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

Witness Captured by Troops 'From Serbia'

Bosnian Muslim who escaped death in wholesale massacre says captor identified forces as being from Serbia.
By Judith Armatta

Just a day after General Wesley Clark told the Hague tribunal that Slobodan Milosevic knew about Bosnian Serb plans to kill Muslims at Srebrenica, a young survivor from the enclave testified that forces from Serbia itself participated in the July 1995 operation.


Referred to in court only as B-1401, the young man said that he was part of a column of boys and men who surrendered to Serb forces near the Konjevic Polje road. As he described their capture, his testimony showed that among the Bosnian Serb forces in action there, there were also troops from Serbia.


He said that the column was transferred to a meadow in the village of Sandici, where one of their captors addressed them saying, "We are from Serbia."


Pointing to the wounded men, the Serbian captor said, "You see these comrades? You should have surrendered earlier."


This is the first testimony heard in open court that directly links forces from Serbia to the Srebrenica massacre. IWPR obtained documents from the prosecution last year that showed that some Serbian Interior Ministry troops participated in the Srebrenica operation.


B-1401 said the soldier mocked the men, telling them they would be held in hangars and wouldn't get any dinner. The man made his captives lie on the ground and shout, "Long live the king!"


"He was laughing because he knew what was in store for us," said B-1401.


B-1401 was 17 years old when the Bosnian war started. In July 1995, when Bosnian Serb forces attacked the enclave, he and other able-bodied Muslim men and boys were faced with the decision to seek shelter at the United Nations base in Potocari with the women and young children, or to flee into the woods. Lacking confidence that the UN forces would protect them, B-1401 fled with his father, uncle and other male relatives.


They joined a column of 15,000 men, at the front of which were one to three thousand Bosnian army troops. The column was headed toward Bosnian government controlled territory. In fierce fighting, the Bosnian troops broke through enemy lines, but left the civilians and some soldiers behind.


When Milosevic cross-examined the witness about the Bosnian army's abandonment of the civilians, he responded, "They had to save themselves. If they'd taken us, no one would have survived."


The civilians spent the night in the woods under heavy shellfire. B-1401 said everyone panicked and that many men were wounded and killed. Some began hallucinating and a few killed themselves rather than surrender. He became separated from his father, he said, and never saw him again.


The next day the shelling let up, and Serb forces called on the men to surrender. While some men headed deeper into the woods, thousands walked toward their captors with their hands raised.


B-1401 described walking over corpses, seeing men with their faces and hands blown off by shells. When asked by Milosevic, he estimated about 500 men were killed in the woods.


After demanding the men throw down their weapons, valuables and money, their Serb captors marched them to the field in Sandici. From there, they were packed into trucks and taken to Bratunac where they spent the night in the trucks without food or water.


The following morning, they were driven to Zvornik, then to a school in Petkovci. The prisoners were crammed into the school building under even worse conditions than in the truck. They were forced to repeat, "This is Serb land. It always was and always will be." By this time, the men were so thirsty B-1401 said they drank their own urine.


As night fell, the men were taken out in groups of three to five, and those inside heard shots being fired. Soon, soldiers began leading the rest of the men out, tying their hands and loading them onto a truck.


The witness described feeling a sticky substance on his foot and seeing a large pile of dead prisoners in front of the school.


After a five to ten minute ride, the truck stopped. Men were unloaded in groups of five. Each time, the remaining men heard shots. B-1401 said the men tried to avoid getting off the truck, knowing they were going to be executed. He said many begged for water.


B-1401 said he tried to hide. "I just wanted to live another minute or two," he said.


When it was his turn, Serb soldiers told him and his group to find a place to lie down among the dead bodies.


"Everything happened so fast," he said. "I thought I'd die soon and not suffer any more, that my mama would never know where I was."


Then, B1401 said, the soldiers opened fire. He was hit in his right side. The killing continued for another hour. When the next group was brought and the shooting began again, he was wounded again, this time in his left foot. Later, he was hit once more. He said he was in so much pain that he wanted to cry out and beg to be killed. The man next to him was moaning, and receive a bullet in the head.


The witness testified that he was suffering so badly he never would have tried to escape if it hadn't been for another survivor. They crawled on their stomachs across the field of corpses, used their teeth to untie each other's hands and made it to the top of a hill.


From there the next morning, they were able to see a yellow loader collecting dead bodies and putting them onto a truck. They saw a "very large pile".


He and his companion then trekked through the woods. "He was the only one who knew how badly I suffered," he said. "I couldn't walk. He would leave me, then come back and beg me to go on. I hurt so badly." After four days of walking, he and his companion reached safety.


Milosevic's amicus curiae Branislav Tapuskovic attempted to discredit B-1401's testimony by pointing out that he had not described his wounds consistently in several statements he made after he escaped. In one, Tapuskovic said the witness claimed to have been hit in the right chest and lower arm. In another, he said he was hit in the stomach.


B-1401 replied, "You expect me to say the same sentence in every statement. I was hit by fragmenting ammunition. Later, the investigators saw the x-rays. But there was a burst of gunfire. The bullets fragmented. The x-rays showed that."


The witness's medical records including x-rays were introduced into evidence.


Neither Judge Robinson nor Judge May could see any reason for trying to point out discrepancies in statements made shortly after the extreme trauma the witness experienced. Judge May pointed out that the court had photographs of the wounds, while Judge Robinson said he failed to see the purpose of the line of questioning, unless Mr. Tapuskovic was suggesting B-1401 had not been wounded - in which case he should ask the witness directly.


Although Milosevic generally behaves as if the court proceedings are a farce and nearly all witnesses liars, he took a softer line with B-1401. "I don't want to hurt you in any way in view of what you've been through," he said when he began his cross-examination.


Milosevic used his questioning to suggest that many of the Muslims at Srebrenica died in combat. He asked the witness about the column of men - how many were armed, how many were soldiers, and how many were killed while fighting.


Judith Armatta works for the Coalition of International Justice (www.cij.org) at the tribunal.