Bosnia opens war crime files: The government in Sarajevo has assembled horrific evidence of atrocities

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The Independent Online
The documents look innocent enough, neatly stacked in piles inside a massive iron safe. Several are hand- written, but most of the thousands of pages are typed in Serbo-Croat, each set of files signed with a lawyer's thoroughness by Mladen Sutej. He does not even look up when another salvo of shells thunders over the city, one of them falling just a block away. Only when you seek a translation of those papers do you realise why.

'They did not kill people in the beginning . . .' one of the pages begins. 'There were about 4,000 people in Omarska then. We were accommodated in garages, premises, workshops. The very first day, they took about 10 men and killed them using power saws, cutting their necks and chopping their heads off. In those days, about 60 people were killed in this way. These people were killed in open pits and they were covered with earth by a bulldozer. They also used a kind of acid . . . they took about 50 of us to watch what they were doing. They were busy with that for two days.'

Thus has a Muslim recorded the events in Omarska, the worst of the Serbian concentration camps, in June last year. Each page is a horror story, for Mr Sutej's safe is filled with perhaps the most detailed testimony so far assembled about the atrocities of the Bosnian war. His State Commission for Gathering Facts on War Crimes in the Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina may have a portentous name, but its files are filled with tales of shame and blood. Here, for example, is a Muslim witness recording the events in Brcko on 5 May, 1992:

'They took us to the medical centre and they beat us with rifle-butts all the time. An old woman was knocked down and remained lying where she was. The people who had been gathered together were then separated and they took 180 to 200 men to a mosque. We stayed there for 48 hours . . . We were forced to urinate and defecate in the mosque. Punishment for the slightest remark ranged from beating our palms with sticks to cutting off ears or noses or jumping off a table on to our chests. All this happened in the medical centre. A young man, a Muslim, nicknamed 'Sarajka' was crucified in the centre of the town. He was in his late twenties. He died nailed to a cross.'

Mr Sutej and his colleagues have taken 650 statements from witnesses to war crimes, collected the names of 21,000 murder victims, recorded the names of 5,039 war criminals and registered the location of 20 mass graves. According to those carefully piled documents, there were over the past year 169 prison or concentration camps in Bosnia while a total of 172 villages were totally destroyed during 'ethnic cleansing'. Religious buildings damaged or destroyed include 559 mosques or Muslim institutions, 128 Catholic and 10 Orthodox churches and three Jewish religious complexes.

'How can we possibly record all the war crimes when we cannot even leave our city?' Mr Sutej asks. 'You know we are surrounded here in Sarajevo by the Serbs. We are under bombardment every day. I cannot even go outside the city limits to talk to anyone. The more evidence I take, the more I realise we have only recorded a very small part of the crimes that have been committed in our country. They are still going on - but we cannot collect the evidence for the past months.'

Mr Sutej is a Croat married to a Muslim. He acknowledges at once that Muslims have been violators as well as victims: 'Of course Muslims have committed war crimes - you cannot stop people when they want revenge. No one can say that all Muslims are innocent of such crimes. But they have suffered more than all others. The Serbs are the main aggressors and the war criminals are mostly Serbs. We believe the number of raped women may be as high as 30,000. Almost all of them are Muslim.'

The Bosnian war crimes commission has begun to publish some of its findings, printing the names of the dozens of men wanted for war crimes. In the village of Gacko, for example, accused executioners and rapists include a high school principal called Acim Acimovic, a truck driver called Zika Gajic, a nurse named Bela Govedarica, a doctor called Milenko Gojkovic and an engineer called Goran Jeremic. A surprising number of wanted men are teachers. Obren Govedarica, the elementary school principal, is accused of being the commander of the notorious White Eagles militia in Hercegovina.

Mr Sutej makes no secret of the fact that many potential witnesses are long dead while others are now living in besieged Muslim enclaves and in danger of being killed. Many of the raped Gacko women - a number of whom were interviewed when the Independent revealed the existence of the Kalinovik rape camp this year - are now trapped in the besieged Muslim sectors of Mostar and Jablanica and under daily artillery bombardment. Indeed, there are fears that Croat forces, who will not permit UN troops to enter the city, intend to liquidate the Muslim inhabitants of Mostar. Mr Sutej has been told that several Muslims in Mostar may possess videotapes of war crimes being committed.

Yet his pages of testimony are a formidable achievement, one that will be used in future histories of this terrible war, bearing witness to personal betrayal as well as atrocity. Here, for instance, is the account of a Muslim man married to a Croat woman who lived in Duboj after Serbian forces entered the town 13 months ago: 'On 13 June, at 4 pm, Mr Rajko Paripovic, the (Serb) chairman of the tenants' council, came with soldiers, stayed some 15 minutes and then left our apartment, assuring us that nothing would happen to us. Twenty minutes later, four Serbian soldiers in fatigue uniforms with Yugoslav Armed Forces insignia came in. They had a pistol and a knife. They asked us what our nationality (sic) was and when we said that I am Muslim and my wife is Croat, one of them took my wife to the kitchen and the other three soldiers stayed with me. My wife was raped in the kitchen. Later on, they brought her in the room where I was, stripped her naked again and threatened to rape her again . . . They smashed everything in the apartment looking for gold and we begged them to take whatever they wanted, just to stop assaulting us. They found 9,000 Yugoslav dinars and 400 Deutschmarks. All the time, they beat me with their fists . . . kicked my face and broke two of my teeth . . .'

Among the most dreadful accounts are those of rape victims. 'During one night, five or six Chetniks (Serbs) raped each of the female internees, including me,' a Muslim girl wrote. 'When I noticed later in my imprisonment that I was pregnant, I asked them to allow me to go to the doctor for an abortion. They did not allow me that and said they just wanted Muslim girls to bear Chetniks. When I was six months pregnant, they exchanged all 13 of us for Serb prisoners. All of us were pregnant except for a six-year-old girl. They had also raped her . . .' This witness gave birth to a girl on Christmas Day last year.

One section of testimony suggests that Muslim prisoners who spoke to Western television reporters visiting Serb-controlled camps in Bosnia were later shot. At Trnopolje, one ex-prisoner records: 'Foreign journalists appeared and started filming. They found me near the wire and I started talking, but an official behind the journalists said 'Write down their names to kill them.' I just said a few words, that I was hungry and exhausted. I didn't dare say a lot. That night they looked for all whose names were written down to kill them.'

Several of the statements record little more than horrific incidents amid much greater suffering. One tells of how a Serb called Radomir Kojic ordered one of his men to punish a Muslim who made a V-sign when told to sing a Serbian song in Pale. A man named Pipovic 'took a pair of scissors, climbed into the truck and cut off two of his fingers'.

Another Muslim survived a massacre at Olovo after realising that a Serb promise of an exchange of prisoners was a ruse to lead Muslims towards a mass grave: 'I saw that they separated first 10 men, took them some three metres away and stopped. At that moment, I noticed two persons going down some stairs dug into the earth . . . then two Chetniks approached and I heard the shots, two bursts . . . Our men disappeared, probably fell into the pit . . . I concluded that all of us would be shot and thrown into the pit. I looked around to see if anybody would try to run away. But the people were paralysed. Then the Chetniks started to kill them.'

This witness was the sole survivor of the massacre. With his hands tied behind his back, he ran away as the Serbs fired at him, eventually finding refuge in a Muslim house.

'These are real crimes perpetrated in Bosnia today,' says Mr Sutej. 'It is our job to record the names of the victims and those who committed the crimes so that our government can take action against them.' But with most of Bosnia already in Serb or Croat hands, was this not an illusion? Surely, none of the war criminals would ever be tried?

Mr Sutej was silent for a long time and then said: 'Unfortunately, I fear you are correct in what you say. I have to say I fear this is true.' In which case Mladen Sutej's fiels are already history.

(Photograph omitted)