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

Zvornik Authorities "Unable to Cope" With Paramilitaries

Karadzic trial told that Bosnian Serb authorities struggled to deal with incoming militia groups.
By Velma Šarić

The trial of Radovan Karadzic resumed this week after the summer break with the appearance a former Bosnian Serb official who described events in the eastern Bosnian town of Zvornik in 1992.

Karadzic, the wartime president of the Bosnian Serb Republika Srpska, RS, is charged with 11 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity, including crimes against humanity in Zvornik, the genocide in Srebrenica in July 1995 and the 44-month sniping and shelling campaign against the Bosnian capital Sarajevo.

KDZ 555, a former member of the Serb Democratic Party, SDS, testified as a prosecution witness with measures put in place to protect his identity and distort his image and voice. A large part of the session was closed to the public.

The trial was told was told that the prosecution initially wanted to submit a written statement by the witness, but the witness protested because the document he was presented with “only included those parts which interested the prosecutor”. The trials chamber therefore decided to have him testify in person.

Explaining why he wanted to revise some parts of his original statements, the witness noted, “I said some things about Karadzic, convinced that he would not be brought before the tribunal, convinced that there was an agreement between him and [United States negotiator Richard] Holbrooke. I thought, well, it could help us, and it surely wouldn't harm him”.

The witness confirmed that in late December 1991, he personally was present at the Holiday Inn hotel in Sarajevo when the SDS party’s central board discussed “behaviour in crisis situations”. This was a reference to documents known as “Variant A” and “Variant B”, previously discussed in the Karadzic trial.

"I saw a copy of variants A and B, of the finished document, in Zvornik a few days later, and some of the ideas in there were acceptable because they were good ideas,” he said.

KDZ 555 said that an attack carried out in Zvornik in April 1992 was ordered by Zeljko Raznatovic, otherwise known as Arkan, a prominent paramilitary leader who was killed in Serbia in 2000 before he could be tried for alleged war crimes in Bosnia and Croatia.

KDZ 555 added that about 100 different Serb volunteers took part in the attack.

“None of them came to Zvornik as a paramilitary formation,” he said. “There were people who came invited, gathered and paid by the local [SDS] crisis staff, but they only later turned into paramilitary formations, a true para-army.”

Describing the formations involved, he said, “They gathered in units such as Zucina Grupa [Zuco's group], Gogiceva Grupa [Gogic's group], Beli Orlovi [White Eagles] and Arkan's own formation the Srpska Dobrovoljacka Grada [Serb Volunteer Guard], also known as the ‘Tigers’.”

According to witness KDZ 555, the local authorities set up by the Bosnian Serbs were “unable to cope with the threat by paramilitary formations formed during 1992” in Zvornik and in Bijeljina, a neighbouring municipality.

“They became such a threat that at a certain point it seemed that Zvornik would have to change its name to ‘Zuco's Town’,” he added.

“They were so mighty that until they were arrested in around July 1992, they could basically do whatever they wanted. Even more, they had the support of the local Serbs, because they kept spreading propaganda about how the municipal Serb authorities were stealing from the local Serbs and were ‘selling’ Muslims – allowing them free transit against money,” he continued.

Asked by prosecutor Julian Nicholls to explain details of an incident in June 1992 in which the “Zuco group” detained a number of Muslims at Celopek in the Zvornik area, the witness said he “remembered describing them as ‘very tough’ toward prisoners", but that he “only had indirect and unofficial sources”. He recalled that the imprisoned men were from the Muslim village of Divic, near Zvornik.

“As awful as it may seem from this perspective, everything that happened in 1992 happened because of very deep fear and hatred,” the witness concluded.

During cross-examination by Karadzic, the witness agreed with the accused's claim that “the Serbs were fearful because of their historic suffering, of the formation of a [Bosnian Muslim] patriotic league armed according to NATO standards and trained by the SDA [the main Bosnian Muslim party]”.

Karadzic stated, and the witness agreed, that there were Muslim plans “to blow up the toxic mud reservoirs in the Djulici area, as well as the Zvornik power plant and several bridges on the Drina river”, which the Serbs considered a threat. Similarly, statements from the main Bosnian Croat party, the HDZ, that “Croatia's borders will be defended on the Drina river”, were also interpreted as threats, because of the Serbs’ experience of suffering under the Nazi-controlled Croatian puppet state in the Second World War.

Karadzic said a threat was also posed by Muslim armed groups such as “the Mosque Pigeons, the Cobras and the Black Swans”, whose activity, he said, “was directly responsible for the conflict in Zvornik in early April 1992”.

Karadzic was arrested by Serbian authorities in 2008 while living under a false identity in Belgrade, after spending years in hiding.

The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR reporter in Sarajevo.