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Witness Says Karadzic Held Sarajevo “Hostage”

UN official who served in Bosnia said the accused and Ratko Mladic could expand or cut humanitarian aid to the city.
By Rachel Irwin
  • Anthony Banbury testifying at the trial of Radovan Karadzic. (Photo: ICTY)
    Anthony Banbury testifying at the trial of Radovan Karadzic. (Photo: ICTY)

A United Nations official testified this week at the Hague tribunal that Radovan Karadzic held Sarajevo “hostage” by allowing – and then suddenly denying - humanitarian aid and other services to the city’s besieged residents.

Karadzic, along with the commander of his army, Hague indictee General Ratko Mladic, “could…at their will expand the access of humanitarian assistance to the city or cut it off”, said prosecution witness Anthony Banbury, who served as a civil affairs officer in Sarajevo for the United Nations Protection Force, UNPROFOR, from April 1994 to May 1995. From that point until the end of the conflict, he served as the assistant to the special representative of the United Nations secretary general.

“Through [Karadzic and Mladic’s] ability … to turn [access] on or off so quickly…they were able to exert influence and create leverage over us,” Banbury said. “When they said ‘block humanitarian access or limit UNPROFOR’s abilities’…that created pressure on us and created a need for us to negotiate with them.

“…As a result, they were able to put UNPROFOR in the position of supplicant, having to beg for access, whether for us or humanitarian organizations. They were able to hold the population of the city hostage essentially, and pressure [UN] Security Council members…who didn’t want to get wrapped up in a war in Bosnia.”

Prosecuting lawyer Carolyn Edgerton then asked on what basis the witness determined that Karadzic and Mladic were the “decision makers”.

“Dr Karadzic was the leader of the Bosnian Serbs, and in my view, the ultimate authority and [the person] who made decisions on all major issues,” Banbury said. “In the case of General Mladic, he was the head of the Bosnian Serb military, so that’s where we would go to get resolution for military matters. He didn’t get involved in civilian matters, but mainly the purely military authority. With Dr Karadzic as the supreme commander… he had a role in both the civilian and military side.”

Prosecutors allege that Karadzic, the president of Bosnia's self-declared Republika Srpska, RS, from 1992 to 1996, planned and oversaw the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that ravaged the city and left nearly 12,000 people dead. Karadzic’s army is accused of deliberately sniping and shelling the city’s civilian population in order to “spread terror” among them.

The indictment - which lists 11 counts in total - alleges that Karadzic 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". He was arrested in Belgrade in July 2008 after 13 years on the run and since then has represented himself in the courtroom.

Banbury said that UNPROFOR never experienced freedom of movement, despite Security Council resolutions which required it. This made it difficult or impossible to deliver humanitarian aid to the eastern enclaves, including Srebrenica and Zepa, which were at the time UN-designated safe areas but remained surrounded by Bosnian Serb-held territory.

The degree of access “depended entirely on the position of the Bosnian Serb leadership”, Banbury said, and their political objectives.

“…They were using our need to provide humanitarian assistance [and] to resupply or rotate our troops - that was the need for UNPROFOR - and since they controlled the ability to fill that need, they had great leverage over us,” he said.

UNPROFOR had to provide detailed lists of what was in each convoy, which contained humanitarian goods as well as items for UNPROFOR troops stationed in the enclaves, Banbury explained, adding that the Bosnian Serbs would often reject certain items.

“[UNPROFOR] troops in the eastern enclaves did not have material to conduct operations,” Banbury said. “And [the Bosnian Serb leadership] only wanted to push us so far to allow us to survive, but not to function, and by dramatically restricting supplies, they were able to achieve that.”

“Do you know whether this ultimately had an effect on UNPROFOR forces in the enclaves by summer of 1995?” Edgerton asked.

“…It had an operational impact in terms of material, equipment, and fuel,” Banbury said, noting that UNPROFOR troops “wanted to ingratiate themselves with the Bosnian Serbs so they might allow food, mail or fuel in [to the enclaves].

“Bosnian Serbs linked these restrictions to what they described as inappropriate behaviour by the Bosnian government… The message to UNPROFOR was, ‘You’re facing these restrictions because the Bosnian government or army is doing something wrong, so get them to stop it and things will be fine for you.’”

As result, Banbury said UNPROFOR forces were “put in the psychological position of being dependent upon Bosnian Serbs … and seeing them as someone that could help them [while] they saw the Bosnian government as a source of the difficult situation… It was a very unpleasant situation.”

In terms of the expulsion of non-Serbs from various towns in Bosnia, Banbury said that the “Bosnian Serb authorities exercised very good control over what happened in their territory”.

“It’s not feasible that a large scale population movement under pressure from paramilitary gangs could take place without the participation and acquiescence of the Bosnian Serb authorities,” he continued.

Edgerton noted that when asked about this at the time, Karadzic allegedly said that people left of their own choice or in some cases by “criminal elements akin to the Hong Kong mafia”.

“There were non-state authorities acting in the area controlled by Bosnian Serbs, paramilitary gangs… who carried out atrocious behaviour against non-Serb civilians—plundering, looting, raping, killing,” Banbury responded.

“Such gangs did exist but operated with full awareness and at times full support of the Bosnian Serb authorities. Everyone knew about these gangs. The degree of cooperation with the Bosnian Serb military on the ground varied with circumstances…[but] at all times these groups could not have operated without acquiescence of the Bosnian Serb authorities.”

Banbury said these expulsions were not stopped even when Karadzic claimed they had been, and the witness said that whether or not people left voluntarily “depends on one’s perspective”.

“It may be true in a certain sense that a family decides they want to leave,” he said. “If their neighbours were being tormented, killed, and raped, if their property is being stolen, if they are visited by menacing paramilitary elements saying ‘Leave or else’… yes, maybe they packed up and left. In many cases, people were pressured through very dire means to make that decision.”

When it was Karadzic’s turn to cross examine the witness, he showed some documents and asked if Banbury was aware that “we arrested and prosecuted those who conducted themselves unlawfully”.

“I am not aware of arrests or prosecutions that Bosnian Serbs may have conducted against criminal elements,” Banbury responded. “… The main perpetrators of these acts, the leaders of these gangs, were not arrested or prosecuted, and they were able to act with impunity and carry on with their activities over a long period of time.”
“You will be surprised if you follow the trial till the end to know how many people we put behind bars,” Karadzic said.

As for the issue of convoys, Karadzic read from a document which listed items that Bosnian Serb forces would not allow through their checkpoints, including video cameras, weapons, optical instruments, anti-freeze and oxygen bottles.

Banbury responded that the document “reflects very well the fundamental problem and disagreement of UNPROFOR and the Bosnian Serb authorities.

“It was UNPROFOR’s absolute belief that we were allowed to transport … standard military equipment that the UN provides to peacekeeping forces around the world. This is basic and standard equipment for peacekeepers. The notion that they are not permitted was manufactured by the Bosnian Serbs.”

He added that oxygen bottles were used to treat wounded soldiers and were a matter of “life and death”.

“So the notion that oxygen is not allowed…is totally unacceptable,” Banbury said.

Karadzic contended that there was an “agreement” that all goods had to reported and asked why these particular items were not on the declaration list.

“The oxygen bottles were full of gun powder!” the accused contended.

Banbury responded that there was never an agreement to declare the goods, but instead an “unjust” requirement imposed on them by the Bosnian Serbs. He said that because of the logistics involved, there may have been oversights that left items off the list, but these were “honest mistakes”.

“As for the contention that oxygen bottles were used to smuggle gun power and explosives, I am unaware of any case of that and I don’t believe UNPROFOR ever intentionally smuggled explosives in the course of the war,” Banbury continued.

“Do you want to say that UNPROFOR and the UNHCR (the UN refugee agency) did not smuggle goods that were not permitted and these convoys were not used to supply our opponent with war material?” Karadzic asked.

“I do not agree that goods were permitted or not permitted…it was up to UNPROFOR and UNHCR to determine what was necessary for [our operations],” Banbury responded. He added that according to the UN Security Council, UNPROFOR was to be allowed freedom of movement by all of the warring parties.

Karadzic contended it was up to the Bosnian Serbs, as one of the warring parties, to set the conditions on freedom of movement for UN agencies. He further claimed this principle is part of the Geneva conventions, which set out the laws of war.

“I’m not an expert on the Geneva conventions, but I do know they don’t apply to UNPROFOR,” Banbury responded.

“Mr Banbury, freedom of movement was provided but not without control,” Karadzic said. “This was our misunderstanding. You think like an American—that you are allowed to do whatever you want, wherever you want. The Geneva conventions are more important than a Security Council resolution.”

The trial continues next week.

Rachel Irwin is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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