'Operation Exterminate' at Srebrenica
by Emir Suljagic
Momir Nikolić has gone full circle: from being a participant in one of the worst crimes committed in Europe in the second half of the 20th century, via revisionism in the postwar years, to penitence after a year in the UN prison at Scheveningen. By admitting his guilt, Nikolić revealed for the first time details of the planning and execution of the Srebrenica mass murder. His hair-raising confession reveals who killed those ten thousand people and when, where and how .
He was never anything other than an opportunist. In socialist Yugoslavia he taught People’s Self-defence at the Bratunac high school, a post reserved for loyal party officials. In early January 1992 he joined the SDS crisis committee, and was by the end of the year promoted to the post of security officer in the Bratunac brigade of the RS army. After the fall of Srebrenica in July 1995 he became a killer. Momir Nikolić became all of this for the sole reason that it was expected of him.
The Planning of the Execution
‘On the morning of 12 July I met up with [...] lieutenant-colonel Vujadin Popović, head of security, and lieutenant-colonel Kosorić, head of the intelligence unit, of the Drina Corps. On that occasion Popović told me that all Muslim women and children in Potočari would be taken from there towards the territory in the vicinity of Kladanj under Muslim control, but that the men of military age found in the Muslim civilian mass would be separated off, imprisoned temporarily in Bratunac and soon afterwards killed.’
It should be recalled that Srebrenica fell on the evening of 11 July. A single night passed between the fall of the enclave and the decision to kill off all the men. During the following seven days it was necessary to prepare everything: organize buses and trucks, accommodation, fuel, find places of execution. It was a large operation and Nikolić did his best.
‘Liuetenant-colonel Kosorić repeated this information, after which we discussed locations suitable for imprisonment of the men prior to their execution’, he said. As the conversation continued, he ‘mentioned several possible locations’: the old primary and secondary school and the hangar. ‘Lieutenant-colonels Popović and Kosorić talked to me about the places of execution of the transient imprisoned men’. They then discussed in detail two possible locations: the town brick factory and the Sasi mine.
Nikolić confessed that later that day he ‘coordinated and supervised the transport of women and children to Kladanj, and the segregation of men capable of bearing arms’. The execution involved many more people than would appear at first glance.
The RS special police also took part in the deportation. Its chief Duško Jović spent the whole of that day with Nikolić in Potočari. It was necessary to enlist in an enterprise of this scope all units that had taken part in the original assault on the town. In addition to the special police, Nikolić was aided also by ‘the military police of the Drina corps under the command of major Petrović, the ‘Drina Wolves’, sections of the 10th tactical unit, sections of the military police of the 65th guard regiment, 2nd and 3rd infantry battalions of the Bratunac brigade and civilian police with Alsatian dogs.’
Transport and Execution
The care with which the plan was made is illustrated by the fact that the first convoys of civilians leaving Potočari on 12 July included several men. ‘This was designed for the Dutch soldiers and Serb TV cameras, but these men were later taken out at control points, before they could reach Kladanj.’
With this propaganda trick out of the way, the deportation could continue. However, the departure of the cameras loosened the restraint among Serb soldiers. Nikolić confessed that Serb soldiers immediately proceeded to ‘maltreat and physically abuse’ the civilians. ‘I myself knew of this behaviour but did nothing to stop it, nor did I try to prevent the forces under my command from committing such acts’.
I recall Nikolić from those days as a distant and almost unrecognizable person. He would arrive in the UN base in Potočari in a Zastava car the colour of ripe cherries, together with his brother-in-law Petar Uščumlić, who acted as interpreter for the UN military observers. In those days, however, he translated only for Nikolić. In a conversation that took place in Potočari a few days later he tried to convince Hasan Nuhanović that he had not seen the latter’s parents at the Bratunac football ground. His brother-in-law knew their fate at this time.
On 12 July Nikolić submitted his first report to Vidoje Blagojević, commander of the Bratunac brigade and his superior officer. ‘I told him about the operation of the transport of women and children [and the] segregation, imprisonment and killing of the men of military age. It was clear to me that Colonel Blagojević was fully informed of the operation of transport and execution and that he expected me to carry on.’
On the morning of 13 July Ratko Mladić held a meeting at the headquarters of the Bratunac brigade with Vujadin Popović, Dragomir Vasić and Radoslav Krstić. Nikolić says that he was not present at that meeting, but fifteen minutes after it had ended he received from Blagojević the order to continue with his job of the day before. So he obeyed.
That day Nikolić nevertheless did meet Mladić at Konjević Polje. The prisoners were lined up all along the road between Bratunac and Nikolić Polje. Mladić arrived there about one o’clock in the afternoon. ‘He came out of his car and we met in the middle of the road. I reported to him that everything was under control. He looked around and saw the prisoners.’ When a prisoner frightened of what awaited him asked a question, he told him ‘not to worry, they would all be taken away from there’.
‘After Mladić’s departure I drove Rešid Sinanović, one of the prisoners, to Bratunac. Sinanović was an important captive, since he was on our list of war criminals and had earlier been police chief in Bratunac’. On arriving in the town Nikolić handed him over, he says, to the commander of the military police Zlatan Celanović. Nothing was ever heard again of Rešid Sinanović.
Nikolić then returned to Konjević Polje, driving the stolen Dutch transporter from which his policeman Mile Petrović had been inviting people to surrender. ‘Soon after passing Sandići, we stopped the transporter when six Muslims surrendered to us.’ They took them to Konjević Polje where they were supposed to join a large group of prisoners already there. ‘I heard two gun bursts close by. Ten minutes later Mile Petrović approached me saying: "I have just avenged my brother, boss .... I’ve killed the lot."’
General Miletić’s appeal
Prisoners continued to arrive in Bratunac. Night fell, there were no cars and it was not possible to take them to Zvornik, where they were supposed to be killed. ‘This was creating a very unstable situation. In order to resolve it, Colonel Ljubiša Beara, Miroslav Deronjić, Dragomir Vasić and I met in the SDS office in Bratunac.’ Deronjić, who had just been appointed by Karadžić his civilian deputy for Srebrenica, was in particular concerned with the security of the town.
‘At the meeting we openly talked about the killing operation, and all participants remarked that they reported to their superior command.’, says Nikolić. In the end it was decided that the prisoners would continue to be guarded by ‘sections of the military police of the Bratunac brigade, various civilian police forces, and armed volunteers from Bratunac’. It was a crime in which they all had to be implicated.
On the following morning of 14 July most of the prisoners were taken to Zvornik. Some, however, never left Bratunac. ‘I received a report that on the evening of 13 July between eighty and a hundred Muslims were killed in the hangar next to Vuk Karadžić school. Their bodies were thrown out onto a hillside and buried.’, says Nikolić. Those who were taken to Zvornik were executed in the next few days.
The operation lasted into the autumn of 1995. Nikolić’s soldiers caught and killed some who had spent months wandering through the forests. When they too were killed, it was necessary to hide all traces of the crime. This task too fell to Nikolić.
‘During the period between September and October 1995 the Bratunac brigade, working together with the civilian authorities, dug up a mass grave in Glogova and other mass graves containing the Muslim victims of the killing operation and removed the bodies to a number of mass graves over a wider area of Srebrenica’, Nikolić stated in his signed confession.
He said that the order for that came from Vujadin Popović. When the war was over, the physical evidence of the crime was scattered around and buried deep into the ground. The last documents covering this period were destroyed in May 1996. Rade Pajić, the new head of the security unit of the Drina Corps, arrived in Bratunac in the company of two of his officers. Captain Lazar Ostojić, Nikolić’s successor in the post of security officer of the Bratunac brigade, and Nikolić destroyed the ‘documents which could implicate him and the Bratunac brigade’.
Despite all this, Nikolić became subject to the Hague investigation only in December 1999. Before his first meeting with the investigators, he was invited to a meeting at the headquarters of the Zvornik brigade. ‘I met there general Andrić, Dragan Jokić, Lazar Ostojić, Dragan Jeftić and general Miletić. ... General Miletić appealed to our patriotism [whilst] general Andrić said we should not say more than we have to.’ Immediately before the meeting, Nikolić was visited also by local police agents warning him ‘not to say anything about their involvement in the affair’.
This time Nikolić did not obey orders. Faced with the alternatives of a guilty conscience or life imprisonment, he confessed to both the crime and his part in it.
This article has been translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 9 May 2003