By Felix Quigley
August 1, 2008
(From research by Mick Tanzeer)
Dutch report under url
[start report here]
The repercussion and the aftermath until the end of 1995
17. Investigations among Displaced Persons
These methodological problems, as well as the hindrances created by the Bosnian authorities, also confronted the interviewers who approached the Displaced Persons for information on behalf of various organizations. Important roles were assigned to UNHCR and the International Red Cross, but they were joined from Zagreb by a combined team of the Human Rights Office of Civil Affairs and the UN Centre for Human Rights. Furthermore various other bodies were active, such as the ‘Bosnian State Commission for the collection of information on war crimes’, as well as the Tribunal, Amnesty International and a number of smaller NGOs. Some of these were eager to publicize their findings as soon as possible. As early as 31 July, for instance, the US Committee on Refugees published an extensive report on the ‘death march’ from Srebrenica based on interviews conducted by its staff member Bill Frelick in Tuzla and the surroundings.
Due to the nature of their work most of the organizations were cautious about publicizing politically sensitive information. UNHCR was less reserved in this respect and several times its spokespersons released details from the ‘unconfirmed reports’ by Displaced Persons. This included the suspicion that the VRS had used Dutchbat uniforms to mislead refugees. Serious research, however, was commenced only on 21 July after Protection Officer Manca de Nissa had arrived in Tuzla. He submitted his report a week later, based on 70 interviews with both normal Displaced Persons and survivors of the march. Manca de Nissa did not however draw any conclusions about possible large-scale murders.
It was much more difficult for an organization such as the International Red Cross to publicize findings. The strictly observed neutrality ruled out any statements that could be given a political slant. Another factor in this case was that the delegates were too familiar with the Bosnian propaganda and thus usually regarded the rumours issuing from Tuzla with great suspicion. In a communiqué on 14 July, three days after the fall of the enclave, nothing was said about missing persons or possible summary executions. Nevertheless, staff of the International Red Cross had already gathered much information by this time. Although the International Red Cross had no official access to the men who arrived in Tuzla from 16 July onwards, staff had in fact spoken to several of them. A communiqué of 19 July however mentioned only that the International Red Cross demanded of the Bosnian Serbs that it be given access to prisoners. Still no mention was made of deaths. But according to Christoph Girod of the International Red Cross the pressure was increasing. Consequently, at a press conference on 31 July, Girod referred to the fact that there were 5000 to 6000 missing persons with the statement: ‘We have no indications of this whatsoever’. It was only on 14 August that the International Red Cross first dared to publicly mention the possibility of executions.
The UN headquarters in Zagreb had also issued instructions that Displaced Persons be questioned about possible human rights violations (actually: violations of international humanitarian law). As early as 17 July a mixed team from Civil Affairs/Human Rights Office (HRO) and UNCHR had left for Tuzla Air Base on a fact-finding mission, i.e. to interview the Displaced Persons from Srebrenica. Ken Biser of Civil Affairs in Tuzla had already begun this task after an attempt to travel to Srebrenica, together with HRO staff member Peggy Hicks, had met with the resistance of the Serbs. From 18 July onwards Biser received the support of the team from Zagreb.
A confrontation soon took place with a Field Delegate of the International Red Cross: ‘He bluntly told us that the ICRC was not happy with our work because it potentially interfered with its own work’. According to the delegates it was possible that people would not report certain information to the International Red Cross if they had already spoken to other researchers; they might think it was no longer necessary. The humanitarian debriefers of the two UN organizations ensured that they avoided the potential confusion between the two organizations by telling their respondents that they should afterwards also talk to the International Red Cross.
There were other problems too. The investigation was considerably hindered by the journalists present. Anyone could walk in and out of the relief camps. According to the Swiss investigator R. Salvisberg, UNCHR Bosnia coordinator based in Sarajevo, the journalists encouraged the Displaced Persons to say what they wanted to hear. In his eyes the media were engaged in ‘a sensational hunt’ for the worst crime, and this would then be published in the papers. As a result Salvisberg and his colleagues were constantly working in the wake of newspaper headlines and television sound-bites (however strange it sounds, televisions were soon present in the camp too). The investigators noticed in the process that the journalists were strongly focussed on Dutchbat. This possible distortion made it difficult to discern what the Displaced Persons had experienced themselves and what they were repeating from other sources.
Salvisberg’s team initially took a random approach, with evaluations taking place each day, after which the work became more systematic. The investigators chose a gentle, passive approach. They asked who wanted to talk to them, and then interviewed these people. According to Salvisberg they were not after ‘sexy stories like the ones in the press’. A total of five women came forward who said they had been raped. In general the stories of those who had been transported away in buses were relatively ‘uneventful’. They had experienced few incidents. A picture gradually emerged, but the main question was whether the reported executions were isolated incidents or indications of a widespread phenomenon. It was also very difficult to gain a picture of the number who had been executed, but things certainly gave cause for concern, according to the investigator Peggy Hicks of the Human Rights Office of Civil Affairs in Zagreb.
After about a week the investigators of the two UN organizations noticed that their respondents had been told what to say; they suspected that these instructions came from the Bosnian authorities. The gist of these prompted stories was that the Serbs and the UN (not specifically the Dutch) had been the bad guys, who had ‘sold out’ the people of the enclave. At this time Salvisberg had not yet heard any criticism of the actions of the people’s own Muslim soldiers. It was to be some days before the first stories emerged which also assigned blame to the Bosnian government.
After a few days the team of investigators started looking for men who had entered the Safe Areas following the march. They visited a camp full of soldiers outside Tuzla. This proved a difficult affair: the authority of T. Mazowiecki, the Special Rapporteur for Human Rights who arrived in Tuzla on 22 July, was required to facilitate this visit. This solved only part of the problem: the interviewers were not permitted to approach people themselves but were ‘accompanied’ by the Muslim authorities. ‘They were presented to us’, reported the investigator Hicks. This was supposedly to save the investigators’ time. ‘It made me feel very uneasy’, said Hicks later.
Other investigators shared her experience. According to R. (Roman) Wieruszewski of the UNCHR office in Sarajevo, one of the consequences of this ‘accompaniment’ was that everyone with whom he and his colleagues spoke claimed that he had been unarmed. In later interviews conducted independently of the authorities the interviewees generally declared that of course they had carried weapons, otherwise they would not have survived the march. Sometimes it was women who said that of course the soldiers had been armed. Salvisberg recounted: ‘They even laughed at us when we asked about this.’ He and the other researchers calculated that of the Muslim men, about one-third had been armed and about two-thirds had been unarmed. They gained the impression that there had been an element of organization in the distribution of the available weapons: ‘You get one, you don’t’, which according to them led to conflicts. Other Displaced Persons reported fights between the Muslim soldiers. There were also reports that Bosnian Muslims had executed Serbs.
The impression gained by the research team was that the soldiers had several prepared standard stories, such as a mass murder of 25 people conducted by the Bosnian Serbs, in which the respondent kept under cover or pretended to be dead. ‘We heard this story ten times or so’, said Salvisberg. Although the reconstruction of the march presented problems, the biggest problem proved to be establishing what had happened to the group in Srebrenica and Potocari.
In the first report send by Hicks on 21 July, she nonetheless concluded that there was sufficient basis ‘to believe that significant human rights violations occurred both before and during the transport from Srebrenica’. Much remained unclear, however. In the final report finished by Hicks on 31 July, the issue of numbers remained open. She could do nothing else than to conclude that further investigations were required. It was only in October 1995, following new revelations in the press, that even she realized what the probable scale of the murder had been.
Typical of the problems in defining the events shortly after the fall were the statements made by two high-ranking UN officials in Tuzla. The Peruvian diplomat H. Wieland, the highest official of the UN Centre for Human Rights in the region, said on 23 July that ‘we have not found anyone who saw with their own eyes an atrocity taking place’. On the same day, however, the Special Rapporteur for human rights, Tadeus Mazowiecki, also declared in Tuzla that ‘barbaric’ acts had taken place. Thus for a long time it remained unclear what precisely had happened in Potocari and the surroundings, together with the fate of the thousands of men who had been missing since the fall. A major factor for those concerned was the disbelief that these thousands of men had been murdered in cold blood. It was thus the case that not only did the ‘barometer’ give no clear indications in itself: those reading it were also influenced by their own expectations and assumptions when trying to establish what had really happened. The discussion of the issue as to whether a genocide, or a mass murder, had been committed after the fall of Srebrenica, was to an important extent determined by the various points of departure.
personal notes will follow…FQ