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

Witness Claims Sarajevo Bargaining Chip in Serb Plan

He says besieged city was “collective hostage” for gaining concessions from Bosnian government and international community.
By Elma Mahmutovic
A prosecution expert witness this week told the war crimes trial of the ex-chief of the Yugoslav army how the siege of Sarajevo had been crucial to Belgrade’s plans to create a “Greater Serbia”.



Historian Robert Donia was called in to give historical background to the Hague tribunal trial of Momcilo Perisic, who is indicted for war crimes and crimes against humanity, including persecution, murder and extermination of civilians in Bosnia and Croatia between 1993 and 1995.



Donia – who appeared as a prosecution expert witness in 11 other cases before this court – said that, having lost Yugoslavia as a unitary state, Serb politicians sought to unite the Serb-populated areas of their former country, which required the ethnic cleansing of parts of eastern Bosnia adjacent to Serbia.



“It would have been impossible to realise this goal without force or threat of force, that is, at the point of gun,” Donia told the trial. He wrote two reports which the prosecutors have used to support their case: one on the formation of the Bosnian Serb state; the other on the siege of Sarajevo.



He said Sarajevo – which was besieged from 1992-5 – was a crucial element in the Serbs’ strategy, since by dominating it from the surrounding hills they were able to strengthen their bargaining position.



Perisic commanded the Yugoslav Army, VJ, at the time of the Sarajevo siege, as well as during the Srebrenica genocide in July 1995. He is accused of aiding and abetting the deliberate killing and wounding of thousands of Sarajevo civilians in sniper attacks, artillery and mortar shelling.



Sarajevo, said Donia, was “a collective hostage intended for gaining concessions from the Bosnian government and the international community” for both the Bosnian Serbs and the government in Belgrade then led by Slobodan Milosevic.



In his report on the formation of the Bosnian Serb state, Donia noted the guiding principles of ethnic parties during the collapse of Yugoslavia and the stands of their leaders concerning the status of Bosnia. The Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, which represented the Bosnian Serb community, was particularly angry when Yugoslavia was dissolved, he said.



“There were two options in the minds of SDS leaders. Option A was to preserve Yugoslavia and option B was becoming part of Serbia if the federal Yugoslav state ceased to exist,” said Donia.



When Prosecutor Carolyn Edgerton enquired whether Donia encountered evidence in his research confirming that the Bosnian Serbs received support from leaders in Serbia, Donia referred to a book by Serbian journalist Srdjan Radulovic entitled Sudbina Krajine (The Faith of Krajina).



Milosevic is quoted in the book as saying that “the Serbian people want to live in a single state”.



On being asked whether these notions on joining Serbia to other Serb territories were articulated by military as well as political leaders, Donia confirmed that Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, chief Ratko Mladic had also expressed approval for them.



He told the court that he had encountered an interview with Mladic in the Belgrade weekly NIN in which Mladic talked about the VRS military operation Lukavac 93 carried out in the summer of 1993. According to Donia, in that interview “Mladic stated that the goal of this operation was the unification of the Serb people on the territory of Bosnia and Serbia and surrounding countries”.



As early as October, 1991, SDS figures were raising the threat of war in the face of an attempt by the Croat and Bosniak parties to create a democratic, sovereign state, said Donia.



He told the judges of an inflammatory speech by SDS leader and future Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic. In the speech made on October 15, 1991, at the session of the Bosnian parliament, Karadzic warned that “Bosnia could take the same bloody road Slovenia and Croatia did and the Muslim folk could be led into extinction”.



The witness then confirmed that Belgrade provided assistance to the VRS during the forthcoming hostilities. He referred to a tape recording of the 50th session of the Bosnian Serb assembly, held in 1995, during which Mladic stated that Belgrade was the major provider of equipment and armament to the VRS up to April 1995.



Moreover, VRS and paramilitary formations received salaries from Belgrade and what was then known as Yugoslavia, thus incriminating Perisic in having supported the Bosnian Serbs, said Donia.



The defence team tried to challenge the objectivity of Donia’s reports, through comprehensive examination of his sources. Due to the fact that the expert witness has been hired by the prosecution, which provided certain documents to him, the defence tried to question his reports’ impartiality.



However, the witness stated that he used various sources such as books, newspaper articles and personal memoirs, and that his reports were perfectly reliable, because they were only fact-based analyses and conclusions.



The trial continues next week.



Elma Mahmutovic is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.