1995 Congressional Hearings
Intelligence and Security

US Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe
Washington, DC
Wednesday, DECEMBER 6, 1995


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 indiscriminately killed.

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 offensive.

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 hostage.

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 mined terrain.

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 graves.

"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 them."

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:

"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- old man.

"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 or executed.

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 northwestern Bosnia.

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 Serbia.

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 September 1995.

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 afternoon.