In major step, Serbia arrests 8 Srebrenica massacre suspects
SREBRENICA, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) Machine guns crackled and grenades exploded from dusk to dawn as the Bosnian Serb soldiers slaughtered more than 1,000 men and boys crammed into a warehouse outside Srebrenica.
But when the sun came up, a few dozen were still alive.
So the commander, nicknamed Nedjo the Butcher, called out, offering water to quench their thirst in the sweltering July heat, according to testimony from survivors and witnesses. Slowly, bloodied prisoners began to emerge from under the corpses, among them a boy clutching his grandfather's hand.
"Will they kill us too?" the boy asked.
"No," the old man whispered.
Shots rang out and the two dropped dead, along with dozens of others who had survived the night.
The carnage was among the worst of the 1995 Srebrenica massacre that killed more than 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys in Europe's bloodiest civilian slaughter since the end of World War II. It is the continent's only postwar atrocity that the United Nations calls genocide.
On Wednesday, Serbia arrested eight men accused of taking part in the massacre of some 1,300 people at the warehouse on the outskirts of Srebrenica, a joint team of Serbian and Bosnian prosecutors told The Associated Press.
Chief Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor Vladimir Vukcevic told the AP that all those arrested "are former members of a special brigade of the Bosnian Serb police."
Serbia has already put on trial men who took a group of prisoners away from Srebrenica to be killed, and in 2011 it arrested Ratko Mladic, the warlord who masterminded the slaughter, and sent him to an international criminal court in The Hague, Netherlands. But Wednesday's arrests were Serbia's first attempt to bring to justice the men who got their hands bloody in the Srebrenica massacre 20 years ago this July.
"It is important to stress that this is the first time that our prosecutor's office is dealing with the mass killings of civilians and war prisoners in Srebrenica," said Bruno Vekaric, the lead Serb prosecutor in the case.
He said Serbia was approaching a key moment in confronting its past.
"We have never dealt with a crime of such proportions," said Vekaric, Serbia's deputy war crimes prosecutor. "It is very important for Serbia to take a clear position toward Srebrenica through a court process."
Serbian prosecutors initially arrested seven suspects in pre-dawn raids Wednesday at different locations in Serbia. They then caught the eighth suspect after an hourslong manhunt. The prosecutors said they are trying to locate more suspects who may be hiding in Bosnia, although these men were not targeted in the probe that yielded Wednesday's eight arrests.
The biggest catch was Nedeljko Milidragovic, the commander dubbed Nedjo the Butcher. The collaboration by former wartime enemies Bosnia and Serbia, supported by the court in The Hague, is the most important instance of judicial teamwork helping to heal the festering wounds of the Balkans wars.
Many Serbs still view their wartime leaders as heroes including Mladic and former Bosnian Serb President Radovan Karadzic, who is also on trial at the U.N. war crimes tribunal and believe they were victims of a Western plot.
That makes the current campaign to detain the triggermen deeply sensitive. But Serbia's conservative government is allowing the prosecutions to move forward in part because it's eager to join the European Union.
Ejup Ganic, the wartime deputy president of Bosnia and now a university dean, said at least 850 Bosnian Serbs are estimated to have taken part in the Srebrenica massacre. Nearly 150 of those are believed to be living in the United States, while the rest are likely in the Balkans.
"Now the time has come to sell them one by one in (membership) negotiations with the EU," Ganic said. "And Serbia has a lot of them to sell and get something in return."
There was no reaction from the suspects' families or their lawyers, but Serbs from Milidragovic's Bosnian hometown of Sokolac were furious.
"Enough with this arresting of innocent Serbs," said Milorad Tomovic. "It is time to arrest Muslims so they can finally face justice."
The account of the warehouse killings emerged from testimony of survivors and former Serb troops during trials in Bosnia and at the U.N. war crimes tribunal. The arrests follow a December sweep by the same team of prosecutors of 15 suspects in another wartime atrocity, a massacre that followed an abduction from a Bosnian train.
Bosnian Serb forces opened the Srebrenica offensive with heavy shelling, ignoring Dutch U.N. peacekeeping troops who were stationed there. The Serbs led by Mladic marched into the town without meeting any resistance. Women sought shelter at the Dutch base, while men and boys fled into the surrounding woods, to be hunted down by Mladic's forces.
Those captured by Milidragovic's men were rounded up and crammed into the warehouse with no food or water. There wasn't even enough room for everyone to sit down as they waited in fear. The killings started in the late afternoon. The soldiers hurled bombs through the windows and fired round after round of automatic gunfire.
In the morning, survivors say Milidragovic ordered those still alive up to 100 men and boys to come out, promising they would be spared. They were not.
Even his troops said they were terrified of the commander.
"I was afraid to look him in the eyes," one of them, now a protected witness, said in a deposition.
When the Bosnian war ended in a peace deal in 1995, Milidragovic moved to the Serbian capital of Belgrade. He had two children and built a trucking business that transports construction material. Prosecutors say his startup capital came from tens of thousands of dollars looted from his victims' pockets. He is now 58.
Muriz Sinanovic was among those killed in the warehouse. His wife, Suhra, will never forget his last words before he headed into the forest with the thousands of men fleeing Srebrenica.
"Take good care of my children," Sinanovic told her as he hugged and kissed 7-year-old Munir and 4-year-old Emina.
Years later, his remains were found in a mass grave.
Forensics experts brought the remains to Suhra in a paper bag. They took out a few bones and showed them to her.
"I did not cry," she said. "But I almost broke my fingers, twisting them."
In her husband's trousers, discovered with his remains, investigators found his driver's license and a tobacco box made from cans of U.N. aid. Inside the box was a pinch of tobacco and some cigarette paper enough for a cigarette he never got to smoke. The box still sits on a shelf in her living room in Sarajevo. When the children were small, they would not let visiting friends touch it.
"They said it is a sacred object," Suhra Sinanovic said.
Gec and Stojanovic reported from Belgrade, Serbia. Associated Press writer Eldar Emric contributed from Srebrenica.