Vukovar Anniversary 17 Nov 17

Justice Hopes Fade for Victims of Devastated Vukovar

Lack of political will, inefficient prosecutors and poor cooperation between Belgrade and Zagreb means some families of people killed in and around the Croatian town of Vukovar in 1991 may never get justice.

Filip Rudic, Sven Milekic BIRN Belgrade, Zagreb
The ruins of Vukovar in 1991. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Seiya123.

To locate the remains of his father, who was taken from his home in the Croatian village of Sotin, near the town of Vukovar, and shot by Serb forces in 1991, Igor Matijasevic had to conduct his own private investigation.

Together with relatives of other victims from Sotin, he had meetings with witnesses and possible perpetrators – even sitting down with people who allegedly murdered his father.

“Our key goal was to find the mass grave through this process and we fulfilled that goal, as the mass grave with 13 bodies was located and exhumed,” Matijasevic told BIRN, adding that more graves must exist since families are still looking for 12 more missing people.

Based on the findings of the investigation, a trial opened in Serbia in 2015 for the killing of 16 Croatian civilians in Sotin between October and December 1991.

Two members of the local Serb-led Territorial Defence force, Dragan Mitrovic and Zarko Milosevic, were sentenced to 15 and nine years in prison respectively, while three other defendants were acquitted. The case is now pending before the appeals court.

Sotin was a breakthrough case in the prosecution of crimes in Vukovar and the surrounding area, committed during and around the time the city was besieged and devastated before it fell to Serb forces.

“The whole story about Sotin was initiated and pushed by the families of the victims... If there was no effort on their behalf there would probably have been no trial,” Veselinka Kastratovic from the Centre for Peace, Non-Violence and Human Rights in the eastern Croatian city of Osijek told BIRN.

Indeed, many war crimes related to the fall of Vukovar are likely to remain unpunished as the Serbian and Croatian judiciary have been demonstrating a lack of cooperation and efficiency, while Serbia lacks the political will to prosecute Serb suspects.

The destruction of Vukovar and the civilian death toll were not of interest to the Serbian prosecution, according to Marina Kljaic, a lawyer from the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre.

“The political will [in Serbia] is such that we are seeing more and more rehabilitations of convicted war criminals,” Kljajic said.

At the same time, the bulk of the indictments raised by the Vukovar state attorney are for people who are no longer living in Croatia.

Officials sheltered from prosecution

Igor Matijasevic at the exhumation site in Sotin. Photo: Gordan Panic/Glas Slavonije.

Serbian war veteran Mile Milosevic recalls how he and other Yugoslav People’s Army recruits were faced with death when they arrived to fight around Vukovar in September 1991.

“We faced that for the first time, before we’d only seen it in movies. Many were killed, wounded or have disappeared. So much property was destroyed,” Milosevic told BIRN.

“The question arose, why did we do it, and who started it. Did it have to be that way?” he asked.

Vukovar, near the border between Serbia and Croatia, was the first city in Europe to be destroyed by fighting since the end of World War II.

In 1991, the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian paramilitary units encircled the city following Croatia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia.

Some 7,000 missiles fell daily on the city throughout a three-month siege, which destroyed about 85 per cent of the buildings.

More than 3,000 people were killed, while thousands of non-Serbs were expelled. Over 260 people were killed in the crimes that are being processed by the Serbian judiciary.

In the area that used to be called Vukovar county, 42 mass graves have been exhumed so far, according to Croatia’s Administration for Detained and Missing Persons. The remains of 1,826 people were exhumed from these graves, of whom 1,632 have been identified.

There are still 444 people considered missing in the same area.

“There were rumours, talk of crimes being committed... I’m in favour of holding everyone who committed them accountable,” says Milosevic, who is the president of the Serbian War Veterans’ Association, which claims around 60,000 members.

Veselinka Kastratovic monitored several cases at the Belgrade court for crimes committed in eastern Croatia between 2004 and 2014 - two trials for crimes committed in Ovcara, near Vukovar; in Sotin; in the village of Bapska and in the north-eastern region of Baranja.

“Regarding the prosecution of these cases, we’re talking about indictments against people who were lower in the chain of command, members of the Territorial Defence [force],” Kastratovic told BIRN. She noted however that the trials were “fair and impartial”.

Marina Kljaic of the Humanitarian Law Centre also said that the Serbian authorities are mostly prosecuting only soldiers of low rank – a recurring problem in all war crimes trials in Serbia.

“Domestic courts are refusing to apply [the principle of] command responsibility. The prosecutor’s office... claims that it can’t be done because national legislation didn’t have this legal doctrine at the time the acts were committed,” says Kljaic.

She told BIRN that Serbian courts have legal grounds to apply international law directly in order to charge high-ranking officers, but have never done so.

The highest-ranking officers to be convicted of crimes related to Vukovar are the former Yugoslav People’s Army officers Veselin Sljivancanin and Mile Mrksic, who received ten- and 20-year sentences for the killings in Ovcara.

However, they were not tried before local courts, but at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.

The attitude of Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic’s Progressive Party towards Sljivancanin, who was released from prison in 2011, is friendly – he is a frequent guest at events organised by the Progressives.

The massacre at Ovcara, where 200 prisoners were tortured and killed in November 1991, remains the biggest individual case for Vukovar-related crimes to be prosecuted in a Serbian court.

Serbia has been prosecuting a total of 17 low-ranking soldiers and one woman for the Ovcara massacre since 2003, and the trial is still ongoing.

The accused, most of them members of the Territorial Defence force, were convicted in 2005, but the verdict was overturned by the appeals court, which ordered a retrial.

A new verdict, handed down in 2009, is still being appealed, because the Serbian court says it is waiting for the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals to send it transcripts from the questioning of a witness who testified about Ovcara in the trial of Sljivancanin. The Hague court’s prosecutor’s office has rejected the request, saying that the transcript is a confidential document.

Questionable charges, lack of cooperation

Mile Milosevic with his association's archive. Photo: BIRN/Filip Rudic.

Another issue is the small number of charges being raised by the war crimes prosecutor in Serbia.

The Serbian prosecution has initiated 11 trials for seven separate incidents connected to the fall of Vukovar. The prosecutor charged 41 people, 23 of whom have been convicted so far.

“Unfortunately that is all that has been processed before local courts,” said Kljaic.

The Vukovar state attorney’s office initiated criminal proceedings for 291 alleged perpetrators, filing indictments against 232 of them. In total, 85 people have been convicted, while cases against 53 more are still pending.

However, the state attorney filed the bulk of these indictments against people who were no longer living in the country, which means that they are unavailable to the judiciary.

“These indictments were of somewhat questionable quality,” said Kastratovic.

She pointed out that the state attorney’s office in Vukovar filed an indictment against Yugoslav People’s Army general and Defence Minister Veljko Kadijevic in 2003, which was “even missing the date on which the crime at Ovcara was committed”.

In another indictment, the state attorney’s office confused events that took place at Velepromet – an area of Vukovar where crimes were committed – with events at Ovcara, Kastratovic added.

“They even misspelled names of four victims of the Ovcara crime. It’s all highly embarrassing,” she said.

Although the state attorney has prosecuted a lot of war crimes committed in eastern Croatia, some major crimes, like the ones committed in the villages of Bogdanovci and Petrovci, remain without an indictment.

“We always asked the state attorney’s office, ‘If you know that the perpetrators are in Serbia, why don’t you give the case to the Serbian prosecution?’” Kastratovic said.

She explained that the Croatian state attorney also tried to prosecute the Sotin case on its own, without cooperating with Serbia, and made “a poor job” of it.

In the indictment, the state attorney’s office included “only crimes that happened during two days in October, although [crimes] took place for two and half months”, she added.

“The indictment for Sotin which was filed in Croatia was done clumsily, it was incorrect, misspelling people’s names… it was a catastrophe,” Igor Matijasevic agreed.

While Kastratovic believes that the cooperation on war crimes prosecution between Croatia and Serbia has gone well for the most part, Matijasevic has a much more pessimistic view.

“It’s a catastrophe; there is no cooperation at all,” he said.

Matijasevic explained that there is someone from Serbia knows the location of a mass grave from one of the killings, but he was not able to come to Sotin and show where the bodies were buried.

Matijasevic said that while Serbia did its part, questioning him and gathering documentation, Croatian institutions failed to arrange his arrival and safe return to Serbia.

‘Criminals should be purged’

Matijasevic claimed that Serbian and Croatian institutions have no interest in prosecuting the crimes committed and finding the remaining missing persons from the Vukovar area.

He argued that witnesses who wanted to reveal the location of mass graves have already done so.

“Now the rest can only be done through these war crime trials and cooperation between the two states,” Matijasevic said.

Mile Milosevic also argued that the prosecution of those who were responsible for crimes is necessary to achieve reconciliation between the two nations.

“Both societies have to distance themselves from and to purge themselves of those criminals, so they are not around anymore. [Their presence] encourages other war crimes that will happen in 20, 30 or 50 years,” he said.

Milosevic explained how veterans’ associations from Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia and Serbia tried to organise a public display of reconciliation, which he claimed would have been the first such event in the world.

“We saw the death of our friends, and we know war for the evil that it is. And we said, ‘It has happened, many people have done bad things and let them be held to account.’ But let us create some sort of reconciliation so that this evil never happens again,” he recalled.

But after they started planning a year and a half ago, politics then got involved, he continued. First the media shut the veterans off, then pro-government veterans’ associations attacked the idea.

“In Croatia, Bosnia and Serbia, governments have their own [veterans’] associations that receive huge money to do nothing, they don’t care about veterans but start barking when called upon,” he said.

Those associations labelled him a “traitor”, he alleged.

He said that politicians sabotaged the veterans’ effort because they need to employ warmongering rhetoric to win support in their election campaigns, as they are unable to resolve economic problems.

The veterans called off the planned reconciliation event earlier this year.

“I am so sorry that it didn’t happen, when we were so close,” Milosevic said.

“It would have been a historic thing. We would have forced the politicians to follow suit.”

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