Srebrenica: 'The wounded begged to be killed'

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The Independent Online

When, on 14 July 1995, Serb soldiers gunned down hundreds of Muslim men near the Bosnian town of Srebrenica their aim was sometimes inaccurate and the results were particularly gruesome.

As the war crimes tribunal on the former Yugoslavia heard for the first time yesterday: "The wounded were begging to be killed, but the executioners took their time and only finished them the next day".

Such claims, from the French war crimes investigator Jean-Rene Ruez, have made the case being heard at the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia the most serious genocide trial since the Second World War.

With each hour comes another meticulously documented catalogue of carnage. In one incident highlighted yesterday, Serb troops packed Muslim men into a small cinema in Pilica, then fired their weapons and threw explosives through the hole used by the projectionist.

The man accused of masterminding this butchery, General Radislav Krstic sits just a few feet away from the public gallery, separated by thick security glass. A slight figure, dressed in a dark suit, white shirt and grey tie, Gen Krstic blinks regularly but sits bolt upright and motionless, staring ahead at his video screen.

The surroundings are bland and the court, with a colour scheme which matches the white and blue colours of the UN flag, looks rather like the set for an American TV trial. This is a very modern court, one where the case is fleshed out with images from spy satellites, photographs taken from many angles and video evidence whose contemporaneous commentary is clinical and relentless. Describing the scene of the massacre at Petkovci, one investigator asks his colleague: "What's that?". "That's a rib", comes the reply, "I just kicked out of the dirt a human radius", the first man responds.

How did the occupants of Srebrenica, who were sheltering in the UN-protected safe haven, come to die in these killing fields? The picture is slowly being pieced together in an attempt to convict Gen Krstic, who denies charges of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and grave breaches of the Geneva convention, any of which could lead to a life sentence. His trial is expected to last several months. As commander of the 15,000-strong Drina Corps, Gen Krstic and his commanderin-chief, General Ratko Mladic, entered the lightly-guarded enclave, in what became the prelude both to a pre-meditated massacre and to the deportation of up to 30,000 of the majority Muslim population.

When the few Dutch peace-keepers allowed the Serbs through, the civilians there were doomed.

When the case opened on Monday the prosecutor, Mark Harmon, said the Bosnian Serb forces "abandoned all sense of humanity and committed atrocities on a scale not seen since the Second World War," adding that 7,574 people are still listed as missing, presumed dead.

Yesterday the court heard details of several massacres, the first of which began when Bosnian Muslim men from in and around Bratunac were taken in a series of convoys to the Grbavci school near Orahovac. Forced out into the playground the men were, Mr Ruez said, made to abandon their clothing before being held in the gym which was filled with people before the killing began. "They got a blindfold, a little sip of water and were then taken to the execution site", Mr Ruez added. Some of the victims appear to have been killed in the gym but the prosecution says that two nearby execution sites were used and that in one, murder was committed by the light of the heavy machinery used to bury bodies.

"Witnesses mention that the meadow was completely covered with bodies", Mr Ruez said, adding that, although many corpses were later exhumed and hidden elsewhere, the remains of 100 people were still recovered.

Those held at a second school at Petkovci were unloaded from trucks in the car park then made to run the gauntlet of rows of soldiers who beat them, before being herded inside the classrooms. Soldiers outside fired shots at the windows to stop their prisoners looking out or getting a breath of air.

Then, Mr Ruez said, hundreds of men were taken to an area close to a dam, unloaded in small groups and taken to an open area estimated to be 100m by 50m in size. "The size of the execution area was large and was entirely covered by bodies so that they had to walk to find an empty spot".

A third school at Pilica was used as a detention centre before another round of slaughter, this time at the Branjevo Military Farm. Here the killing lasted from 10 am until 3pm and this time the victims had ample warning of their fate. Mr Ruez said: "People had the opportunity to watch everything that was going on and just had to wait their turn". Although the graves were again tampered with, about 150 bodies were later uncovered, according to investigators. According to Paul Risley, a spokesman for the prosecutor, the evidence shows the "systematic, highly-planned and organised nature of the killing of men in Srebrenica, in which the instances of mass execution take place more or less simultaneously following the fall of Srebrenica".

Over the next few weeks witnesses will give more details, and try to link Gen Krstic directly to the crimes. But of yesterday's chilling evidence, one gruesome event stood out: the massacre at Pilica's cultural centre in which hundreds Bosnian Muslims may have met their deaths in a hall where films were regularly shown.

Here, the prosecution says, the killings were done with rifles and explosives through the projectionist's hole and, although the building was "cleaned" and sealed after the event - presumably by its perpetrators - blast marks and empty bullet casings were later discovered by investigators.

Video footage captured the grisly reality of a bare, bullet-riddled room spattered with blood and human tissue, including hair and skin. The most blood-stained part of the room was the small stage under which, Mr Ruez said, the occupants had huddled when it became clear that there was no way to escape.

In front of the camera, one investigator peers beneath the stage and discovers an identity card on which the picture of a jovial looking man can be seen. The name reads Ahmet Mujic, date of birth 5 June, 1923. He is thought to be one of as many as 500 Muslim men who died in Pilica's "House of Culture" on 16 July 1995.