Skip to comments.Impunity Prevails (for Croat war crimes)
Posted on 12/08/2005 3:01:58 PM PST by joan
by Drago Hedl
8 December 2005
Croatias leading investigative journalist compares the countrys attitudes toward war crimes reporting today and in the 1990s.
To write in todays Croatia about war crimes committed by Croats no longer earns one the label of a traitor as it did in the time of President Franjo Tudjman, who died in office in late 1999. Back then, the official doctrine held that the Croats could not have committed war crimes because they had only waged a defensive war. The framer of the theory was no one else than Milan Vukovic, the then-president of the Supreme Court. Everything that stood in opposition to this position, which was backed by the highest legal authority in the state, was considered a denigration of the Homeland War, as the Croats named the armed conflict triggered by the dissolution of Yugoslavia in 1991.
But while official Croatia no longer denies that in the 1991-1995 war the Croats committed war crimes as well, it is not easy to write about it even today. Its a topic that makes no one popular. Journalists writing about it still find themselves in unpleasant situations, and many readers still tend to react by saying, Why dont you write about war crimes committed by the Serbs, who committed aggression against Croatia?
In the early 1990s, when I wrote the first article on crimes against Serbian civilians in Pakracka Poljana committed by members of a special unit under the command of Tomislav Mercep, the weekly Feral Tribune, which published the article, ended up in court. Mercep, a powerful figure on Croatias political stage (he was an advisor to the interior minister and a member of parliament), accused the magazine of defamation. The case has not yet been closed.
The so-called nationally-constructive media, the major newspapers and television that were, at the time, completely controlled by the Tudjman regime, kept referring to the newspaper I still work for and to myself as foreign mercenaries and traitors who would sell their very souls for a handful of Judas coins. This was an open reference to the fact that Feral Tribune, one of the rare independent media outlets at the time, was financially supported by George Soros Open Society Foundation.
A look from todays perspective at the short history of Croatian media reporting on war crimes reveals that the shocking account of Miro Bajramovic, one of the members of Merceps unit that Feral Tribune published in the autumn of 1997 may have marked a turning point.
Under the headline How we killed in Pakracka Poljana, Bajramovic described in detail the atrocities Serbian civilians were subjected to before they were killed. His account, in which he gave full details of atrocious torture and monstrous murders in which he directly participated, came as a shock to the Croatian public. It was the first time the perpetrator of a war crime had spoken openly about it.
Bajramovics story laid to rest the notion that the Croats could not have committed war crimes. The atrocities committed were horrendous, and it was also a fact that Serbian civilians, mainly from Zagreb but from other places in Croatia as well, had been deported to an illegal makeshift prison at Pakracka Poljana, where they were tortured and murdered. Since this was a classic war crime, Tudjmans regime could no longer turn a blind eye. Only a day after Bajramovic went public with his story, he was arrested together with several associates.
The trial for war crimes committed in Pakracka Poljana is about to enter its final stage.
SILENCE OVER VUKOVAR
When I set out to Vukovar seven years ago to investigate crimes committed by the Croats against local Serbs on the eve of the war in 1991 and the name Tomislav Mercep surfaced again I encountered an insurmountable wall of silence.
On 15 January 1998, after two years of peaceful administration under the auspices of the UN, Vukovar was reintegrated into the constitutional and legal order of the Republic of Croatia. It had been in the hands of rebel Serbs as part of the so-called Republic of Srpska Krajina since its fall to Serbian forces on 18 November 1991. The local Serbs were frightened because they did not know what was coming now. The traumatized Croats who began returning to their homes after seven years of displacement thought it improper to talk about Croatian crimes in a city so devastated in the Serbian aggression, and which had seen such a horrible crime as that at Ovcara, where over 200 Croats, mainly hospital patients, had been killed by Serbs.
The people I talked to, the majority of whom were relatives of murdered Serbian civilians, spoke about what they knew only reluctantly because they were afraid of likely retribution. They requested we talk in discreet locations and insisted on remaining completely anonymous. Only a few Croats from Vukovar agreed to be interviewed, but they all said that the time had not yet come for what I wanted to know.
Despite these obstacles and on the basis of such scarce information and documentation as I could get hold of, mainly from Serbian sources, I managed to publish an article on how shops, cafes, and homes of the Vukovar Serbs had been mined in the spring and early summer before the war, and how members of the Zbor narodne garde, a precursor of the Croatian army under the command of Tomislav Mercep in Vukovar, had taken away and killed local Serbs. My piece was swiftly condemned.
Veterans' associations protested that such articles tarnished the Homeland War and insulted Vukovar, the heroic city. State television and the government newspaper Vjesnik made use of one visit of mine to Vukovar to portray me as a collaborator with Serbs, something that caused considerable trouble for me in those days.
Something similar happened when I began writing about war crimes in Osijek, a city in which dozens of civilians, mainly Serbs, were killed in 1991 and 1992. The information was almost impossible to obtain because the key officials in the administration, the judiciary, and the police were all persons who had occupied high military positions in the war. For example, the highest civilian official in that part of the country, Governor Branimir Glavas, had been commander of the defense of Osijek. The president of the Cantonal Court was Petar Kljajic, Glavas assistant in the war, and the chief of the Osijek police was Dubravko Jezercic, a war commander of the 160th Osijek Brigade under Glavas command. In such circumstances, it was almost impossible to obtain a single piece of information on the dark side of Osijeks defense: people were simply too frightened to say a word.
After I had published a couple of articles on the war crimes committed in Osijek, Glavas, the then county head, a general of the Croatian army and one of the most powerful political figures in Croatia, sent me a message through a parliamentary deputy that he would turn me into dust and ashes. The only protection I got then was from the International Federation of Journalists and the U.S. Ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, who personally phoned me and offered his assistance by informing the top leadership of the threat and to demand I be protected.
The Osijek crimes were unspeakable, and my articles offered ample evidence, facts, as well as serious circumstantial evidence. But nothing came of it. The state prosecutor did not deem it necessary to investigate the facts, even though I reported on dozens of murders, 10 of which were committed in an identical manner. Several soldiers of the Croatian army would barge into houses of Serbian civilians, take them away with the explanation they were needed for a short interview, and drive them to 30 Dubrovacka Street in Osijek. There, they would interrogate and torture them, tie their hands with a piece of string, tape shut their mouths, drive them to the banks of the River Drava and kill them there. I had police reports on those murders, statements of relatives, and photos of the victims. It was not enough for an official investigation.
In June 2002, I came across the horrifying story of how 18 bodies of Serbian civilians, residents of Paulin Dvor near Osijek, had been moved some 500 kilometers westwards to the province of Lika in the highlands of Croatia, to hide all traces of the crime. I had written on the crime before: 18 Serbs and one Hungarian, all of them civilians and mainly women and elderly, were killed by Croatian soldiers on the night of 11-12 December 1991. I knew more or less everything about the case; what I didnt know was the location of the bodies.
Despite reliable information that the remains of the Paulin Dvor civilians had been exhumed in plastic caskets in Lika, I could not obtain an official confirmation, but I published my story nonetheless since my sources were reliable. This was a new shock for the Croatian public: not only had members of the Croatian army committed crimes, but they also tried to cover them up. Then it emerged that 18 bodies from Paulin Dvor had been hidden in the military storage depot in Cepin, near Osijek, and one female body had remained at the site of the massacre, where it was found a few days later by units of the Yugoslav Peoples Army and Serbian paramilitaries that had taken the village from the Croats.
I had details of all those who took part in moving the bodies and also received reliable information that it had been organized by the local military command and military intelligence, with the knowledge of top state officials in Zagreb. I was informed that Miroslav Tudjman, the elder son of President Tudjman, had been involved as well; he was head of all Croatian intelligence services in January 1997, when the bodies were removed from the military storage depot and transferred to Lika.
He completely ignored my request to respond to this claim.
But the affair was too embarrassing to be completely swept under the carpet. Soon, two suspects in this crime were arrested, Nikola Ivankovic and Enes Viteskic. I had heard their names mentioned as possible perpetrators a few years earlier when I wrote the first articles about massacres in Paulin Dvor. Naturally, I had not published these names since I had only indications and no evidence.
A year later, when the trial against Ivankovic and Viteskic commenced in Osijek, I attended almost all the hearings. There I saw a true farce: both the prosecution and the court solicitously tried not to involve any of the big fish and took exquisite care to pin the entire responsibility for killing 19 people on the accused. The court discussed only the crime itself, not the question of who moved the bodies to cover up all traces. The state prosecutor's office in Zagreb explained that under Croatian law, covering up a war crime did not itself constitute a war crime and that the statute of limitation for the cover-up was five years, just enough to avoid investigating it.
The atmosphere in the courtroom was unbearable. Members of the war veterans associations and family and friends of the defendants made loud comments during witness testimony, directed angry looks at witnesses in the hallway during breaks, even verbally assaulted some of them. I was verbally assaulted myself by two members of a war veterans association in front of the courthouse, almost to the point of physical attack.
Exposed to pressure, the prosecution witnesses began dramatically changing the statements they had given during the investigation. While they had offered concrete descriptions of the event to investigators, they now said their memory was poor and that they had forgotten what had happened. One key witness, Josip Uglik, who provided the most precise statement and mentioned a big fish who had been aware of the crime but had taken no actions to punish the perpetrators, alleged before the court that he had been completely drunk on that day and could not remember anything.
Ivankovic was sentenced to 12 years in prison for the murder of 19 people while Viteskic was released due to lack of evidence. The Supreme Court later annulled the verdict and a retrial is about to begin.
This July, eight years after Miro Bajramovics shocking statement that first forced the Croatian public to face the crimes committed by the Croatian army, I heard from Krunoslav Fehir, a witness and participant in the liquidation of Osijek civilians in 1991 and 1992.
Following his statement to the state prosecutor in Zagreb a few days earlier, he provided me with details of how he had killed a Serbian civilian on orders from Branimir Glavas, the commander of the defense of Osijek. Fehir, at the time only 16, was a member of a special unit that secured Glavas military headquarters. Fehir supported his statements with documents, his military card, ample photographs, and various letters addressing him as a member of the Croatian army, which also proved he was a member of Glavas' unit.
He told me dreadful things: how he guarded detained Serbian civilians brought to Glavas headquarters for interrogation, how they were tortured and abused, how they were killed afterwards. The most appalling part of the story was how detainees were forced to drink the acid from batteries that were stored in the garages where they were held.
My story delivered another shock to the Croatian public. The piece on the war crimes in Osijek was published in many newspapers, and state television invited me to discuss my evidence in an hour-long show dedicated to the topic; all three national television stations covered the topic.
Such exposure would have been utterly inconceivable in Tudjman's time and shows that conditions in the country have changed and that we can at least talk openly now.
But that doesnt mean its easier to gather evidence today than it was before. When I tried to get documents on these events from the police and the prosecutor's office, their response was that they could not oblige in the interest of the investigation.
When I tried to get the autopsy report on the death of Cedomir Vuckovic, one of the persons who, according to my witness claims, had been forced to drink battery acid, the pathology department of Osijek Clinical Hospital told me that I was not entitled to see the document and that only relatives could obtain it. I contacted Vuckovic's son, who lives in the United Kingdom. He sent me an authorization letter, verified by the Croatian Embassy in London, and I was able to see the autopsys conclusion, which indeed established that Vuckovic's death had occurred as a result of sulfuric acid poisoning. But I was not given the full autopsy report, not even for a glimpse.
Because of the articles that I published on the liquidations in Osijek and his possible involvement, Glavas fiercely attacked me in newspapers and television, calling me a psychiatric case, a liar, and a sick person. At least this time around he didnt threaten me directly, as he had 10 years ago.
But on 7 December this year I received an anonymous death threat in the mail. Judging by the postmark, the letter was sent from Osijek on 5 December. Feral Tribune has informed police and the office of the state prosecutor.
Even though it is now possible to write about the crimes committed by Croats during the war with less danger than five or 10 years ago, and even though I do not believe that the secret police still have journalists under surveillance as in Tudjman's time, the investigations and court proceedings are still going painfully slowly and are being conducted with unbearable sloppiness. (After the fall of Tudjmans HDZ in 2000, it was discovered that the secret services wiretapped 121 journalists and military intelligence was in charge of 20 enemies of the state. Since I was in both groups, I had the opportunity to inspect those shameful secret files.)
Meanwhile, Serbs have been subject to speedy trials before Croatian courts for war crimes committed in Croatia and face the maximum sentence based on far less evidence than in cases against Croats. Croats also benefit from the Law on General Amnesty, even in cases of multiple murders.
It can therefore be said that today it is no more a secret for anyone that the Croats also committed war crimes, but that little is being done to punish them.
I won't be surprised to hear of this man being murdered or having a fatal "accident" within in next few years. Croats and Serbs have been killed in Croatia for agreeing to testify or exposing crimes of Croats.
Yes, but the problem is nowhere as bad as in Serbia.
So who whacked Arkan before he could spill the beans then, Croatian paramilitaries? German mercenaries? NATO bombing?
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