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COURTSIDE: Tuta and Stela Trial

Mostar Croats would not have persecuted Bosniaks, witness claims.
By Mirna Jancic

A Jewish resident of Mostar last week blamed the Croatian political establishment in Bosnia for ruining the former peaceful coexistence between Muslims and Croats in the city.


Zoran Mandelbaum was the president of Mostar's Jewish community and thus, as he claims, in a unique position to observe and communicate with both sides in the Bosniak-Croat conflict.


The defence witness appeared at the trial of Vinko "Stela" Martinovic who is charged with persecuting Muslims in the city and in the surrounding area.


Mandelbaum said the Bosnian Croat army, HVO, was responsible for the persecution - but he insisted Croats from Mostar itself, such as Stela, would never have committed such crimes.


The witness told the court that HVO soldiers from the Hercegovina villages of, for example, Grude, Listica and Citluk had expelled local Muslims from Mostar.


Many soldiers from Stela's "anti-terrorist" unit have claimed that they only served on the Mostar frontline and took no part in the alleged persecution.


Several former Muslim inmates from the Heliodrom detention camp have also appeared as defence witnesses and said Stela's men saved them from persecution at the hands of soldiers from outside the city.


Mandelbaum praised Stela for his protective stance towards Mostar Jews from the start of the conflict with the Serbs in spring 1992.


At the time, the defendant led the local branch of the right-wing paramilitary Croatian Armed Forces, HOS, and he assured the witness that the Jewish community would be left alone. "The Jews paid during the Second World War and there is no reason for anything to happen to them now," Stela allegedly told him.


After the start of Bosniak-Croat conflict on May 9, 1993, Mandelbaum used his neutral position for humanitarian ends, regularly visiting detention camps on both sides of the divided city to deliver aid. "What gave me the strength I needed to do my work was an awareness that people wanted to live together," he said.


The witness said Stela caused him no problems. He once had some trouble with another HVO unit but the matter was resolved after he complained to the then Croatian president Franjo Tudjman.


This last testimony could have implications for the claim - which the defence contests - that Croat goals in Bosnia were supported and controlled from Zagreb.


The witness, who had no contact with Stela after May 1993, described the defendant's men as "arrogant" and people "from whom you never knew what to expect".


However, he stressed that they had not obstructed his humanitarian work, contrary to claims in the indictment that Stela's unit helped block the delivery of humanitarian aid to Muslims in Mostar. "I personally viewed Stela as a legend, whose name a lot of people abused for their own purposes," the witness told the court.


Mandelbaum expressed regret over the Bosniak-Croat conflict, since the communities had lived together harmoniously throughout history.


He blamed the Bosnian Croat political leadership for attempting to create an ethnically pure Mostar, which would then serve as the capital of Herceg-Bosna, the Croat statelet within Bosnia.


He said that otherwise, with a population that was some 34 per cent Muslim and 33 per cent Croat, it would have been impossible to turn the city into the Bosnian Croat capital.


In response to Judge Maureen Clark's queries regarding coexistence in Mostar today, Mandelbaum was pessimistic. "Should SFOR [NATO-led security forces] ever withdraw from Mostar, the war would start again because the original aims have not been achieved," he said.


With regard to charges that Stela was responsible for the abuse and murder of Nenad Harmandzic - a Muslim imprisoned in Heliodrom and later brought to Stela's base - the defence called a witness who saw the victim around the time of his alleged killing.


The protected witness, a member of Stela's unit, saw a visibly-beaten Harmandzic when he was brought to the base, and asked his fellow soldiers what had happened to the prisoner. They claimed that the victim had already sustained the bruises when he was picked up in Heliodrom.


The same soldiers told him they had returned the prisoner to the camp that night. The prosecution insists that Stela's men beat and killed Harmandzic on that day.


After the subsequent in camera testimony of another protected witness, the trial adjourned until Monday.


Mirna Jancic is an IWPR assistant editor