Michael Dobbs

Scenes from an Execution

I called this blog, “Exploring the origins of evil.” Up until now, I have skirted around the subject, describing evil deeds without addressing the motives of the evil-doers. Identifying the essence of evil is a huge, perhaps impossible, challenge — but I would like to begin, in a modest way, by thinking about the motivations ...

I called this blog, "Exploring the origins of evil." Up until now, I have skirted around the subject, describing evil deeds without addressing the motives of the evil-doers. Identifying the essence of evil is a huge, perhaps impossible, challenge -- but I would like to begin, in a modest way, by thinking about the motivations of a small group of men who carried out a war crime.

Their crime was one of many committed in the wake of the capture, in July 1995, of Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladic. The only thing that distinguishes this crime from other mass killings of Muslim prisoners at places like Kozluk and Branjevo Farm is that this particular execution was captured on videotape. The killers were so confident they would never face justice that they filmed themselves engaging in acts of cold-blooded murder.

I called this blog, “Exploring the origins of evil.” Up until now, I have skirted around the subject, describing evil deeds without addressing the motives of the evil-doers. Identifying the essence of evil is a huge, perhaps impossible, challenge — but I would like to begin, in a modest way, by thinking about the motivations of a small group of men who carried out a war crime.

Their crime was one of many committed in the wake of the capture, in July 1995, of Srebrenica by Bosnian Serb forces commanded by General Ratko Mladic. The only thing that distinguishes this crime from other mass killings of Muslim prisoners at places like Kozluk and Branjevo Farm is that this particular execution was captured on videotape. The killers were so confident they would never face justice that they filmed themselves engaging in acts of cold-blooded murder.

You can see an edited version of the video here, but be warned: It contains some graphic scenes. I have also provided English language captions of the back-and-forth between the executioners which is almost as horrifying as the act of murder itself. As the prisoners lie helpless on the ground, in the scene above, the murderers taunt them with ethnic slurs, crude vulgarities, and talk of revenge for crimes committed against Serbs. At one point, the execution is delayed as the killers go off in search of a fresh battery for their video camera.

The video was first shown at the Yugoslav war crimes tribunal in the Slobodan Milosevic trial in June 2005, after being turned over to the court by a Serbian human rights activist, Natasha Kandic. It was subsequently shown on Serbian television and had a profound effect on Serbian public opinion, paving the way for the arrest of Mladic in May 2011.

The victims of the execution are all Muslims from Srebrenica, murdered around July 16, 1995, near a town called Trnovo on the outskirts of Sarajevo. They appear to have been brought to the Serb-held frontline town — more than 100 miles from Srebrenica — as part of an effort to parcel out responsibility for the murders. A paramilitary unit known as the Skorpions, or Red Berets, were given a group of six frightened young prisoners to execute.

DNA and other evidence has led to the positive identification of all six victims. For the record, their names are: Azmir Alispahic, 16; Safet Fejzic, 17; Smajil Ibrahimovic, 34; Sidik Salkic, 36; Juso Delic, 25; and Dino Salihovic, 16. They had all fled Srebrenica when the United Nations “safe area” fell to Mladic’s forces on July 11, 1995. The two older men were forced to drag the bodies of their companions from the execution site into an abandoned cottage, and were then executed themselves. The bodies were doused with petrol and set alight.

The Skorpions commander, Slobodan Medic, decided to videotape the execution as proof of his unit’s “combat exploits.” The cameraman, Slobodan Stojkovic, testified that videotapes were distributed to members of the unit as “souvenirs,” and were even available for rental for a time from a videostore in the town of Sid in northern Serbia, where the Skorpions were based. A Belgrade court sentenced Medic to 20 years in prison in April 2007, with lesser sentences for other Skorpion members.

According to the Serbian state prosecutor, the killers hoped to conceal the crime by executing their captives “in the vicinity of a previous battlefield so as to create the impression that they had been killed in the fights.”

So what motivated the Skorpions not only to commit the crime — but to compound it by recording their actions in such a gruesome manner?

I will try to answer this question, or at least tackle it, in a subsequent post. In the meantime, please help me out. Use the comments section to tell me what you think was running through the minds of the killers of Azmir, Safet, Smajil, Sidik, Juso, and Dino when they committed the murders?

In the meantime, here are some other scenes from the execution, beginning with the men being led to their deaths.

In the next photograph, you can see the moment of execution. Two more men are waiting to be killed, their hands tied behind their backs.

In the final photograph, you see a member of the Skorpions watching Sidik and Smajil dragging the body of 16-year-old Dino to the deserted house, before being killed themselves.

 

Michael Dobbs is a prize-winning foreign correspondent and author. Currently serving as a Goldfarb fellow at the Committee on Conscience of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Dobbs is following legal proceedings in The Hague. He has traveled to Srebrenica, Sarajevo and Belgrade, interviewed Mladic’s victims and associates, and is posting documents, video recordings, and intercepted phone calls that shed light on Mladic's personality. Twitter: @michaeldobbs

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