JNA and Bosnian Serb Army ‘as one’
by Stacy Sullivan, The Hague
When the prosecution called protected witness B-127 to the stand to testify against former Yugoslav president Slobodan Milošević, it was aiming to show that the Bosnian Serb and Yugoslav armies were essentially one and the same. B-127, testifying on 22 July, was able to bolster the prosecution's case because as an officer in the Bosnian Serb army (VRS) he said that the Yugoslav military (JNA) gave him his paycheck, along with 90 per cent of the VRS officer corps. Moreover, B-127 said the federal army issued promotions, determined rank and often gave officers serving in the VRS during the Bosnian war double points towards their pension plans.
While B-127's testimony was powerful, it was the series of documents that the prosecution asked him to examine that really made the case. The paper trail left little doubt that Belgrade paid Bosnian Serb officers, determined their rank and looked after their housing, pensions and other needs while they waged war in Bosnia.
Muslim in the VRS
In addition to having his name withheld, the witness was hidden behind a protective blind and had his voice distorted, but this much was known: B-127 is a Bosnian Muslim, one of only a handful of non-Serbs who served in the Bosnian Serb army. He had been an officer in the JNA prior to the war and stayed to fight with the Bosnian Serbs, he said, because he believed in Yugoslavia and deluded himself into thinking that the Serbs were fighting to preserve the country he loved.
When the war started, B-127 was serving in Banja Luka. Although most of the Muslims and Croats who were in the army left to join Bosnian or Bosnian Croat forces, he decided to stay. ‘I would do anything to preserve what was Yugoslavia,’ B-127 said. ‘I stayed hoping that sooner or later some sort of Yugoslavia would prevail, a homeland for everyone. But I regret that it doesn't exist anymore.’
Although he was fighting with the VRS, B-127 said he still considered himself to be a member of the JNA. He continued to carry a federal military identity card and continued to answer to its 30th Personnel Centre in Belgrade. ‘From 1992 until 1995, I considered myself to be a member of the JNA,’ B-127 said. ‘I didn't receive a Bosnian Serb army identity card until 1996.’
As a Muslim, B-127 said that he was excluded from most high-level meetings discussing sensitive topics, but nonetheless was promoted four times over six years. Each time, the decision to promote him came from the personnel office in Belgrade.
He said that all of the officers who had served in the JNA prior to becoming part of the Bosnian Serb army continued to answer to Belgrade. ‘We were known as Milošević's men,’ he said. ‘The others, those who had not been members of the JNA and had been trained in Bosnia after the start of the war, were known as [Radovan] Karadžić's men.’
Benefits from Belgrade
To show that B-127, apart from being Muslim, was not an exception in receiving payment and benefits from the JNA, prosecutor Dermot Groome asked the witness to look at a series of documents and explain them to the court.
The first was a letter from VRS chief of general staff Pero Colić to the 30th Personnel Centre, requesting that General Stanislav Galić - the one-time commander of the Bosnian Serb army's Sarajevo-Romanija corps - be promoted in rank and given a higher salary. B-127 said it was standard procedure that the 30th Personnel Centre made such determinations, because ‘although we were members of the Bosnian Serb army, we were still members of the JNA too.’
Next the prosecutor showed the witness several documents issued by the centre telling Bosnian Serb army officer Dragan Obrenović - one of the commanders of the Srebrenica operation - that he would be granted an Yugoslav army-owned apartment in Novi Sad, receive double credit towards his retirement benefits as a reward for his service in Bosnia, and be promoted in rank.
Groome then showed B-127 a document from the JNA's general staff, awarding Bosnian Serb Lieutenant-colonel Vinko Pandurević, commander of the Zvornik Brigade, additional retirement benefits for his service in Bosnia. Rewarding Bosnian Serb army officers with housing, promotions and increased retirement benefits was ‘normal’, B-127 told the court.
The prosecution then proceeded to hand the floor to Milošević to conduct his cross-examination, and while the former Serb leader did not miss the opportunity to make a speech, he appeared uncharacteristically effective in his defence. He argued that the 30th personnel centre existed solely to ensure that former members of the JNA were entitled to their social benefits, and that it had nothing to do with issuing any kind of military orders. ‘Let's establish some facts,’ Milošević said. ‘These documents are taken to be some sort of evidence as to the involvement of Yugoslavia in the civil war in Bosnia. But tell me please, Mr 127, did you personally during your service as an officer in the Bosnian Serb army from May 1992 onwards receive any order from any officer in the Yugoslav army?’ The witness answered that as he was in a unit and followed the orders of his superiors, he was not in a position to receive orders directly from Yugoslavia - but that he was sure that his commanders did. ‘I was there when a commander received a telegram from the Yugoslav army,’ B-127 said, although he admitted when pressed by Milošević that he had not been permitted to see the contents.
Milošević then went on to ask if the witness could point to a single instance in which the Yugoslav army had participated in a joint military operation with its Bosnian Serb counterpart. B-127 said that he could not - but claimed that this was because the two forces had been acting as ‘a single army’. The defendant then alleged that the only proof B-127 had to back up his claims was that the 30th personnel centre had continued to look after the social benefits of former JNA officers. ‘Did you ever receive a single order having to do with any military activity from the command of that [centre]?’ Milošević asked. When the witness acknowledged that the centre did not issue orders regarding military activity, Milošević summed up his argument. ‘All that office was trying to do was to ensure that former JNA officers such as yourself got retirement benefits for years of service,’ he said. ‘It was nothing more than that.’
When the floor was handed back to the prosecution, Groome attempted to undermine the defendant's claims. He asked B-127 to read a portion of a document from the JNA's general staff spelling out the terms by which the Yugoslav and Bosnian Serb armies would coordinate their actions and share information concerning both civilian and combat matters.
Finally Groome pointed out to the court that Obrenović and Pandurović - two of the Bosnian Serb officers mentioned in those various documents - had since been indicted by the tribunal on war crimes charges in connection with the Srebrenica massacre. ‘May I ask you to tell the court what is the date on the documents from the Yugoslav army general staff promoting those two officers?’ Groome asked the witness. ‘31 December 1995,’ B-127 answered, indicating that both men had received promotions after the events in Srebrenica.
Stacy Sullivan is IWPR's project director in The Hague. This article appeared in IWPR'S Tribunal Update No. 321, 24 July 2003. See www.iwpr.net