Journalist Describes Wartime Meeting With Mladic
A former Sky News journalist testified this week that during a September 1992 meeting with Ratko Mladic, the Bosnian Serb army commander claimed that he held the besieged city of Sarajevo “in the palm of his hand”.
Journalist Aernout van Lynden told the court that Mladic made the comment after he and his crew accompanied the general to a hilltop artillery position overlooking Sarajevo in order to do a television report.
Van Lynden said the cameraman wanted to get some footage without himself in the shots, and that while this was happening, Mladic beckoned him to come closer.
Mladic pointed to the city below and then to his hand before saying, “I hold the city in the palm of my hand.”
Van Lynden told the court that the words were translated into English by his producer, who was also his interpreter.
While the witness mentioned Mladic’s comment in his TV report at the time, the actual words and gesture were not captured on film.
Prosecuting lawyer Dermot Groome asked Van Lynden what he understood Mladic’s gesture to mean.
“That he did indeed hold all the power over Sarajevo; that he held the high ground,” Van Lynden, who now lectures at Leiden University in The Netherlands, replied.
“We hadn’t requested an interview at an artillery position, [and] hadn’t even requested to be taken to an artillery position,” the witness said. “He took us there – and this is my reading – [because] he was trying to prove to the world and also to his opponents in Sarajevo that ‘I hold all the commanding positions, I hold the power over you’.”
Prosecutors allege that Mladic, the highest authority in the Bosnian Serb army from 1992 to 1996, planned and oversaw the 44-month siege of Sarajevo that ravaged the city and left nearly 12,000 people dead. Mladic’s army is accused of deliberately sniping and shelling the city’s civilian population in order to “spread terror” among them.
The indictment against Mladic – which lists 11 counts in total – accuses him of crimes of genocide, persecution, extermination, murder and forcible transfer which “contributed to achieving the objective of the permanent removal of Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats from Bosnian Serb-claimed territory”.
In Van Lynden’s report, which was screened in court this week, a burly Mladic can be seen walking with other officers and looking through his binoculars at the city below. In the report, Van Lynden describes Mladic as the “scourge of Sarajevo” who is “quite unrepentant” and “has no doubts… that he’s right, the world is wrong, and that his people have been slandered”.
Addressing the camera, Mladic says he hopes the United Nations Security Council will take “measures to understand that we Serbs are a reality in this world, not some sort of extraterrestrials, and that we have a right to defend ourselves. We have to fight… to defend ourselves. There is no other way and we are prepared for a long war.”
When Van Lynden asked him on film about the possibility he might be charged with war crimes, Mladic replied that he was not bothered.
“I’ve not taken part in any crimes, [I am] only protecting my people,” Mladic said.
Van Lynden told the court that a few days after the report aired, he and his crew happened to meet Mladic on the road.
At first, Van Lynden said that he felt somewhat wary because his description of the general as the “scourge of Sarajevo” had not gone down well with the Bosnian Serb leadership, who felt he was denigrating their commanding officer.
Van Lynden was thus surprised at the reaction he got from Mladic himself.
“When [Mladic] came out of the car, his first words were, ‘I am the scourge of Sarajevo!’ He was clearly not displeased,” Van Lynden recalled.
Mladic then invited Van Lynden and his crew to lunch, and they accepted. During the meal, the accused “had nothing bad to say about the report, and thought it was fair. We had let him speak.”
Van Lynden said the last time he saw Mladic was in February 1994, right after the first mortar attack on Sarajevo’s Markale Market, which killed some 60 people and injured more than 100.
Van Lynden had travelled to the Bosnian Serb headquarters in the town of Pale to interview President Radovan Karadzic. When Van Lynden arrived, BBC journalist John Simpson was also there with his camera crew. The two men were left in a hallway while their crews went to film a meeting of the Serbs’ military council.
Mladic then came into the hallway and began shouting at him, Van Lynden said.
“[Mladic] walked up to me and grabbed me by my face,” Van Lynden said, cupping his hand under his chin to demonstrate. “This made it impossible for me to answer, even if I could understand what he was saying.”
Van Lynden said the only words he could make out were “Zuc” and “Gorazde”. Zuc is a hill on the northwest side of Sarajevo that was recaptured by the Bosnian government army in December 1992, while Gorazde is an enclave in eastern Bosnia that was surrounded by Bosnian Serb forces during the war.
“I imagine that Mladic was expressing his displeasure with my reporting on the fall of Zuc and of me entering the besieged enclave of Gorazde,” Van Lynden said.
“When [Mladic] let go and walked away, the only thing I said was, ‘I’ll see you in The Hague.’ John Simpson then said to me, ‘that was rather a weak riposte’ – but here we are.”
During Van Lynden’s testimony, Mladic repeatedly shouted and talked loudly, often interrupting the video clips being shown to the court. However, because he did not use his microphone, his comments were not translated and did not enter the court record.
The judges repeatedly told him to be quiet, and asked his defence lawyers to control their client.
“Can I ask Mr Mladic to understand that we are in court? If he doesn’t understand, the chamber is at some stage going to get him out of the court,” Judge Bakone Justice Moloto said.
During cross examination, Mladic’s lawyer Branko Lukic asked Van Lynden about another video report screened for the court, where a high-rise apartment building in Sarajevo is set ablaze after being repeatedly hit with incendiary rounds, which can be seen bouncing off the building.
Van Lynden said he arrived at the scene after the flats were already ablaze, but that munitions continued to be fired after he got there.
Lukic asked whether Van Lynden had investigated whether the building was being used by the Bosnian government army, thus making it a legitimate target.
“We checked as far as we could. You look for any men in uniform,” the witness replied. “You look for anything that could be a sign, for example spent casings from bullets, because they didn’t go around clearing those up. We asked people living there and then we went to the UN to ask them... and they told us it hadn’t been used, to best of their knowledge, by the Bosnian army.”
He added that he entered the building, but might have left his cameraman outside.
Reporters were careful to check as much as possible whether a site had been used by the military, he added.
Lukic then suggested that the witness had been unable to check the burning apartments to see whether they contained soldiers.
Van Lynden replied that this would not have been possible, because “this was a city at war and therefore the investigation we did was absolutely limited by those constraints”.
Lukic later asked whether Van Lynden was aware of Bosnian Muslims firing on their own civilians in Sarajevo, using sniper rifles.
“I have never witnessed that. I’ve heard allegations, [but] I have never seen proof,” Van Lynden replied.
After the witness completed his testimony, the prosecution said it had reviewed the comments which Mladic had made off-microphone, and which could be heard in the background on the court’s video feed.
Groome alleged that Mladic had “hurled insults” at Van Lynden, including one that he said was particularly vulgar.
“The prosecution did not anticipate such behaviour from a senior military officer,” Groome said. He added that if this continued, the prosecution would apply for additional measures to protect future witnesses from insults.
Judge Moloto expressed concern at the prosecution’s claims and said the defence should have intervened.
“If some members of prosecution could hear things coming from Mr Mladic, I would expect all members of the defence could hear. We don’t understand what he says – you do,” Judge Moloto told Mladic’s lawyers, who are Serbs.
Judge Moloto added that on a preliminary basis, the chamber “takes a dim view of the conduct of the defence” for not intervening, though he added that the lawyers had the right to argue against this if they had not heard Mladic.
The judge then turned to the defendant, who seemed amused.
“To you Mr Mladic – you stop misbehaving. This is a court of law, you shall behave yourself. If you do not, this court does have measures to deal with the situation,” he said.
Lukic later apologised on his client’s behalf, adding that his team took the situation very seriously. He said Mladic had suffered three strokes and was easily agitated.
“He talks to us in the same way,” Lukic said.
Judge Moloto reiterated that Mladic must stop insulting witnesses, and that if he had something to say to his lawyers, he should write it down as a note.
This is not the first time Mladic’s behaviour has irritated judges. On August 15, Presiding Judge Alphons Orie ordered Mladic to be filmed constantly in court, after accusing him of repeated “improper” interaction with the public gallery. (See Mladic to be Filmed Constantly in Court.)
Mladic was arrested in Serbia in May 2011 after 16 years on the run. His trial began in May 2012.
Rachel Irwin is IWPR’s Senior Reporter in The Hague.