BIRN Fact-Check: Trial Evidence Contradicts Claims in Bosnian Serbs’ Srebrenica Report

Serb forces in Srebrenica on 16 July 1995. Photo: EPA PHOTO EPA FILES / STR

BIRN Fact-Check: Trial Evidence Contradicts Claims in Bosnian Serbs’ Srebrenica Report

29. July 2021.17:45
29. July 2021.17:45
A report by a Bosnian Serb-funded commission has claimed the Srebrenica massacres were not genocide and most victims were not civilians – but some of its controversial assertions are contradicted by evidence heard at trials at international courts.

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The conclusion by the Independent International Commission of Inquiry on the Sufferings of All Peoples in the Srebrenica Region between 1992 and 1995 reflected the opinion of Bosnian Serb political leaders, who reject international court verdicts that have classified the July 1995 Srebrenica massacres as genocide.

The head of the commission, Israeli historian Gideon Greif, told Republika Srpska’s public broadcaster RTRS that at no time did the ten-member commission feel any pressure from the authorities and was “1,000 per cent” independent in its work.

Greif declared that “there was no genocide” and the casualty figures for the number of Bosniaks from Srebrenica who were killed in July 1995 was lower than verdicts issued by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY have established.

The report also claims that a large proportion of those killed were soldiers, not civilians.

The establishment of the commission provoked concerns among Balkans experts internationally that it was a politically-motivated genocide denial project by the Bosnian Serb authorities.

After the commission’s report was criticised for ignoring or contradicting some of the facts established by the ICTY and other courts, BIRN examined the justifications for some of its key points.

Were fleeing Bosniaks combatants or civilians?

Part of a column of men from Srebrenica. Photo: Ahmet Bajric

In its report, the commission claims that a convoy of fleeing Bosniaks that prepared to depart from the villages of Jaglici and Susnjari in the Srebrenica region on July 11, 1995 as Bosnian Serb forces overran the enclave, with the aim of escaping to safety in Bosniak-controlled territory in the city of Tuzla, was a “military” column.

The report says there were two large groups involved – civilians and “members of the 28th Division of the Second Corps of the Bosnian Army”.

Calling on findings by Richard Butler, a military expert witness who testified in almost all Srebrenica trials at the ICTY, it claims that “it is possible to draw a conclusion that the column had been a military formation composed of able-bodied men and a very small number of women and people under 16 or over 60 years of age”.

The ICTY’s judgments state that around a third of the column was made up of members of the 28th Division, although not all the soldiers were armed, and two-thirds were civilians.

The ICTY’s verdict in the case of Bosnian Serb Army Drina Corps commander Radislav Krstic stated that “the indictment in this case does not allege that military actions against the column were deliberately or indiscriminately targeted against civilians in the column.

“However, thousands of Bosnian Muslim men, mostly civilians, who were in the column, were captured and transferred to detention sites and then executed,” it added.

The verdict in the trial of Bosnian Serb military chief Ratko Mladic also noted that that during the executions, no actions were taken to separate soldiers from civilians, and able-bodied men were killed irrespective of whether they were civilians or not.

Were the victims killed in firefights or executed?

Place of execution in Pilica. Photo: BIRN BiH

The Republika Srpska-backed commission claimed in its report that the majority of people who fled Srebrenica in the column heading for Tuzla – between 4,000 and 5,000 of them – were killed in combat, “mutual clashes”, or committed suicide.

The report said that nearly 300 able-bodied men opted not to join the column and instead sought protection at the UN peacekeeping force’s base in nearby Potocari. They were then taken to Bratunac and “the majority of them were killed in mass shootings in the days to come”, it accepted.

The commission estimated that the number of people who were captured and shot by Bosnian Serb forces in July 1995 was somewhere between a minimum of 1,500 to 2,000 and a maximum of 2,500 to 3,000, as it claimed that around 7,000 people disappeared and between 4,000 and 5,000 were killed in combat and other circumstances.

But the ICTY determined that over the course of several days in July 1995, Bosnian Serb forces executed several thousand people as part of a large-scale, systematic operation.

The genocide verdict in the case against the chief of security of the Bosnian Serb Army’s Drina Corps, Vujadin Popovic, established a series of facts about the number of people killed at various locations.

It said that the organised mass murders began in a warehouse in Kravica in the Bratunac area on July 13, 1995, where at least 1,000 people were killed, and continued between July 14 and 16, 1995 in Orahovac, where between 800 and 2,500 people were killed, in Petkovci, where more than 800 people were executed, in Kozluk, where more than 1,000 people were killed, and at the Branjevo farm and Cultural Centre in Pilica, where between 1,000 and 2,000 people were shot dead.

The ICTY verdicts do not precisely determine the exact number of people who were killed, the testimonies supported by forensic and demographic evidence imply that significantly more than 7,000 people went missing after Bosnian Serb forces seized Srebrenica.

Were the victims found in mass graves executed?

Excavation of a mass grave containing the bodies of those killed in Pilica, September 1996. Photo: EPA-EFE/ODD ANDERSEN

The Republika Srpska-backed commission’s report contests the number of Srebrenica victims who were buried in mass graves, and also whether they were victims of mass shootings.

“It is not unreasonable to suggest that the presence of shrapnel or blast injuries implies that a certain number of individuals died in combat,” the report claims.

The ICTY’s verdict in the Krstic case stated that the trial chamber could not exclude the possibility that a certain percentage of bodies found in such graves belonged to men killed in combat.

But it said that the overall forensic evidence matched the testimonies by witnesses who spoke about mass executions of thousands of Bosniak men in the warehouse in Kravica, in Orahovac, at Branjevo military farm, in Petkovci and near Kozluk.

The verdict also said that evidence showed that Bosnian Serb forces staged a large-scale attempted cover-up operation over a period of several weeks in September and October 1995, during which they “excavated many of the primary mass graves and reburied the bodies at even more secluded sites”.

The Bosnian Serb Army’s Main Headquarters organised the cover-up operation to hide the bodies with assistance from Bosnian Serb civilian authorities and other military and Interior Ministry units, the verdict in the trial of Radovan Karadzic established.

What is the justification for calling the crime genocide?

Commemoration in Srebrenica. Photo: EPA-EFE/VALDRIN XHEMAJ

The commission’s central claim is that genocide was not committed because “no substantial part of the protected group of Muslims in Bosnia was destroyed”.

“The tribunal’s view that, despite its small size, the population of Srebrenica made up a substantial part of the overall Muslim population of Bosnia and Herzegovina and that there was a special intent to destroy the protected group of Muslims as such cannot be shared,” the report argues.

It also insists that that criteria for the existence of a specific genocidal intention was not met, and argued that “it cannot be found that these murders were committed with any other intention than to eliminate a military threat [from Bosniak troops]”.

The ICTY’s statute defines several grounds for establishing that genocide has been committed, if they are “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group”.

Srebrenica, 16 July 1995. Poto: EPA PHOTO EPA FILES / STR

These include: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; or forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

In the ICTY’s first verdict establishing that genocide was committed – in the judgment convicting Radislav Krstic in 2001 – the tribunal concluded that the evidence showed that Bosnian Serb Army forces intended to eliminate all Bosniaks from Srebrenica through “a massacre of all able-bodied men from that community”.

In classifying the crime as genocide, the ICTY also took into account “the long-term effect which the elimination of between seven and eight thousand Srebrenica men would have on the survival of that community”.

In a ruling in 2007, the International Court of Justice also defined the Srebrenica massacres as genocide, concluding that “they were committed with the specific intent to destroy in part the group of the Muslims of Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

Haris Rovčanin

This post is also available in: Bosnian