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

Witness Says Mladic Threatened to Kill Civilians

Former UN official says threats were made, but did not appear to be a coherent statement of plans.
By Rachel Irwin

A former United Nations official who met wartime Bosnian Serb army commander Ratko Mladic repeatedly during the conflict alleged in court this week that the accused appeared to be in control of his subordinates, and that he made verbal threats to kill civilians in eastern Bosnia during 1993.

Prosecution witness David Harland’s testimony was halted on July 12 after Mladic, 70, complained of feeling ill. The Hague tribunal said he was taken to hospital as a “precautionary measure.” No further information on the defendant’s condition has been released.

Harland was a civil affairs officer and political adviser to the commander of UNPROFOR, the UN Protection Force in Bosnia, from 1993 until the end of the war in 1995. Prosecutors say Harland met Mladic on around 20 occasions during the conflict.

Harland, who began testifying on July 10, is the second prosecution witness to give evidence at Mladic’s trial.

He previously gave testimony in three other trials at the Hague tribunal, including that of Mladic’s wartime superior, former Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic. (See Karadzic’s Markale Fraud Claim Disputed.)

This week, prosecuting lawyer Dermot Groome read to the court passages from notes that Harland made following a meeting with Mladic on November 3, 1993. Harland wrote that the general threatened to kill civilians in the eastern Bosnian enclaves unless 22 Serb prisoners of war were released.

“In a meeting with the UNPROFOR chief of staff recently, [Mladic] threatened, among other things, to kill everyone in the eastern enclaves except for children [if] the POWS were not returned by November 10,” Groome said, reading from Harland’s notes.

The eastern enclaves were strategically important to the Bosnian Serbs and included Srebrenica, which was declared a demilitarised UN “safe area” in April 1993. In the days after Srebrenica fell to Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995, more than 7,000 Bosniak men and boys were killed there, as one of the charges against Mladic states.

Prosecutors allege that Mladic, the commander of the Bosnian Serb army from 1992 to 1996, is 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 is also accused of planning and overseeing the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that left nearly 12,000 people dead, as well as the Srebrenica massacre.

“The threats to kill civilians in the eastern enclaves – were you present?” Groome asked Harland.

“Yes, he actually made this threat several times, including to others, but I tended to write down the ones that happened at meetings I was at. This wasn’t the only time he made this threat,” Harland said.

Groome asked whether Harland and other UN officials were concerned by Mladic’s statement, and whether they perceived it as an idle threat or something more.

Harland replied that a discussion with Mladic “was not really rational discourse”.

“It wasn’t like a conversation such as we are having. It was a protest by us and then a verbal attack of some sort,” Harland told the court. “I think our view of the threats was that he was like a bully, and if the opportunity arose to carry out these threats, probably he would do it, but they weren’t really a statement of plans.”

The prosecuting lawyer then read out several other passages from Harland’s notes, “Mladic is more dangerous. He is frustrated both as a military commander and as an individual. As a military commander, he feels – correctly – that he has been very effective, but that his battlefield effectiveness has not been confirmed by a political settlement. For this he appears to blame the political leadership.”

Harland wrote that after being centre-stage earlier in the war, Mladic now appeared to feel marginalised.

Groome asked Harland what he meant by describing Mladic as becoming “more dangerous”.

“[Mladic] was making more bellicose threats than normal,” Harland replied. “We would be at meetings with him in which he would say – and those around him would be quite clear – that they felt that the political civilian leadership had not performed well and [the army] might have to undertake further military actions.”

Harland said that his meetings with the Bosnian Serb military leader followed a pattern. First, Mladic would invite a UN commander to make a presentation, which usually included protests about the Bosnian Serb army’s actions. He would sit quietly and take notes, and often let his interlocutors speak at length.

Then he would take the floor, and “very aggressively make a series of logically not well-connected points – a mixture of threats and history and commentary on the current situation,” Harland said. “At most of the meetings, there would have been some threat against the Bosnian population or against UNPROFOR.”

Groome questioned Harland about one meeting on September 29, 1993, at which – according to his notes – the general made a “number of thinly veiled threats”, including a warning that unless a fuel embargo was lifted, he would hijack fuel supplies wherever he could.

“[Mladic] said he was entertaining the idea of establishing a new policy under which what Serbs don’t get, nobody gets,” Harland wrote in his notes.

After establishing that the witness had written down verbatim Mladic’s comments made through a translator, the lawyer asked what he meant by “thinly veiled threats”.

“Normally General Mladic, but not [him] alone, would make connections – if such and such happens, if Serbs don’t get fuel, then no fuel will get to UNPROFOR or [humanitarian agencies],” Harland said.

Without fuel, he added, UNPROFOR could not have travelled to the front lines to observe what was happening, and would have been unable to escort food convoys to civilians in areas controlled by the Bosnian government.

Harland’s testimony this week also touched on Mladic’s relationship with his subordinates, and his connection to events on the ground. He told the court that he saw Mladic repeatedly in the company of other generals and more junior officers, and that he was clearly in charge. His staff deferred to him on all matters and treated him with extreme respect, Harland said.

Furthermore, he said, there was “a direct connection between General Mladic’s statements, and results and effects and actions on the ground – from very large matters to quite small matters”.

For example, he said that a trivial matter such as getting stopped at a checkpoint “could eventually be passed all the way up” to Mladic, who would have to give his personal authorisation in order for Harland to be allowed through.

“Then when [authorisation] came, it would suddenly be possible,” Harland said.

As for bigger issues, Harland said Mladic “went through in great detail, in my presence, exactly which positions [in Sarajevo] the Serb forces would be willing to redeploy from, from exactly what time, and which direction. When he ordered it, it happened.”

“There was never any doubt in our mind that here was officer in total command and control of the forces subordinate to him,” he added.

At this point, Mladic – dressed in a suit and seated behind his defence lawyers in the courtroom – smiled.

At the beginning of the defence’s cross examination of Harland on July 11, Mladic’s lawyer Branko Lukic asked him about Serb victims in Sarajevo, and whether he had any information about Serbs being taken to the front lines to dig trenches.

Harland nodded, and said it was one of the issues that UN officials had protested about to the Bosnian army.

“Did you ask for any punitive action [from] the government?” Lukic asked.

“When cases came to our attention where Serbs were put in dangerous positions, or Serbs were forced to clear mines by hand from dangerous areas, we lodged formal protests and advised them they were potentially committing war crimes,” Harland replied.

Lukic then asked about an incident in which two Bosnian government army snipers fired at UN personnel and at pedestrians in the vicinity.

Harland confirmed that this occurred, as had other similar cases.

“Were there situations where the BH [Bosnia and Hercegovina] army opened fire from areas around hospitals and from the centre of town itself?” Lukic asked.

Harland responded that he had seen this happen.

The defence lawyer then cited a previous statement by Harland that the Bosnian government “was riding a wave of international support, and taking a harder line at peace negotiations” as the war dragged on. He asked him who it was who had been supporting the government in Sarajevo, making it feel stronger and better placed to take a harder line.

The witness replied that the Bosnian government felt the increased likelihood of NATO airstrikes strengthened its bargaining position.

“[This] made it more possible for them to continue to fight and to hold for a better negotiated result,” he explained.

Lukic challenged the witness on UNPROFOR’s objectivity, and argued that it sided with the “Muslims primarily”, while being mainly opposed to the Serbs.

Harland disagreed, and said that the British and French governments, as well as many UNPROFOR officials, were relatively hostile to the Bosnian government in Sarajevo.

“Threats for [NATO] airstrikes emerged from the campaign of terror waged by the Serb army against the civilian population,” he said. “If that had happened on comparable scale the other way around, I think frankly there would have been an eagerness to do it among some governments.”

Rachel Irwin is IWPR Senior Reporter in The Hague.