Bosnia Muslims Were Killed by The Truckload
MONITOR EXCLUSIVE . Until now, the world knew little of what happened when Bosnian Serb forces took over the UN-protected Muslim town of Srebrenica in July. But Monitor interviews with nine survivors tell of systematic executions and massive war crimes.
TUZLA, BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA — BOSNIAN Serb soldiers systematically executed as many as 2,000 Muslim prisoners after taking the UN ''safe area'' of Srebrenica in July, according to credible eyewitness accounts newly obtained by The Christian Science Monitor.
Nine Muslim men who say they are survivors of mass executions gave separate, corroborating accounts of what could be one of the greatest single war crimes of Bosnia's brutal 3-1/2 year conflict. Executing prisoners is a war crime according to the Geneva Convention.
In interviews that were conducted without the supervision of the Bosnian government, the nine men gave compelling accounts of mass executions in five locations.
A pattern of hundreds of Muslim soldiers and male civilians being taken to the Serb-held villages of Nova Kasaba, Kravica, and Bratunac - near Srebrenica - on July 13 emerged from the accounts. Last month, the Monitor uncovered evidence that a mass grave containing hundreds of bodies exists in Nova Kasaba.
The largest execution appears to have occurred near Karakaj. Up to 2,000 prisoners were taken from the three villages to a remote location near the Serb-held town, 25 miles northwest of Srebrenica, and executed on July 14, according to the survivors.
Srebrenica, a refugee-packed mining town nestled in the thick forests and rolling hills of eastern Bosnia, fell to the Bosnian Serbs on July 11.
The conquest of the town and subsequent Bosnian Serb ''ethnic cleansing'' of its 40,000 Muslim residents sparked events that led to a more muscular Clinton administration policy in Bosnia, which soon may bring peace.
Bosnian Serb officials have repeatedly denied that any atrocities were committed by their forces following the fall of Srebrenica, but mounting evidence of widespread executions is again turning Srebrenica into a test of President Clinton's resolve.
Guaranteeing that the Bosnian Serbs allow access to the sites of the reported executions and that indicted Bosnian Serb war criminals - including Bosnian Serb military commander Gen. Ratko Mladic - are prosecuted could fall victim to the administration's desire to establish any peace in Bosnia before the 1996 election campaign enters full swing.
The nine survivors, four of whom have never been interviewed by a journalist before, paint a chilling picture of a far vaster killing field around Srebrenica than previously imagined:
* Along with the execution of as many as 2,000 prisoners in Karakaj, hundreds of prisoners were executed in a warehouse in the village of Kravica, according to a survivor. At least three other executions involving 15 to 30 men occurred near the villages of Kuslat, Zabrde, and Rasica Gai, according to other survivors.
* Between 300 and 400 elderly and infirm men who were either ordered by Dutch peacekeepers to leave the UN compound at Potocari or prevented from entering it were seized by Bosnian Serb soldiers and later executed in Karakaj on July 14, according to a Karakaj survivor. Surem Huljic, a man who says he was seized with other men in Potocari but survived the massacre by playing dead, believes all the men seized in Potocari were killed.
Another Karakaj survivor, Smail Hodjic, said he was told by several prisoners before the executions began in Karakaj that they had been taken captive by the Bosnian Serbs in Potocari.
* Two massacre survivors reported seeing Bosnian Serb soldiers driving a UN armored personnel carrier after the fall of Srebrenica. Mevludin Oric, a Karakaj survivor, said a UN APC driven by men in UN uniforms who spoke fluent Serbo-Croatian escorted six buses of Muslim prisoners from the town of Bratunac to Karakaj on the morning of July 14. Oric believes the men were Serbs masquerading as UN soldiers to make prisoners believe that they were headed for a prisoner exchange in Karakaj, not a mass executi on.
* Eight of the survivors reported either being robbed, beaten, and tortured themselves or seeing other prisoners beaten or tortured by Bosnian Serb soldiers. More than 50 Muslims, most of whom were prominent political or business figures before the war, were singled out for torture and execution by Bosnian Serb soldiers and civilians on the night of July 13 when thousands of prisoners were held in the towns of Bratunac and Kravica, according to four survivors.
* General Mladic, who US officials are currently negotiating with, spoke to prisoners or was seen at five sites - Potocari, Bratunac, Nova Kasaba, Kravica, and Karakaj - hours before executions were carried out, according to five survivors. Two Karakaj survivors say they saw Mladic riding in a car on the way to the execution site and getting out of a car at the Karakaj site as the killings occurred.
In separate interviews, the survivors described a similar sequence of events involving Mladic. According to the accounts, the general introduced himself or was introduced by his troops to prisoners. Mladic first mocked Bosnian government leaders and then promised the prisoners they would not be harmed and would be exchanged for Bosnian Serb prisoners.
Assuming all the accounts are true, the scope of the atrocities, and the logistics needed to carry out the executions, indicates that the decision to execute prisoners was made at the highest levels of the Bosnian Serb leadership. Bosnian Serb commander Mladic and self-styled Bosnian Serb president Radovan Karadzic were indicted by The Hague-based International War Crimes Tribunal in July for atrocities committed earlier in the war.
Officials from the International War Crimes Tribunal would not comment on their ongoing investigation, but seven of the nine alleged survivors said they had been interviewed by tribunal investigators. All, including the five who say they saw Mladic, said their Bosnian Serb guards and executioners made no attempt to hide their identities. All of them also said they are willing to testify before the tribunal.
A senior UN official familiar with the ongoing investigation by the tribunal said a large amount of evidence indicating Mladic's involvement had been amassed by the tribunal. The official called the figure of nine credible survivors and as many as 2,000 executed accurate.
To test the credibility of the accounts, the men were not told during the interviews that the Monitor recently visited many of the sites they were describing.
In seamless narratives, the survivors gave detailed descriptions of locations visited by the Monitor in mid-August - such as a temporary Bosnian Serb troop encampment on a soccer field near the village of Nova Kasaba - while describing the mass executions.
All of the men publicly stated the names of dozens of friends and neighbors they said were killed in the mass executions. The survivors said they were willing to publicly name the victims - at the risk of inflicting grief on dozens of families - because they know they are right.
None of the men the survivors say died in the executions has been accounted for by the International Committee of the Red Cross, which has recorded names of men imprisoned by Bosnian Serbs and taken to Serb territory.
The survivors and more than 100 Srebrenica men who made it to government-held territory were interviewed over a two-week period in and around the government-held city of Tuzla in northern Bosnia last month.
The accounts of two additional men who claimed to have survived mass executions were deemed not credible by the Monitor and dismissed.
According to dozens of men who made it to government-held territory, a column of more than 10,000 men - approximately half of whom were armed - left Srebrenica on the evening of July 11 and headed west.
The group, many of whom were civilians, hoped to sneak through 60 miles of Bosnian Serb-held hills, forests, and farmland to arrive in government-held central Bosnia.
A Serb ambush on July 12 near Kamenica killed several hundred and split the column roughly in half, the men said. Chaos ensued, with small groups of men wandering the forests, caught in a box between wide asphalt roads to the north and west patrolled by Bosnian Serbs in armored personnel carriers and Serb troops occupying the Srebrenica area to the east and south.
To make it to government-held territory, the men from Srebrenica had to cross the asphalt road to the west, which runs between the Bosnian-Serb held villages of Konjevic Polje and Milici. Many of them never did.
Approximately 4,000 men, the first section of the column, began crossing into government-held territory near Kladanj on July 16. An estimated 1,500 others have arrived in government-held territory in August and September, and as many as 800 Muslim men - including some from the fallen UN safe area of Zepa - have crossed into Serbia, according to Bosnian government and Red Cross officials.
But with only a few hundred men believed to be still hiding in the woods and the Serbs blocking access to the area, the whereabouts of the remaining 3,700 is unknown, UN officials say.
Revenge as motive
The Bosnian Serbs actions appear to have been motivated in part by revenge. In 1992, Muslim forces under the command of Nasir Oric systematically burned Serb villages and killed civilians in raids around Srebrenica. During the Monitor's tour of the area in August, Bosnian Serb soldiers expressed contempt for Srebrenica Muslims and accused them of attacking civilians.
In schools around government-held Tuzla that have been turned into refugee centers, few men can be seen. Women plead for information regarding missing husbands, sons, and fathers.
The family of one of the Muslim survivors, who asked to be called the common Muslim name of ''Haris'' because he feared retribution against missing relatives, illustrated how many men are missing. Haris's only brother, his brother-in-law, three of his uncles, and three of his cousins are missing. In his wife's family, her only brother and 23 other relatives are missing.