Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Prosecution witness Robert Block in the ICTY courtroom. (Photo: ICTY)
A former journalist for the UK’s Independent newspaper testified this week in the trial of Radovan Karadzic on seeing graphic video footage of a pile of dead bodies a few days after the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995.
Prosecution witness Robert Block also said that he heard from two different sources that Karadzic, then Bosnian Serb president, was “angry” about the footage, which was filmed by a Serbian journalist. It was confiscated a day after Block saw it.
Block was chief foreign correspondent for The Independent during the Bosnian war. According to the summary of his evidence read aloud in court, Block arrived in Belgrade on July 15, 1995 and heard from a friend about a documentary containing “amazing footage” of the recent fall of Srebrenica which had aired on Serbian television that day. The next day, on July 16, Block went with his friend to the station that had produced the documentary, called Studio B. They were given access not only to the documentary, but to the raw footage as well.
Block told the court that he and his friend were sifting through the footage, filmed on July 13 and 14, 2005, by Serbian journalist Zoran Petrovic-Pirocanic, when they came upon a particular sequence “which appeared to be filmed from the car” as it drove by the scene.
“You see the camera move across what looked like a wall with large metal garage door … and [the camera] looks at bottom of wall, [and] there was clothing there,” he said. “I would have let it slide had the voiceover [on] the tape not said, ‘There were many dead Muslim soldiers.’”
At that point, Block asked to rewind the film and look at it “frame by frame.”
“Slowly it dawned on us that we weren’t looking at piles of belongings; we were looking at bodies that were all piled up. It wasn’t crisp clear, the footage, but it was still very shocking. At the same time, it was very difficult to believe what the eye was seeing,” Block said. He added that they watched the footage over and over again to make sure it wasn’t an “illusion” and decided it definitely was not.
“You could see easily, it looked like 20 to 25 bodies. There was man with a white t-shirt in the front and another man I remember with a dark shirt. It did not look like any combat scene in 20 years of war corresponding that I had ever seen,” Block said.
On July 11, 1995 – just a few days before the witness saw the video footage - the eastern Bosnian enclave of Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces. In the days that followed, some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys were detained and killed at various sites in the surrounding area. The Srebrenica massacre been classified as genocide by both the Hague tribunal and the International Court of Justice.
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 is representing himself in the courtroom.
This week, prosecutors said that in addition to seeing the footage of dead bodies, the witness also saw images of men being held on the balcony of a building known as “the white house” – where Bosniak men were detained – and of men being led away from there by gunpoint. In addition, he saw footage taped in Bratunac on July 13 and 14 by a Bosnian Serb television station depicting hundreds of men in a football field being forced to stand up and sit down.
Based on what he saw at Studio B, Block wrote an article entitled “Bodies Pile Up in Horror in Srebrenica,” which was published in the Independent on July 17, 1995. The next day, Block said he returned to the TV station, only to learn that the footage had been confiscated.
Block said he suspected this might happen.
“The minute we saw the footage, and wrote about it, it was my suspicion… it would not stay around for too long,” he said, adding that he had made an effort to tell other media outlets about it in the hope they would get a copy before it inevitably disappeared.
“This is a very awkward situation for a journalist to be in,” Block told the court.
He said that for foreign correspondents, particularly those covering conflict, “you never want to be last on a story and you never want to be first on a story without anyone to come behind you and corroborate what you had been writing”.
He said he heard from two different sources that Karadzic had found out about the footage and was “angry” about it.
“What I had heard from a friend in Pale who was an interpreter and driver, and with whom I worked with for years and had a close personal relationship with, and also what I heard from Zoran Petrovic [who shot the footage] was that the authorities were very angry and they understood that the president of Republika Srpska, Dr Karadzic himself, was angry over this footage,” Block said.
Karadzic had initially tried to block this aspect of Block’s testimony. The accused’s legal advisor, Peter Robinson, asked for it to be excluded on the grounds that it was “at a minimum triple hearsay”.
The judges decided to allow it because it was based on the witness’s “direct interaction” with the sources. The fact that it might be triple hearsay would be taken into account, said presiding Judge O-Gon Kwon.
Block said that in an attempt to corroborate what he had seen, he and his friend tried to go to Bratunac, near Srebrenica, but were told they would not be able to cross the bridge into the town. So they parked their car and waited until they saw two women coming over the bridge in their direction. One of them said she was the wife of a Bosnian Serb army officer, and that it was “a mess over there”, Block recounted.
When Block asked what was going on, the woman replied, “‘What do you mean what’s happening – of course you know what’s happening.’ We insisted we didn’t, and that surprised her,” Block said.
He said that the woman told them that men were being brought to “playing fields and hangars and being killed, most were being shot, and only the known and worst war criminals were having their throats cut”.
In addition, he said she described the killings as “organised and in some cases there were calls that went out to people that if they wanted to take revenge on men from Srebrenica, they were being held”.
“The interesting thing was… these people clearly were not happy, none of them… and they really were stunned that somehow this was a secret,” Block said. He noted later that it was especially striking that this report was not coming from the victims, but from Serbs themselves.
When it was Karadzic’s turn to cross examine the witness, he questioned Block’s account that he heard the accused had been “angry” over the footage.
Block said he was not revealing the name of one of the sources – the interpreter friend in Pale – because they had not spoken together and he did not want to “put his name out there” without the friend knowing.
“Did he tell you who he heard that from, about me being upset?” Karadzic asked.
“I don’t recall asking him,” Block replied. “He was in Pale, which is a small town. The Serb authorities were unpleased and I assumed this was common knowledge in Pale.”
“So you believe that everyone at Pale [where my office was] could know what I thought or could hear me speak? If I didn’t say that in public address, it must have been said in the street. How did people know what I thought? Did you do any research?” Karadzic retorted.
Block responded that he hadn’t, and who “ordered the confiscation” wasn’t a prime concern since he was more interested in corroborating what was in the footage.
He said the footage was indeed “damning” and it was “not out of the realm of possibility” that the authorities would be upset about it.
Karadzic remarked that Studio B was “our political opponent at the time, as they are now”.
“Studio B was something of a chameleon. It was not pro-[Serbian president Slobodan] Milosevic, but it was pro-Serb, so it was a little surprising to me that the documentary aired on Studio B,” Block said.
“From what I understood, the documentary was cut and put together very quickly,” he continued. “They put together something that they thought was not propaganda but pro-Serb and didn’t realise the potential damage it had.”
The trial continues next week.
Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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