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

Witness Says Bosniaks Killed Before War Began

Ex-police officer says he collected bodies of dead civilians from streets of Bosnian town in 1992.
By Rory Gallivan
A former policeman testifying at the Hague tribunal in the trial of Vojislav Seselj said this week that dozens of Bosniaks were killed in the Bosnian town of Bijeljina in the run up to the war.

The witness, who was working there at the time, said that the local leader of Seselj’s Serbian Radical Party, SRS, seemed to be in control of the town at the time of the atrocities, which he said were committed before conflict broke out in spring of 1992.

Serbian nationalist politician Seselj is on trial at the Hague tribunal, accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed during the Balkans wars of the Nineties in an alleged bid to create a “Greater Serbia”.

Other charges against Seselj, whose trial began in November 2007, include murder, torture and persecution committed as he allegedly sought to drive out non-Serbs from parts of Croatia and Bosnia between August 1991 and September 1993.

According to prosecutors, Seselj participated in planning the take-over of towns and villages and subsequent removal of the non-Serb population in several Bosnian municipalities, including Bijeljina.

The witness, who remained anonymous to protect his identity, said he was summoned back to Bijeljina, a city in north-eastern Bosnia on the border with Serbia, from the town of Bosanski Samac, where he had been sent to help prevent conflict erupting between local Serbs and Muslims.

He said he first saw reports of fighting in Bijeljina on television and was called back to the town by its chief of police.

On the journey back on April 1, he and his colleague were stopped at about 17 barricades manned by Serbs.

At the last checkpoint, just before entering Bijeljina, he described how one of the men at the checkpoint asked his Serb colleague what he was doing driving the witness.

“He knew that I was a Muslim,” explained the witness.

The people manning the checkpoint were reservists from the Yugoslav Army, JNA, which was under Belgrade’s control, as well as Bijeljina civilians, said the witness.

From there, the witness and his colleague were escorted into town by a car from the police station.

“When we entered the town, I noticed a large number of soldiers and various paramilitary units wearing all sorts of different uniforms and one could see that there had been clashes,” said the witness.

“It wasn’t until later on that I realised what exactly had occurred.”

He said that he was made to sign a document of loyalty to the Serbian authorities in control of Bijeljina.

The following day, he was ordered to go into town to help pick up the bodies of dead civilians which littered the streets.

While doing so, he and his colleagues were repeatedly stopped and checked by soldiers, including those paramilitaries under the control of Serbian warlord Arkan and local SRS leader Mirko Blagojevic, as well as JNA reservists, he said.

Prosecution lawyer Ulrich Mussemeyer asked him what the soldiers said about the dead bodies.

“They were saying that these people had been killed as a result of the war, but there had been no war at all,” replied the witness.

“As far as I could notice, small arms and light weapons were used to kill those people and there was no major damage resulting from those clashes.”

He said he remembered collecting about 48 bodies, adding that he knew there were many more, including those that had already been collected by the victims’ families.

“Would you also say that there was no civil war, no internal conflict at that time?” asked judge Jean-Claude Antonetti.

“I can’t say it was war,” replied the witness.

Mussemeyer then showed the trial chamber video footage of clashes taking place in the town. He asked the witness whether he recognised Mirko Blagojevic, who appeared in the video. He replied that he did.

The witness then confirmed to Judge Antonetti that he heard Blagojevic identifying himself as the regional president of the SRS in the video clip.

The judge asked the witness if Blagojevic appeared to be in control of the situation in Bijeljina at the time.

“Yes, he was keeping everything under control,” replied the witness.

During cross-examination, Seselj, who is defending himself, referred to previous statements from the witness in which he described Blagojevic as a criminal.

He asked the witness if he had evidence of this.

He replied that although he knew of no crimes that Blagojevic had committed in the former Yugoslavia, the police had information that he had been involved in criminal activities abroad.

“He enjoys my complete trust,” said Seselj of Blagojevic.

While Seselj acknowledged that Bosniaks had been killed in Bijeljina, he said that this happened at a later date and that Blagojevic’s paramilitary unit had not been involved.

The trial continues next week.

Rory Gallivan is an IWPR reporter in London.

More IWPR's Global Voices