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

Witness Says He Refused to Kill Srebrenica Muslims

Bosnian Serb army officer said he was flabbergasted that someone could order him to carry out such a task.
By Rebekah Heil
A witness testifying this week at the trial of seven Bosnian Serb military and police officials indicted for the crimes in Srebrenica said he refused to carry out orders by one of the accused, Vujadin Popovic, to participate in the execution of thousands of Muslim prisoners captured after the fall of this enclave in July 1995.

Srecko Acimovic, former commander of the 2nd Battalion of the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, Zvornik Brigade, told the judges he had received an order from Popovic to summon a group of soldiers who would execute Muslim prisoners, but didn’t obey because he couldn’t believe that “someone could actually ask us to do something like that”.

During the cross examination of the witness, the defence challenged Acimovic’s testimony and tried to raise doubts about the accuracy and truthfulness of some of his claims.

Acimovic told the judges this week that he was at his home in the village of Rocevic near Zvornik when he heard from two men that Muslim prisoners were being held in the town’s elementary school. It was not clear from his testimony which day exactly that was, as he referred to that time as “the days after the fall of Srebrenica”.

He said that upon hearing the news, he went to the school to see what was going on.

The school at Rocevic is mentioned in the indictment against Popovic as one of the places where Muslim prisoners were held, before being summarily executed between July 13 and 16, 1995. According to the indictment, Popovic assisted in the transportation of Muslim men, and “oversaw and supervised their summary execution”.

Popovic, who was at the time of the Srebrenica massacre assistant commander of security on the staff of the Drina Corps, is indicted for genocide, war crimes and crimes against humanity, including forcible transfer and persecution on religious grounds.

He stands trial with six other Bosnian military and police officials - Ljubiša Beara, Drago Nikolić, Ljubomir Borovčanin, Radivoje Miletić, Milan Gvero and Vinko Pandurević.

The trial, which started last July, is still in the prosecution phase.

Acimovic told the court that the soldiers guarding the prisoners in school at Rocevic were ones he did not know, and they “were under some sort of influence - alcohol or narcotics - in any case, their behaviour was rather erratic”, to the point that they shot at and injured a woman passing by, putting the village in a state of panic.

Upon returning to his battalion, Acimovic said he attempted to call his superiors at the Zvornik Brigade, but neither the brigade commander nor the chief of staff were available. Instead, he talked to Popovic on the phone.

“He introduced himself when he talked to me,” said Acimovic. “He gave me the answer that those prisoners would be exchanged the next day, so he must have known which prisoners I was talking about.”

That night, at one or two in the morning, Acimovic received a telegramme.

“It said that a platoon of soldiers should be detached and that they should be used for the execution of the prisoners,” the witness told the court.

He added that he and the battalion command were “taken aback” when they read the telegramme.

“We were simply flabbergasted that something like that could be asked of us. We were in a state of shock.”

Acimovic went on to describe how he and his fellow officers disobeyed the order, replying via telegramme that they could not spare any men, and repeated the refusal after a second telegramme arrived.

Acimovic then told the court that soon after that he received a phone call from Drago Nikolic, who was then chief of security and intelligence in the Zvornik Brigade. According to Acimovic, Nikolic threatened him and told him he must obey the orders, which came “from above”.

The witness said that he spoke to Nikolic again around 7 a.m. and received orders to meet him at the elementary school with his platoon of men.

In his testimony, Acimovic said that he went to Rocevic in the morning, but still refused to bring his men to help with the executions. Instead of Nikolic, he met Popovic at the school.

The witness said Popovic was very angry when he saw that Acimovic hadn’t brought any men with him.

According to Acimovic, Popovic cursed him and told him he was “crazy”, saying he would be “held responsible for refusing to obey an order”.

When the witness finished his testimony, the defence began an intense series of questions pointing at apparent inconsistencies between his various written statements and his testimony in court.

They also wanted to know why he did not remember who had signed the telegrammes, which allegedly contained orders for the execution of Muslim prisoners.

At one point, the defence lawyers asked Acimovic whether he ever really received the telegrammes, or the orders to allocate men for the execution.

“I am telling the truth,” he said adamantly.

The trial continues next week.

Rebekah Heil is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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