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Testimony Presented by MSF During the French Parliamentary Hearing into the Srebrenica Tragedy
Delivered by Christina Schmitz and Daniel O'Brien, MSF volunteers who were working in Srebrenica during the tragedy. Translated from the original French.
March 29, 2001
My name is Christina Schmitz. I'm a German nurse and was coordinating the activities of Médecins Sans Frontières in the United Nations security zone of Srebrenica in Bosnia from June 24 until July 25, 1995.
My name is Daniel O'Brien. I am an Australian medical doctor and worked for Médecins Sans Frontières in Srebrenica during the same period as Christina.
We are here today to speak about what we witnessed before, during and after the fall of Srebrenica, but also to speak on behalf of the local population since no Bosnian citizen has been invited here yet to speak about what happened. We believe that the people of Srebrenica, but also the international community, including ourselves, need to know who was responsible for this tragedy. Following our account, at the end of May, Pierre Salignon, who [was based in the Paris headquarters of the organization] and responsible for the MSF program at the time, will give you a more global overview and also information using witness accounts of survivors that were collected by other MSF teams after the fall of Srebrenica.
The fate of Srebrenica and its population remains a heavy and painful memory for Daniel and myself, and so for many of my colleagues. The reason for this, among others, is that by working in the security zone since March 1993 we kind of supported the illusion that it would be a safe haven and the population would be protected. But we did not question early enough how long this so-called protection would last. And when would it stop? Or under which circumstances?
On July 11, 1995 we learned in a brutal way that it would stop suddenly on that day.
Daniel and I were present when a safe haven was overtaken, thousands of women and children deported, thousands of men separated and killed. We cannot and do not want to forget, and wish that others, especially the ones responsible, will also not forget, and will acknowledge their responsibility and thus their failure.
Approximately 40,000 people, of whom most were displaced, lived in the enclave since March 1993 when General Morillon declared Srebrenica a security zone and promised the population protection under the United Nations. Living conditions were oppressive; it felt like being in an open-air prison or a ghetto, with people completely depending on humanitarian aid which often did not arrive sufficiently. Only the bare minimum of food, drugs and relief items was allowed in by Bosnian Serbian authorities. Living under the constant threat of an attack, deprived of their freedom and with an uncertain future, it was a pure matter of survival over many years.
Because of the Bosnian Serbian blockade, the usual team of five expatriates had to be reduced to two, namely Daniel and myself and we were not able to have the MSF surgeon in Srebrenica. Our work consisted of providing medical and technical assistance to the hospital, a number of primary health care facilities, and a social center with 98 elderly inhabitants.
During our stay, before July 11, we were in regular contact with local authorities, the hospital local hospital medical staff, United Nations representatives, but also with our coordination team in Belgrade. Daniel and I met on June 28 with Commander Ton Karremans of UNPROFOR, who specifically assured us that the enclave would never fall. Once Srebrenica had been taken over, we had continuous contact with UNPROFOR (mostly with UNPROFOR Deputy Commandant Robert Franken), the UNPROFOR medical teams and other UN representatives. I was present in meetings between UNPROFOR and the Bosnian Serbian commanders and twice met Ratko Mladic.
Our statement will give a chronological account of the period from July 4 to July 21.
Tuesday, July 4:We received information about a heavy concentration of Bosnian Serbian troops, artillery and tanks around the enclave from a UNHCR member entering that day with a food convoy.
Wednesday, July 5:In the daily security meeting the information from UNHCR was confirmed. A new UNPROFOR medical team entered, resulting in the presence of. two UNPROFOR medical teams in the United Nations security zone with drugs and medical material, staff and a well equipped hospital in Potocari, the main UN base in the north of the enclave.
Thursday, July 6:At about 4:30 a.m. we were woken by the sound of explosions. The Bosnian Serbian Army had commenced shelling the south of the security zone. It continued for 3 hours and was very intense. Between 8:30 and 9 a.m., 10 shells hit the centre of Srebrenica itself.
To try and accommodate the predicted arrival of casualties, we discharged all but the sickest patients from the hospital.
Shelling continued throughout the day. In the afternoon the sound of a truck horn blaring down the hill announced the arrival of the first casualties at the hospital. They were children, hit while playing in the park in the town center. One boy was already dead - decapitated - and the other children had horrific shrapnel wounds. We went to work with the local hospital staff to treat the wounded. By the end of the day, we had received 13 wounded and 4 dead at the hospital, all civilians from town.
By telex we requested assistance from UNPROFOR for one severely injured young girl, which was declined due to a stated "lack of intensive care capacity and material." Also some promised blood transfusions for a patient were refused.
Friday, July 7:Shelling, especially in Potocari, continued. We were picking up the wounded in the town, but also in Potocari, with our car. It was a risk as the shelling continued, but I felt compelled to take them. During the day, seven injured civilians arrived at the hospital. [Of them], five required major interventions and three died within 12 hours [of their arrival].
Saturday, July 8:Dr. Elias Pilav, the Srebrenica hospital surgeon, was tired and at the edge of a breakdown. He and his team hadn't stop working for the last two days and everyone was being stretched to the limit physically and emotionally. Not only was the work overwhelming, but the hospital was exposed to the shelling. In addition, those who were being maimed and killed before them were their own family and friends.
There was shelling at breakfast time, but then a lull until lunch. The quiet times were almost worse, as people began to emerge from their houses and bunkers, for both necessity and to get food and water. However there was also the hope that the shelling had finally stopped for good. At this stage the population still felt confident that the Bosnian Serbian Army would not advance on the enclave - I felt that they trusted the UN would protect them. Thus when the shelling recommenced it inevitably brought more civilian casualties.
During the afternoon we received information from the United Nations Military Observers, that Bosnian Serbian forces had overrun a first UNPROFOR observation post called Foxtrott, and therefore crossed the frontline into the south of the enclave. One UN soldier was severely injured and died shortly after. According to UNPROFOR he had been killed by Bosnian fighters. In the town, UN armed personnel carriers (APC) were moving hecticly up and down the road. We heard planes flying high above and thought it was NATO, but nothing happened.
With the news spreading through the town that the Bosnian Serbian army had entered the enclave, I could see a greater sense of fear and apprehension take hold of the population, even among the most stoic of our local staff.
Sunday, July 9:Heavy shelling continued throughout the day, and the hospital remained busy. At one stage, casualties arrived after a shell fell into a room full of people in the town. Another seriously wounded arrival was the well-respected principal of the local school which caused much distress among the local hospital staff.
We were informed that a second UN observation post was taken and blue helmets were retained as hostages by the Bosnian Serbian Army in Bratunac. During the day the Bosnian Serbian army advanced despite some defensive activities of the Bosnian fighters. The three United Nations Military Observers [who] originally stay[ed] in town withdrew that afternoon to Potocari without informing us. The danger was getting closer and the population were developing an increasing sense of not only fear, but isolation and abandonment.
After four days of heavy shelling, the Bosnian Serbian forces were on the verge of entering Srebrenica without a clear opposition from UNPROFOR troops.
Monday, July 10:We awakened to the sounds of heavy fighting to the south. We were informed later by UNPROFOR, that it was an offensive of the Bosnian fighters. The hospital became very crowded with new wounded, and many people screaming and crying. According to UNPROFOR, despite of some shelling, the situation in the enclave was stable.
Around 10:30 a.m., a shell exploded close to the hospital, shattering the windows of the operating theater and the pharmacy. Now the town's hospital had became a target as well. UNPROFOR offered us help fixing the windows. What a sign of helplessness!
Around 4 in the afternoon, the frontline was moving closer. Dr. Elias Pilav, the hospital surgeon, requested assistance from the UNPROFOR medical teams. The understaffed Bosnian surgical team was operating around the clock in the Srebrenica hospital and needed help. I sent a telex at the UNPROFOR base in Potocari. The refusal came back by telex a few minutes later, declining assistance with the argument, that "medical care has to be secured for my soldiers." (of UNPROFOR)
For us, it was very difficult to accept that UNPROFOR - who had two medical teams -- refused assistance at this terrible moment. Operating on civilian casualties was out of the question at this stage for them.
In the evening rumors spread that the Bosnian Serbian army had entered the southern end of town. This created an almost indescribable collective wave of panic and hysteria among the people, and the whole population of the lower and central parts of Srebrenica poured into the lower end of town around the hospital. People intensely believed that if they fell into the hands of the Bosnian Serbian soldiers they would be killed. The fear was palpable.
Our bunker became filled with about 80 people, most of them medical staff, desperate in the hope that as representatives of the outside world we might protect them. They begged us to get on our radio and tell the world what was happening. "The UN promised to protect us," they said, "please get them to do something before it is too late." We felt helpless, but tried to reassure them that they would be all right. We heard from the UNPROFOR that the Bosnian Serbian Army had not entered town, and that UNPROFOR was trying to block the Bosnian Serbian forces with four APC on the road going south of the pocket. Furthermore we were told that if the Bosnian Serbian army attempted to cross this line then they would order air strikes.
Tuesday, July 11:It was a clear, sunny day. The morning was quiet but the hospital and its surroundings remained crowded with thousands of people who had remained from the night before. Early in the morning we noticed large numbers of people leaving in the Potocari direction. Three British soldiers were in the PTT building opposite the hospital and when they emerged, people started to run fearing air strikes might come.
It seemed now people had lost faith in the UNPROFOR protection. A nurse in the hospital told me the UN would not come to their rescue. Furthermore the local doctors insisted on organizing the evacuation of the 80 patients in the hospital to Potocari. They remembered Vukovar in October 1991 where about 200 patients and staff of the hospital were killed by Serbian soldiers, and feared the same events here. According to doctor Elias, they were refused permission by UNPROFOR to do so but they sent them anyway in 2 trucks because they felt once on the doorstep UNPROFOR could not refuse them.
At noon the quiet was broken by the resumption of shelling. People started to panic and run north towards Potocari. The UNPROFOR told us that they had requested airstrikes and to be ready. The mayor of Srebrenica entered our bunker and informed us that the Bosnian Serbian army had entered the town. However only at around 3 p.m. did we see planes carrying out airstrikes. By then, the town was already empty of people and the Bosnian Serbian army was well advanced into the town.
We decided to follow the population and went to the hospital to try and collect all the remaining patients. As we did not have enough space, I still had to leave some old people in the hospital. When I tried to go back, I was advised by the UNPROFOR not to do so due to the proximity of the Bosnian Serbian army.
The scene on the road to Potocari was complete chaos; people running in panic, carrying screaming children and their bags; blue helmets walking with the fleeing population ; shelling continuing from the mountains. In a truck in front of us, we had to witness how people struggled with each other in order to get on transport to Potocari.
Finally we arrived at the Potocari UNPROFOR base. The blue helmets had already set up a makeshift hospital in a dark corridor. Fifty-five patients arrived here but all the local doctors and many local hospital staff did not. They were afraid of being killed if handed over to Bosnian Serbian Army. However UNPROFOR refused MSF any of their medicines because it had to be kept for their own soldiers. I had only the supplies of the two emergency cases from our cars: two bags of intravenous fluid and a few vials of painkiller.
Outside the compound, approximately 20,000 people were seeking shelter around some destroyed buildings trying to escape the continuing shelling.
UNPROFOR accepted an estimated 5,000 people inside their base at Potocari, where they were protected from the shells and out of view of Bosnian Serbian soldiers.
In a meeting with UNPROFOR Deputy Commander Robert Franken, he informed me that he tried to arrange with Bosnian Serbian forces, already in Potocari, a trip into town in order to pick up medical supplies from the MSF stock. However Ratko Mladic told him that everything was empty. Then Mladic requested UN buses for the evacuation of the population, and offered food and medicines...
Even at the end of this terrible day, I was still hoping the population and we would be allowed to go back to Srebrenica.
Wednesday, July 12:The Bosnian Serbian army announced a ceasefire until 10 a.m.. They requested that UNPROFOR collect all weapons from the local fighters in exchange for the security of the displaced people. However UNPROFOR troops had already lost contact with the local authorities. At 9:45 a.m. shelling started again.
I was told by Commander Franken that the Bosnian Serbian army tried to enter the enclave with tanks from Bratunac.
Only later in the morning, UNPROFOR soldiers received the order to switch to a non combat situation as they were no longer under threat of attack. Therefore they offered us access to all their medical facilities and drugs.
In the meantime I was moving between the MSF makeshift hospital and the population outside, trying to identify the sick, weak and pregnant and referring them to Daniel [who was] being assisted by the medical staff of the UNPROFOR. The condition of the displaced people outside and inside was appalling - [they lacked] food, water, shelter, and sewage [was on the ground].
We were informed that Mladic would start the deportation of the population to Tulza, and the evacuation of wounded people to Bratunac football stadium. I personally talked to him and tried to protest against this plan, but he just told me to do my job and walked away. Soon after, the plan seemed to have changed and the deportation of only the displaced people by the Bosnian Serbian forces started.
It was so quick and well organized that it looked as if it was planed in advance. Outside the UN compound, men had to register in a house where 35 were kept. I expressed my concern to Deputy Commander Franken and he assured me that they were being well treated. I also discussed this issue with Commander Karremans who was very sure that none of the men were killed. However, later, around this house, I could hear a lot of small arm fire.
Around 7 p.m., the evacuation of the hospital patients who had been waiting in the UNPROFOR base for two days started in vehicles driven by UNPROFOR soldiers. It was very chaotic; everybody wanted to get on the convoy because they saw it as a chance for salvation. It is hard to convey their desperation, but people just jumped into the trucks, others carried their relatives forward via any available means and demanded they be placed on the convoy. It was accompanied by nine Bosnian nurses and one medical technician.
Thursday, July 13:At 7 a.m. the deportation of the civilians resumed from the camp outside. Blue helmets were controlling the desperate crowd by forming a human chain. Everybody who could have stopped this mass exodus, should have been forced to feel the panic and desperation of the people. Everybody should have seen the violence in the faces of Bosnian Serbian soldiers, directing the people like animals to the buses, with children screaming in the arms of their mothers, everybody running for their lives.
A father with his one?year-old baby came to me, crying, accompanied by an armed Bosnian serb soldier. It was clear to me that he was supposed to be separated and so he handed his child to me. It was a horrible scene. I had to write down the name of the child and felt that the father would never see his daughter again.
Later on, I was informed by a UNPROFOR soldier that there were dead bodies in the back of the factory. A soldier of the Bosnian Serbian army said that if I wanted to go with a UN military observer to confirm this I could but they would not guarantee my security. Therefore, I didn't go. In the afternoon I saw a hysterical Bosnian man being beaten up...
Since their arrival in Potocari, seven women gave birth in the corridor that was our hospital, with no privacy, among the dirt and desperation.
By 4 p.m., the outside camp was empty and the deportation of the displaced people from inside the UNPROFOR compound commenced. The blue helmets assisted the displaced people up to the gate of the compound. We were told that outside the compound, they were taken by Bosnian Serbian soldiers who separated the men from the women, children, and elderly and were put on separate buses and trucks. In two days, the deportation of the 25,000 people was completedâ€¦
After days of negotiations, a convoy of UNHCR with food was allowed to come into Potocari. Then, a delegation of Bosnian serb soldiers inspected the UN base. They spent 10 minutes in the camp, which included interrogations of the patients in our MSF hospital. Our local translator was requested by the UN to make a list of all the patients to allow their clearance for medical evacuation.
In the meantime, I [made a request] via UNPROFOR to go back to Srebrenica to pick up the remaining patients. Accompanied by a Bosnian Serbian escort, in a separate car, and one UN military observer, I found three patients in the social center and three patients in the hospital. We heard lots of small arms fire in the late evening in one certain place in the forest nearby.
Friday, July 14:Efforts to evacuate the remaining patients were undertaken by Deputy Commander Franken. A UNPROFOR convoy arrived in the evening with new drugs, food and 35,000 liters of diesel... The Bosnian Serbian army confiscated 30.000 liters and kept the material! Again very clever for the Bosnian Serbian army to have allowed convoys in at this time.
Saturday, July 15:We were informed that the UNPROFOR hostages detained in Bratunac since the beginning of the offensive were released and sent to Belgrade in Serbia.
I inquired with deputy commander Franken about the whereabouts of the men and he informed me that some young men had arrived in Kladanj and apparently, there was a group of 700 to 1,000 men kept in Bratunac.
Sunday, July 16:Nine blue helmets who were still held in one observation post held by Bosnian Serbian soldiers were released and returned to the UN compound in Potocari.
Monday, July 17:Commandant Nikolic, the local Bosnian Serbian commander from Bratunac insisted on inspecting each of the 55 patient before they could be evacuated with ICRC to Tuzla. He went from bed to bed in the hospital talking to almost every patient. Leaving the hospital, Nikolic had written seven names on a piece of paper and informed everybody that these seven men had to stay in Bratunac in the local clinic.
They would be taken charge of by the Bosnian Serbian ministry of health. Commandant Franken requested the UNPROFOR anaesthetist, already present in Bratunac to follow up on the patients. At 6:15 p.m., all patients were in the ICRC cars and left Potocari except the 7 men who were separated by the Bosnia Serbian army who were transported by UNPROFOR to Bratunac. There they were handed to ICRC who left them in the health facility in Bratunac.
Finally, after days of negotiations, we received from the Bosnian Serb Army the information that all MSF local staff (8 MSF staff members, 5 family members) had been granted amnesty and were free to evacuate with us.
Tuesday, July 18:UNPROFOR informed us that they agreed to evacuate us together with the eight local MSF staff, five family members and two citizens to Croatian territory. Bosnian Serbian soldiers found the two old people in the south of Srebrenica and brought them to us. We took charge [of them] since UNPROFOR was not able to take them under their responsibility.
Wednesday July 19:We were informed that as a result of the meeting between Rupert Smith and Ratko Mladic everybody living in the UN base in Potocari would be able to leave with the UNPROFOR convoy on Friday, July 21.
Friday, July 21:At noon, the convoy started to leave Potocari, our three MSF cars together with 163 UNPROFOR vehicles.
Commander Nicolic said goodbye at the gate of the UNPROFOR compound. Mladic together with a big delegation including Serb press and Commander Karremans, head of UNPROFOR in Srebrenica, were awaiting us at the Bosnian side of Iron Bridge before we left for Serbia.
We arrived safely in Zagreb in the morning of July 22 with our 15 local staff and families including 9 young men.
Of note: of the 128 hospital staff, 21 are reported missing. Of the 13 MSF national staff, 1 was killed in July 1995. His name was Meho Bosnjakovic, and he worked as a logistician with MSF. I want here to pay homage to all of them
The international community has failed to protect the population of Srebrenica. The international community was represented by UNPROFOR, initially under the responsibility of General Morillon at the time of the creation of the security zone of Srebrenica, and at the time of its brutal overtaking under the responsibility of General Janvier. Thousands of women and children were deported, lost their homes. Worse than that, more than 7,000 men have been killed. This happened in the presence of peacekeeping forces and therefore nobody can claim to have not been informed.
We would like to see justice, not only related to the performance of the United Nations, but also related to the atrocities committed by the Bosnian Serbian Army.
The horrible account we have given today is only what we knew and saw at the time, but sadly the true reality of all that happened has proven to be much worse.
Being members of the international community, we feel deeply ashamed that 50 years after the Second World War, such a tragedy can happen again in Europe with people's full knowledge and awareness. We hope that it will never be forgotten and appropriate steps [will be] taken to prevent such horrific atrocities ever being repeated.
Tags: Bosnia and Herzegovina