Twenty-seven years since the siege of Sarajevo began, a handful of commanders have been tried, but Bosnian prosecutors have not yet filed any indictments against direct perpetrators of sniping and shelling attacks on civilians.
During the three-and-a-half-year siege of Sarajevo, civilians were attacked with snipers’ bullets and artillery projectiles while buying food at markets, doing their gardening or cleaning the streets. They were shot at while attending funerals and while riding in buses, trams and ambulances or on bicycles. The attacks were mainly conducted during the day. They were not a response to any military threats.
These conclusions were presented by the presiding judge at the International Criminal Tribunal on former Yugoslavia, Alphons Orie, when pronouncing Stanislav Galic guilty of a campaign of terror against the civilian population of Sarajevo, during his term as commander of the Bosnian Serb Army’s Sarajevo-Romanija Corps between 1992 and 1994.
The crimes were on such a scale that Orie sentenced Galic to life imprisonment. Reading the verdict, the judge said that children were targeted while playing or walking the streets. A total of 1,601 boys and girls lost their lives during the siege of Sarajevo.
One of them was Mirza Imamovic. His mother, Zlatka, recalled how one day she heard an explosion and ran out of the house with her husband, calling for Mirza, who was playing outside.
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‘There was smoke … We could not see through it, we did not know what was happening; we ran down the stairs, not knowing what was happening and shouting for Mirza,’ Imamovic said. ‘At some stage I saw my Mirza lying on the stairs, dead … With that moment in my head I go to sleep and with that moment in my head I wake up, every morning for the whole of my life.’
Stanislav Galic and his successor as the commander of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps, Dragomir Milosevic, were jailed by the Hague tribunal for terrorising the population of Sarajevo during the siege. But so far the Bosnian state prosecution has not filed a single indictment for the murders and wounding of thousands of people in the city from 1992 to 1995. No one has been convicted in Bosnia and Herzegovina for the death of Mirza Imamovic and other children like him.
The state prosecution said it has several investigations ongoing over crimes committed as part of the siege, but refused to explain why it has failed to file a single indictment for these crimes it started addressing in 2003. Legal experts argue however that because of the hierarchical structure of the Bosnian Serb army and the evidence presented at the UN court in the Hague, it would be possible to identify a large number of direct criminal perpetrators.
‘It was like Russian roulette’
The former political and military leaders of the Bosnian Serbs, Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, were convicted under first-instance verdicts of responsibility for a campaign of terrorising Sarajevo’s civilians with a campaign of sniper fire and artillery attacks. The final verdict in the Karadzic case will be handed down this month, while Mladic’s final verdict is expected next year.
The Hague tribunal’s verdicts have determined that units of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps intentionally targeted civilians while conducting a campaign of terror that lasted three-and-a-half years. It is alleged that the goal of the campaign was to put pressure on Sarajevo authorities to accept peace deals which would legalise ethnic cleansing by Bosnian Serb forces.
The Federal Radio journalist Irena Antic was 16 when she was wounded in Sarajevo. She was hit by a sniper bullet while carrying firewood. ‘We did not know who might no longer be with us when we met the next time,’ Antic recalled. ‘We had a joke that each grenade and bullet had someone’s name written on them. The only question was when they would hit them …’
She was a witness to the both massacres at the Markale open market in Sarajevo in 1994 and 1995, when scores of civilians were killed by shells fired by the Bosnian Serb Army. She also saw the massacre in Vase Miskina Street in Sarajevo in 1992, when 28 people were killed while queueing for bread, and was nearby when there was a deadly mortar attack at a brewery in the city where people were queueing to pick up water supplies. ‘When the massacre happened at the brewery, I was just over 100 metres away, holding my water canisters. Somehow it all looked like Russian roulette to me. When my turn came, I felt that was it,’ she said.
Direct command responsibility
The siege of Sarajevo was instigated by the fourth corps of the Yugoslav People’s Army, the JNA, and Serb-led territorial defence units in the spring of 1992. After the Yugoslav authorities decided to withdraw the Belgrade-led JNA from Bosnia and Herzegovina, the National Assembly in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska made the decision to establish the Army of Republika Srpska—the Bosnian Serb Army.
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The Bosnian Serb Army’s Sarajevo Romanija-Corps had between six and 13 brigades during the war. ‘All the brigades were directly subordinate to the corps’ commander. The foremost direct command responsibility for all that happened in its zone of responsibility lay with the commander of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps,’ said Alija Kozljak, a former brigadier with the postwar Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Stanislav Galic was appointed commander of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps in September 1992. He remained in the position until 1994, when he was replaced by Dragomir Milosevic. In the first months of the war, according to Hague tribunal documents, the commander was Tomislav Sipcic. Available data suggests that more than 1,700 howitzers, cannons, short-range mortars, multiple rocket launchers and assault guns, plus over 100 tanks, around 150 armoured personnel carriers and more than 500 anti-aircraft weapons and machine guns, were deployed by the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps at positions surrounding Sarajevo, and were used to open fire on the city every day during the siege.
The ballistics expert Berko Zecevic put together an analysis for the Hague tribunal, demonstrating that in the 70 shelling incidents the projectiles were fired from territory controlled by the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps. ‘They were definitely not fired from the territories controlled by the Bosnian Army; they surely came deep from territory controlled by the VRS [Bosnian Serb Army],’ Zecevic said.
According to Kozljak, the shelling was conducted by various Sarajevo-Romanija Corps units: the First Sarajevo Mechanised Brigade from Lukavica, the Second Infantry Brigade from Lukavica, the Second Motorised Brigade from Sokolac, the First Ilidza Light Infantry Brigade from Lukavica, the First Ilijas Light Infantry Brigade, the Igman Light Infantry Brigade and the Kosevo Light Infantry Brigade. Kozljak said that each of the units had its own zone of responsibility as part of the ring around Sarajevo, and shelled the city directly from their battle positions. ‘The relevant brigade commanders were directly responsible for all actions undertaken by their brigades in their zones of responsibility, which were clearly specified,’ he explained.
Using Hague tribunal evidence, as well as numerous testimonies by former members of the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps, the journalist Dzenana Karup Drusko published a list of troops who were in Bosnian Serb positions around the city during the war ‘The name of the person who was in charge of all snipers in the city is listed in documentation. The exact locations of sniper nests, from which the biggest number of citizens were killed, is known. All those people are at liberty,’ Karup Drusko said. ‘I published the names without prejudging anyone’s guilt or responsibility. But if the Sarajevo-Romanija Corps held the city under the siege for three-and-a-half years, and if people were killed every day, it means someone must be responsible for all that,’ she added.
Kozljak’s analysis meanwhile indicated that the Sarajevo-Romanija Mixed Regiment from Lukavica was responsible for the indirect and direct shelling of Sarajevo with 155mm and 105mm howitzers, as well as 128mm multiple rocket launchers. He said that the regiment was responsible for random and targeted fire at the city’s population. As for snipers, Kozljak pointed out that they were part of battalions and companies and the commanders who deployed them could be identified. ‘Battalion commanders, as well as commanders of companies and squads that were part of those battalions, were directly responsible for their actions, because there were orders for [snipers’] use and reports on their use,’ Kozljak said.
The Bosnian state prosecution has filed a total of 12 indictments against former members of Bosnian Serb military, police and paramilitary units, charging them with crimes in and around Sarajevo during the siege years, but none of them has been indicted for shelling or sniping. Zecevic said he was ‘shocked’ because nobody has ever asked him to help with any of the investigations. ‘Nobody has ever contacted me to help determine who was responsible for leading the units or to identify individuals who operated individual weapons or weapon batteries from which lethal projectiles were fired,’ he said.
Zlatka Imamovic, whose son was killed, said it was painful to see how slowly justice has moved to deal with the crimes committed during the 1990s siege, as many parents of children who died have also passed away over the years without seeing anyone brought to court to answer for the crimes. ‘If it continues to go on this way, I’m afraid it will be forgotten and that nobody will be tried for what they did … It’s sad and it hurts,’ she said.
She explained that her dream was to look into the eyes of the man who fired the grenade that ended the life of her son, Mirza. ‘I want to look at him and tell him what he took away from me, to show him photographs of what he took away,’ she said. ‘For me, even that would be enough.’
This article first appeared in Balkan Insight.