Officers Say Bosnian Massacre Was Deliberate
by MarliseSimons, The Hague
Eight years after the massacre of more than 7,000 Bosnians, doubts have lingered about the degree to which the killings were coldly planned, or were improvised in chaos. Most of those killed were unarmed prisoners, boys and men, shot in groups, or sometimes one by one.
Among the executioners, only a few foot soldiers have talked about the events that turned Srebrenica - its name means the ‘place of silver’ - into a symbol of a modern European nightmare. No architect of the crime has ever explained in public what was in the killers' minds, or what made them believe that the murderous frenzy was acceptable to their own society and to their leaders.
On Serbia’s payroll
But now, two senior Bosnian Serb officers, both crucial figures involved in organizing the bloodshed at Srebrenica, have spoken out at the war crimes tribunal here, describing the countdown to the massacre and depicting a well-planned and deliberate killing operation. They say it was largely coordinated by the military security and intelligence branch of the Bosnian Serb Army and militarized police, forces that were on Serbia's payroll.
The two, an intelligence chief and a brigade commander, recently pleaded guilty to crimes against humanity and have now given evidence against two fellow officers. They provided so many names, firsthand accounts, documents and even a military log of the crucial days, that one court official blurted, ‘They've practically written the judgment.’
One of the insiders referred to a directive he received, which said that ‘the life of the enemy has to be made unbearable.’ He also said it was his role to coordinate ‘the separation, detention and killing of the men.’This officer, Momir Nikolić, a former intelligence chief, described with cool precision the steps he took in coordinating the logistics, moving between army and police units, avoiding phones and radios, as preparations for the mass executions were under way.
The second officer, a brigade commander, Dragan Obrenović, recounted how in the final hours, prisoners were moved to different detention and killing sites, in a deliberate move to avoid detection by the Red Cross and the United Nations mission, which were active in the area.
The officers' behind-the-scenes accounts from the Bosnian war represent sharp departures from persistent denials on the part of the Bosnian Serbs, including a recent government report maintaining that most of the men found in mass graves - many with their hands tied behind their backs - were killed in combat.
The policy directive
The first officer to speak out, Mr Nikolić, 48, the former chief of intelligence and security of the Bratunac Brigade, said the countdown to Srebrenica's capture began a year earlier, in June 1994. During eight days of testimony, he said his brigade commander sent out a directive detailing Bosnian Serb policy toward the Muslims in the enclave protected by United Nations peacekeepers.’The life of the enemy has to be made unbearable and his temporary stay in the enclave made impossible so that they leave en masse as soon as possible, realizing they cannot survive there,’ said the directive, as it was quoted and read in court.
That policy was carried out, said Mr Nikolić, speaking with the precision of a maths teacher, which he once was. Civilians were fired at, aid was blocked and fuel, food and other supplies for the United Nations peacekeepers were halted so ‘they could not be ready for combat,’ he said. The harassment went on for a year, until late May 1995, Mr Nikolić said, and then the military began to prepare its final assault. Bosnian Serb troops, aided by militarized police officers and paramilitary fighters from Serbia, overran the enclave on 11 July.
‘They had been expecting Muslim forces to put up fierce resistance,’ said Mr. Nikolić. ‘No one thought the resistance would be so short-lived.’Instead, he said, there was chaos, with thousands of civilians fleeing, many hoping for safety near a United Nations base at Potočari. The next day, at an early morning meeting at the Bratunac Brigade headquarters, Gen. Ratko Mladić announced his plan to kill the prisoners, according to the testimony.
All balija to be killed
Mr Nikolić said he learned about it from two of his superiors coming out of the meeting. One of them, Col. Vujadin Popović,’told me that women and children had to be deported to Kladanj and the men had to separated and temporarily detained,’ Mr Nikolić said.’When I asked him what would happen then, he said that all balija had to be killed,’ he said. Balija is a derogatory name for Muslims. ‘I was told my task would be to coordinate the different forces.’
Orders were to concentrate prisoners in Bratunac, a nearby town under Bosnian Serb control, Mr Nikolić continued, and he and his two superiors talked about suitable places, including several schools, a sports complex and a hangar. Then the discussion turned to sites for executions, including a brick factory and a mine, he said.
Mr Nikolić also described an encounter on 13 July at which General Mladić addressed several hundred Muslims who had surrendered in Konjević Polje. The general told the Muslims not to worry, that transport would be organized for them, according to the testimony. Later as General Mladić greeted him, Mr Nikolić said, he asked what was to be done with the men. General Mladić, who has been indicted by the war crimes tribunal and is a fugitive, responded with a gesture, Mr Nikolić said, and he repeated it in court, moving his hand from left to right, palm down, in a cutting motion. The prosecutor, Peter McCloskey, asked,’- What did you think would happen to the prisoners?’Mr Nikolić said: ‘- I did not think. I knew.’
That same day, orders came that the executions would take place, not in Bratunac, but near Zvornik, some 25 miles farther north. Mr Nikolić said he moved from place to place, informing regional commanders personally, avoiding telephones and radios.
The choice of Zvornik
His version was corroborated in court by the second insider witness, Mr Obrenović, at the time the acting commander of the Zvornik Brigade. Mr Obrenović said his brigade's intelligence chief told him to prepare for some 3,000 prisoners in his area. Mr Obrenović said he asked why the prisoners were coming to Zvornik, instead of going to the prisoner-of-war camp at Batkovići.The response, he told the court, was that orders were to evade the Red Cross and the United Nations peacekeepers.’The order was to take the prisoners and execute them in Zvornik,’ Mr Obrenović said. When he questioned the order again, he was informed that it came from General Mladić, the head of the army. The prosecutor asked why he cooperated. Mr Obrenović replied that once he understood the order was coming from the top.’I became afraid,’ he said. ‘I thought there was no point in standing up to it.’
That same night of 13 July, the small town of Bratunac was extremely tense, Mr Nikolić said. About 3,500 to 4,500 prisoners were held in overcrowded schools, a warehouse and a gym, and piled in buses and trucks parked around town, as more were arriving. Soldiers, police officers and armed local volunteers were mobilized to guard them. During the night, Mr Nikolić said, 80 to 100 prisoners were taken off buses and from a hangar and shot. In the early hours of 14 July, Mr Nikolić said, he watched a long column of buses and trucks pull out of Bratunac, heading for Zvornik. At the head of the column, as a decoy, was a white United Nations armoured personnel carrier, one of the vehicles stolen from peacekeepers. On board were Bosnian Serb soldiers and police officers, Mr Nikolić said.
In their testimony, the two officers said they were not present at the mass executions around Zvornik that began on 14 July and lasted four days, but that like most members of the forces in the area, they knew of them. Mr Obrenović said he understood when he was asked to send engineers to dig mass graves. Mr Nikolić said he became part of the cover-up that followed the killings. He said that later on, in September, he helped to oversee the operations to dig up uncounted bodies and rebury them at secret sites.
During lengthy cross-examination a defence lawyer for Col. Vidoje Blagojević challenged Mr Nikolić's credibility, reminding him of a lie. He said that earlier this year, when negotiating a plea agreement with prosecutors, Mr Nikolić confessed to his role in Srebrenica but also claimed a role in another massacre at which he was not present. Before the agreement was completed, he retracted that statement.
Mr Nikolić provided an answer, in a show of emotion that is rather exceptional at a tribunal where perpetrators' toughness and denial are far more common. At the time, he said, he accepted more guilt, fearing that the plea agreement might fall through. During his confessions, he said, he had lived through ‘a terrible’ period he did not want to remember, let alone talk about.’Everything that happened in and around Srebrenica was always present in my mind,’ he said. ‘I did not want to go through that process again and face a trial.’
Michael Karnavas, the defence lawyer, also asked why he ignored the army's rule to grant protection to prisoners of war under the Geneva Conventions. Mr Nikolić responded sharply:’Do you really think that in an operation where 7,000 people were killed that somebody was adhering to the Geneva Conventions? First of all, they were captured, then killed and then buried, exhumed once again, and buried again. Nobody, Mr. Karnavas, adhered to Geneva Conventions.’
This article appeared in The New York Times, 12 October 2003