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20 Jan 17

A Tale of Two Soldiers

Dejan Anastasijevic

The contrasting fates of Vladimir Trifunovic and Veselin Sljivancanin tell a very sobering story of modern Serbia.

General Aleksandar Trifunovic. Photo: Darko Vojinovic/AP

They say that old soldiers never die, they just fade away. That’s not entirely true: first they fade away, and then they die, just like everybody else. Take General Vladimir Trifunovic of the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, one of few true heroes of the Yugoslav wars, who died, alone and forgotten, aged 79, in a military hospital in Belgrade, after spending his last years in a small room of a run-down hotel for retired officers.

In September 1991, as the breakup of Yugoslavia started to unfold, Trifunovic commanded a large garrison in Varazdin, a baroque town in northwest Croatia. When Croatia declared independence from Yugoslavia, the base was surrounded, the electricity and water turned off and Croatian forces started sniping at his soldiers. His wife and children were taken as hostages. Trifunovic asked for reinforcements from JNA Headquarters in Belgrade, which was almost 500 kilometers away, but they never came. Instead, he was ordered to hold the base at any price.

The general had tanks and howitzers he could use to break the siege, but was low on fuel, and knew he wouldn’t go very far. The JNA HQ ordered him to bomb the town, or use the artillery to blow up a nearby dam and flood the entire area; he refused. Many soldiers, most of them 19-year-old conscripts from different parts of the former Yugoslavia, fled to their homes; he didn’t stop them. Eventually, only 280 remained.  “These kids were from poor families, with no money or connections to get out of harm’s way”, he said later.”I couldn’t let them die there, in a pointless war.”

After enduring the siege for almost a month, the general ordered his soldiers to incapacitate the tanks and the artillery and struck a deal with the Croats: he surrendered the base in exchange for a safe passage for himself and his soldiers. When they crossed into Serbia, he was arrested and put on trial for high treason. Trifunovic got 11 years in prison, of which he served two, constantly harassed and abused by both fellow inmates and guards.

Eventually, Trifunovic’s sentence was commuted, and in 2010 he was fully rehabilitated. But by then he was a broken man: his family has left him and many of his comrades never forgave him for refusing to die in a blaze of glory along with his soldiers and who knows how many innocent civilians. In the final years, he was confined in a hotel room not much larger then his cell, where he washed his own clothes and prepared his meals on a gas stove.

Now there’s another soldier, who is very much alive, and not at all faded. While Trifunovic was in Varazdin, Major Veselin Sljivancanin was in charge of the JNA Guard, an elite unite attached to the Belgrade HQ. In the fall of 1991, Sljivancanin and his unit were sent to Vukovar, a town in eastern Croatia close to the Serbian border. In late November, after three months of constant bombardment, Vukovar fell into the hands of combined JNA forces and Serbian paramilitary units. The town was razed to the ground and after it fell, many of the survivors were killed by loosely organized paramilitary gangs. Sljivancanin didn’t lift a finger to stop the massacres. Instead, he did something even worse: his soldiers pulled out some 260 patients from Vukovar hospital and transferred them to an improvised prison camp at Ovcara cattle farm just out of town, which was run by the paramilitaries. There they were tortured and  eventually killed, their bodies buried among animal bones at the farm.

On his return to Belgrade, Sljivancanin received a very different welcome to Trifunovic. Celebrated by patriotic media as “The Knight of Vukovar”, he was a frequent guest in television talk shows and was often seen in posh restaurants wining and dining with the elite of Slobodan Milosevic’s Serbia. He was decorated and got promoted twice. When he was finally indicted by the International Criminal Tribunal for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia, the ICTY, he was already a colonel.

Under heavy pressure from international community, Sljivancanin was arrested in 2003, and transferred to The Hague, where he was put on trial for the Ovcara massacre. At first he was sentenced to five years, then to 17, and in the final verdict in 2010, the sentence was 10 years. Since he had already spent two-thirds of the sentence in detention, he was immediately released, and once again welcomed as a hero.

Sljivancanin kept a low profile until last year, when he joined the Serbian Progressive Party, SNS, led by Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, who saw an opportunity to win some votes on the account of the colonel’s old glory. A day after Trifunovic died, Sljivancanin was taking part in a SNS rally in Beska, a small town in northern Serbia. When a group of peace activists from Belgrade staged a protest and attempted to interrupt the rally, they were roughed up by SNS thugs; one girl was kicked while lying on the ground, while Sljivancanin sat and smiled, just like he likely did after he delivered the patients from Vukovar to the Ovcara farm. The peace activists, who belong to group called the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, will now likely face charges for hooliganism.

It’s a strange coincident that the number of lives that Trifunovic had saved – 280 - is very close to number of people Sljivancanin help to end - 261. Both served time, but only one was guilty. Diverging fates of the two old soldiers spells everything one needs to know about Serbia’s past and present state. 

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