Strength Without Bravery: Dubrovnik Defies Yugoslav Army

Day 138

From mid-October to early December 1991, a Yugoslav Army (JNA) force of 5,000 to 7,000 men laid siege to a little city on the idyllic Dalmatian Coast of Croatia. Their arsenal included 36 howitzers, 60 heavy mortars, 60 anti-aircraft guns, 44 tanks, 240 bazookas, air support from three airports, three batteries of surface to surface missiles with an 80 kilometer range, and several boats. The city's defenders totaled 670, armed with light weapons and four captured cannons with improvised firing pins that were good for two firings each. Yet somehow the little David beat the Big Goliath. Despite its superior forces and firepower and the sustained siege, the JNA was never able to take the little city of Dubrovnik.

Dubrovnik's old walled city is a UNESCO designated world heritage site. As such, it should be protected from military action. Yet, according to a number of witnesses in the trial of Slobodan Milosevic, it was intentionally targeted by the JNA, resulting in the complete destruction of nine buildings as well as substantial damage to the old stonework of many others. Not to mention the civilians who were killed in the shelling.

The latest witness to testify about the JNA siege of Dubrovnik was Ivo Simunovic, a member of the municipality's territorial defense (TO). A reserve officer, he joined the TO in August 1991, after JNA and Serb forces began the attack on Vukovar in the north. Still, when the JNA attacked Dubrovnik, its defenders were ill prepared as many continued to believe the city would be spared due to its UNESCO protected status. As General Marinovic, who left the JNA to command the Dubrovnik campaign, said in a statement to the Office of the Prosecutor (OTP), 'After being in Dubrovnik for only a short period, I realized the city was practically defenseless.'

In a hard-hitting cross examination, Milosevic challenged the witness's assertions that the JNA attack was unprovoked aggression, any firing by Croatian forces was defensive, and no shots were fired from the Old Town. Mr. Simunovic never wavered. In one response he said, 'Provocation came exclusively from your side. We had nothing to respond with -- only short barrels. We had rifles. You were targeting us with rockets.' In responding to Milosevic's often confusing references to firing from Dubrovnik municipality, which did occur, and firing from the Old Town, Mr. Simunovic testified, 'From the Old Town, never a single bullet was fired.'

Milosevic attempted to characterize the defense of Dubrovnik as 'militarization' of a UNESCO historical site. The witness reiterated that there was no firing from the Old Town, while conceding that the police, TO and Croatian Army did arm themselves to defend the municipality. They fought the JNA from positions surrounding the Old Town and fought them well. Mr. Simunovic admitted destroying 6 tanks and, after Milosevic showed a videotape of an airplane being shot down, he retorted, 'We hit very well.' Yet the witness insisted throughout that the Croatian forces in the Dubrovnik campaign were defensive only. They never targeted civilians, as the JNA did. They mined the roads to prevent an attack in the first place -- but the mines were all on Croatian territory and, in the end, none exploded. They set up obstacles, again to prevent an attack. Mr. Simunovic insisted on the right of self-defense.

Milosevic also tried to show that the JNA was seeking a peaceful resolution by participating in negotiations with the European Community Monitoring Mission throughout the siege. Mr. Simunovic pointed out that no agreements were ever honored. When the JNA's lead negotiator agreed to a cease fire, he was removed from the negotiating team for acting without authorization, and the worst assault on Dubrovnik occurred the following day. Mr. Simunovic testified that it was clear from the behavior of the JNA negotiators that they had no independent authority but had to seek it up the chain of command, all the way to Belgrade and the General Staff of the JNA. While he told the Court that Milosevic called the shots, he offered no evidence to support it. Milosevic commented several times that neither he nor Serbia had anything to do with events in Dubrovnik.

But it wasn't Mr. Simunovic's purpose to connect Milosevic with the JNA's Dubrovnik campaign. He came to the Tribunal to testify to the unprovoked attack on a civilian population and the damage and partial destruction of a Croatian cultural monument, Dubrovnik's old walled city. While Milosevic could argue with his testimony, he did not argue with the videotape showing extensive damage to the Old Town following the December 6 assault. Nor did Admiral Jokic, JNA Commander in the area, deny it. Confronted three times by telephone while the attack was going on, he finally apologized though declaring it was done without his knowledge or permission.

The question that persisted throughout Mr. Simunovic's testimony was how a small, poorly armed force was able to win against the strength of the JNA. As General Marinovic's statement showed, the JNA had anticipated taking control of the entire Croatian coast from Montenegro to the Neretva River within one week. Instead, it became mired down fighting the little Dubrovnik David. When Milosevic asked Mr. Simunovic how it was possible, the witness replied, 'They [JNA] had strength but no bravery.' Perhaps some in the JNA lacked enthusiasm forwaging war on a symbol of beauty and ancient culture, a cultural history in which they, too, shared.