Profile 05 Oct 17

Naser Oric: Srebrenica Commander Inspires Love and Hate

Ahead of his war crimes verdict, Naser Oric, a wartime defender of Srebrenica who once worked as Slobodan Milosevic’s bodyguard, says he is “loved” by Bosniaks - but is also despised by many Serbs.

Admir Muslimovic BIRN Sarajevo
Oric with supporters wearing T-shirts with the slogan "Never forget Naser is a hero". Photo: Mario Ilicic/BIRN.

Nine years after Naser Oric had his war crimes conviction quashed by the UN tribunal in The Hague, the former Srebrenica commander is awaiting another verdict, this time from the Bosnian state court in Sarajevo.

The court will rule on Monday on whether Oric is guilty or not of war crimes against three Serb prisoners of war who were murdered in the villages of Zalazje, Kunjerac and Lolici in the Srebrenica and Bratunac areas in 1992.

Oric is seen as a hero by many Bosniaks for his role in defending Srebrenica in the years before the 1995 massacres, but despised by many Bosnian Serbs, who accuse him of killing soldiers who had surrendered to a Bosnian Army unit that he led.

The former commander denies committing war crimes.

“I am loved by the people whose side I took… I am not liked by those who considered me an obstacle on the River Drina [on the Serbia-Bosnia border] that prevented them from creating a ‘Greater Serbia’,” Oric told BIRN.

Before the war, when he was a policeman, he was an active participant in several flashpoint events as the collapse of Yugoslavia drew closer.

He even guarded Serbian leader Slobodan Milosevic when he made an infamous speech at a rally in Kosovo in 1989 which has been credited with helping to ignite the conflict in what was then Yugoslavia.

Oric was also among the police forces that tried to disperse a huge anti-Milosevic protest in Belgrade in March 1991, when street battles left two people dead before the army was deployed to restore order.

Oric at his summer house in Kladanj. Photo: Mario Ilicic/BIRN.

From Srebrenica to Belgrade

Oric was born in Potocari in the Srebrenica municipality, where the genocide memorial is now situated, in March 1967.

After leaving school, he enrolled at the University of Belgrade’s metallurgy faculty in Bor in Serbia, but he left to begin his military service with the Yugoslav People’s Army.

When he finished his stint in the army, he completed a police course in the Belgrade municipality of Zemun and began serving as a trainee policeman in the Serbian capital.

As the Serbian Interior Ministry’s Unit for Special Assignments, he was occasionally deployed to Kosovo and worked as a security guard for Slobodan Milosevic when required.

He guarded Milosevic during the celebration of the 600th anniversary of the Battle of Kosovo at Gazimestan in Kosovo Polje in June 1989, when the Serbian president delivered a nationalist speech in front of hundreds of thousands of Serbs.

In the speech, Milosevic called for unity among Serbs in what he said were battles to come. “They are not armed battles, although such things cannot be excluded yet,“ he warned.

Oric said that he was the only Bosniak involved in the security of the event.

“Up until then, I had not thought about where all those things that happened would lead,” he recalled.

“Just like every other time, I performed my job at a high professional level. When I realised it was a huge gathering of Serbs at which calls for war were shouted, it became clear to me what was going to happen,” he added.

In February 1989, he was also involved in the evacuation of striking Kosovo Albanian miners who had barricaded themselves underground at the Trepca colliery in what was then Titova Mitrovica, amid strikes against the abolition of Kosovo’s autonomy by the Milosevic regime.

“The mineworkers locked themselves in at 2,000 metres below ground level and threatened to detonate explosives. Thirteen of us went down into the pit and saved all of the miners. On that occasion, I got a pistol with Slobodan Milosevic’s inscription,” Oric recalled.

His role as a policeman also meant that he was also involved in the arrest of opposition Serbian Renewal Movement leader Vuk Draskovic during the anti-Milosevic demonstration in Belgrade that descended into violence on March 9, 1991.

Oric says he did not speak to Milosevic when he guarded him. But years later, when both men were on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, they did meet and talk.

Oric said Milosevic acted “like a gentleman”, wanting to demonstrate that the crimes with which he was charged had nothing to do with him.

The former Serbian president even gave him gifts.

“I enjoyed watching Western movies. Milosevic often gave me CDs with those movies,” Oric said.

Oric outside court in Sarajevo. Photo: Mario Ilicic/BIRN.

The road to The Hague

After Belgrade, Oric returned to his Bosnian hometown and began working with the local police.

In mid-April 1992, a Territorial Defence force was set up in Srebrenica and Oric became its commander.

Bosnian Serb forces occupied the town in April and May 1992, but Oric and his comrades took it back on May 8 and 9. He continued to lead the town’s defence until 1995.

“He made a maximum contribution to organising and offering resistance. I think that Naser is a symbol of Bosniaks and Bosnians who love this country,” said his former police colleague Zulfo Salihovic.

Oric was removed from command on May 29, 1995, however.

“I was dismissed. Actually, Rasim Delic [from the Bosnian Army’s Main Staff] relieved me of my duty. I remained undeployed, but he had never explained to me why the decision was made,” Oric said.

After being dismissed, Oric went to Tuzla, where he was on July 11, 1995 when the Bosnian Serb Army seized Srebrenica and began the massacres of some 8,000 Bosniaks in the days that followed.

After finding out what was happening, Oric gathered together a group of around 30 volunteers in a bid to save some of the Bosniaks fleeing Srebrenica.

After the war, he continued to live in Tuzla, where he ran a fitness club, until he was indicted by the Hague Tribunal and arrested in April 2003.

The Hague prosecution charged him with criminal responsibility for the murder of seven Serbs held at the Srebrenica police station in 1992-93 and the cruel treatment of 11 others, as well as with the “wanton destruction… not justified by military necessity” of Serb homes during raids on villages.

Oric says that while he was on trial, he often socialised with the Serb defendants in the UN detention unit.

“The detention unit was my second home. Having realised this, I found it much easier to cope with the court proceedings,” he said.

“I met the accused Serbs all the time. I played football with [former Yugoslav People's Army officer] Veselin Sljivancanin. He is a confirmed communist. He arrived in prison as such and has not changed since. He kept saying he felt remorse,” he added.

Oric said he believes thinks that Bosnian Serb Army officer Momir Nikolic was the only true penitent out of the defendants in The Hague, because he admitted that genocide was committed in Srebrenica.

“He did not do it only to have his imprisonment term reduced,” Oric explained.

Oric was convicted in June 2006 of failing to prevent the murder and inhumane treatment of Serb prisoners and sentenced to two years in prison, but was immediately released because he had already served the time.

The UN court's appeals chamber then overturned the verdict and cleared him in July 2008, and Oric returned to Bosnia.

Oric during his trial in Sarajevo. Photo: Mario Ilicic/BIRN.

Extradited to Sarajevo

Oric says he has visited his hometown only once since the war, in order to attend a funeral, and has never entered his old house.

In June 2015, he travelled to Switzerland together with the then mayor of Srebrenica, Camil Durakovic, and the vice-president of the Srebrenica municipal assembly, Hamdija Fejzic, to attend a genocide commemoration.

But he was arrested in Bern on a warrant issued by Serbia claiming that he committed war crimes.

The arrest sparked protests by his supporters and threatened to disrupt that year’s Srebrenica commemorations.

But the Swiss authorities decided to extradite him to Sarajevo rather than Belgrade, because he was also under investigation for war crimes in his home country - a decision that caused anger in Serbia.

A few months later, he was charged with war crimes by the Bosnian prosecution, and went on trial in January 2016.

The trial started despite objections by Oric’s defence, which claimed that he had already been tried for and acquitted of the same crimes by the UN tribunal in The Hague.

But the UN court has said the indictment filed in Bosnia and Herzegovina was significantly different from the charges of which he was acquitted.

With the verdict now approaching, Oric said that everything that has happened to him over the years was meant to be.

“There were better fighters than me. Unfortunately, many of them died,” he said.

“The court processes are just proof of what Bosniaks went through during the war and this is destined to be proved at my trial,” he added.

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