Execution survivor recounts ordeal
by Emir Suljagic, The Hague
Witness provides chilling detail of massacre of prisoners taken after the Srebrenica enclave was overrun
A young man from Srebrenica who survived a summary execution in July 1995 has testified at the trial of Vidoje Blagojević and Dragan Jokić, two Bosnian Serb army officers accused of helping to plan the murder of more than 7,000 Muslim men and boys. The protected witness, known only as P-111, was only 17 years old when Bosnian Serb forces overran the United Nations safe area of Srebrenica. Delivered from behind a screen, his two-day testimony recounted some of the most horrific moments of the massacre. Bratunac brigade commander Blagojević, and Jokić who was chief of engineering in the Zvornik brigade, are charged with genocide, crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war.
P-111 told the court that he and his family split up 11 July, the day Srebrenica fell. His mother and three sisters went to Potočari to seek shelter in the Dutch UN camp. He and his father went farther north to join a column of around 15,000 men and boys who planned to escape through the forest to Bosnian government-controlled territory. Soon after the column set out from the village of Jaglići, he was separated from his father. ‘I never saw him again,’ P-111 said. But later that night, he encountered his uncle and tried to stay with him for the duration of the journey.
After one day of trekking, P-111's group was surrounded by Serb troops, who called for them to surrender at around 10 am on 13 July. After deliberating for five hours, the group - which included many wounded - decided to turn themselves over. ‘The Serbs said that we would be treated according to the Geneva convention,’ P-111 recalled. As they walked out of the woods carrying the wounded, the Serb soldiers told them to hand over all of their belongings. ‘They insisted on money more than anything else,’ the witness said. The soldiers didn't mistreat them at first, he said, because they wanted to make sure that everyone hiding in the woods turned himself in.
‘Queen of Death’
As they were surrendering, a column of buses and trucks carrying women and children from Potočari passed them by. ‘Many of us recognized those on the buses,’ the witness said. ‘I saw a girl friend from school on an open-top truck.’ Next, the men were herded into a meadow near Sandići, a village on the road between Bratunac and Konjević Polje. There was a tank in the field bearing a sign written in Cyrillic that read: ‘The Queen of Death’. A Serb soldier standing in front of the tank gave the prisoners a speech. ‘I did not listen very carefully because I was depressed, as was everyone else,’ the witness told the court. What he did remember, however, was that the soldier was wearing military fatigues and a bandana. He said that he was from Serbia and that he and his men were there to guard them, as well as the next group of soldiers who would replace them. ‘He said that we would be taken to Bratunac, but we would not get dinner. He said that as if he was mocking us,’ said P-111. ‘He knew we wouldn't need it.’
The Serb soldiers instructed three boys, all of whom were under 15 years of age, to leave the group and board a bus that was passing by the field. Another boy, who was 13 years old, asked if he too should board the bus, P-111 recalled, but the soldiers told him to stay seated. P-111's uncle, thinking that perhaps the boys would be taken to safety, told him to try and board the bus with the other boys as well, but the witness said he did not dare. He was too scared.
‘Long Live Serbia!’
Not long after, a new group of Serb soldiers arrived. They forced the prisoners to lie on their stomachs and shout ‘Long live the King!’ and ‘Long live Serbia!’ for several hours, until darkness fell. That night, a convoy of trucks stopped by the field, and the prisoners were once again told to run towards them and get in. ‘Many could not climb, some were beaten, others fell off,’ he said. But the prisoners were forced in until there was no more space in the truck and they were virtually on top of one another.
The soldiers said the prisoners were being taken to Bijeljina prisoner-of-war camp, where they would eventually be exchanged. They drove to Bratunac, where the detainees spent the night in the trucks. They asked for water several times, the court heard, but the soldiers told them to keep quiet. In the morning, the trucks moved to the outskirts of Bratunac and stopped again. P-111 said life seemed to go on normally around them. ‘People passed by the trucks, kids on their bikes,’ said the witness.
After two to three hours of waiting in the blazing sun, the guards sealed the tarpaulin on the trailer and the convoy moved on. It was then that they realized that they weren't being taken to Bijeljina, but to Zvornik.
After a few hours of driving, the trucks stopped again. Eventually, the soldiers ordered the prisoners to disembark and, beating them along the way, made them go into a nearby school building. P-111 walked up the stairs and went into a classroom at the end of a long corridor. ‘There were more people there than on the truck, we were thirsty and I was covered in urine,’ he said. Later, the soldiers gave them water, enough for everyone to get a very small amount. ‘One of the men went from one to the other, we would raise our heads, open our mouth and he would spill a drop of water,’ he said. The classroom was packed, but when one of the prisoners rose from the floor to open the window, a Serb guard outside opened fire. ‘The glass came crashing down on us, and five or six men were wounded and cut,’ P-111 recalled.
That evening, just after dark, the witness said that the soldiers began taking men out in groups of five from the other rooms and he heard the sound of constant automatic rifle fire. ‘Then, someone opened the door and said it was our turn,’ he said. It was clear that outside the school the other men were being mowed down, but none of those in the school seemed capable of taking any action. ‘Someone suggested we all run out and said that we could overpower the guards, but no one would join,’ P-111 said. ‘I asked my uncle whether we should leave in the same group and he said that we should not.’
The killing field
Soon, P-111 was taken into another classroom and stripped of his clothes, including his socks. All prisoners had their hands tied behind their backs. Next, the soldiers ordered them to go down stairs and get into a truck that was parked outside. Ten minutes later, the truck stopped and, in a well-rehearsed routine, the soldiers ordered them off. No one wanted to go out. ‘We hid behind each other, just to live a few seconds longer,’ P-111 said. ‘They lined us up and told us to lie down.’ When they did, the soldiers opened fire.
Most of the men were killed immediately. P-111 was shot in the foot, arm and chest, but in spite of the unbearable pain, he kept quiet. The man lying next to him had also survived the initial assault, but when he started moaning, the soldiers shot him again. ‘I then saw a military boot right in front of my face. The soldier killed the guy next to me and then went on,’ P-111 said.
The shooting went on long into the night. People were killed all around him as he lay there, playing dead. ‘I wanted to die, that is how much it hurt. I wanted them to finish me off, but I did not have the courage to call for them,’ the witness recalled.
When the soldiers were gone, he heard a voice calling out at the other end of the field. P-111 responded that he too was alive, but he was too afraid to move. Finally, he rolled over the bodies of other men that covered the field and joined the other survivor. ‘He helped me to free my hands because the rope [binding my wrists] was loose,’ he said. With his hands free, P-111 went about trying to untie the other man's hands, but, just then, a truck approached the field. The two survivors hid for the night in a ditch and, in the morning, as bodies were being picked up and loaded by the Serb soldier, they sneaked by the field and into the woods.
They walked through the woods for another four days and finally reached Bosnian government-held territory around Tuzla. ‘I wanted to give up, but the other survivor kept coming back and pleading with me to go on,’ said P-111. ‘It saved my life.’
Emir Suljagić is an IWPR reporter in The Hague. This article appeared in IWPR'S Tribunal Update No. 321, 24 July 2003. See www.iwpr.net