Feature 25 Oct 12

Serbian Justice Dismays Lovas Atrocity Survivors

Survivors of a 1991 massacre in Croatia say a recent Belgrade court ruling let the Yugoslav Army off the hook - and hope a forthcoming trial in The Hague will do better.

Marija Ristic
 Field where Serbian forces put mines and forced civilians to walk as a human shiled/Photo by Balkan Inisght

Stjepan Peulic, a Croat from the village of Lovas, thought he was being sent to pick grapes. Instead he was forced to walk through a minefield in his home village in eastern Croatia.

It was October 18, 1991, when local Serbs, with the military help of “Dusan Silni” [“Mighty Dusan”] paramilitaries, captured him and around 50 other Croatian villagers and imprisoned them in an agricultural cooperative.   

But the local Serb and their paramilitary allies didn’t act alone. Villagers say the attack on Lovas formed part of a broader offensive by the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, whose officers have yet to answer for their role in the crime.

On October 18, standing on the same field at the entrance of the village, Peulic joined others in paying homage to the 21 villagers who died that day, lighting 21 candles on the field for each victim.

Other survivors of the atrocity came that same day to the former minefield, some expressing bitterness about what they see as partial justice in the case.

A recent trial in Belgrade, Serbia, saw a judge sentence some local Serbs and paramilitaries to jail terms for the crime in Lovas.

In June, the Belgrade Special Court found 14 men guilty of war crimes in Lovas, deeming them responsible for killing 40 civilians and sentencing them to a total of 128 years in jail.

But former JNA officers, whom the villagers also blame for the crime, remain unpunished.

Peulic notes that one local Serb who ordered them to go into the field has now been sentenced to jail in Belgrade.

“But there were other people who haven’t been prosecuted,” he said.

“The JNA helped them occupy the village and supplied them with arms, but none of those people has been charged,” he added.

Serbia’s war-crimes prosecution office says a total of 70 Croats were killed in Lovas in October and November 1991.

Some perished in the minefield while others were killed in their homes and others in the local agricultural cooperative.

Agricultural cooperative where Croats were tortured and killed/Photo by Balkan Insight

The village of only a thousand inhabitants, both Serbs and Croats, still bears the scars of war.

Some of the village houses remain pockmarked with bullet holes and are long abandoned.

Petar Vuleta, who was 31, when Serbian forces captured him in 1991, also remembers the lie about being told to go and pick grapes.

“They told us that we were going to pick grapes but we couldn’t have guessed that it would be that cruel,” he said.

“When we got to the field they forced us to walk. We took each other by the hand and started off. Then the mines started to blow up. Right after that, they [the Serbs] started to shoot at us,” he added.

“God saved me that day,” he continued. “But the pain is the same and 20 years on I still feel the same fear whenever I pass [the minefield].”

Meanwhile, the fact that former JNA officers were not accused of the crime but were in some cases called to the trial as witnesses has angered survivors.

They note that some of the perpetrators live freely in Serbia. Their hope is that the trial before the Hague Tribunal, ICTY, of the former Croatian Serb leader, Goran Hadzic, will fill in vital gaps.

“The crimes committed here were not isolated but were part of a joint criminal enterprise, which I hope will be proved in The Hague,” Vuleta said.

“The people sentenced in Belgrade were guilty, but many other people tortured and killed people here and carried arms around the village,” Vuleta added.

War in Vukovar:

Lying less than 50km from Serbia, Lovas is located in the municipality of Vukovar, the first town in Europe to be destroyed by fighting since the end of World War II.

In 1991, the JNA and Serbian paramilitary units encircled the town following Croatia’s declaration of independence from Yugoslavia.

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

Over 3,000 people were killed. After the town fell on November 18, 1991, thousands of non-Serbs were expelled and several hundred prisoners were executed at a nearby farm, called Ovcara.

Vukovar remained under Serbian control until 1995. After the 1995 Dayton, Ohio, Accord ended the war in Bosnia the so-called Erdut Agreement placed the Vukovar region under UN administration for two years prior to its reintegration with Croatia in 1998.

Milos Urosevic, from the Belgrade-based NGO Women in Black, who monitored the trial, agrees that it is shameful that some of those suspected of the crime in Lovas were called by Belgrade court just to testify.

“Some of them live in Serbia… and as long as they remain free we cannot say that justice has been done,” Urosevic said.

The presiding judge in the case, while explaining the verdict in June, said the prosecution had failed to prove the JNA’s role in the crimes in Lovas and other villages of eastern Croatia.

“The behaviour of the JNA officers who came here to testify was shameful,” the judge noted.

“Instead of being accused, they are here as witnesses,” the judge added, urging the prosecution to charge the responsible JNA members.

But Marijana Toma, from the Belgrade-based Humanitarian Law Centre, said the Serbian prosecution appeared to see an interest on not having the JNA officials prosecuted.

“They’ve pretended that these were just local incidents in the war, trying to present an image that the Serbian state had nothing to do with the crimes,” Toma said.

Looking ahead to the Hadzic trial, Ivan Mujic, who survived the minefield with serious injuries and testified before the Belgrade court, says he is ready to testify again.

“I will testify in front of the ICTY as well and explain everything that happened in our village,” he said.

“I am glad that some people were sentenced, but justice still has not been done. I hope that the ICTY will correct this,” he continued.

Main street in the village of Lovas/Photo by Balkan Insight

In the village, Serbs and Croats today still share a common livelihood.

“We don’t have time to argue. We work together in the fields… picking grapes and apples. We even have Serbs coming from Serbia to work here at harvest time,” Stjepan, a villager, said.

“We honour those who were killed. We should not forget, but we forgave,” he concluded.

This article has been produced with the support of the Humanitarian Law Centre.

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