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

Witness Recounts Serb Attacks in Prijedor

Bosnian Croat recalls seeing burning Muslim villages and hearing accounts of murder and pillage.
By Velma Šarić
  • Prosecution witness Ivo Atlija. (Photo: ICTY)
    Prosecution witness Ivo Atlija. (Photo: ICTY)

A Bosnian Croat witness told the trial of senior police officials Mico Stanisic and Stojan Zupljanin this week of attacks by Serb forces on Muslim and Croat villages in the Prijedor municipality in the spring and summer of 1992.

Prosecution witness Ivo Atlija also described having been forced to sign a statement "renouncing all his movable and immovable property" before he was allowed to leave Prijedor in 1992.

Zupljanin, who became an adviser to the Bosnian Serb president and Hague indictee Radovan Karadzic in 1994, is accused of extermination, murder, persecution, and deportation of non-Serbs in northwestern Bosnia between April and December 1992.

Stanisic is charged with the murder, torture and cruel treatment of non-Serb civilians, as well as for his failure to prevent or punish crimes committed by his subordinates.

Stanisic and Zupljanin are alleged to have participated in a joint criminal enterprise aimed at the permanent removal of non-Serbs from the territory of an intended Serbian state. They are accused of crimes committed between April 1 and December 31, 1992, in 20 municipalities throughout Bosnia, including Prijedor.

According to the indictment, the two accused are held responsible for “imposing and maintaining restrictive measures against Bosnian Muslims and Croats”, having thereby perpetrated persecution on a political, racial or religious basis, which is qualified as a crime against humanity.

Both defendants – whose indictments were joined together in September 2008 – have pleaded not guilty to all charges.

At the beginning of his evidence, Atlija said that, on the morning of April 30, 1992, he was on his way to the Ljubija mine in Prijedor, where he worked as a technician, when he first noticed a checkpoint "with five or six soldiers".

"On the way to the mine, these checkpoints became more frequent, especially around the municipality building, police station and courthouse," he continued.

According to the witness, the checkpoints were managed by “Serb soldiers and paramilitaries wearing uniforms of the former JNA (Yugoslav army)”.

That same morning, the Bosniak then director of the mine, Ekrem Crnkic, informed the employees that the Serbian Democratic Party, SDS, aided by Bosnian Serb forces, had taken over the town the previous night and had ordered the workforce to go home because they “didn't have a job anymore”.

Atlija added that later that day he met Bosnian Croat and Muslim acquaintances “who used to work in the municipality and courthouse, and who told of how they were prevented by Serb forces from the checkpoints to even enter their workplaces”.

The witness said he thought that the sudden appearance of a large number of Serb troops in town was aimed at preventing non-Serbs from getting to their workplaces, thus “allowing the Serbs to take up all the significant functions in the municipality”.

Later that day, the witness said he went to the Croat-populated village of Brisevo, close to Prijedor town, where his parents lived and where he remained until he left Bosnia on November 17, 1992.

Asked by the prosecutor whether he knew if the non-Serbs who stayed in Prijedor had freedom of movement, the witness answered that they “needed a special… permit, issued by the Serb crisis staff.

“From talking to people who stayed in Prijedor, I found out that they couldn't move freely. I heard that they had to put up white flags on the windows of their homes and apartments, and some said they even had to wear marks on their sleeves to show that they were not Serbs.”

As the trial continued, prosecutor Francesco Rindi asked about what happened on “May 22, 1992, or around that date, at Hambarine?”

“On the 22nd there was an incident at Hambarine,” Atlija replied. “I think four Serb soldiers were in a car, trying to drive to Ljubija through Hambarine. However, at Hambarine, it was the Muslims who had set up a checkpoint. They tried to stop the Serb soldiers and there was a shoot-out, there were wounded people, I can't remember if anyone died though.

“After the incident, the Serb authorities gave an ultimatum demanding the immediate surrender of those responsible. So after the residents didn't surrender the [people] in question to Serb authorities, there was an attack by the Serb forces against Hambarine.”

The witness said that from a hill in his parents’ village of Brisevo, he could see the attack on Hambarine “relatively well”.

“What happened to the Hambarine non-Serbs after the attack?” Rindi asked.

“A large number of women and children from Hambarine had come to Brisevo,” the witness replied. “They simply fled their homes, and from them we found out what was going on there, although we could also see it from the hill. We saw homes burning, we heard shooting. The women and children were in a situation of panic. They kept repeating: ‘they're murdering us, they’re burning us, raping us, slaughtering us’ and similar sentences.”

Atlija said that Muslim property in Hambarine was being “massively pillaged…first they'd empty the house, then burn it”, he added.

The witness then testified about the events of May 5, 1992, in the Muslim-majority village of Kozarac in the Prijedor municipality. The witness said that “especially in nice weather, you could easily see all of Kozarac from Brisevo.

“In late May 1992, we could see Kozarac burning, houses burning individually as well as many at once. That lasted for several days, and I witnessed it myself,” Atlija explained.

“From the stories of the survivors, we heard that Serb troops had attacked Kozarac. The story was very much just like in Hambarine. The survivors spoke about having been attacked, men murdered and taken to camps, women raped and property pillaged,” he continued.

According to the indictment against Stanisic and Zupljanin, the attacks on Hambarine and Kozarac prove the coordinated actions by the Bosnian Serb military and police forces. The prosecution claims that at least 800 Muslim civilians were killed during those attacks, whereas the majority of arrested men were either killed or taken to the Omarska and Keraterm camps.

Rindi then asked the witness to describe the events of July 24, 1992, in Brisevo village.

“In the morning, around 4.30 am, an artillery attack on the village had begun, lasting to the late evening on July 25,” the witness said. “The houses in the village were systematically pillaged then burned. A total of 68 houses were burned and plundered, we counted every one of them. Later, smaller groups of Serb soldiers came, taking off the roofs, the windows, taking everything away that could be taken.

“They even took away clothes, it may sound silly but they particularly took away socks and underwear.”

When the prosecutor asked Atlija about what happened to his property in Prijedor town, he explained that, once he left on April 30, 1992, his apartment remained locked.

“Later I heard that [a Serb] had moved into my apartment and that it's better for me not to show up there, because otherwise I will be murdered,” he added.

Atlija said that he needed a special permit to leave the Prijedor municipality and, in order to get one in November 1992, he had to sign a statement in the police station declaring he “voluntarily renounced all his movable and immovable property”.

“The ‘voluntarily’ meant that, if I don't sign, I will not be given the permit and would never be able to leave this hell,” he added.

Stanisic surrendered to the Hague tribunal in March 2005. Zupljanin remained in hiding until June of the same year, when he was arrested in the town of Pancevo, just outside the Serbian capital Belgrade.

The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.