Ivo Atlija, a Bosnian Croat, speaking about killings that occurred in the area around his village in 1992 in the Prijedor municipality of Bosnia and Herzegovina. He testified on 3 and 4 July 2002 in the case against Milomir Stakić.
Read his story and testimony
“ They were terrified, and they kept saying that the Serbs were killing everyone they could see, that they were raping women, and torching houses. ”
In his testimony before the Tribunal, Mr. Atlija said that the climate among the three ethnic groups in the municipality began to become tense after the start of the election campaign in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1990. According to him, the most important cause was the aggressive propaganda of the Serbian Democratic Party (SDS). “We're talking about verbal propaganda, first of all, where members of other non-Serb nationalities were publicly called Ustasha [the name for the World War II Croatian state that was allied with the Nazis], fundamentalists, balijas [a derogatory term for Bosnian Muslims], Turks, and other such derogatory names” explained Mr. Atlija.
Among the more drastic examples of this propaganda, Mr. Atlija cited a Radio Prijedor report which claimed that a Dr. Mirsad Mujadžić had given Serbian women injections so that they could only bear female children, thus reducing the birth rate among Serbs in that part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. Mr. Atlija said that he found it difficult to understand why Serbs accepted this propaganda without questioning it. In response to how it affected the non-Serb population, Mr. Atlija said, “We lived in great fear.”
Mr. Atlija said that around this time he also saw more people on the streets carrying weapons, and most of them were Serbs. Serbs that he knew said that they armed themselves to defend Yugoslavia, to keep all Serbs in one state, and to prevent Bosnia and Herzegovina from becoming Ustasha soil, or a “džamahirija” -a derogatory term to describe a Muslim-dominated state.
After the SDS took over power in Prijedor in the night of 29 to 30 April 1992, Mr. Atlija, like many other non-Serbs, was dismissed from his job. “I went to work in the morning,” recalled Mr. Atlija, “and I saw checkpoints, bunkers along the road, armed Serb soldiers, Serb flags outside the municipality building.” After being told to go back home, Mr. Atljia did not return to Prijedor but went to his native village of Briševo, where he remained for the next few months.
Because Briševo was at a higher altitude, Mr. Atlija was able to see what was happening in the other villages in the surroundings, including those which were predominantly Muslim. Among them was the village of Hambarine, which, Mr. Atlija said, began to be shelled on 23 May 1992 around noon. “I could hear the shooting very clearly and [see] people move in the direction of Hambarine, soldiers stopping and moving towards Hambarine. I could see houses burning. I could see smoke and hear detonations,” reported Ivo Atlija.
On the day of the attack, about 400 refugees, who were mostly women, children and elderly men, fled the village. “They were terrified,” said Mr. Atlija, “and they kept saying that the Serbs were killing everyone they could see, that they were raping women, and torching houses.”
“ From the accounts of the eyewitnesses, they were made to dig their own grave, and then they were killed with the same tools they had used to dig the grave. ”
Mr. Atlija said that without warning on 27 May 1992, Briševo was also shelled. His village put up no resistance: “Not a single bullet was fired,” said Mr. Atlija. The villagers surrendered five or six hunting rifles and a few pistols that people had legally owned, and agreed to allow the Serb side to search their houses for weapons. No one ever did.
While villages in the area were being attacked, Mr. Atlija said that Radio Prijedor boasted of the Serb army’s great successes, stating that an Ustasha fundamentalist stronghold had fallen, and that a large number of Ustashas and Green Berets [referring to Muslim forces] had been liquidated.
The first few weeks after his village was shelled were relatively peaceful, but the inhabitants were unable to leave to buy food and medical supplies. “The village was totally blocked. No one could come in, no one could go out,” Mr. Atlija told the court. The two people who had diabetes were in a critical state because they could not get insulin. Otherwise, the villagers could live relatively normally from the food they had from their vegetable gardens.
In the two months after Briševo was shelled, there were also arrests and beatings that Mr. Atlija described for the court. On 24 June 1992, three or four police officers from Ljubija came and made several arrests in Briševo. Mr. Atlija later found out that they were taken to the Keraterm, Omarska and Manjača detention camps, where some were killed, while others were eventually exchanged. In mid-July a number of young Serb men from a neighbouring village beat and mistreated one of Briševo’s men and his brothers, cutting them with screwdrivers.
On 23 July 1992, Mr. Atlija’s cousin came to him in a panic, saying that a Serb from a neighbouring village had come to warn him that two brigades were preparing to cleanse Briševo the next day. At 3:00am on 24 July 1992, Mr. Atlija was wakened by explosions. Mr. Atlija’s parents took shelter in a neighbour’s cellar while he ran from house to house, hiding in various places. The artillery and the infantry fire continued throughout the entire day and the following night.
From the cellar where he was hiding, he saw a group of 10 to 12 soldiers standing outside, 200 meters from the house. The soldiers ordered the people in the house to disperse and to go to their respective homes. Ten minutes later, they heard shouts from the houses they had just left. When Ivo Atlija ran there he found his mother crying and shouting. “Run away,” she said, “run off, they killed your father.”
Mr. Atlija ran and hid behind a tree in the woods. He saw a large group of soldiers lock his mother in a pigsty, and saw three or four soldiers beat a man called Pero Dimač, who had been standing with his mother. They cursed Mr. Dimac, and said, “Let the Catholic Jesus help him now.” They made Mr. Dimač, pray according to Catholic ritual and made fun of him. They hit him with a Bible and made him take his clothes off down to his underwear. As they beat him, they forced him to run from one of them to the other. “Pero was crying,” said Mr. Atlija, “and I didn't see that he even tried to defend himself.” One of the soldiers ordered him to run, and then shot him in the head. Mr. Atlija heard one of the soldiers say, “[t]he Ustasha dog fell into the water.”
From his hiding place, Mr. Atlija saw houses burning and soldiers looting television sets, air-conditioning units, videos, hi-fis, and furniture. The day following the attack, 68 houses including the Catholic church were burned down. In the weeks that followed, soldiers set fire to the remaining houses. There were also 68 dead bodies lying around the village, including 14 women, two boys under the age of 16, and four invalids.
Ivo Atlija went through other villages in the municipality and took part in burying many bodies. Mr. Atlija said that in a village called Stara Rijeka, “under a big pear tree there was a heap of between 10 and 12 bodies. It was difficult to count them because they were covered over with earth, but hands and heads were sticking out of this little mound.” The bodies belonged to young men who Mr. Atlija said were no more than 20 years old.
In a hamlet called Mlinari, Mr. Atlija saw bodies with irregularly shaped wounds, which he later found out, were caused by a pick and spade that he saw next to the bodies. “From the accounts of the eyewitnesses, they were made to dig their own grave, and then they were killed with the same tools they had used to dig the grave,” said Mr. Atlija. He also buried his father’s body, which had three gunshot wounds in the back.
In August 1992 Ivo Atlija met ICTY accused Milomir Stakić with a delegation of two other people to ask for help in leaving Bosnia and Herzegovina. Stakić told them that they could go and occupy the empty houses in a neighbouring village, but that he could not help them move out.
Nevertheless, Ivo Atlija was able to leave Bosnia and Herzegovina for Zagreb, Croatia, on 17 November 1992. He joined a convoy organised with the assistance of the Serbian authorities and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and UN peace-keeping forces (UNPROFOR). Before leaving, he and others in the convoy were made to sign a declaration that they were leaving of their own free will, and a certificate signing their property over to the Serbian authorities. During his testimony in 2002, Ivo Atlija said that as far as he knew, no one had gone back to live in his village of Briševo.
Ivo Atlija testified on 3 and 4 July 2002 in the case against Milomir Stakić, the leading figure in the Prijedor municipal government. The Tribunal found Milomir Stakić guilty of participating in exterminating, murdering and persecuting the non-Serb population in Prijedor and sentenced him to 40 years’ imprisonment.