MASS GRAVES AND OTHER ATROCITIES IN BOSNIA
US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Wednesday, DECEMBER 6, 1995
STATEMENT OF IVAN LUPIS
Mr. LUPIS. Thank you for holding this hearing
and inviting me to testify. My name is Ivan Lupis. I am a
researcher at the Helsinki Division of Human Rights Watch,
formerly known as Helsinki Watch. The following testimony
is based on an investigation carried out by myself and a
consultant from July 31 to August 23, 1995.
It describes the events leading up to, during, and
immediately after the fall of the U.N.-designated safe area
of Srebrenica, including gross violations of humanitarian
law, as has been typical of Serbian military conduct to
date. The fall of the town of Srebrenica and its environs
to Serb forces in early July 1995 made a mockery of the
international community's professed commitment to safeguard
regions it declared to be safe areas.
U.N. peacekeeping officials were unwilling to heed
requests for support from their own forces stationed within
the enclave, thus allowing Serb forces easily to overrun it
and, without interference from U.N. soldiers, to carry out
systematic mass executions of hundreds, possibly thousands,
of civilian men and boys, and to terrorize, rape, beat,
execute, rob, and otherwise abuse civilians being deported
from the area.
The recent Dayton peace plan and the guarded optimism
that has accompanied this apparent progress should not
obscure the fact that no peace agreement will be stable
without justice for human rights abuses. The atrocities
described in this testimony, like the many others that have
preceded them in the former Yugoslavia, require of the
international community, and specifically the United
States, a commitment to repatriation for victims and
accountability for the perpetrators.
Before the war, approximately 37,000 people, 72
percent Muslim and 25 percent Serbs, lived in the
Srebrenica municipality. When Bosnian Serb forces began
their brutal campaign of ethnic cleansing with the help of
the Yugoslav People's Army in eastern Bosnia in 1992, most
areas quickly fell under Serb control. Most of the non-Serb
men either fled, were put into detention centers, or were
Thousands of mostly Muslim refugees from other areas
of eastern Bosnia flocked to places like Zepa, Gorazde, and
Srebrenica, where territorial defense units succeeded in
fending off Serb attacks. As a result of this sudden
demographic shift, Srebrenica's population swelled to an
estimated 55,000 to 60,000 people and remained under siege
for more than 3 years.
On April 16, 1993, the U.N. Security Council adopted
Resolution 819, declaring Srebrenica a safe area; and a
cease-fire was signed on April 17. But in July 1995, there
were numerous indications that Bosnian Serb forces were
planning a summer offensive against Srebrenica. Access to
U.N. convoys was increasingly restricted by Bosnian Serb
forces, so that by late February and early March 1995, only
one convoy per month was being allowed into the area to
feed the approximately 39,000 people left in the enclave.
A U.N. official in Tuzla told us that this was a
deliberate tactic used by the Serbs to weaken the
population of the enclave in order to prepare the area for
a final offensive. The incremental denial of food, water,
electricity, and proper medical supplies by the Serbs over
a long period of time should actually have been viewed as
the true preparatory stages of the July assault on the
enclave and should have served as a warning signal to the
international community that the so-called U.N. safe area
of Srebrenica was in danger.
Prior to the offensive, Bosnian Serb forces also
hampered peacekeeping effectiveness as well as troop
rotations into the enclave. Two rotations of Dutch troops
stationed in the enclave had been allowed to leave, but the
Bosnian Serbs refused their replacements' entry. Thus, the
entire pocket, civilians and UNPROFOR troops alike, were
psychologically and physically exhausted weeks prior to the
Just 2 days before the attack, Bosnian Serb forces
allowed 1 convoy carrying 100,000 liters of diesel fuel, an
unprecedented amount, into the pocket. This fuel was then
recaptured when the safe area fell. Given the embargo of
the Bosnian Serbs, as well as their refusal to allow fuel
into the enclave on previous occasions, this sudden influx
of fuel should have been suspicious to the Dutch U.N.
soldiers. Without the fuel, Bosnian Serb forces would not
have been able later to bus tens of thousands of Muslims to
Bosnian Government-controlled territory.
By July 5, approximately 5,000 Serb troops had
surrounded the enclave with 50 artillery pieces and 15 to
20 battle vehicles and launched a full-scale offensive on
Srebrenica at 3:15 a.m. on July 6. The shelling was too
heavy to count the number of detonations, but U.N.
estimates were in the thousands. Serb troops began taking
control of U.N. observation posts one by one, and by the
time the offensive was over, 55 U.N. troops had been taken
Dutch soldiers within the enclave requested close air
support from the U.N. commanders, but the date of the
request remains disputed. U.N. officials interviewed by us
deny that Dutch troops in the safe area requested close air
support before July 10. Other evidence, however, suggests
that Dutch troops in the enclave acted sooner and believe
that close air support might have dissuaded Serb forces
from pressing their offensive.
According to the Dutch, close air support was
requested on July 6. That request and subsequent ones were
repeatedly turned down by the commander of U.N. peace
forces in former Yugoslavia, Bernard Janvier. On July 10,
according to UNHCR estimates, approximately 30,000 people
began to evacuate Srebrenica and move back to the northern
part of the enclave toward the U.N. base in Potocari, a
village located halfway between Srebrenica and Bratunac.
Finally, on July 11, 2 days after Serbian forces had
driven through Srebrenica, four fighter planes took part in
an attack which resulted in the destruction of one Serb
tank. Bosnian Serb commander Ratko Mladic threatened to
fire on the Dutch compound and the civilian population of
Srebrenica and to execute Dutch peacekeeping hostages if
more air strikes were carried out.
The air strikes were not repeated and the U.N. effort
to save the U.N. safe area of Srebrenica shifted to damage
control. Now, due to my limited amount of time, I have to
skip over what happened with the women, children, and
elderly people in Potocari and move on to the massacres
because this is the focus of this testimony. If there are
any questions about what the Serbs had done in the Potocari
compound, questions could be raised after.
As Srebrenica was falling, the overwhelming majority
of military-aged men and boys and a smattering of women and
children gathered in separate locations in order to make
the journey through Bosnian Serb-held areas to reach
Bosnian Government-controlled territory. The majority of
the persons in this group of 12,000 to 15,000 trekkers were
civilians. Men and boys interviewed by us stated that only
between 3,000 to 4,000 of them were armed.
After the U.N. failed to defend the safe area of
Srebrenica, the enclave's military-aged men no longer
trusted the UNPROFOR troops, nor did they believe their
safety would be guaranteed by them. They formed a column
which stretched for approximately ten kilometers and walked
in a vulnerable formation because they had been warned of a
During the trek, the column was exposed to numerous
attacks and ambushes by Serbian forces, during which
violations of humanitarian law were committed. A displaced
person I interviewed vividly described the horrific ordeal
which the men and boys experienced. He mentioned:
"After about three kilometers, we encountered our
first ambush at a stream. The center of our column was hit
by anti-aircraft machine guns and mortars. Around 200
people died just from that. The Cetniks"-which is a term
used by many to describe nationalist Serbs-"then came down
from the hills, and about 2,000 men from the middle of the
column got caught in the line of fire. The people at the
front and back of the column scattered everywhere. I was in
the middle and saw how the Serbs were shooting everyone and
slaughtering us with bayonets.
"Furthermore, during the nighttime and during the
ambushes, Serb soldiers in civilian clothing managed to
infiltrate the column, spreading disinformation and
confusion, giving wrong directions, injecting men with what
was believed to have been hallucinatory drugs, drawing
groups and individuals away from the column, and opening
fire on and executing people from within the column."
As the ambushes and infiltrating Serbs continued to
pick away at the column, men and boys tried desperately to
regroup after the ambush. The column eventually became
smaller and smaller in number, and smaller groups were left
behind and separated from the rest. Many men and boys
surrendered, and several witnesses told us that they saw
unarmed men shot in the process of surrendering.
We conducted interviews with a witness to a massacre
in the Nova Kasaba/Konjevic Polje area and with four other
persons who were sent to mass executions at two sites in
the Karakaj area, a town north of Zvornik on the Bosnian-
Serbian border. Mass summary executions were also carried
out at at least two locations in the Bratunac area, and
evidence points to the existence of two sites in the
Kravice area as well.
The systematic nature of the operation, already
described in the offensive, and the attack designed to
break up the escaping column of men can be further
adumbrated during the round-up phase of the dispersed
trekkers. Serb forces strategically positioned themselves
along major roads and rivers over which the men would have
to cross in order to reach Bosnian Government territory.
Serb forces apparently tried to capture as many men as
possible before they could cross so that they could be
detained at sites around Nova Kasaba and Konjevic Polje.
As described in our reports, Serb forces communicated
orders and instructions to the men by megaphones on how and
where to surrender before they could reach the two roads.
According to a displaced person, large massacres were
carried out in this area. He recounted:
"The place was full of Cetniks so we hid in some high
grass and waited. Muslims were coming down on the main road
from everywhere giving themselves up. The Cetniks picked
out Muslims who they either knew about or knew,
interrogated them, and then made them dig pits which would
be used as mass graves.
"During our first day there, the Cetniks killed
approximately 500 people. They would just line them up and
shoot them into the pits. The approximately 100 men whom
they interrogated and who had dug the mass graves then had
to fill them in. At the end of the day, they were ordered
to dig a pit for themselves and line up in front of it.
Then with M53 machine guns, they were shot into the mass
"At dawn, it was still the same. A bulldozer arrived
and dug up a pit which seemed to be about 30 meters long
and about 15 meters wide, and they buried about 400 men
alive. The men were encircled by Cetniks. Whoever tried to
escape was shot. After that, they packed down the earth so
it almost looked as good as new."
In this area, many men and boys described the
appearance of Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, who
oversaw parts of the operation being carried out. Moreover,
they reported seeing Serb soldiers dressed in U.N. garb
driving around in white U.N. armored personnel carriers.
The fact that four of the survivors were detained in
and transited through the Nova Kasaba/Konjevic Polje area
and were then bused to Karakaj via Bratunac further
suggests that the campaign carried out by the Serb forces
was systematic in nature.
A number of citizens of Bratunac and its surrounding
villages told about the violent deaths of a large number of
men from Srebrenica. The villagers' accounts were
consistent in many details, including the place and the
method of execution. One woman, a resident of Serbia
proper, reportedly said that she had just been to visit her
brother-in-law, who was a Bosnian Serb soldier.
"He and his friends are quite open about what is going
on," the woman exclaimed. "They are killing Muslim
soldiers. They said they killed 1,600 yesterday alone and
estimated in all they had killed about 4,000. They said
they were in a big hurry so they were shooting most of
In the Karakaj area, men were ordered to get out of
the trucks in groups of five or ten and line up in front of
the Serb soldiers who fired on them. Four survivors
disclosed details which indicate that the mass executions
were well-planned and systematically carried out. For
example, all noted that for extended periods of time,
trucks pulled up to the sites and dropped off loads of
prisoners. Firing squads would execute several groups and
were then ordered to walk among the corpses to make sure
everyone was dead. The presence of bulldozers, which pushed
the dead bodies onto tractor-trailers, indicated that the
Serb authorities had prepared for a large number of persons
to be executed at the sites.
One of two survivors of a mass execution carried out
on a meadow recounted:
HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH/HELSINKI
"There were 12 of us in a small truck. We were driven
for about 2 to 3 minutes, and when the truck stopped, we
were ordered to get out. I saw grass underneath my
blindfold. My cousin, Haris, took my hand. He said,
'They're going to execute us.' As soon as he said that, I
heard gunfire from the right side. Haris was hit and fell
toward me, and I fell with him.
"Someone was ordering them to finish us off
individually. This process continued all day. During the
day, I also heard trucks continuously driving up to another
area about 100 meters away and gunshots which would follow
shortly thereafter. There must have been two execution
sites right next to each other. I also heard a bulldozer
working in the background and became horrified. My worst
nightmare was that I would be buried alive.
"I kept hearing people gasping and asking for water so
they wouldn't die thirsty. Others kept on repeating, 'Kill
me. Just finish me off.' Later I woke up. I wasn't sure
whether I blacked out or fell asleep, and it was drizzling.
It was nighttime, and I saw light beams from a bulldozer's
headlights. I still heard the same noises as before-trucks
driving up, people getting out, and gunshots. I also
remember distinctly an older voice calling, 'Don't kill us.
We didn't do anything to you,' followed by gunfire.
"I waited for about 4 or 5 minutes after all the Serbs
had left to make sure that it wasn't some kind of trick.
When I finally decided to get up, I couldn't. My whole body
was numb. It took me a few minutes to get adjusted, but
when I got up, I saw corpses littering a meadow about 150
meters by 100 meters. Suddenly I heard someone ask, 'Are
you wounded?' I answered that I wasn't. It was a 60-year-
"I tried to make my way over to him without stepping
on the dead. It was impossible, so I tried at least not to
step on the chest and torsos, but onto the arms and hands
instead. We saw two other wounded men both in their
thirties. They were both shot in the legs and one was shot
in the hip. We checked to see if they could move, and they
realized there was no way we could help them. They realized
this, too, and told us to run away as quickly as possible.
"Before we left, the man who was wounded in the legs
told me he was cold, and asked me to take a shirt or
something off one of the dead bodies so that he could cover
himself. The last thing I heard them say was, 'Run,
brothers, save yourselves.' "
The July 1995 attack on the U.N.-declared safe area of
Srebrenica by Serb forces was planned well in advance, and
abuses perpetrated after the fall of the enclave were
systematic and well-organized. According to the UNHCR, up
to 8,000 men, including boys as young as 12 years old,
remain missing; and many are believed to have been killed
Although the U.N. member states and U.N. officials
have been ready to condemn war crimes and crimes against
humanity in the former Yugoslavia, little has been done to
prevent or stop such abuses from taking place. Between
August and October 1995, while the United States carried
out active negotiations with Serbian leader Slobodan
Milosevic, systematic ethnic cleansing continued to be
carried out against tens of thousands of non-Serbs in
Two thousand men, civilians who had never engaged in
armed resistance, disappeared as their families were
expelled into Bosnian Government-controlled territory.
Numerous witnesses reported seeing Serbian-based special
forces of Arkan operating in the area. Arkan is the nom-de-
guerre of Zeljko Raznatovic, a suspected war criminal from
Moreover, we also obtained several testimonies and
photographic evidence pointing to a mass execution of
approximately 150 civilians, which took place in the end of
Human Rights Watch/Helsinki would like to use this
opportunity to call on the international community, and
especially the U.S. Government, to insist on immediate
international access to all detainees from the Srebrenica
safe area and demand that their safety and well-being are
ensured, and insist that the Bosnian Serb authorities
provide immediate access to the sites of reported massacres
during the Srebrenica offensive. The fate of the missing
and disappeared must be disclosed.
Furthermore, if relevant, the United States and the
international community must disclose all available
information, including the intelligence, that implicates
Serbia in supplying, assisting, or directing Bosnian Serb
troops, and also strengthen the mechanisms for monitoring
external support to Bosnian Serb forces.
Finally, the international community and the United
States must ensure that the Dayton peace agreement
guarantees the right to repatriation of survivors of ethnic
cleansing and that the full protection of all returnees and
minority groups is actively carried out. Ladies and
gentlemen, thank you for listening.
Chairman SMITH. Mr. Lupis, thank you for that very
moving testimony and your call, which I do believe will go
heeded. Access is extremely important. That it be immediate
is crucial to the kind of documentation that will be needed
to get convictions in the War Crimes Tribunal. So I want to
thank you for your good work and your fine testimony this