica Gojgic, a B92 reporter who regularly covers war crimes cases, dismissed the Croatian government’s accusations that the channel got the video two months ago but waited until the anniversary to broadcast it.

“That’s not true,” she said. “We received this tape from what we think is a credible source just a few days before we aired it.”

But she agrees the date it was delivered to B92 was probably chosen on purpose.

“I’m not surprised we got this tape now, because our source knew the anniversary was the time when this footage would receive the most attention,” said Gojgoc. She added that the infamous Scorpions video showing the abuse and killing of six Bosnian Muslims from Srebrenica in July 1995 came to public attention in June last year, shortly before the tenth anniversary of the Srebrenica massacre.

Just days after the first videotape came to light, a second explosive video was also aired on Serbia’s state-run television.

It was apparently recorded in Bosnian Krajina in September 1995 during the Bosnian army operation to take control over Serb-held towns in the north-west. The Bosnian army’s Fifth Corps carried out the attacks, led by former Muslim general Atif Dudakovic, with the help of Croatian forces.

In this video, Dudakovic apparently orders his troops to burn down Serb villages in the area of the operation. “Burn them all,” he allegedly said.

The Serbian government has accused Dudakovic of war crimes and has demanded his immediate arrest.

Dudakovic, now retired, was widely regarded among Bosnian Muslims as one of the best and most capable wartime commanders. Bosnian forces under his command managed to regain control over the western Bosnian towns of Sanski Most and Mrkonjic Grad in autumn 1995 - one of the biggest Bosnian successes in the 1992-95 war.

Until now he hadn’t been implicated in any war crimes. He told Bosnian television on August 8 that he did not violate the Geneva conventions and received no reports about any of his soldiers that did.

“I can say with full moral responsibility that members of the Fifth Corps did not commit crimes. There may have been individual cases but only individual,” he said.

A third video broadcast on Croatia and Bosnian television on the same day as the one purporting to show Dudakovic was the most shocking of all the videotapes which surfaced this week.

Although it’s not new - Gojgic said B92 aired it several years ago - it was nonetheless shocking, showing members of the Hamze unit as they brutalised a captured Serb soldier in September 1995. His body was filmed seconds later - dead with a cut throat. Muslim soldiers are also seen torturing a Serb civilian, who was then tied to a tractor and pulled around until he died.

Bosnian media have reported that the commander of this unit - which was apparently under the Fifth Corps and Dudakovic - was a foreign fighter Tarik El Harbi, who left Bosnia in 2001.

Many in the region are questioning why these videos - with potentially crucial evidence of war crimes - are emerging only now, more than a decade after the war. They are also asking why those who have this footage prefer to give it to the media rather then to the judiciary.

The head of the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre Natasa Kandic, who discovered the Scorpions video a year ago, told IWPR there are several reasons why these videotapes have been kept in private archives for so long.

“Those who recorded war crimes are usually those who also participated in those atrocities, so if they are still in possession of those tapes, they’ll be very careful not to give them to the wrong person,” said Kandic.

She speculated that those who have these recordings may use them to blackmail people on the video or try to sell them on the black market. Sometimes they use this material to make a deal with the prosecutors. When all that fails, she says, they turn it over to the authorities or to the media.

Gojgic believes there are “many more similar tapes out there”.

“It’s fascinating how some people enjoy recording themselves as they carry out terrible crimes, just as they enjoy watching that video later on private parties and boasting to their friends about it,” she said.

The head of the Helsinki Committee for Human Rights in Banja Luka, Branko Todorovic, agrees.

“Over the next several years, we will be seeing more and more evidence of war crimes committed during the wars in the 1990s, and it will often be shocking,” he said.

While he recognises that local authorities and political parties in Bosnia may try to use this latest series of videotapes to manipulate the public and strengthen their own positions in the general elections scheduled for October this year, he says it is important that the videos continue to appear, regardless of the repercussions.

“The key question here is how the public will react to what they see on these tapes and whether they’ll be able to distance themselves from the perpetrators of those crimes,” he said.

He also believes that to accept the truth, sometimes we all need a little push, “We will have to face the truth about war crimes sooner or later, so the sooner it happens, the better for all of us.”

But the director of Sarajevo-based Research and Documentation Center Mirsad Tokaca disagrees. He thinks airing videotapes showing war crimes only degrades the victims.

“If those who distribute these tapes to the media cared about the victims as they claim they do, they would give them as an important potential evidence to the prosecutors and would demand investigation into those crimes. This way, they use this material for their own purposes, releasing it only when it suits them,” said Tokaca.

B92’s Gojgic told IWPR it is rumoured that Bosnian Serb police had these videotapes for quite some time and probably have more at their disposal. That infuriates Milan Ivancevic, head of the Association of Killed and Missing Soldiers and Civilians of Republika Srspksa, RS.

“I am angry as a man and as a Serb that they waited until now to reveal them,” said Ivancevic in an interview with Bosnian Serb television. “If they wanted them to be used as evidence, why didn’t they do something before?”

Observers say the zeal with which Republika Srpska and Serbia’s authorities demanded arrests of unindicted Bosnian Muslim commanders is in sharp contrast with their own unwillingness to arrest a number of indicted Serb officials. They include RS military and political wartime leaders Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic.

The irony of the situation was not lost on a Muslim member of Bosnia’s joint presidency Sulejman Tihic.

“If they are truly committed to processing war criminals, let them prove so by arresting Karadzic and Mladic, because they have been hiding and financing them for 11 years,” said Tihic in a statement issued on August 9.

Tihic is running for the presidency in Bosnia’s general elections set for October.

Serbian deputy prosecutor for war crimes Dragoljub Stankovic went to The Hague earlier this week to personally deliver some of the Operation Storm videotapes to prosecutors. The tribunal, however, will not be able to make much use of them. All its investigations ended in 2004, and its prosecutors cannot launch new investigations or issue new indictments. They cannot even use this material in the ongoing or pending trials. That means local prosecutors will have to do all the work and under difficult circumstances.

“It’s much easier for the prosecutors to do their job without political pressure and pressure from the public,” said the spokesman for the tribunal’s prosecutor Anton Nikiforov. “Politicians have already been too much involved in this case.”

It was in response to that pressure that war crimes prosecutors from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia met in Zagreb on August 10 to discuss what they should do about the Operation Storm footage. In the statement issued the same day, they said they exchanged all information they had on this case and confirmed their determination to cooperate.

“This is a very positive outcome,” said Nikiforov. “This meeting is the best example that these three countries can work together on processing war crimes.”

Meanwhile, television viewers in the region await the next videotape. Sead Numanovic, a reporter for the Srajevo daily Avaz, also expects to see more videos in the coming months, showing gruesome details of war crimes committed by various people.

“There is a new war going on – a war with video tapes – and the only ones who will lose for sure are the victims,” he said.

Merdijana Sadovic is manager of IWPR’s Hague tribunal programme.