"No One Can Do Anything About It" - Serb Paramilitary
Despite scheduling difficulties, technological hitches and defence illnesses, the trial of Goran Hadzic resumed in The Hague this week with testimony from a witness who recalled burying people killed by the Serbian paramilitary group known as Arkan’s Tigers in 1991.
Milan Miladinovic told the court that leaders of the Territorial Defence force, or TO, in the Croatian town of Dalj, Croatia, ordered him to dig graves for five individuals left dead beside a road outside the town.
Miladinovic later learned that these individuals had been killed by Zeljko Raznatovic, otherwise known as Arkan, a Serbian career criminal turned paramilitary leader who operated throughout the former Yugoslavia during the 1990s. His men, known as Arkan’s Tigers, are accused of carrying out a number of atrocities.
In their opening statements, Hague prosecutors claimed there were strong ties between Arkan and Hadzic, who held senior political positions in Serb-held parts of Croatia during the conflict in that country.
Hadzic is charged with 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against the Croat and non-Serb population, including persecution, extermination, murder, imprisonment, torture, inhumane acts, cruel treatment, deportation, wanton destruction and plunder.
He initially headed the government of the self-declared Serbian Autonomous District of Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem, and from February 1992 to December 1993 was president of the Republic of Serb Krajina, which had absorbed the autonomous district.
Prosecution witness Miladinovic, a Croat who worked at the agricultural processing plant in Dalj at the time, told prosecutors how he learned about Arkan’s involvement in the killings.
“I learned about it when I finished my work,” he recalled. “[In the village] it was known that Arkan was heading towards Vukovar; that he killed those people and left them in the cornfields.”
Arkan was allegedly on his way to join what would soon become the battle of Vukovar. The town fell to Serb forces on November 18, 1991.
This was not the only time Miladinovic had to bury the dead. At the nearby Lovas farm, he found bodies scattered all around the property and had to dig graves for them, he said.
Because Miladinovic’s witness statement was not made available by the tribunal, it was unclear whether these were victims of the “Lovas massacre”, in which about 70 Croatian civilians were killed after Serb forces forced them at gunpoint to walk across a minefield.
Miladinovic also spoke about the forced expulsion of Croat civilians from Dalj.
“One could see the buses that were there,” he testified. “People entered the Croatian houses and forced them to get on the buses and go to Osijek.”
During these expulsions, many of those targeted were held in hangars at the agricultural plant where Miladinovic worked. Men and women were placed in separate hangars, he said.
“On the following day they went to Novi Sad [in Serbia],” Miladinovic told prosecutors, but added that this was only what he and remaining residents were told at the time.
During cross-examination, Hadzic’s defence team questioned Miladinovic’s memory, pointing out that one of the events he described actually happened around Easter 1992 rather than Christmas as Miladinovic testified.
“I don’t know exactly whether it was Christmas or Easter,” the witness conceded. “I think it was Easter.”
Miladinovic was also asked about political activity in Dalj during the summer of 1991, before Croatia declared independence and Serbs took control of the area.
“Did you know very many people who were members of the SDS?” the defence asked, referring to the nationalist Serbian Democratic Party.
“I don’t understand, ‘Did I know them?’” Miladinovic replied. “Almost all the Serbs were affiliated with the SDS. You didn’t have to know someone personally to know they were a member.”
At times, Miladinovic was unable to provide answers to questions posed by the defence.
“Do you know if there was any coordination or agreement between the JNA [Yugoslav army] and anyone on the Croatian side for the evacuation?” the defence asked.
Miladinovic said he did not know.
He was one of a series of witnesses who, over the past two weeks, have given testimony about the activities of Arkan’s Tigers in Croatia.
Later this week, this continued with testimony from a protected witness who was referred to as GH-067, and had his voice and image distorted at his own request.
Most of this testimony was given in closed session, but in the few minutes that were broadcast in open session, the witness, a Serb, spoke about Arkan’s involvement in the murder of several Croat detainees, also in Dalj.
According to the witness, Arkan acknowledged responsibility for the murders in front of a group of Dalj residents and TO units at a public event held in the town centre.
“‘If there is a problem, no one can do anything about it’,” the witness recalled Arkan telling them, adding, “That was the first time I had seen him.”
Although Arkan was indicted by the Hague tribunal in March 1999, he never stood trial – he was gunned down in a Belgrade hotel in 2000.
The Hadzic trial continues next week.
David Nelson is an IWPR-trained reporter in The Hague.