October 15, 1995

Trek through Serbian-Controlled Territory

As Srebrenica was falling, the overwhelming majority of military-aged men and boys and a smattering of women and children gathered in a separate location in order to make a journey through Bosnian Serb-held territory to reach Bosnian government-controlled territory.  The majority of the persons in this group were civilians; men and boys interviewed by Human Rights Watch/Helsinki representatives stated that of the 12,000 to 15,000 trekkers, between 3,000 to 4,000 of whom were armed.[93] These armed persons were primarily located in the front and brought up the rear while civilians and wounded filled the middle. Some of those in between were also armed, although the vast majority were not.

Most men and boys of military age began grouping together and leaving the Srebrenica pocket in the evening and early morning of July 11 and 12.  They formed a column, which stretched for approximately ten kilometers.  The men had to walk in such a vulnerable formation because they had been warned of mined terrain.  During the trek, the column was exposed to numerous attacks and ambushes by Bosnian Serb forces, during which violations of humanitarian law were committed.  These included:  attacks against civilian targets,[94] indiscriminate and disproportionate use of force,[95] and summary executions.[96]

After the U.N. failed to defend the “safe area” of Srebrenica, the enclave’s military-aged men no longer trusted the UNPROFOR/UNPF troops, nor did they believe their safety would be guaranteed. I.N., a twenty-year-old born in Gladovici in the municipality of Srebrenica, recounted that he decided to leave the “safe area” on his own after he found out that the U.N. could do nothing to protect the enclave and its residents: 

The Chetniks bombed the civilian center every day from the beginning of the offensive on June 27 until the end when they came in.  Everyone from the outlying areas of the city flooded down into Srebrenica around July 5 or 6; there was intense shelling.  The Serbs advanced from the east, north and south, lighting up hamlets and villages as they got closer.  We held out in the west, but they burned that area after Srebrenica had fallen.  Since I had worked at a U.N. humanitarian distribution base before, I asked the Dutch why they weren’t protecting us and why there were no air strikes; they told me it was because the Serbs said they would slaughter their [U.N.] hostages who were now in Bratunac [if the U.N. attacked]. 

 

J.N., a man from Konjevic Polje - who was a logger before the war - described the atmosphere in the “safe area” on the last night in Srebrenica during the planning phase of the trek:

The Serbs were already in the town, so the men tried to escape through the forest.  I said goodbye to my wife and kids and went to meet up with the other men.  We went to the big circle where the U.N. was, to wait for transportation to Tuzla.  The boys and men first went to Lipa hill to discuss with everyone what our strategy would be.  We called that route “the way of life and death.” We realized that we had no other choice and that many of us would die.  But this way maybe at least some of us would survive.  If we surrendered to the Serbs, then we surely had no hope. 
From that hill we could see everything that was going on in town.  Then we saw a column of tanks, transporters and different kinds of vehicles in Bibici ‑ about one kilometer from Srebrenica.  The Chetnik vehicles were placed along the whole road from Bibici to Srebrenica, and we could see the Chetniks shelling the villages all around.  They used the kind of shells that explode into fire. The houses began burning as soon as they were hit.  The Chetniks were shelling exactly those areas with the most people.
During the day, thousands of men arrived at Lipa.  At about 6:00 P.M. we headed out towards Tuzla.  There were maybe about 15,000 of us.[97]

J.T., a thirty-seven-year-old miner from Srebrenica, gave a similar account of the departure:

In the evening about 8:00 or 9:00 P.M., about 15,000 men all met at Jaglici.  There were even some women and children there who either wanted to go with their men or did not trust the Serbs to transport them safely.  We had to decide whether or not to go to Cepa or Tuzla, but finally decided to go to Tuzla.  At about 5:15 A.M., my sector headed towards Konjevic Polje.  We headed out in one column of two-by-two rows, and I was in the first section at about the 153rd position.[98]

The men and boys began the journey by making their way through a forest in a column-like fashion.  During the first section of the trek, while they were still in so-called “safe-area” territory, they experienced shelling and grenading, but no direct ambushes or assaults.  However, during the second part of the journey, the column of men and boys was exposed to direct ambushes, as well as shelling.

J.C., born in May 1952, in Pomol in the municipality of Vlasenica, recounted that Bosnian Serb forces knew the men and boys from Srebrenica would attempt to escape through enemy territory:

The first of us left Jaglici at 4:30-5:00 A.M. on July 12.  Scouts went out first to see what kind of conditions were up ahead; the column of men followed shortly.  The Chetniks knew we were going to head for Bosnian government-controlled territory from Jaglici, so they shot at us, threw grenades at us, and kept on shouting to us - most of the time through bullhorns - “We know you are going to try and pass through with your column!  Better for you to go to Potocari and leave with the buses!”  My section of the column departed at 12:30 P.M.[99]

J.N. was situated at the front of the column and described the departure:

I was in the first group with about 1,000 people, because I knew the terrain pretty well.  We passed the first _etnik bunkers without a lot of problems, and in the morning we arrived near Kamenica.  Those at the end of the column had a lot more problems, because the Serbs allowed a large portion of us in to penetrate their lines and then they began to ambush the middle.  While we were stuck at Kamenica, all the wounded were being brought to a place nearby.  We stayed there for the rest of the day and the night.  After a while, we realized that we had to move, one way or another, or else we were surely dead.  The Serbs knew this, too, so they just waited. They had squeezed everyone into one small spot near Kamenica. After we walked about 500 meters, the Serbs began shooting everywhere.  I remember a tree falling down and killing more than twenty people at one point.  I'm sure more that 2,000 people were killed from shooting and shelling there. 
 
Serb tanks were placed all along the route from Kravica to Konjevic Polje up to the intersection at Konjevic Polje.  My brother and I saw people falling down.  Dead and wounded were all around. We were simply running without knowing where we were going.  One shell fell near me, and I was terrified.  That's when my brother and I separated.  I haven't seen him since.  There were people all around who were shot in the legs, arms, stomach.  I saw so many bodies.   At this point, the Serbs were all along the road from Kravica to Konjevic Polje preventing us from crossing.  We were trying to find our way through from the village Krajinovici to Kaldrumica road, but the Chetniks were waiting for us.  Their APCs and tanks were placed all along the road.  When we realized that there was no way we could cross, we decided to retreat towards Nova Kasaba.[100]

J.T. described what he saw after an initial section of the column was attacked:

We went through the forest and then down by a creek.  There were Chetniks on both sides.  Almost immediately we began to hear detonations up ahead.  They were shelling the people who had left before us.  In any case, we had to keep going, and after about 700 or 800 meters, we came to an area where there were a lot of dead and wounded.  My wife's brother was among the dead.  We tried to cover them with leaves, because we didn't have time to make a grave, but we couldn't do them any justice.
As we approached a creek we were elated because we thought we would be able to drink some water.  But then we saw all the dead bodies, and I couldn't even think about taking a drink.  I think what happened was that the first group had come down to the creek to get some water when the shells landed there and killed all those people.  The bodies were lying all over the place like little pieces of wood.[101]

P.I., a thirty-five-year-old man from Suceska in the Srebrenica municipality, stated:

By the time we reached Siljkovici/Buljim mountain we had already been shelled by grenades, anti-aircraft guns and anti-aircraft machine guns [PRAGAs and PAMs].  The Chetniks tried to cut the column up as much as they could.  In a meadow in the middle of a forest at Siljkovici, we sat down to take a rest at around 3:00 P.M.  There we decided to wait until dark to cross the road at Konjevic Polje.  About thirty of our badly wounded people had to be left near a stream.  Complete chaos erupted when thousands of us started to depart.  Suddenly there was a burst of weapons fire, and some rockets fell into the meadow.  PRAGAs and PAMs started to hammer from all sides.  There was massive panic among the thousands of us.  It was completely dark. There were weapons firing from all sides, and many people were being killed.[102]

Picking up and carrying as many of the wounded as they could, the men and boys continued to move ahead, but the chaos, panic and disarray produced by the ambushes caused large segments of the column to break apart and split into smaller groups and individuals.  Survivors of the trek described to Human Rights Watch/Helsinki representatives how Bosnian Serb ambushes repeatedly cut the column into segments.   Many of those fleeing became hysterical with terror and lost all emotional control, others decided to surrender, or as mentioned below, commit suicide.  Also, people who were located in the back of the column recounted how they found piles of corpses of people who had been in the front and middle of the columns, littered along the terrain, near streams, rivers and meadows.  Many had slit throats.  I.N. vividly described the horrific ordeal which the men and boys experienced:

On July 12, around 11:00 A.M., I left Srebrenica with approximately 6,000 to 7,000 men.  Our scouts told us to leave by walking in two columns because everything in the area was mined.  We were so vulnerable to ambushes — walking in two long columns like that — but it was the only thing we could do to avoid getting blown up [by mines].  Around 5,000 to 6,000 men had left already, and they were already approximately fifty to seventy kilometers ahead of us.  After about three kilometers, we encountered our first ambush at a stream.  The center of our column was hit by anti-aircraft machine guns [PAMs] and mortars; around 200 people died just from that.  The Chetniks 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 columns scattered everywhere.  I was in the middle and saw how the Serbs were shooting everyone and slaughtering us with bayonets.  These soldiers were not local Bosnian Serb soldiers who looked more like paramilitary bands; these soldiers must have come over from Serbia, because they were all wearing black uniforms with white bands on their necks.  I managed to escape to a stream where I saw about fifty bodies; from there I tried to go to Kravica.  At one point on the way I saw - about 200 meters in front of me - about one hundred people yelling “Don’t shoot!  We give up” and giving themselves up to the Chetniks who rounded them up and took them away.  I turned into a forest and ran into about thirty guys.  We wandered around and after a while, we ran into a large group of about 3,000.[103]

T.I., a sixty-three-year-old from Cerska, stated: 

Even though I am sixty-three years old and was supposed to leave Srebrenica with the women, children and elderly on the buses and trucks, I was picked to follow our men out of Srebrenica, because I had a horse and could help transport some of the wounded.  I think everyone who had a horse and could move the wounded was told to come along, because there were others.  On July 11 or 12, I left in a column of about 5,000 to 6,000 people — civilians and soldiers from age twelve, thirteen and up.  The guy I had to transport had a head wound and a hand injury.  We were heading out towards Pobudze-Kamenica. 
We walked for about twenty-four hours.  Then our column began to diminish, because people were breaking off and running into the woods and mountains individually and in little groups.  Along the way we saw bodies, wounded people and a few who had just lost their minds.  We encountered our first ambush near Nova Kasaba.  We were in the woods, where our column had to stop and leave our wounded.  The Chetniks started shelling the woods with mortars and calling for us to come out and give up.  They told us that they would send the elderly to their families and that they would keep the younger men for exchanges.  When we realized we were surrounded, people from the column started killing themselves, committing suicide; some threw themselves on top of grenades, others shot themselves in the mouth and others were shooting themselves in order to wound themselves in the hope that maybe their injury would somehow save them after they were captured by the Chetniks.  We ended up surrendering.[104]

 During the nighttime and during the ambushes, Bosnian Serb soldiers in civilian clothing managed to infiltrate the column — spreading disinformation and confusion, giving wrong directions, injecting men with what were believed to have been hallucinatory drugs, drawing groups and individuals away from the column, and killing people from within the column.  I.N. continued with his account:

After a while I carefully got up and looked around.  There was about 200 dead bodies lying around me.  I listened carefully.  I didn’t know where I was.  Then I heard someone talking, and I. . . realized there were about a thousand of our guys.  Again - just as before - we got into columns and walked, but by now almost none of us had weapons left.  We carried the wounded and injured from the first and second ambush in woolen blankets.  I had to leave the wounded guy I was carrying at the side of the road; I couldn’t carry him anymore.  He was about a twenty-year-old kid.   
 
As night fell, we saw groups of men merging into our column.  I saw unfamiliar faces; one of them started saying, “Hurry up with the wounded!  Hurry up with the wounded!”  All of a sudden we realized that the unfamiliar men were Chetniks who had infiltrated our column.  There was a lot of them, about 300.  They ordered us to leave the injured and wounded at the side of the road, while their men started giving them injections and making them swallow some kind of pills.  Later, people who were at the end of our column said that the injured and wounded people looked like they were dying after they were injected or forced to swallow the pills. 
All of a sudden, in all that chaos, we noticed that the chetniks had suddenly disappeared; panic erupted.  We were all in a meadow, when shooting suddenly erupted from a hill behind us.  I ran for the woods right away.  The Chetniks came out into the meadow and started to kill and slaughter everyone they could.  I ran about 500 meters with about twenty guys towards a creek when suddenly three grenades emitting red fire and smoke dropped in front of us.  My eyes, nose and mouth started stinging.  I thought it was some kind of poison, and for the first time, I became really frightened that I was going to die.  Fortunately, a wind started carrying the smoke up the hill, so I turned downhill with about five guys.  The stinging lasted for about half an hour.  We descended to a creek where we heard running water.  We wanted to go in, but we saw about twenty massacred bodies floating in it, some decapitated.[105]

J.C. gave a similar account of the “infiltration tactic” used by Bosnian Serb forces:

The Chetniks who had mixed into our column started telling us that they knew the way to safety.  Many small groups broke off from our larger group of about 2,000 to follow these men - faces I had never seen before in Srebrenica.  These unknown men told our guys to take the wounded with them; we never saw any of those wounded men again. 
I came out onto a meadow near the village of Krajnovici where I found my cousin, Ibrahim Mujicic, and a friend.  There, we were ambushed by the Chetniks; they started slaughtering our men.  The three of us ran to the bank of a creek to hide.  During the ambush, three other men crawled up to us; one with a rifle and the other two with knives.  One of them suddenly took Ibrahim by the beard and cut his throat.  They got my friend, too.  I jumped into the creek and ran about thirty meters while they shot at me.  I hid in the bushes, and fifteen minutes later I saw them looking for me.  They kept on saying, “He must be here somewhere.” One of the Chetniks walked about half a meter away from me; I was extremely frightened.  They searched the area all day for other escapees as well.  I remember that one of the Chetniks said, “I mostly killed the wounded.”  I didn’t hear that much shooting from the meadow, so I think most of our men there were slaughtered with knives just like Ibrahim was.  I remained hidden until late that night, until I thought that everyone had left the area.  I started to walk across the meadow - which was about 500 meters long - and must have seen about 200 corpses there - most of them slaughtered.  I headed for the forest, walked through it, and came upon the Kravica river, which I crossed.[106]

J.T.’s account of Bosnian Serb soldiers infiltrating the column closely corroborates I.T.’s and J.C.’s:

As we continued, we saw hundreds of dead people.  Everyone was just trying to save themselves.  Some were killed by shells, others by bullets.  Then the Chetniks began infiltrating our column.  They were dressed in civilian clothes so of course at first we couldn't tell if they were our guys or not.  They were killing our people, sometimes with wires and sometimes with a knife by slitting their throats.  They didn't want to use guns because it would make noise and they did not want to draw attention to themselves.[107]

A thirty-year-old bus conductor, from the Vlasenica area, G.I., witnessed how people in the column were being given injections at random by the Bosnian Serb infiltrators.  Human Rights Watch/Helsinki representatives collected many testimonies in which men and boys gave similar accounts:

The Chetniks were among us in the column.  They were also in civilian clothes so we couldn't tell who was one of us and who was one of them.  One of them was carrying water, and they had needles for injections with them.  They began shoving the needles into people and injecting them.  A lot of people around me were going crazy and acting very strange.  They were having hallucinations.  They were saying things like, “What a pretty rose that is," or “what a pretty cucumber." The Chetniks were offering water to us, too, pretending that they were one of us.  Some of them fell for it.  I had a feeling they were Chetniks, because this one guy, who said he was Admir from Cepa, had brand-new sneakers on and he was clean-shaven.  They weren't nervous at all.  They would lure people away from the columns by offering water to them and saying that they knew the way to go.[108]

N.T., a forty-year-old man originally from Bratunac, described what he saw as a systematic tactic: “The Chetniks continually shelled the columns in order to kill as many men as possible, but the shelling also diverted our attention from the infiltrators.”  He recounted how his part of the column was also ambushed from “the inside”:

The column and the forest through which we were moving were shelled by the Chetniks at random the whole way.  At around 3:00 P.M. that day, the column stopped in the forest so we could wait for the end of the column to catch up.  We waited until about 6:00 P.M.  At around 7:00 P.M., we headed out again and encountered the largest ambush near Pobuce near Kravica.  It happened around 8:30 P.M., when it got dark.  We were hit by anti-aircraft guns [PRAGAs] from Kravica, while Chetniks, who had infiltrated into our column earlier, suddenly opened fire on us from within the column.  Everyone just dove to the ground; it was complete chaos; nobody knew what was going on, everyone was panicking, and there were massive casualties.  The ambush lasted for about ten to fifteen minutes.  Then the shooting stopped, and it was completely dark; we had to regroup and collect all the wounded.  Everyone was screaming and shouting amidst the chaos.  We ended up taking the lightly wounded with us and leaving the heavily wounded behind.[109]
 

As the ambushes and infiltrating Bosnian Serbs continued to pick away at the column, men and boys tried desperately to regroup after the ambush.  During the day, the men and boys stopped along the way to allow stragglers to catch up and to figure out who the infiltrators were.  N.P., a twenty-five-year-old from Lehovici in the municipality of Srebrenica, described the exhaustion and extremity to which the victimized men were pushed:

At dawn, the thirteen of us headed out.  One of the men in the group was from Pobude and suggested that we head toward Kamenica, since he was familiar with that area.  We made it to his village sometime in the morning of July 13.  It was completely burned.  On the way there, we ran across two wounded men - one of them had his leg blown off.  They were good friends, and the former did not want to leave his partner at all.  He begged us to call the Serbs so that his friend could get medical help.  We told him that he was crazy - that the Chetniks would surely execute them.  Anyway, he didn’t want to leave his immobile friend and go with us.  He said, “We’ll stay together no matter what; even if we have to die together.  We have two guns, and if no one comes for us we’ll shoot each other.”  So we left them and pushed on.[110]

N.T. gave an account of psychological exhaustion and paranoia gripping the men:

When we arrived at Ljiplje at around 2:00 P.M., we were ambushed by anti-aircraft gun [PRAGA] and anti-aircraft machine gun [PAM]fire from a fortification, and again, by Chetniks within our group who opened fire.  The attack lasted for about an hour; we all ran for low ground, took cover and then ran toward the forest.  That night, the Chetniks started infiltrating our group again.  But some of us were more guarded now; trying to see whether anyone recognized these people who announced that they knew the way or where the Chetniks were hiding.  This time we caught one of them and killed him immediately when he couldn’t answer some of the more detailed questions about “his history” in Srebrenica.  It was a torturous state of mind to be in; no one knew whom to trust.[111]

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 Human Rights Watch/Helsinki representatives that they saw unarmed men shot in the process of surrendering.

After running into a number of other stragglers from the column, I.N. recounted the following:

We made our way back to the main road where we came upon another group of corpses, between 200 and 220, which looked like they were killed with grenades.  They didn’t have bullet wounds, but it looked as if they were all torn up, like they were killed with shrapnel.  We spent the next two days and nights walking through the forest, where we could follow the main road but not be seen by the Chetniks.  In that time, we must have seen about one hundred men coming down from the forest, onto the road, so they could give themselves up; but they were all being killed.  We kept on walking for four days and four nights until we arrived at Krizevici.  Finally, I passed Chetnik lines and crossed over into Memici in Kalesija around 9:00 A.M. and ran into a few Bosnian soldiers who showed me their I.D. cards and gave me a pack of cigarettes with a ljiljan[112] on it.  I knew then that I had made it to Bosnian government-controlled territory.

When we were sneaking past all these villages in Chetnik-controlled territories in eastern Bosnia, the amazing thing is that, in the area that had been “ethnically cleansed” of Muslims, there were no Serbian civilians.  All the Muslim villages are burned out and empty. You can tell they haven’t been inhabited for a long time, because the grass is overgrown and in some places as tall as me.  The only things we had to worry about were Chetnik patrols and groups of soldiers that were traveling back and forth looking for us; they were everywhere.  The other thing I noticed during our trek through Chetnik territory was that, many times, as we listened to Chetnik patrols and guards, many of the soldiers spoke with Krajina[113] accents; they had distinct Croatian accents.[114]

[93]Also, see Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Special Rapporteur of the Commission on Human Rights, “Final Periodic Report. . .,” paragraphs 29-36.

[94] Customary international law and the Geneva Conventions and their protocols expressly recognize that civilians and civilian objects may not be the direct objects of attack, notwithstanding that damage may occur among civilians and civilian objects collateral to a legitimate attack against military targets.  (See Respect for Human Rights in Armed Conflicts, General Assembly Resolution 2444, 23 U.N. GAOR Supp. (No 18), p. 164; U.N. Doc. A/7433 (1968); and Articles 48, 50, 51 (2), 52 and 53 of the 1977 Protocol Additional to the Geneva Conventions of 12 August 1949, and Relating to the Protection of Victims of International Armed Conflicts, which prohibit attacks against civilians or cultural property and define the principles of proportionality, which places a duty on combatants to choose means of attack that avoid or minimize damage to civilians.).  Furthermore, Article 32 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that parties are “prohibited from taking any measure of such a character as to cause the physical suffering or extermination of protected persons in their hands.  This prohibition applies not only to murder, torture, corporal punishment, mutilation and medical or scientific experiments not necessitated by the medical treatment of a protected person, but also to any other measures of brutality whether applied by civilian or military agents.”

[95]Article 51(5)(b) of Protocol I formulates this rule as follows: “an attack which may be expected to cause incidental loss of civilian life, injury to civilians, damage to civilian objects, or a combination thereof, which would be excessive in relation to the concrete and direct military advantages anticipated.”

[96]The summary execution of civilians and persons hors de combat is prohibited under Article 75 of Protocol I and, moreover, under Article 85(3)(e) of Protocol I and Article 147 of the Fourth Geneva Convention is considered a “grave breach.”  Moreover, Article 13 of the Third Geneva Convention states: “Prisoners of war must at all times be humanely treated.  Any unlawful omission by the Detaining Power causing death or seriously endangering the health of a prisoner of war in its custody is prohibited and will be regarded as a serious breach of the present Convention.” Prisoners are to be treated humanely “from the time they fall into the power of the enemy and until their final release and repatriation.” (Article 5, Third Geneva Convention); i.e., after the combatants are rendered unable to bear arms as a consequence of surrender, wounds, illness or otherwise, the person no longer constitutes a legitimate military threat and, therefore, cannot be the subject of attack, is to be treated humanely and cannot be summarily executed. 

[97]Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Tuzla, August 1995.

[98] Ibid.

[99] Ibid.

[100] Ibid.

[101] Ibid.

[102] Ibid.

[103] Ibid.

[104] Ibid.

[105] Ibid.

[106] Ibid.

[107] Ibid.

[108] Ibid.

[109] Ibid.

[110] Ibid.

[111] Ibid.

[112] A ljiljan is a fleur-de-lis and is the national symbol of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

[113] Krajina is a region in Croatia that, until August 1995, was controlled by rebel Serbian forces.

[114] Human Rights Watch/Helsinki interview, Tuzla, August 1995.