The killing fields of Zvornik
by Danka Savic/Emir Suljagic
Dragan Obrenović, chief of staff of the Zvornik brigade at the time of the Srebrenica massacre, joined Momir Nikolić in pleading guilty to crimes against humanity in return for the dropping of genocide charges, and agreeing to testify against two of their co-indictees charged with genocide: Colonel Vidoje Blagojević and Major Dragan Jokić. The following report draws on articles by Danka Savić in Slobodna Bosna (Sarajevo) and Emir Suljagić in Dani (Sarajevo), 22 May 2003.
Dragan Obrenović followed Momir Nikolić in confessing to crimes against humanity. According to Obrenović’s statement, he first learnt of the arrival of Bosniak prisoners from Bratunac in the Zvornik area on the evening of 13 July 1995, from a telephone conversation with Drago [Dragan] Nikolić, who was in charge of their reception. ‘I understood that “a huge number of Muslim prisoners” meant thousands of Muslim prisoners, because I already knew from intelligence reports and other sources of information I had received earlier in the day that thousands had been captured in the area of Konjević Polje.’
Asked why the prisoners were not being sent northwards, to the prisoner-of-war camp at Batković, Nikolić replied that the reason was that the camp was known to the Red Cross. ‘He said that the order was that the prisoners be taken to Zvornik and shot. I told Drago Nikolić that we cannot accept responsibility for the stated task without first informing our command. Nikolić told me that the command already knew about it, that the order came from Mladić, and that everyone, including Vinko Pandurević, knew about the order.’
Obrenović was acting commander of the Zvornik brigade, since Vinko Pandurević was then in ćepa and returned only on the afternoon of 15 July. After some hesitation he decided to comply, and sent the commander of the military police Lieutenant Miomir Jasikovac with some of his men to Nikolić. ‘Having learnt of the plan to kill the prisoners, as acting commander I took responsibility for the plan and authorized its implementation.’ It was found necessary to withdraw also soldiers from the front line for this task. Yet at this time a column of 3,000 armed men from Srebrenica was moving in the direction of Zvornik. Obrenović lost 40 men in a single day during a desperate struggle at Baljkovci, where the column broke through the line. In Orahovica, where the execution of prisoners began on 14 July, Serb soldiers almost lost control since only a few men were left to guard them.
On the morning of 15 July 1995, Obrenović talked with the Dragan Jokić, the brigade’s security officer, in the corridor of the Zvornik brigade’s headquarters. ‘Jokić told me that he was having terrible trouble with burying the dead and guarding the prisoners who were to be shot next. I asked him whether he had talked to anyone about this problem. He told me that Beara, Popović, and Drago Nikolić were taking people where they wanted. I passed him the message from Popović asking that there should be no records kept of the activities surrounding the operation to exterminate, and that one should not speak about this on the radio. I knew that the operation to exterminate was taking place.’
When he got to his office Obrenović talked also with Colonel Vasić, head of the local police, who agreed that the situation was becoming serious and suggested ‘opening a corridor through the front lines and letting the column through, in order to avoid deaths and decrease the threat which the column posed to both Zvornik and the rear of the frontline.’ The meeting was joined by the commander of the special police unit Ljubomir Borovćanin and a policeman from that unit Miloš Stupar. ‘I felt that we needed permission for opening such a corridor from a higher body, so I contacted the commander of the Drina Corps.’
Unable to establish contact with the commander of the Drina Corps, Obrenović then called Supreme Staff and talked to General Miletić. ‘I thought at the time that he was the operational officer, but I know now that he was acting as deputy to the Chief of Staff. I told Miletić how big the column was and where it was, and suggested opening the front lines to allow it to pass. Miletić refused this, and said I should use all military equipment at my disposal to stop and destroy the column, as I had been ordered. General Miletić told me that the column had to be destroyed. He then complained that I was using an open line and put down the receiver. So I was not able to discuss the matter properly with him. Given my knowledge of the column and the situation on the ground, I knew that it was not possible to destroy the column in the manner proposed by Miletić.’
Threat from the column
‘Vasić then called the Ministry of the Interior situated in Pale and switched on the speaker-phone. He talked with the minister’s counsellor. He explained the situation and asked permission to let the column through. The counsellor told him to call the army and ask that the air force kill the lot. We, however, were not in position to use our air force; it was clear to us that our superiors did not fully grasp what was happening on the ground in regard to the column. I asked the whereabouts of General ćivanović. Borovćanin told me that ćivanović was no longer commander of the [Drina] Corps and that he had been replaced by General Krstić... I managed to reach radio operator Major Milenko Jevćević who connected me with General Krstić. ‘
‘I explained the situation to General Krstić and told him that Zvornik was about to fall and that something had to be done. General Krstić told me not to worry and that Pandurević, together with Legenda and his people, were on the way. I knew that Legenda was Captain Jolović of the “Drina Wolves”, which was a unit of the Zvornik brigade.’
‘After the conversation with general Krstić had ended, Vasić spoke about the situation in Bratunac linked to the captured Muslims. He said that the arrival of so many prisoners in Bratunac had created a dangerous situation. He said that due to the lack of space they were unable to accommodate several groups of prisoners, who then spent the night in parked buses. The prisoners became restless and started to rock the buses. He spoke of the problem of guarding all these prisoners. Borovćanin said he was unhappy with the fact that the police was used for supervising the buses, and said he did not wish the police to guard the prisoners upon their arrival at their destination in Zvornik. Borovćanin also said that there was fighting with the column and that he did not expect that so many of them would cross the lines in the area of Konjević Polje. He also told me that they had captured a large number of prisoners where they crossed the line on the way to Konjević Polje...’
‘I assumed, on the basis of our conversation, that all those present knew of the plan to kill the prisoners upon their arrival in Zvornik. I assumed that if I, who was stationed in the hills, knew of the plan, then these officers, who had already dealt with the prisoners in Bratunac, would also know of the plan.’
Problem of burial
After talking to Krstić, Obrenović also talked with his commnader Vinko Pandurević, who in the meantime had returned to the Zvornik brigade. ‘I first informed Pandurević about the captured Muslims and the extermination operation in which Beara and Pandurević were taking part. I informed Pandurević about the problems of which Jokić had spoken relating to the burial of executed prisoners and guarding the people awaiting to be shot. Pandurević asked me why the burying was not being done by the Civil Guard, as they had been ordered. I did not know that the Civil Guard was supposed to be involved. On the basis of what Pandurović told me and what Drago Nikolić told me on 13 July, I knew that Pandurević knew about the extermination operation.’
Obrenović confessed that he allowed people from his brigade to bury the executed prisoners, and also that members of the 10th diversionary battalion took part in the executions of prisoners at the dam in Petkovica. ‘I know also that the trucks and men of the 6th battalion of the Zvornik brigade were used to transport the bodies from the school in Petkovci which were buried in a mass grave at the dam at Petkovci.’ Members of the Bijeljina unit of the 10th diversionary battalion took part in shooting the prisoners at the Branjevo military farm, together with selected soldiers from Bratunac. [Draćen Erdemović, who was a soldier in the 10th diversionary brigade, was the first to tell The Hague about mass executions of Srebrenica prisoners.]
‘On the morning of 17 July 1995 I travelled in a jeep with my commander Vinko Pandurević. In the car, apart from us, there were the driver and two accompanying soldiers. We were driving over Kitovnica towards Orahovac. Next to a puddle in the field we saw some twenty bodies lying close to the road. I told Pandurević that I had learnt that Drago Nikolić himself had taken part in the execution in this area. Pandurević said nothing, but one of the soldiers said that this scene paled in comparison to what could be seen along the road to Konjević Polje and beyond.’
In August 1995 Obrenović took General Krstić on a tour of the front line. On their return, ‘I told him that the men who were killed were ordinary people and asked him why they had to be killed. I told him that even killing that number of chickens would be done for a reason.’
In September that year Obrenović was told that his unit was about to receive five tons of gasoline. Pandurević explained to him that the gasoline was needed to drive machinery for the ‘re-burial of the Muslim prisoners’. In October 1995 he learned that Popović had employed soldiers of the Zvornik brigade to turn over the graves. The operation was kept secret. The military police would cordon off the area, while the truck drivers were constantly changed so that none would be able to form a complete picture. Three years later Popović confided in Nikolić the location of two new ‘secondary’ graves.