Witnesses recall massacre at Koricanske Stijene
Author: Denis Dzidic
Uploaded: Monday, 07 December, 2009
Graphic BIRN report from the trial of eight men indicted for one of the worst single acts of mass murder of civilians in the course of the Bosnian war
The prosecution finished presenting evidence at the first trial for the mass execution of almost 200 prisoners at the Koricanske cliffs in August 1992. For the first time since the War Crimes Chamber was established in Bosnia-Herzegovina, two indictees, Damir Ivankovic and Gordan Djuric, not only admitted guilt during their trial but testified against the other indictees and a number of suspects, leading to new arrests and indictments.
The indictment for the mass murder of civilians at Koricanske Stijene originally charged eight individuals, whose joint trial began in March. Most importantly of all, the trial helped lead to the discovery of a mass grave containing more than 50 bodies of victims. After they reached guilt admission agreements, Ivankovic and Djuric were sentenced to 14 and 8 years' prison respectively.
The defence was due to start examining Zoran Babic's witnesses on 7 December. Babic, Milorad Radakovic, Milorad Skrbic, Ljubisa Cetic, Dusan Jankovic and Zeljko Stojnic, former members of the Interventions Squad and Public Safety Station in Prijedor, north-west Bosnia, are also charged with having taken part in the escort of a convoy of more than 1,200 civilians from Prijedor to Travnik, central Bosnia, on 21 August 1992. They were being taken to Travnik for the purposes of exchange but according to the indictment, the indictees took part in separating about 200 men from the group and executing them at Koricanske Stijene.
Testifying against the other six indictees, Ivankovic and Djuric said that Babic, Radakovic, Skrbic, Cetic and Stojnic were members of the Interventions Squad and that Dusan Jankovic was commander of the Public Safety Station in Prijedor.
Ivankovic recalled how the events leading up the massacre began. These started with the sight of about 1,500 civilian detainees milling around 14 or 15 buses or other vehicles, assembled to transport them to Travnik. He said Miroslav Paras, the then commander, now deceased, ‘assigned one vehicle to each of us. Jankovic then appeared, dressed in blue camouflage uniform, having arrived in a police vehicle. We were supposed to have left already. ‘It was unpleasant, as people were moaning and crying,’ Ivankovic recalled. Ivankovic said the convoy stopped first in the town of Kozarac where three or four buses joined us them. ‘When we stopped for the second time, Commander Paras came and told me to take all valuables from the passengers. I gave a bag to some boy, telling him to collect the valuables,’ Ivankovic. He then handed over the bag of valuables to Paras.
The indictment alleges that the indictees stole money, jewelry and other valuables from the prisoners, ‘threatening them, by saying they would kill them’. Another former member of the Interventions Squad, testifying under the pseudonym of K1, agreed that the detainees were robbed, by indictee Cetic among others, who was driving the same transporter that he was in. ‘The driver told me to watch what he was doing,’ KI said, referring to Cetic. ‘I didn't want to look but I later saw him putting something in his pockets. I suppose he took money,’ KI added. ‘As far as I know, the money was deposited in the Public Safety Station's cash register later on’.
Various civilians who left Prijedor on August 21, 1992, on the convoy testified for the prosecution. One of them, Witness B, said that upon getting on the bus, Stojnic had said he wanted a bag filled with ‘5,000 German marks as well as watches, jewelry and other valuables, or he would throw a child from the truck into the canyon.’ The witness recalled that following a two-hour trip, they reached the cliffs of Koricanske,’ Witness B added. ‘I saw a bus full of men who were looking down with their hands behind their backs. There were many uniformed people and I saw Babic, Radakovic and Stojnic moving around.’
Ivankovic also recalled his last glance of the men who were about to be executed. In his case, he saw two buses, not one, containing male passengers. When the convoy stopped again near the Ugar river, he recalled one Darko Mrdja coming into his vehicle, taking him out of the bus and taking the bag with the money and other confiscated valuables. ‘Then he took some men from the bus, saying: 'You, you, you....'’ Ivankovic continued. ‘I sensed something was wrong. They had never separated men before. I noticed Paras, Mrdja, Babic, Stojnic, Skrbic and Djuric, standing next to those buses.’
The Hague Tribunal sentenced Mrdja in 2004 to 17 years' imprisonment, after he admitted his guilt. When Djuric testified, he said he got on one of the buses to drive the men who had just been separated from the main group. Ten minutes later, he continued, Paras told him to ‘watch out so that nobody comes from the opposite direction or approaches the buses. ‘I moved off together with two other bus drivers. We went round a bend, just behind the cliff. Then I heard fierce shooting… I heard shouting and wailing. It lasted for half an hour.’ Djuric said he knew what was happening ‘and I could not believe it’.
KS1 and KS2, former convoy drivers and protected witnesses, told the Trial Chamber that they stood in a shelter, together with Djuric, while the civilians were executed. ‘After getting off the bus, I moved towards a cliff. Djuric, who looked freaked out, and the other driver, followed me. We heard shooting from automatic rifles and one bomb explosion,’ KS1 said. KS2 told the court he heard Djuric being ordered to move away from the bus to a nearby cliff ‘and stand guard.’ He said: ‘As I felt sick, I followed him.’ KS2 added that he heard individual and rounds of shooting as well as detonations.
Ivankovic recalled watching the executions at first hand. He stayed at the place where the shootings took place. The prisoners were first ordered to ‘stand next to each other, by the edge of the cliff’, he said. ‘The first row had to kneel down... It was indescribable... They started pushing each other, then the shooting then started,’ he said. ‘The shooting lasted for a short time, 10 or 15 minutes, because some people jumped off [the cliff]. Whoever fell down could hardly survive. I fired one cartridge clip, but no bullets. I did not insert a reserve cartridge. There was no need... People were disappearing...’ Ivankovic said.
According to the indictment, 12 prisoners survived the massacre at Koricanske cliffs. Two of them testified in court, protected witness A and Husein Jakupovic. Witness A recalled being separated from his family during the convoy to Travnik and transferred to one of the buses. When they were taken off the bus, he said, ‘They told us to stand by the cliff and kneel down as if praying to God. I managed to kneel down.’ The shooting started. ‘When I turned my head, I saw a policeman shooting at me with an automatic rifle,’ he added. ‘I heard people moaning. I jumped down off the cliff and was halted about 10 metres from the top after grabbing a small fir tree.’
Witness A thought the shooting lasted for about 15 minutes after which the Interventions Squad started throwing bombs into the chasm. ‘When they stopped, I saw some of them coming down and shooting people,’ Witness A said.
Jakupovic said he also survived by jumping off the cliff. ‘The Serbian soldiers ordered us to get off the bus and form two rows by the cliff,’ he recalled. ‘We had been kneeling for a couple of minutes before they started shooting. I jumped off the cliff, got stuck and was jammed. I stayed down there the whole night while people were falling down,’ he said. Using his belt, Jakupovic managed to scale down the cliff and reach some bushes, where he saw ‘a large pile of naked bodies’.
Witness K3, a former member of the Interventions Squad, said that he took part in escorting the convoy in August 1992 and confirmed that Babic, Djuric, Radakovic, Skrbic, Cetic and Stojnic also escorted the same convoy. K3 said that after the convoy reached its destination, they returned on the same road. ‘The first person I met was Stojnic. He was standing near where the civilians had been killed. I shall never forget the scene after he got into the truck cabin. He said: 'What have we done? We shall all be taken to Tunjica'.’ Tunjica was the name of a penal facility in Banja Luka.
Prosecution witnesses spoke about the attempt to cleanse the terrain and cover up the crime that had occured at Koricanske Stijene. Cedo Vukovic, Zivorad Pelengic and Radovan Djukaric, former members of the Civil Protection Unit from Knezevo, described trying to dispose of the bodies because they ‘smelled badly and could contaminate the water’.
Milan Komljenovic, former president of the Crisis Committee in Knezevo, said he had visited the location soon after finding out about the massacre. ‘On my arrival I saw a scene of horror,’ he told the court. ‘There were piles of people and bodies lying on top of each other. People were hanging from cliffs and branches. It was horrible.’
Witnesses Zoran Babic, Milivoje Pavicevic and Dragomir Markovic, who worked with the Safety Services Center in Banja Luka in August 1992, said they conducted a crime scene investigation at Koricanske Stijene but were not aware that any investigation was ever conducted into the murders. The three witnesses said they were told that ‘the convoy escorts’ were responsible for the deaths.
The prosecution also introduced more than 150 pieces of material evidence, such as death certificates and exhumation reports. It also examined two medical court experts, Miroslav Rakocevic and Sabiha Brkic-Silajdzic, who spoke about the exhumation of the people killed at Koricanske Stijene. Brkic-Silajdzic said it had been the most difficult exhumation in her career.
Denis Dzidic is a BIRN/Justice Report journalist. This account appeared in BIRN's Justice Report, 2 December 2009