Vukovar Anniversary 16 Nov 17

Defending Croatia’s Vukovar: ‘Real War is No Movie’

Twenty-six years after the Croatian town of Vukovar fell, Predrag Matic, who fought to defend it, was captured and imprisoned, and later became a government minister, recalls how the reality of war was a horrific surprise.

Sven Milekic BIRN Zagreb
Predrag Matic. Photo: Beta.

“It’s hard to explain first days of the war to someone,” Predrag ‘Fred’ Matic, a Croatian veteran from the 1990s war, told BIRN in an interview.

“You are playing football and hear grenades falling somewhere; everything is so unreal... For example, Mitnica didn’t even know about the war, while on Trpinjska Road, people were all under arms.”

Trpinjska Road and Mitnica are just a few kilometres apart on opposite sides of the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar, where Matic fought in 1991 against the combined forces of the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, and Serbian paramilitaries.

The JNA and the paramilitaries besieged and shelled the town intensively between late August and mid-November 1991. After the town’s defence fell, thousands of non-Serbs were expelled, thousands were transported to prison camps in Serbia, while hundreds were executed at the nearby Ovcara farm and in other places.

Matic, now 55, has spent the majority of his life in Borovo Naselje, a Vukovar suburb. On the eve of the war in 1991, he ran a shop there.

After 1991, Matic received various medals and held a series of positions in the military and War Veterans’ Ministry, and was also an adviser to then Croatian President Ivo Josipovic.

However, he was most prominent as a public figure during his term as War Veterans’ Minister between 2011 and 2015, when the registry of all Croatia’s war veterans was published.

The publication of the registry sparked a negative reaction from right-wingers opposed to the Social Democratic Party-led government of the time, and Matic was targeted by protesting veterans during an 18-month sit-in.

All-out conflict begins

Matic, when he was a government minister, placing a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery in the US. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Arlington National Cemetery

Matic, who is now an MP with the Social Democratic Party, recalled how only during the JNA’s big offensive against Vukovar from September 14-17 that he became aware that “full-scale war was breaking out”.

During the offensive, he was still based in the local defence headquarters at the Borovo Naselje community centre. However, on October 4, soldiers from Trpinjska Road – where Croatian soldiers had destroyed a number of JNA armed vehicles – came asking for help.

“The guys came from Trpinjska Road that day and said that the situation in Hercegovacka Street [next to Trpinjska Road] was difficult and that they had sustained great losses and needed help. Then I went there; our commander told us to stay there two days,” Matic said

Matic recalled how the disabling of JNA armoured vehicles with Yugoslav-made M79 Osa anti-tank weapons was assigned to him because a fighter who was previously in charge of the task was wounded. He had never handled the weapon before.

“I saw [an M79 anti-tank weapon] for the first time and then saw those wheels in the [tank’s tracks] coming from behind a house, and I asked my [anti-tank weapon] loader, ‘F***, Loki - is this a tank?”

The myth is not reality

Matic says he soon realised that war, in reality, looks nothing like it does in the films.

“The biggest problem is - I think I tried to touch upon that in my book [‘Nothing False’] - war movies. War and life are not even close to the ones in movies, and when you are telling a true war story, then others think you are lying or something,” he said.

He also says that the media and personal testimonies from people who fought at Vukovar have also contributed to the embellishment of the heroic story of the defence of the town – a story which retains strong emotional resonance in Croatia.

He noted that he went through all the issues of the Croatian daily Vecernji list that were published during the siege of Vukovar, according to which the defenders of the city disabled 600 tanks - although the real number was around 100.

Matic disabled eight tanks and one armoured personnel carrier on Hercegovacka Street, but one of these strikes remains special in his memory.

That incident, which he says he “still can’t explain to myself today”, Matic allowed the tank to shoot first.

When the tank hit the barricade in front of him, he fired his anti-tank weapon and disabled it.

“He [the tank driver] jumped out of the tank, and, being disoriented, ran right towards me. I had time, and I put down the Osa [anti-tank weapon] and took my Kalashnikov and held it at gunpoint. He came about 20, 25 metres from me,” he recalled.

“His eyes were fearful, he was watching the barricade, and he might not have seen me. He looked at me in shock,” he continued.

“And my guys shout to me: ‘Shoot, Fred!’ I said: ‘I won’t.’ I held him at gunpoint, he stopped, looked left, looked right and fled through a backyard of a nearby house,” Matic said.

“If he is still alive, I would like to meet him today, to have a drink with him - why not? The war is over.”

For the past 26 years, he has thought about the people who eventually died in the tanks he shot at. He said he feels genuinely sorry for everyone who died.

The cavalry that never came

The government with Matic (third in the left row) negotiating with protesting war veterans in 2015. Photo: Beta.

In his book ‘Nothing False’, Matic tried to explain how Vukovar did not fall on November 18, as is popularly believed because most Croatian units surrendered that day, but on the day afterwards.

“I have confirmation that I was captured on the 19th of November. We were still fighting in Borovo Naselje on the 18th, but the centre of town fell on the 18th. And a good number of the [Vukovar defensive] commanders had already gone,” Matic said.

Some units only surrendered on November 20, he added – but others laid down their weapons several days before that.

“However, I never said they fled... I haven’t taken against them personally,” he said. “Not even against citizens of Vukovar who personally weren’t in Vukovar then. I don’t even blame Croatian citizens who weren’t defenders [Croatian war veterans]; it was a personal choice for each of us.”

The battle created great respect for Vukovar’s defenders among Croatian war veterans.

But some of them turned against him personally when he was War Veterans’ Minister, during the 18-month sit-in protest in a large tent right in front of his ministry, which was backed by right-wing politicians.

“During this protest, I used to imagine that maybe 20 of these Vukovar [combatants] would come to the tent and say to [protest leaders Djuro] Glogoski and [Josip] Klemm: ‘We are now going upstairs for a cup of coffee with Fred, and when we come back, we don’t want to see either the tent or you here. They [protest leaders] have a tremendous respect for the Vukovar defenders, and if they have said it, they would have left,” he said.

But, he added with bitterness in his voice: “They never came.”

As Vukovar’s defence was collapsing, the destruction of the town escalated.

Matic explained how the town’s defenders were already prepared for it to fall, and expected to be taken prisoner.

He said that in some parts of Vukovar, the surrender of Croatian soldiers was “catastrophic” because lack of the commanders to agree on the terms of surrender. This led to more people being killed and going missing in these units, he added.

He remembered what he told a fellow fighter when he asked him, during the surrender, about what would happen to them.

“I said: ‘Bero, I don’t know what will happen, but if they kill us, it will be an extraordinary honour for me to have known you and to die here today with you.’”

Nine months of hell

After he was captured, Matic spent the first night in front of the prison in Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia. Afterwards the Croation detainees were transported to Stajicevo prison camp near the Serbian town of Zrenjanin.

He spent a month in Stajicevo, then in two months in prison in the southern city of Nis, then six months in prison in Sremska Mitrovica – nine months in captivity in all.

“I thought this captivity was going like a movie. It was like a bad dream ... Camps, harassment, murders, months [of imprisonment]; who could have imagined it?”

He explained that the Yugoslav military police immediately told them they did not have any rights, and said he was beaten “at least a dozen times” during interrogations – although he added that others went through a lot worse.

The interrogations were “without any special purpose”, he added - but he became fearful when they asked who destroyed the tanks.

“If I admitted it, they would have broken me in half,” he said.

Matic said he witnessed a man being beaten to death in front of him, while others were beaten to the point of almost being killed, and later died elsewhere.

However, he said that the treatment that the captured Croatian fighters got from the Yugoslav People’s Army was better than when Serbian paramilitary units captured people.

“There were decent people there... The [Croatian] media or the nation want to show them all as beasts. Some 20 guards guarded us. Fifteen were just ordinary guards, military policemen doing their job. The other five were the ones that beat you, harass you; people who indulged their baser instincts,” Matic explained.

In August 1992, a big exchange of Croatian and Serbian prisoners of war was organised, and Matic was exchanged and released.

Upon release, he remembered a great welcoming ceremony on a square in Osijek. It took him some time to understand that he was finally free.

“They read out our names. I’ve already said, I felt like a Real Madrid player when I left the bus. Meeting my parents, my brother Toni, who was a few cells away from me, so we had only seen each other several times during captivity,” he recalled.

“Then came the tears for those who aren’t there anymore, the ones you have to tell that their [loved ones] are no longer there.”

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