used without permission, for "fair use" only

War crimes: "Vozuca case", six years later

Six years ago, on September 11, 1995, members of the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina liberated the town of Vozuca in central Bosnia; Hague investigators have for several years been investigating crimes committed by members of the unit "El Mujaheed" against captured Serb soldiers and our journalist for the first time addresses this so far ignored bloody episode of the war in Bosnia-Hercegovina

Mujahedeen decapitated tens of captured Serb soldiers; Video-tapes of this massacre were sold and cut off heads sent to Sarajevo and Iran!?

For more than three years investigators from the Hague have been dealing with the massacre of Serb prisoners of war that took place in the village of Kesten in the Zavidovici municipality; the primary goal of the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina, because of which Vozuca was attacked, was to secure space for the settlement of 10-15 thousand Bosniak refugees from Srebrenica and Zepa; out of several tens of exhumed bodies of Serbs, most did not have a head; Serbs claim that cut off heads of Serb prisoners of war as well as a video-tape of the execution were sent to Alija Izetbegovic to Sarajevo "as a present"; in early 1999 Semsudin Mehmedovic, at the time the powerful police minister in Zenica-Doboj canton, was concerned about the visits of the Hague investigators to his canton. "The worst is yet to come," he said, "when the Hague completes its investigation about events in Vozuca". Mehmedovic had been informed that the Tribunal investigators were interested in the events that took place in September 1995, when many Serb soldiers went missing in the military operation of the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina in Vozuca, codenamed Uragan [hurricane] '95. The commission for the search for missing persons of the Republic of Srpska, which after the war sought almost 6,000 persons, was looking for about one thousand soldiers, almost a half of whom, 463 persons, disappeared in the autumn of 1995 near Vozuca. After all three sides were obliged to release prisoners of war in early 1996, 157 Serb soldiers returned home. In the following years some bodies were found and exhumed, but about 240 persons are still missing

"Uragan '95" and Mujahedeen

by Suzana ANDJELIC

Slobodna Bosna, Sarajevo, Federation Bosnia-Hercegovina, B-H, September 13, 2001

Families of the missing as well as the Association of Prisoners of War Vijenac and Vozuca have on several occasions tried to draw attention to the fate of the missing soldiers. In the letter they sent in 1999 to the then high representative in Bosnia-Hercegovina Carlos Westendorp in 1999 and the chief prosecutor of the Hague Tribunal Louise Arbour they demanded an investigation of the crimes committed in Vozuca, identifying soldiers of the Second and Third Corps of the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina, and the commanders of the Second and Third Corps Sead Delalic and Sakib Mahmuljin, respectively, as culprits. "We plead with you to shed light on the fate of more then 50 Serb prisoners of war who were on September 11, 1995, kept in one of collection centers in the former youth hall in the village of Kesten." In the letter to Arbour they state that surviving prisoners can testify about this events. "Pure luck has it that eight prisoners from the hall in Kesten survived. The rest were executed by mujahedeen from the paramilitary unit 'El Mujaheed' which was at the time based in the village of Podbrezje near Zenica and acted within the Third Corps under command of Sakib Mahmuljin, participating, among other, in the action 'Uragan '95'" According to the information available to Slobodna Bosna, the investigation of the Tribunal about the crimes against Serb soldiers near Vozuca is in its final stage. It deals with the responsibility of the unit "El Mujaheed" for committed crimes, as well as wider activities of this unit made up of volunteers from Islamic countries who fought within the Third Corps of the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina.

The unit "El Mujaheed" was founded in August 1993 in Zenica. Sakib Mahmuljin was the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina officer in charge of contacts with "El Mujaheed". The Islamization of ABH was carried out under his watchful eye and this process was especially obvious in central Bosnia. After the arrival in Zenica, Mahmuljin was at first without a concrete assignment in the cabinet of the commander of the Third Corps Enver Hadzihasanovic, but was a favorite of the people who worked at the Zenica Islamic Center and Halil Brzina who was the engine of the Seventh Muslim Brigade. In the spring of 1994 Mahmuljin replaced Muhamed Alagic as the commander of the Third Corps and remained in that position until the end of the war. There were many stories about Arabs who arrived in Bosnia as volunteers through Croatia. "Some people claimed that they were not willing to attack until a page from Qoran showed up in the sky. When I asked them whether that was possible, they laughed: 'That is not true. We attack when the military conditions are right, when emir orders us to attack and when Alija orders attack," Vladimir Populovski Makedonac from Zavidovici, who fixed weapons for Mujahedeen, claimed.

Military preparations for the taking of Vozuca started in May 1995 and ended with the operation "Uragan '95" which started on September 10, 1995, and was the responsibility of colonel Refik Lendo, the commander of the operative Group Bosna which was active in Zepce and Zavidovici. Together with the units of the Second and Third Corps, reinforced with the units Black Swans, the unit El Mujaheed participated in the operation. Its task was to take the hills Poceljevo and Paljenik.

Vozuca for Srebrenica and Zepa

At the meeting held on September 3 at the IKM of the Second Corps, the present officers, participants in the operation and members of the Corps command were informed about the military goals of the operation by the Second Corps Chief of Staff Sulejman Brankovic. He explained to the attendees that the Second and Third Crops were supposed jointly to attack "and liberate Vozuca", carry out "physical cutting of the enemy lines, surround the enemy and destroy his forces". The cleansing of the terrain was to be performed by the military and civilian police units, while the ultimate goal of the operation was "to provide space for the settlement of muhajirs [Muslim population expelled] from Srebrenica and Zepa". Even the number of refugees that were supposed to be settled in that region was specified - between 10 and 15 thousand. This made it clear that the leadership did not even consider their return to their prewar homes. Only the second goal of the operation was the securing of a safe communication between Tuzla and Zenica. One of the participants in the meeting conscientiously noted in his military diary that president Alija Izetbegovic personally ordered the operation and has shown a lot of interest in its outcome. Also a reward fund of $150,000 was provided. Every captured enemy tank was to be rewarded by $5,000 to $10,000, and every captured machine gun was to bring the reward of $100. President Izetbegovic frequently offered financial rewards, but only for the selected units, including "El Mujaheed".

On the other hand, the Serb soldiers on the Ozren Mountain were convinced that they could not be militarily defeated. When the attack started, many of them did not realize what was going on. "It was total chaos. While I was calling on the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina soldiers to surrender, I noticed smoke and found out that a Serb village was burning two kilometers behind my back. Only then I realized that we were cut off," recalls one of the officers of the Fourth Ozren Brigade. "I tried to find out what was going on with the Second Ozren Brigade. I started in their direction and fell in an empty trench where our soldiers had been an hour before. We were totally surrounded. I managed to break through to our side after four days, more thanks to luck than to my skill."

Stories of exchange of Vozuca for Srebrenica are to this day rife on the Serb side. As evidence they offer claims that the front line on the part where the zones controlled by the Srbac Brigade, which controlled the hill Paljenik, and the Police company abutted each other was not defended. At that point there was an empty trench that had simply been abandoned. A day before the attack on Vozuca, Jefto Blagojevic, the commander of the police company, originally from Zavidovici, ran away. He escaped to Doboj together with his brother Stojko, wartime president of the Serb Municipality Zavidovici, who is accused of giving up the territory. Vozuca was fully surrounded. At the same time, the web-site of the American Islamic Group offered information about the successful military operations of the Mujahedeen battalion of the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina in Vozuca as "a free service for Muslims". Thus, the report dated September 13, 1995, informs that the operation Muslim Bosnia is underway, including the battle for Vozuca - Badr-al-Bosna - and that the battalion "El Mujaheed" is taking part in it as a recognized battalion of the Bosnian Army. The members of the battalion are foreign volunteers, known as Ansar, as well as Bosnian mujahedeen and it is based in central Bosnia. "The operation started in May, with the action Black Lion, then the 'Pride battle' followed in July; now the last phase of this holy operation is taking place," the report states. "After a long planning process and scouting, after prayers and after all the precautions were taken, the arms of the mujaheed are raised to the heaven asking Allah to grant them a victory." Then it is stated that Mujahedeen have captured the strategic hill Paljenik (height 1943 meters above sea level). "Mujahedeen captured the hill in only four minutes of attack in which units of the Second and Third Corps of the Bosnian Army also participated. These young Mujahedeen planned and commanded the operation," the report says and adds that there was so much loot that it was impossible to keep track of it. The captured loot included a tank, a mortar, four big trucks and a lot of light weaponry and ammunition. "As in the previous two operations when Mujahedeen sacrificed their emirs - commanders, commander brother Abu Thabit Al-Masry died in this operation," writes the new emir of the Mujahedeen battalion Abu Al Ma'ali and lists the names of the "fallen brothers" from Yemen, Algeria, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, as well as Bosnia.

Filming Ritual Butchery

"Jihad operations around Vozuca and great victories are still not over. Mujahedeen have captured numerous mountains and new strategically important points, captured a lot of weaponry, food and animals," reports the emir. He also adds that several Serb villages were burnt down. "A lot of enemy soldiers were killed, and 60 of them were captured".

A lot of Serb soldiers were captured. The collection center was in the village of Kesten between Zavidovici and Banovici, from where the prisoners were transported to military prisons in Tuzla and Zenica. The emir of "El Mujaheed" in his report mentions the group that was taken to the Zenica prison but was intercepted and taken away by his unit. They, like the other prisoners from the village of Kesten, were moved to the Retired Persons' Hall in Zavidovici. Then they were loaded on trucks and taken to Zenica. However, near Zavidovici they were turned over to the Mujahedeen, who took them to their camp, 12 kilometers from Zavidovici in the village of Gostovici.

The survivors testified about what ensued in the Mujahedeen camp. Their testimonies are confirmed by the photographs taken by the executioners, who posed next to their victims. In the photographs, all of which are dated, one can see tied op and still alive prisoners, lying on the ground. At one of those photographs, a swarthy Mujahedeen is sharpening the cleaver with which the prisoners would later be killed. Besides photographs the executioners also filmed the executions and used them to produce propaganda material that was later distributed to donors abroad. A copy of the tape on which the ritual butchery was recorded was sent as a gift to president Alija Izetbegovic. Prisoners were kept in a sheep pen and killed "at leisure" pace. They were left for days without food and water, and were so exhausted that some had hallucinations. The prisoners were given knives and ordered to kill each other. "If you don't kill him, I'll kill you," the Mujahedeen told freaked out men who then knifed each other. Once they fell from wounds, Mujahedeen would decapitate them, with cleavers or chain saws, and those who were still alive were forced to kiss severed heads that were later nailed to the tree trunks. Prisoners were hung upside down by ropes, they were nailed, or the Mujahdeen tied bricks to their testes and penises and pushed them into barrels where they slowly drowned pulled down by the weight of the bricks.

"We have original documentation about those executions. That footage would make you sick," stated on one occasion the Police Minister of the Republic of Srpska Tomo Kovac referring to the videos recorded in this camp. It was not difficult to get hold of copies of this video. Tapes could have been bought in the video store in the Culture hall in Zavidovici.

The Commission for the Search for the Missing from the Republic of Srpska looked for the missing Serb soldiers. In late 1996 members of this commission Milan Ivancevic and Goran Krcmar, together with the chief of the OHR office in Banja Luka, arrived in Zenica to meet the commander of the Third Corps Sakib Mahmuljin. They had information that several Serb prisoners of war were still being held in the prison in Zenica although both sides had the obligation to release all prisoners of war. Mahmuljin denied such a possibility, but this information was confirmed several months later. At the end of the meeting, at the moment he stayed alone with Mahmuljin in the hallway, Ivancevic asked about the fate of the Serb soldiers from the camp in Gostovici mentioning claims of the witnesses that they were killed by Mujahedeen, decapitated. "General Mahmuljin told me that the Mujahedeen who killed soldiers in Gostovici presented Alija Izetbegovic with 28 heads, while they sent the remaining 28 to Iran," Ivancevic later retold his conversation with Mahmuljin.

Based on the information obtained by the Serb side, on August 3, 1997, IFOR found hidden Serb officers Nenad Skrbic from Banja Luka, and Dusan Skrebic from Teslic, in the military part of the prison in Zenica. They were captured on September 23, 1995 in the village of Donja Bukovica on the Ozren Mountain, then taken to Zavidovici, and then to Zenica. "We had information that another five Army of Srpska soldiers were seen in the prison in Zenica, including eyewitness statements mentioning their names and description, but we never found them," Goran Krcmar says. Skrbic and Skrebic, who were kept hidden for two years, were told that they had been kept based on Mahmuljin's orders. Mahmuljin demanded in exchange for them bodies of his two brothers who were killed early in the war in Kozarac. "We would have given him the bodies, but we could not find them," claims the Commission of the Republic of Srpska. A few months ago Skrebic was visited by a state security officer from Zenica who had interrogated him and who offered money if he declined to testify about the time spent in the Zenica prison.

The bodies of the soldiers killed in the Mujahedeen camp were never found, despite the statements of the witnesses who located the grave near the camp in the village of Kucice. The grave was found, but it had already been emptied. It contained a few bones, fragments of a scull and a human hand. Excavator tracks were noticeable around the grave. Three bodies were found nearby. It was established that they were of the soldiers from the Prnjavor Brigade who disappeared in May 1995 and who were also seen alive but were later killed as prisoners of war. Their bodies were found some 40 kilometers away from the spot at which they disappeared.

Most of the bodies found in exhumations conducted by the Commission for the Search for the Mission from the Republic of Srpska near Vozuca lacked heads. Thus in 1997 at the locale Stog the Commission found 21 bodies, 17 of those without a head. They were soldiers of the Srbac brigade whose bodies were packed in the bags, while their heads were never found. Then, at another location, another 17 bodies were found, 14 of which were without a head. On the hill Paljenik, in the summer of 1997 the Commission found 12 bodies of the soldiers from the Srbac brigade. During the processing of the found human remains, IFOR informed the Serb team that women from Srebrenica, who had been settled in that region, had blocked the access roads. "Yes, it was obvious that they were women from Srebrenica, but it was also obvious that they were incited by Jasmin Odobasic, Amor Masovic's deputy," says one of the participants in these events. The Commission, at IFOR's advice left, leaving the equipment and found bodies behind. When they returned after a few days, the exhumed bodies had been placed on a pile and set on fire, and one of them was left on a stretcher. "We found it suspicious that that body was left on the side, so we approached it very carefully. It turned out that the stretcher was boobytrapped and linked with a small explosive device to a tank mine." Odobasic, who always monitored the work of the Serb team, had the following comment for the complicated explosive device: "This was left behind by the women from Srebrenica".

The Serb commission located 11 spots in the Vozuca region with graves from which human remains had been removed. "According to the information at our disposal, those graves contained roughly 137 bodies which were later removed, which is also a crime," says Goran Krcmar. The information obtained by the Commission was sent to the War Crimes Documentation Center in Banja Luka, as well as the relevant court.

Hague Knows Everything

Hague investigators visited Vozuca region in 1998 and 1999 and questioned numerous witnesses both on the Serb and Bosniak side. They found the locations where Mujahedeen made photographs and video recordings, confirming that they were not forged. "I investigated crimes in Vozuca trying at the same time to find out what had happened with my brother who disappeared. I thought I knew a lot, but when the investigators began to question me I realized that they knew much more," says one of our interlocutors. One of the murders investigated by the Hague was that of Jelenko Pejic, prewar bus driver from Zavidovici who was captured in Vozuca and killed in Zavidovici. There is an audio recording about his murder which contains his cries for help before he was cut down with a saber. Many executions were public. Thus, Milenko Petrovic and Mitar Jovic from Vozuca were murdered in front of numerous witnesses in Zavidovici. Milenko was tied to a truck and pulled on the road, and then both of them were cut down with sabers and their bodies were thrown in the Bosna river.

It would be presumptuous on our part to guess the results of the investigation of the Hague prosecutor's office, but it is totally clear that their superiors from the Third Corps will have to take responsibility for the crimes of Mujahedeen, whose names and origin could not be established. The opening of the whole case could help shed additional light on the true role of Islamic volunteers in Bosnia-Hercegovina and clarify the ways in which they arrived in our country, about which very little is known by the public. Jusuf Halilagic, current deputy of Minister Svetozar Mihajlovic in the Ministry for Civilian Affairs, could provide more information about that. During the war Halilagic was Sakib Mahmuljin's assistant for legal affairs in the Third Corps of the Army of Bosnia-Hercegovina, and in 1996 as the deputy Federation Justice Minister he was in charge of issuing citizenship certificates and passports to the former members of the unit "El Mujaheed", which provided legal grounds for them to stay in Bosnia. Halilagic is one of many who declined our request to discuss this topic. By chance or not, in 1992 he brought from Rijeka to Zenica, in a humanitarian convoy, the first Abu Hamza...

Translated on December 18, 2001