The trial of a Bosnian Serb general charged with terrorizing the residents of Sarajevo through a shelling and sniping campaign opened Monday at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal. Prosecutors charge General Stanislav Galic with crimes against humanity for commanding the troops who allegedly killed or wounded thousands of Sarajevans during the 1992-1995 war.
What happened to Sarajevo during the 44 month long siege of the city, said prosecutor Mark Ierace, is well known to a world that watched the city descend into a medieval hell on television. Not since World War II, he said, did a military campaign use such unrelenting violence to reduce a European city to such deprivation and fill it with the fear of death. With no gas, water or electricity, and with Bosnian Serb troops surrounding the hills above the city and deliberately shelling and sniping at its residents, the people of Sarajevo, said prosecutor Ierace, simply had no safe place to go.
"Civilians were shot in their homes as they watched television, drank coffee or prayed," the prosecutor told the court. "They were shot outside their homes as they crossed the street, collected wood, drew water from canals, carried it home, cleared rubbish, chatted, and walked with friends, rode in cars, trucks, buses and trams, on bicycles and buried their dead. It seems no area of human activity was too innocuous, mundane, or sacrosanct to escape the sniper's judgment. Serbs who chose to stay were unforgiven and shot along with their Bosnian fellow Sarajevans."
Prosecutors showed video pictures to illustrate what they said words couldn't: people trying - not always successfully - to avoid sniper fire while crossing the street, a child crying in his mother's arms during the shooting, people trying to escape from a burning building, and the aftermath of the 1994 marketplace bombing that left 66 people dead. All crimes, said prosecutors, that were meant to intentionally inflict terror in the population. And they say General Galic, as commander of the 18,000 strong Sarajevo-Romanija corps of the Bosnian Serb Army, was responsible for them.
General Galic may have reported to Bosnian Serb General Ratko Mladic, but prosecutors said all units in the area reported to General Galic, and that it was his obligation to protect civilians. Instead, they said, he headed a military campaign that intentionally targeted and terrorized them, leaving them with a marked fatalism and the inescapable fear of death. Indeed this is the first time an international court will rule on the charge of terrorizing a population. It will be a ruling, said prosecutor Ierace, with far reaching implications in today's world.
"The prosecution notes that the present case confronts the trial chamber with a virtually unprecedented opportunity to elucidate principles to guide the practical application of these bedrock norms of international humanitarian law within modern armed conflict," Mr. Ierace said. "Simply stated, the doctrine that will be developed in this case will be of intense interest to and may well form an operational litmus test for responsible military forces worldwide."
Ultimately, said prosecutor Ierace, this case is not about why the crimes were committed, but how.
For his part, General Galic has said he didn't know about the crimes. Prosecutors said if that was the case, he was the only person who didn't. All he had to do, they said, was turn on the TV in his office.