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

Witness Talks of "Orchestrated" Srebrenica Capture

Former Bosnian Serb officer recalls colleagues discussing where to kill captives once enclave was taken.
By Velma Šarić

A former officer in the Bosnian Serb Army, VRS, told the trial of Radovan Karadzic this week that the take-over of Srebrenica in July 1995 was “well-orchestrated”, and that it was made to clear to him beforehand that a massacre was planned.

Momir Nikolic, formerly chief of security and intelligence in the VRS’s Bratunac Brigade, appeared at Karadzic’s trial as a prosecution witness.

Nikolic was himself indicted by the Hague tribunal for war crimes committed in Srebrenica. In 2003, he reached a plea agreement with the prosecution and was sentenced to 20 years in prison. In his plea agreement, Nikolic agreed to testify at other tribunal trials relating to the Srebrenica genocide.

Prosecutors allege that Karadzic – who was president of the self-declared Bosnian Serb state, Republika Srpska, 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 massacre of some 8,000 Bosniak men and boys at Srebrenica in July 1995.

In his plea agreement, Nikolic, who is currently serving his sentence in Finland, admitted to having been present at meetings in which the planned killing of Bosniaks were discussed openly by VRS officers. He also said he was involved in the forced removal and transfer of Bosniak civilians, and that was aware of mass murders committed by VRS forces after the fall of Srebrenica.

During the examination-in-chief, prosecutor Julian Nicholls showed the witness a document issued on July 4, 1994 by the commander of the Bratunac Brigade, Slavko Ognjenovic.

In this document, Ognjenovic instructed units subordinate to him to make “the living conditions in the [Srebrenica] enclave impossible, so that [those inside] leave the enclave en masse as soon as possible, realising that they can’t survive there”.

Nikolic told the prosecutor that he found this document “problematic”, to say the least.

“As an army officer, I am aware that such document would be an excuse for indiscipline,” he said. “It would give a green light for illicit military actions, such as ambushes, increased sniper activity, or diversions into enemy territory.”

Nikolic added that he was “aware that people in Srebrenica were living a horrible life, with not enough food, not enough resources to cure the sick”.

According to the witness, the key moment when he realised what was going to happen to the people in Srebrenica was on the morning of July 12, 1995, during a conversation he had with Vujadin Popovic and Svetozar Kosoric, former security officers for the VRS Drina Corps.

“They told me that… the women and children would be deported into Muslim-held territory. They also said that all men of military age would be separated. I remember asking them what they meant by ‘separated’ and Popovic’s response was, ‘What else [but that] all Muslims should be killed’”.

Nikolic added that when he looked at Kosoric, he “smirked and gave the same answer, using the very same words”.

Asked by the prosecutor why he didn't do anything to prevent this or oppose the plan, Nikolic said he “simply couldn’t”.

“I didn't dare to,” he continued. “I had bad experiences from before, knowing what happens when one tries to oppose something like that. But I know that now I would act differently. I would try to do something, somehow, to help people who were being taken away into death.”

The witness told the court that after the fall of Srebrenica, he was under the impression that the majority of Bosniak men captured were not connected with the Bosnian government army, and had nothing to do with the “crimes which had been committed in the surrounding villages against the Serbs”.

“The people who came to Potocari were those who had done nothing bad and genuinely believed that they had nothing to fear,” Nikolic said.

“Only a few [Bosniak] men were actually lucky enough to leave Srebrenica on the first convoy, under the UN escort. I can't remember the exact number, but it was small,” he added.

The witness then told the judges that on July 13 he was ordered to “secure the road between [the nearby towns of] Bratunac and Konjevic Polje, since General Mladic was supposed to pass by on that day, and I was in his escort”.

Ratko Mladic, VRS commander-in-chief at the time, is also facing trial for genocide at the Hague tribunal.

“Mladic spoke to the prisoners who were being detained in Konjevic Polje. He told them that they have nothing to fear, that they shouldn't worry because they will be exchanged soon,” Nikolic said.

However, he added that he soon found out that Mladic did not much care about the prisoners’ destiny.

“I asked Mladic, perhaps naively, what would really happen to them. He looked at me, and instead of giving me a reply, he simply waved his hand, as if saying, ‘Who cares?’”

“Once we arrived at our destination, I was told to report to Ljubisa Beara,” he added.

Beara was the chief of security of the VRS main staff. In June 2010, he was convicted of genocide at the Hague tribunal and sentenced to life in prison.

“I asked Beara the same question,” continued the witness. “He looked at me and said that [Bosniak prisoners] would be gathered, transported, and killed.”

Nikolic told the court that many VRS officers who were involved in this crime were “convinced that these [Bosniak] men have to be killed”.

The only disagreement was about where it should happen, he said, adding, “I remember that Beara had a fight with Miroslav Deronjic about where the killing should take place.”

Deronjic, who was the chairman of the local board of Karadzic's Serb Democratic Party, SDS, in Bratunac was given a ten-year sentence by the Hague tribunal in 2004, and died in jail in 2007.

“It was an awkward discussion,” the witness continued. “At one point, Deronjic, who was acting as a host to the meeting, pulled out a bottle of brandy and put it on the table. It was then decided, in a friendly atmosphere, that the prisoners should be transferred to [the town of] Zvornik.”

During the cross-examination of the witness, Karadzic – who is representing himself in court – said that he wanted to “clarify a few points from the broader point of view, before discussing the details”.

Karadzic put it to the witness that all problems in the VRS began “in 1992, with the arrival of the [Serb] paramilitaries”.

“Among them were all sorts of bad people – criminals, psychopaths and sick minds capable of doing any evil,” Karadzic said. “This was a war of people's armies, not of professional armies. And this is why all these horrible things happened.”

Nikolic said that he would not venture to engage in “such speculation”, and that what Karadzic was explaining “wasn’t related in any way to what happened in Srebrenica and its surroundings in July 1995”.

“There is a connection,” Karadzic replied. “There was hatred going on there for centuries, which served as fuel to the laws of chaos and led to the events which happened there in July 1995. This was a chaos… not something that happened upon order or command.”

Nikolic said he did not agree.

“The operations [in Srebrenica] were definitely not unplanned, or without control,” he said. “There was management and command on site. There were, of course, single incidents…, but the whole [operation] was well-orchestrated.”

The accused also claimed that he “had no knowledge of any shooting of the imprisoned people from Srebrenica”.

Nikolic said that he had, however, heard Deronjic referring to “instructions he received from Radovan [Karadzic] that the prisoners are not to be killed in the area of his municipality [Bratunac], but rather transferred to Zvornik”.

Karadzic also tried to refute Nikolic’s claims that there was not enough food for the besieged people in the enclave.

“For example, there were claims that there were some 45,000 people in the enclave, whereas the real number was much lower,” Karadzic said.

“I don't agree,” Nikolic responded, “because from what I know there really were 40,000-45,000 people in Srebrenica, and the quantities of food entering the enclave were definitely insufficient to feed all of them.”

“Maybe they shouldn't have given so much food to the [Bosnian] army then, because [the army] ate it all up,” said Karadzic. “Instead of guarding positions [around the enclave], they should have devoted themselves to producing food.”

Karadzic was arrested in the Serbian capital Belgrade in July 2008, after having spent 13 years on the run.

The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.

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