News 30 Nov 17

UK’s Vulliamy Recalls Encounters with Belligerent Praljak

One of Britain’s most respected reporters on the Balkan wars of the 1990s has recalled his two encounters, in court and out, with Slobodan Praljak, the war criminal who committed suicide at the Hague Tribunal.

Marcus Tanner
Ed Vulliamy. Photo: Flickr/Lee Bryant.

Ed Vulliamy, the British Guardian journalist best known in the Balkans for having revealed the horrors of the Bosnian Serb-run camps in north-west Bosnia, has recalled his meeting – or rather, interrogation by – Slobodan Praljak in court in 2006, some 13 years after having first met him at the headquarters of the Bosnian Croat statelet known as Herzeg-Bosnia.

Vulliamy recalled a feeling of surprise in September 1993 when Praljak, in his capacity as a leader of the Bosnian Croat Croatian Defence Council, HVO, signed an order allowing him entry to the notorious HVO-run camp at Dretelj near Mostar.

It was an order that the camp commander Tomo Sakota apparently received with dismay. He was “aghast” at being told to allow foreign journalists inside, Vulliamy recalled.

Vulliamy in turn was shocked at the conditions he observed in the two warehouses that comprised the camp.

In one warehouse, he remembered in Wednesday’s Guardian, “hundreds of terrified men were packed, sitting or squatting: some time beforehand the door had been closed for 72 hours, leaving them suffocating in the heat and stench, drinking their own urine.

“We proceeded to two hangars dug into a hill. The doors were open, but it was dark inside. The prisoners within were in an appalling state – skeletally thin, eyes unfocused, with skin problems. They told us how the doors were often locked and one night drunken guards had opened fire through them, killing and wounding several.”

Thirteen years later, he recalled, in The Hague as a witness in Praljak’s trial, he saw him again across the court room, while testifying about conditions in the camp and, more generally, about the HVO siege of the eastern, Bosniak section of the city of Mostar.

Vulliamy, under cross-examination at one point from Praljak, said he found him belligerent and uninterested in discussing any of that.

Instead, he wrote, he wanted only to “talk about how ethnic groups ‘have sovereign rights, and asked me: ‘Is the right to defence and to freedom an obligation and the right of a sovereign people?’ He didn’t have steam coming out of his ears, but it felt that way.”

Vulliamy said the judge had then intervened, urging Praljak to concentrate on “questions that the witness can answer”, but noted that in spite of that, “we went on in this vein for some time”.

Vulliamy concluded: “He’d put on a show all right, but I was unsure quite what it had achieved.”

The conditions found in the Dretelj camp, along with the destruction of the old Mostar bridge and the massacre at Ahmici in central Bosnia, were major embarrassments to the Bosnian Croat cause and, by extension, to their allies in Franjo Tudjman’s Croatia.

A UNHCR report published on September 6, 1993, disclosed that prisoners in Dretelj were reduced to drinking their own urine, crammed into underground tunnels and were barely fed.

Earlier, the new US ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, had warned President Tudjman that the US would hold his government responsible for the acts of the Bosnian Croats and, after then going public with his views in a BBC interview, Tudjman ordered the closure of the camps.

Vulliamy is well known for his campaigning journalism on the war in Bosnia.

In August 1992, together with Penny Marshall of ITN and others, he reached the Serb-run camps at Omarska and Trnopolje, and broke the news about the devastating conditions there. It proved a key moment in international understanding of the conflict.

“Omarska turned out to be the kind of place where one prisoner was forced to bite the testicles off another, who had a live pigeon stuffed into his mouth to stifle the screams as he died in agony. The yard at Omarska was a killing field, prisoners obliged to load the mutilated corpses of their friends on to trucks by bulldozer,” he wrote later.

In Britain, far-left opponents of foreign intervention in Yugoslavia, insistent that Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic was being vilified for his Socialism, were outraged and accused ITN, Vulliamy and the others of lying.

As a result, ITN sued the magazine Living Marxism, over its article, “The pictures that fooled the world”. The magazine lost the case in 2000, was ordered to pay 375,000 pounds for libel, and later folded.

Praljak was sentenced to 20 years in prison by the Hague Tribunal on Wednesday but took poison while his verdict was being read and died a few hours later.

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