by Slobodan DURMANOVIC
On that day the YPA set out to also leave forever Tuzla, peacefully, in a column that, according to an agreement reached with the local authorities, was supposed to head from the city barracks, with men, officers, reservists, young conscripts and equipment, towards Bijeljina along the so-called Brcko road. What happened after the mentioned agreement between the commander of the barracks, Lieutenant-Colonel Mile Dubajic and representatives of the local authorities led by the then mayor of Tuzla Selim Beslagic and the leaders of the so-called Territorial Defense (TO) of Bosnia-Hercegovina in the city, is described today by the surviving men from the Tuzla convoy as – hell. According to the Serb side, between 200 and 300 soldiers perished in that hell, some of them in the direct attack on the military convoy, others in the execution of the wounded soldiers, which according to the survivors followed the attack. Only 30 sets of carbonized remains of the attack victims have been recovered so far. They were kept for years in more than bad conditions in Deumic hangar in Banja Luka, to be finally buried in a common gave in Bijeljina last Wednesday. The fact that, according to forensic scientists and pathologists the identification of remains was impossible, indicates the nature of hell in which they died.
Anteroom of hell: Witnesses state that the convoy left the barracks around 2p.m., but was stopped at one of checkpoints by Tuzla “territorial defense” soon after the departure. The convoy was sent back and again attempted to leave the city at 7p.m.
The “territorial defense” returned the convoy because of the alleged “excess equipment”, although in the new departure the same number of soldiers and the same amount of “equipment” was allowed to remain in the convoy. Besides trucks and armored troop carriers, which were disarmed, the convoy consisted of civilian cars in which citizens who wanted to leave Tuzla together with the YPA traveled. Civilians were unarmed, and soldiers carried only sidearms with small amounts of ammunition, as was envisaged in the mentioned agreement…
“When we were sent back, we started getting suspicious, nervous, but we believed that they would respect the agreement when we were told that we were leaving at 7p.m.,” one of the convoy participants recalls.
“Around 7p.m. Colonel Dubajic came and said that we were leaving without any problems. He was in the first vehicle, followed by a vehicle with TO soldiers, then one armored troop carrier and six trucks. The first vehicle behind them, an armored troop carrier, was mine. I was the driver… Then at the intersection for Simin Han (“Brcanska Malta”) they started shooting from the side, most likely from the surrounding buildings. The vehicles in front of me scattered. They shot at my transporter as well, some 5-6 bullets. Behind us everything was on fire. We could not return and had nowhere to return to, we were unarmed and unprepared for battle,” Risto Gavric, today living in Bijeljina, relates. Gavric was at the time a YPA reservist, mobilized a month before the tragedy.
He was in the first, shortest part of the convoy, whose participants managed to get out without suffering excessive casualties, as they were closest to the goal – territory controlled by the just formed Army of the Republic of Srpska (VRS).
At the time shooting started, hell broke lose for the people in the vehicles behind Gavric’s troop carrier.
“A few of us were in a truck, the twelfth vehicle in the convoy. Shooting came from all sides. I was hit by five bullets. People around me were also wounded. Everything around us, outside, was on fire. Wherever I turned, I saw people in our uniforms lying on the street. Wherever one turned there were dead and fire, real hell. In front of our truck, a fuel truck was hit, but fortunately it was empty. Our driver was not hurt and he sped up towards the exit from the city. We prayed that he stay alive. He pulled the truck to Simin Han on bare wheels, and there the engine died. Fortunately, some people took us in there and pulled us out of trucks. The next thing I remember is waking up in the hospital in Bijeljina,” Radojica Ilic, today also living in Bijeljina, recalls.
He and other witnesses stress that they were insulted by the crowds from the moment they left the barracks. “They spat on us and cursed us, said we were Chetniks, flashed victory signs. I wondered then and later whether those were the people I had lived with in the same city, what made them hate us so much. After everything, the man, besides losing all the material goods, loses trust in the people he had lived with. I think that that is the worst trauma,” Radojica says today.
Slavko Novakovic was gravely wounded in the same truck with Radojica. Novakovic lost one leg and his eyesight was severely damaged. He was saved only thanks to speedy transport to the Belgrade Military Medical Academy in a helicopter, once they reached VRS lines. “Before I was wounded, I only saw people being killed like clay pigeons in trucks, and those who lay around trucks were screaming for help. They jumped out of trucks trying to save themselves. One young conscript, originally from Kosovo, his name was Danilo Cvetkovic, was lightly wounded in his arm and managed to crawl to one of the nearby buildings. Six days later, his corpse showed up in one of exchanges… Many of the wounded were finished off like that. Some of them were young conscripts who had arrived to the barracks a few days before,” Novakovic, then the safety officer in the barracks, relates.
Massacre: Until today, it is not known how many wounded soldiers and civilians were finished off by the TO. According to the witnesses, it is evident that “defenders” of Tuzla and “proven democrats” during the war and in the post-war period, executed first wounded soldiers that afternoon and that the “verification”, as the witnesses refer to this “procedure”, stopped only once the mobile teams from the Tuzla hospital reached the remaining survivors who were left behind for dead by the executioners.
“I am one of the dead ones. The murderers left me for dead. Only God knows how I survived. The criminal who came by while I lay in a puddle of blood shot me in the mouth and left convinced that he had finished me off. But, I am still alive and bear witness to a horrible crime against innocent victims”.
With this words, Radovan Krstic, who ended up in the convoy as an 18-years-old YPA conscript, addressed the mourners at the funeral of remains of 30 YPA soldiers last Wednesday.
Neither Krstic, nor several other soldiers, direct witnesses of the “verification” of wounded soldiers, known to Reporter, were willing to divulge more for the public. They said they did not want to relive their nightmares.
“I live to testify in court, anywhere in the world, and I will testify until the criminals who shot on that day and those who had ordered them to shoot face justice,” was all that Krstic was willing to say after the funeral. Krstic’s statement, as well as those of other witnesses were given to the RS Government Bureau for Relations with the Hague tribunal.
In some of the statements, to which Reporter had access, it can be found that “verification” was carried out by a large number of TO soldiers, who went in groups from one wounded soldier to the next.
Usually one soldier from the group shot, while in some cases “verification” was carried out by most of soldiers in the group. In Krstic’s case, there were three soldiers, and one of them shot him in the mouth, but fortunately the bullet came out on the other side of the neck, missing both the brain and the spine. Executors used mostly hand guns and shot from point blank range, mostly into heads of the wounded soldiers who lay on the street.
The YPA soldiers who remained in trucks, most of them killed in the initial attack, were pulled out of trucks and finished off by the executioners, if alive.
How did the witnesses survive?
“I pretended to be dead, until I noticed an ambulance next to me and until the medics picked me up,” is the almost identical answer of all the survivors. Some of the survivors became prisoners of war after a hospital treatment, and were maltreated for several months in the Tuzla prison.
This disturbing story ends with the exchange that followed…
Preparation: Survivors of the attack are convinced that it was planned in advance. “Sharp shooters were placed on the buildings around the May 14 barracks. Territorial Defense soldiers were everywhere. We had information that they would attack us. Garbage containers around the barracks were booby trapped,” says Milan Savic one of YPA reservists from the Tuzla region, today living in Bijeljina.
Slavko Novakovic states that the officers in the barracks were aware that Territorial Defense soldiers were amassed on the roofs of the nearby buildings in Skojevska street.
“The street is about six meters [18 feet] wide. High rise apartment buildings flank it on both sides. Even if one wanted to, it is impossible to resist from a convoy. Representatives of their TO and local authorities were warned about that [soldiers on top of nearby buildings], but dismissed our concerns by saying that those were their security measures. We proposed to leave the city the other way, but they insisted on the previously agreed route. And kept repeating that it had been agreed that we would be allowed to leave the city without fighting,” Slavko relates.
Milan Savic (at the time of the attack on the convoy he was in an armored troop carrier some 50-60 meters behind the epicenter of the attack at the Brcanski Road intersection) had, as he says, the chance to see the Territorial Defense soldiers shooting from infantry weapons hidden behind sand bags. “Fortunately, I was a bit further away and I was not wounded. But I could see them shooting from all the nearby buildings. Along the way I even had a chance to spot anti-tank mines, which were attached to wooden frames. A rope was attached to the frame and mines left along the side of the road, so that they could quickly be thrown under the wheels of the passing armored troop carriers and trucks,” Milan says.
The attack on the convoy was broadcast live on the Tuzla TV station “Front Slobode FS-3”.
Amateur VHS tapes that were passed to Reporter by our interlocutors include a brief interview with Selim Beslagic in which Beslagic, among other, claims that the attack on the convoy “was prompted by the shots fired from the convoy that attacked Tuzla”.
Slavko Novakovic claims that Beslagic was talking nonsense and was simply brazenly lying. According to Novakovic, Beslagic’s statement was an attempt to find some justification for the treacherous and cowardly attack on the convoy. “We did not provoke that attack in any way. There was no need for anything like that. We simply accepted the route they proposed, the route which made any resistance, let alone attack on Tuzla, impossible. We carried a small amount of weaponry, which again made any attack on the city impossible, nor were the men motivated for an attack. After all, some soldiers were Muslims… If anyone wanted to attack Tuzla, as Beslagic claims, a far better way for doing that was to attack from the outskirts, rather than from the center of the city, where we were surrounded and a very easy target, as was proven by their treacherous premeditated attack”.
According to Novakovic, the planned nature of the attack becomes obvious if one considers that the first, shorter, part of the convoy was allowed to pass through, while the rest of the column was attacked then. According to our interlocutors, Lieutenant-Colonel Dubajic could say more about that. However, Dubajic has so far refused to publicly discuss events predating the attack and the attack on the YPA column, despite offers from several media to do so.
Today, he lives in a small town in Vojvodina and, as before, he refused to speak to Reporter’s journalists.
Footage: Sinisa Djordjevic, advisor of the Srpska Prime Minister for relations with the Hague Tribunal, confirmed for Reporter that the documentation about crimes against the Tuzla YPA convoy has been collected and will be sent to the Hague Tribunal in roughly 30 days. “I cannot discuss persons who have a chance of being indicted based on the collected documentation and statements by the witnesses, but they definitely include some of the persons who are even today active in the politics in Tuzla and the Fedration BH,” Djordjevic says, mentioning the footage made by “Front Slobode” as one of more interesting parts of the evidence.
This footage is indeed interesting in a way, judging by the tapes that Reporter managed to obtain from our interlocutors, witnesses. In the footage, “Front Slobode” journalists gave credence to the name of their station [freedom front]. Statements such as “this attack was totally unprovoked, or was provoked by the developments”, or short descriptions such as “madmen who shoot at Tuzla, the city that saw them off peacefully”, were however overshadowed by the pinnacle of “humor” of these merry TV-men. At one point, one of them “jokes” with his colleague: “A cold beer would come handy with these fireworks!” “Handy indeed!” his colleague responds, while the camera zooms in at several trucks burning on Brcko Road. Soon afterwards, some of them explode.
“I don’t know if it was planned that those trucks explode,” “the commentator” concludes after a brief dramatic pause, without beer, all the time “informing” the viewers that “these trucks carry extremely dangerous substances”.
Nevertheless, the “funny” guy managed on one occasion to save his journalistic “integrity”. After the inspired comment that “the YPA artillery is firing back,” he corrects himself by saying “I’m sorry, dear viewers, I don’t know what I’m saying anymore”…
Although the show went on for two and a half hours, the events from May 15 1992 were hardly mentioned, except just before the end of the show when Beslagic, obviously provoked by the statement by Sinan Alic (wartime editor of FS 3, today a member of the Helsinki Committee in BH) that he would prefer to forget May 15 as there are no valid reasons to celebrate that day, reacted suddenly and confusedly, at moments with disconnected sentences.
“No one is forced to celebrate May 15; I will celebrate on my own if necessary, because I stayed alive and because I helped that many people stay alive. It is not true that anything had been prepared in advance; my wife and children were at the time in a house on Brcanska Malta… Until the last moment we negotiated with Dubajic that the barracks be left only with side arms and their personal effects. A day before the soccer game ‘Zvezda’-‘Partizan’ had taken place and I was told that all of them were totally drunk and were shooting left and right. We negotiated with Dubajic for the sake of the security of that convoy. Our people from the Crisis Headquarters were in the convoy. Enver Delibegovic was at the start of the convoy, Jasmin Imamovic and Benjamin Fisekovic in the middle and Mr Brkic at the end. I would not be such a cynic and idiot to expose them to danger and attack the convoy. Secondly, the Crisis Headquarters was told several times that soldiers from the convoy were shooting at them. We told them three-four times to be patient, but the forth time we told them to open fire. Did we not have the right to defend ourselves? If anyone contests that right, I disagree…
“I am prepared to go to the Hague if necessary, because it seems that time has come for me to defend myself in the Hague. I am proud that on May 15 we responded to their challenge the way we had to respond and that we observed all the rules of warfare. If I am responsible for that, I will not avoid responsibility, but I won’t allow anyone to take my May 15 away,” Beslagic nervously summed up his view of the attack on the YPA convoy.
It is interesting that neither Beslagic not Sead Avdic (the then president of the Tuzla city council, today the president of the Chamber of Nations of the Parliament of Bosnia-Hercegovina) offered any additional details regarding the “information coming from the Territorial Defense” that was followed by a “counterattack”, nor the observation of the rules of war.
However, it is paradoxical that Avdic defended Beslagic and himself by talking about his visit to the YPA wounded in the hospital. “The following day we visited the wounded and gave each one of them a box of cigarettes, including those from Yugoarmy, who were in the same hospital. Responding to my question, one severely wounded soldier said that they had started shooting first and that he was condemning the behavior of the convoy,” Avdic said.
Almost all the participants in the show kept emphasizing that “in case of an attack” there was a clear strategy for “resistance to the so-called YPA” dating back to April of 1992. “May 15 is the result of all the defensive preparations and measures. May 15 was a fuse that started everything,” General Sead Delic, ten years ago a Major in the Territorial Defense in Tuzla, said. The defensive measures included acquisition of weapons from all sides, Delic added. Through laughter, he explained that Beslagic had bought “the first rifle”. “He came and asked ‘is $850 too much?’. I said ‘no way, keep buying!’,” Delic stated.
Sehic claims that some “conscripts” recovering in the hospital told him that “first shots came from the convoy”, and that Niko Juric claimed that “The TO responded to fire only after one of their men was wounded”. “I was told that the reservists started shooting in the barracks and kept shooting from the retreating convoy,” Sehic added, immediately adding a disclaimer that he “did not really look into who was responsible for the conflict between the YPA and the TO”.
To the question whether he believed that, in case the TO was “merely responding to shooting from the convoy”, was responsible for excessive use of force (such charges are, for example, mentioned in the Hague Tribunal indictments related to the activities of the Yugoslav Army in Kosovo in 1998-1999), Sehic responded that he could not say, as he “did not look into the conflict”.
Talking to Reporter, Sehic confirmed that he was aware of the case of “verification” of the soldier Radovan Krstic. “I also know that later some citizens dragged him into their apartment and saved him. But I cannot say whether some of the wounded YPA soldiers were shot dead, because I don’t know,” Sehic said, confirming that no one was charged for the attempted murder of Krstic.
Reporter was unable to locate the mentioned files, as the current military authorities in Tuzla stated that they “were not sure whether they can reveal the content of the files to the public”.