In July 1995 Srebrenica was shelled and occupied by the Army of Republic of Srpska,VRS, despite being declared a protected area by the United Nations. More than 7,000 people were killed, the victims of genocide.
Fifteen years later many of those accused of crimes at Srebrenica have appeared before the Court of Bosnia and Herzegovina and the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, ICTY.
BIRN Justice Report writers have gone through the verdicts and reconstructed the events of those days in 1995.
It began in March that year when the Supreme Command of the VRS issued a directive for further action – directive 7 – which developed the strategy regarding protected areas and the complete physical separation of Srebrenica and Zepa.
According to the directive, “planned and well thought out combat operations should create conditions of total insecurity, intolerance and lack of perspective for further survival and life for the inhabitants of Srebrenica and Zepa.”
Three months later, on July 6, the VRS attacked Srebrenica and intensive shelling followed. The target of the attack was the city itself, as well as the observation stations of the Dutch battalion of UNPROFOR.
On July 9, VRS Drina Corps penetrated four kilometers into the enclave, stopping only a mile from the town of Srebrenica. Later that day, Radovan Karadzic, President of the Republika Srpska (RS), encouraged by the military successes and the surprising lack of resistance of the Muslims and lack of significant reaction from the international community, issued an order granting the green light to the Drina Corps to capture Srebrenica.
Thousands of Muslims from Srebrenica began to flee to the Dutch battalion base in Potocari on July 10, desperately seeking protection. While the majority of women, children and old men fled to Potocari, men gathered in the surrounding villages later that night formed the column that moved in the direction of Tuzla, which was under the control of the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The column contained 10,000-15,000 men, some soldiers and some civilians. Only third were armed.
NATO forces began to bomb the VRS tanks advancing toward the city but stopped following threats that the VRS would kill Dutch troops and shell the base in Potocari.
The VRS took the protected enclave, including the town of Srebrenica, on July 11. Ratko Mladic, along with other generals, walked triumphantly through the empty streets celebrating the “victory”.
About 20,000 -25,000 refugees were gathered in Potocari by the evening of July 11. About 300 men were inside the UN base while 600-900 others were crowded outside. The conditions were terrible with little food and water and searing July heat.
As the humanitarian crisis escalated in Potocari, Mladic and other VRS officers held meetings at the Hotel Fontana with members of the Dutch battalion and Muslim refugees to discuss the fate of Srebrenica.
On July 12, at the final meeting, Mladic promised that he would provide buses to transport refugees, and that Srebrenica inhabitants could choose whether they would go or stay. On the same day, the decision is made to separate Muslim men in Potocari and to kill them.
“You can survive or disappear. … For your survival, I demand the following: that all of your men who attacked with weapons and committed crimes, and many did so, against our nation, hand over their weapons to the VRS … after the surrender of weapons you can … choose to stay on the territory … or if that is appropriate, to go where you want. The desire of each of you will be respected,” said Mladic.
The fears of many Srebrenica inhabitants that they would not survive the next day came true.
Approximately 50 buses arrived in Potocari and members the VRS and the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MUP RS) of RS started to separate men aged 15-65 from women, children and the elderly.
The men were taken to a building called “The White House” in Potocari. Before entering, they were forced to hand over personal documents which were then destroyed. Some were detained and then executed and killed. Others were transferred by buses to different detention facilities in Bratunac.
The segregation of men continued throughout the night of July 12 by members of the Bosnian Serb forces. Some men were killed and women were raped.
On July 12 and 13, some of the men and boys who had gone through the woods to territory controlled by the Army of Bosnia and Herzegovina were detained in different locations. Some surrendered.
About 6,000 men were captured in the late afternoon of the July 13. The largest group was captured on the road between Bratunac and Konjevic Polje, where the forces of the MUP RS were deployed.
In the evening, MUP RS and the VRS, acting on the orders of Mladic, took the prisoners to a meadow at Sandic and a football pitch in Nova Kasaba. When the UN troops visited Srebrenica the next day they did not find a single Muslim alive.
On July 13, units of the Drina Corps were deployed in the area between Zvornik and Vlasenica and participated in the capture of Muslims who had surrendered. They took them – along with men from the Potocari – to temporary detention sites in Bratunac, Cerska and a warehouse in Kravica.
Muslim detainees were forced to surrender their property, including documents, wallets, watches and food. They were kept in cramped conditions, given just a little water and almost no food.
The first major execution occurred in the afternoon of July 13 when about 150 Muslims were shot dead in the valley of Cerska, near the main road between Konjevic Polje and Nova Kasaba. On the same day, executions also started in the Sandici meadow and near the “Vuk Karadzic” school in Bratunac.
One of the biggest massacres of the Srebrenica genocide was committed in the late afternoon at the Farming Cooperative Kravica where earlier that day 1,000-1,500 Bosniaks were transferred from the Sandici meadow. In the evening, when the warehouse got crowded, the soldiers of the VRS and MUP RS dropped hand grenades inside and start firing at people.
The executions of prisoners in the warehouse continued in the early morning hours of July 14.
At the same time a meeting was held between members of the civil authorities and the VRS, where they discussed the unstable situation in Bratunac caused by the large number of prisoners. They also openly talked about the killing operation.
In the morning of July 14, the majority of Muslim men from Bratunac were transported by buses and trucks to Zvornik. The column was longer than a kilometre and a half. The men were detained at various locations. The largest concentration camps were in schools in Grbavci and Petkovci.
Prisoners in these areas underwent a brief but scary period of detention in an atmosphere of terror that was maintained by sporadic killings and beatings. With their spirit broken, men were taken to be shot in a field in Orahovac, at a dam in Petkovci and in a gravel pit in Kozluk.
On the early morning of July 14, a convoy of 30 buses arrived at a school in Grbavci near Orahovac where about 1,000 Bosniaks were located in the school gym. In the afternoon, the prisoners were transferred in groups from schools in Grbavci to nearby locations in Orahovac by a small truck. They were then taken to execution sites where they were lined up and shot in the back.
On the same afternoon, members of the VRS brought another large group of 1,500-2,000 prisoners from Bratunac to the school in Petkovci. Conditions were miserable. It was very hot and overcrowded, people were not given any food or water, and some prisoners were so thirsty that they drank their own urine.
Later that day, prisoners were put into smaller groups. They were told to take off their shirts and shoes, and their hands were tied behind their backs. The detained men were taken first to a nearby meadow to be shot, and then to the dam in Petkovci where about 1,000 were killed.
Members of the Zvornik Brigade of the VRS transferred about 1,000 men in schools in Rocevic near Zvornik. On the morning of July 15, several dead bodies lay around the school, and later that day most detainees were taken out and executed on the bank of the Drina River, near Kozluk. No one survived.
Members of the column of Bosniaks from Srebrenica – who had not surrendered or been captured – continued to move towards the territory controlled by the Army of BiH. When they came to the area controlled by the Zvornik Brigade there was heavy fighting.
On July 16, the men who were detained two days earlier at the school in the village of Pilica, north of Zvornik, were loaded onto buses with their hands tied behind their backs. They were taken to the Branjevo Military Economy Farm where members of the VRS lined them up in groups of 10 and shot them. Between 1,000 and 1,200 people were killed. The members of the 10th Sabotage Detachment of the VRS were involved in the murders as well as members of the Bratunac Brigade, who arrived at the Economy Farm in the afternoon.
While the killings were carried out at Branjevo, a group of 500 men from Srebrenica detained in the House of Culture in Pilica tried to escape but failed. They were immediately executed with automatic weapons and hand grenades.
According to witnesses who were nearby, the noise caused by gunfire and grenade explosions lasted for 15-20 minutes. Members of the Bratunac Brigade of the VRS participated in these killings.
On July 16, while executions were still being performed in Pilica, a corridor several hundred meters wide was opened on the defensive positions of the VRS near Zvornik, allowing a significant part of the column of Bosniaks to move into territory controlled by the BiH Army.
After July 16, the murder of a small group of Bosniak men in the area of Kozluk and Nezuk continued. On that day, the burials began of murdered Bosniaks in mass graves.
A month and a half later, members of the VRS and MUP RS participated in an organised effort to hide the killings in the zones of responsibility of the Zvornik and Bratunac Brigades. They exhumed and re-buried the bodies from the original mass graves.
Fifteen years later, about 7,000 people from Srebrenica have been exhumed and identified. Some of the missing have never been found.