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Belgrade's Srebrenica Connection

Five years ago, a videotape showing executions of Srebrenica men helped prod Serbia to reassess its role in the Bosnian conflict.

by Aleksandar Mitic 12 July 2010

About 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were executed after the fall of Srebrenica 15 years ago yesterday. When a videotape that surfaced five years ago appeared to show some Serbian military units involved in the Srebrenica killings, it began to chip away at widespread Serbian denial of that country’s part in the massacre and the Bosnian war. A recent discovery of notebooks and audio recordings kept by wartime commander and fugitive-from-justice Ratko Mladic includes details of meetings he held with then-Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, along with leaders of Bosnia’s Croat and Serb communities. This article originally appeared on 6 June 2005.


BELGRADE | A video shown during the trial of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic at the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has sent shockwaves through Serbia after it was rebroadcast on the evening news here.

The video shows the brutal execution of six Bosniak (Bosnian Muslim) men and boys by a Serbian crack unit after the fall of Srebrenica to Bosnian Serb forces. They are unloaded from a truck and forced to lie on the ground. Some of them show evidence of severe beatings. After a while they are marched to a hillside where they are shot in the back with an automatic weapon, one after another.

The prosecution insists that the unit, called Skorpioni (Scorpions), was under the command of Serbia’s interior ministry at the time of the crime. Serbia has always maintained that the conflict in Bosnia was a civil war and that Serbian forces were not involved in the fighting there.

The tape appears to have been made by a member of the unit who is heard repeatedly complaining about the camera’s battery and urging his comrades to work faster.

Four of the paramilitaries whose faces could be seen on the tape were arrested by Serbian police in northwestern Serbia, near the Croatian border, on the day that the video was broadcast, 1 June. Three other suspects are still at large.

Serbian Interior Minister Dragan Jocic confirmed that the four detainees committed and filmed the crime on 16 July 1995. Jocic confirmed that the crime took place in Trnovo near Mount Jahorina, a short drive from the Bosnian capital, Sarajevo.

The six victims have been identified; they were brought to Trnovo from Srebrenica after it had been overrun by Bosnian Serb forces.

Between 7,000 and 8,000 Bosniaks are believed to have been killed in and around Srebrenica in July 1995.

This is the first time that footage of actual killings in Srebrenica has been made public. The tape seems to provide solid evidence that units from Serbia proper committed some of the crimes at Srebrenica, though it may prove difficult to establish the chain of command under which they operated.

SHOCK AND DISBELIEF

The broadcast of the video sent shockwaves through a Serbian public that is still in large parts refusing to face up to some of the darkest crimes of the wars in the former Yugoslavia, including the Srebrenica massacre.

That denial has been somewhat weakened in recent months with the surrender of a dozen Serbs wanted by the ICTY. They were transferred to The Hague under a policy of “voluntary surrender,” touted by Prime Minister Vojislav Kostunica as an alternative to the arrest and extradition of indictees, which he rejects. Kostunica, once a fierce critic of the ICTY and its alleged partiality, has softened his position since the ICTY indicted a number of Croat, Bosniak, and Kosovo Albanian commanders and officials accused of crimes against Serbs.

He has also managed to forge a new relationship with the ICTY’s chief prosecutor, Carla Del Ponte, who recently praised his work.

Cooperation with the war-crimes tribunal is a precondition for closer links to the EU.

The video was shown in The Hague one day before Del Ponte’s visit to Belgrade. By the time she met with Kostunica, the arrests of the Scorpions had already taken place.

Kostunica, standing next to Del Ponte at a press conference, called the murder “a brutal and disgraceful crime,” adding that it was “very important for our public that the response was swift.”

Del Ponte praised the Kostunica government for its “brilliant operation,” but she also urged the authorities to apprehend the other fugitives still wanted by the ICTY, most notably Bosnian Serb wartime leader Radovan Karadzic and his military commander Ratko Mladic, who is believed to be being sheltered by elements of the Serbian security apparatus.

The footage brought an unprecedented wave of indignation and condemnation by the Serb political class and the media.

Serbian president Boris Tadic said that Serbia was deeply shocked “by a monstrous crime committed against persons of a different religion.” He said he was ready to go to Srebrenica to pay his respects to the victims.

Aleksandar Vucic, a top leader of the nationalist Serb Radical Party (SRS), also condemned the executions and called for the highest prison terms for those who “committed horrible crimes and killed in cold blood.”

The speaker of the Serbian parliament, Predrag Markovic, announced talks among parliamentary groups on a “resolution on Srebrenica” to condemn the massacre, to be adopted ahead of the tenth anniversary of the massacre, which falls on 11 July. Markovic had initially refused to put a request by non-governmental organizations for such a declaration on the agenda, saying that parliament had no authority to discuss events that had taken place outside Serbia’s borders.

WHO WERE THE SCORPIONS?

While the perpetrators and the victims of the crime shown on the tape have been identified, it remains unclear under whose command the unit was in July 1995. The ICTY prosecution wants to prove that it was receiving orders from the Serbian interior ministry, which would for the first time establish a clear link between Milosevic and the crimes committed in Bosnia.

Obrad Stevanovic, a former police general and senior official of Serbia’s interior ministry during whose testimony at the ICTY the footage was shown, rejected charges of involvement. He said the Scorpions were not part of the official Serbian security forces operating in the border region between Bosnia and Serbia at the time.

Some answers may come from a new trial set to start in Belgrade on 6 June. The defendant, a member of the Scorpions called Sasa Cvjetan, stands accused of atrocities in Kosovo in 1999. According to the official indictment, the Scorpions were mobilized in March 1999 as a “reserve unit of the anti-terrorist forces of the Serbian Ministry of Interior.”

Cvjetan was sentenced by a Serbian court to 20 years in prison for the execution of 14 Albanian civilians in the northern Kosovo town of Podujevo during the 1999 conflict. During that trial, the court also heard testimony that the unit had been involved in the Srebrenica massacre.

The Supreme Court lifted the sentence for procedural reasons and ordered a new trial, which has now assumed new poignancy.

The tape was given to the ICTY prosecution by Natasa Kandic, a prominent Serbian human-rights lawyer who has consistently called on Serbs to face up to the truth about the wars that tore Yugoslavia apart during the 1990s. One of the people who cooperated with her – reportedly a former member of the unit – is understood to have sought protection abroad.

Aleksandar Mitic is a TOL correspondent.
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