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Witness Says Serbs Knew Zvornik Attack Was Coming

He tells tribunal he believed ethnic cleansing of northern Bosnian town by Serb forces was part of preconceived plan.
By Katharina Goetze
A Bosniak witness testified this week that Serb residents left his home town of Zvornik in the early Nineties, apparently to clear the way for a campaign of ethnic cleansing by Serb paramilitaries.

The protected witness told Hague tribunal judges that Serbs began to leave the majority-Bosniak town in eastern Bosnia as early as 1991, in what he thought was an attempt to avoid being there during Serb forces’ murder of civilians the following year.

“There were plans for ethnic cleansing and it was easier to ethnically cleanse when there were no Serbs around,” said the witness, whose identity was given as just VS-1093.

He said the only people left in the days before the attack began were Bosniaks, and also described seeing a group of men being killed.

The witness was testifying at the trial of Vojislav Seselj, the president of the Serbian Radical Party, SRS. Seselj is accused of participating in the planning and preparation of the take-over of Zvornik and of aiding the murder and persecution of its non-Serb population.

The indictment states that in March 1992, Seselj gave a speech at a rally in Mali Zvornik – a small town in Serbia on the opposite side of the Drina River from Zvornik – during which he instigated the expulsion of the Bosniaks.

“We are going to clean Bosnia of pagans and show them a road which will take them to the east, where they belong,” he is quoted as saying in the indictment.

“Serb forces, including volunteers known as ‘Seselj’s men’ and ‘Arkan's tigers’, attacked and took control of Zvornik and surrounding villages. During the attack, Serb forces killed many non-Serb civilians. Following the take-over, non-Serbs were routinely detained, beaten, tortured and killed,” continued the indictment.

The witness, who was a member of the Bosniak Party of Democratic Action, SDA, said that on the morning of April 9, 1992, troops opened fire from Serb-held areas. The outskirts of the town, where Bosniaks lived, were the main targets, he said.

He told judges that he saw columns of women and children leaving the area from which he concluded that the Serbs had separated out the Bosniak population and would kill the men.

“I saw the liquidation of a group of men. I also saw a group being taken away and later on, I heard shots,” he said.

He said he thought the weapons used in the attack must have come from the Belgrade-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, although did not explain why he thought this.

“The JNA did the strategic part of the job – the shelling and the intimidation,” he said, adding that he had also seen masked men, who he thought were paramilitaries.

Asked by the prosecution what the ethnic composition of Zvornik was like after the events, the witness replied, “100 per cent Serb, zero per cent Muslims.” He said that other places along the Drina River were also ethnically cleansed.

During cross-examination, Seselj asked if the witness was sure the Bosniaks had not earlier forced their Serb neighbours to leave the town.

“As soon as the Serbs left Zvornik, their homes were looted – did you know that?” asked Seselj.

The witness, who had earlier said that the town’s Serbs just “vanished”, replied that he did not.

“How was it that the Serbs simply vanished, but the others were driven out? Were not those Serbs ethnically cleansed?” asked Seselj.

The witness replied that the Serbs returned to Zvornik after the attack.

Seselj also questioned whether the witness really did see men being killed, suggesting that he may have confused the facts.

The witness maintained that he saw the executions with his “very own eyes”.

This week, the trial chamber also heard testimony relating to the murder of hundreds of Croats at Ovcara farm near the Croatian city of Vukovar which was seized by Serb forces in 1991. Seselj is accused of inciting his supporters there to kill civilians.

Forensic expert Davor Strinovic, who was part of the Croatian Commission for Tracing Missing Persons and Detainees, and who supervised the exhumation of the bodies of the Ovcara massacre victims, told judges about the difficulties of identifying some of the remains.

Of the 200 bodies found in a mass grave near Vukovar, seven have still to be identified, 16 years after their remains were discovered, he said.

The court also heard that up until today a thousand persons are still missing in Croatia as a result of the war in the early 1990s.

The trial continues next week.

Katharina Goetze is an IWPR reporter in London.