Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
"I don't remember a day without beating and terror. We were in impossible conditions, tortured physically and mentally."
Zoran Sangut, head of the NGO Vukovar 1991, last month spoke of the suffering he endured in prisoner-of-war camps run by the Yugoslav army, JNA, in Serbia during the early Nineties. His harrowing account, delivered at a Belgrade conference, made me ask myself what I actually knew about them.
The answer was not much. The existence of these detention centres has been kept under wraps by the authorities here ever since the bloody war between what was then Yugoslavia and Croatia almost 17 year ago.
Now, for the first time, the Serbian public is having to face up to the fact that the camps not only existed, but that terrible things are alleged to have taken place there.
According to Vukovar 1991, nearly 300 Croatian prisoners died in the camps between October 1991 and 1992. It claims that beatings and torture were rife.
And what sort of reaction has there been in Serbia? Well, with the exception of the war crimes prosecutor's office, which has been investigating the camps since 2006, nobody is interested, even as a clearer picture of how many there were and conditions within them begins to emerge.
According to the Humanitarian Law Fund, which organised the Belgrade conference at which Sangut spoke, the JNA set up the detention centres after its occupation of the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar and its surroundings in the autumn of 1991.
Following the fighting, the JNA and Serbian territorial defence units reportedly arrested some 8,000 Croat soldiers and civilians in Vukovar and the neighbouring Slavonija and Baranja regions and dispatched them to the camps.
Five camps are said to have been established in Sremska Mitrovica, Stajicevo, Begejci, Nis and at the military-investigation prison in Belgrade. According to reports, almost 4,000 Croats were imprisoned in Sremska Mitrovica, more than 1,300 in Stajicevo, nearly 600 in Begejci, 500 in Nis and 100 in Belgrade.
The prisoners were released in May 1992 after the JNA withdrew from Croatia.
To this day, though, there is no information about where those allegedly killed in the detention centres are buried.
Not that the JNA sought to keep the existence of the camps a secret. When the prisoners were released, they were issued with documents stating where they had been held and for how long. These were stamped by the camp command and signed by JNA major Zoran Randjelovic.
The army even allowed Radio Belgrade reporter Danica Vucinic access to the camps, presumably to show the world that they were caring for the prisoners in line with international conventions and standards.
And during the trial of the late Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic in The Hague, Aleksandar Vasiljevic, the former chief of the JNA counter-intelligence service, spoke about a visit he paid to one of the camps.
Given that the JNA were seemingly not trying to conceal the detention centres, is there any chance that politicians were not aware of them? No.
The JNA wouldn't have run them without their permission – the chain of the command was very strong back then.
So how does one explain the lack of public interest in the camps?
Well Serbia's media during the war years was with very few exceptions quite nationalistic, so the fate of imprisoned enemy soldiers and civilians would not have ranked high on their news agenda.
In more recent years, the media have been slightly more open, but have continued to avoid the subject of the camps because of politicians' concern that Croatia might cite them in a genocide case it is trying to bring against Serbia at the International Court of Justice.
While Serbia's broadcasters and newspapers may have been largely silent on the camps, the Croatian media have long maintained that they existed and that crimes were committed in them.
But in Serbia such claims were seen as Croatian propaganda. Much of Serbia's population then and now believe that Serbs have been unjustly accused of being the main perpetrators of war crimes in former Yugoslavia. Some analysts would suggest that they are in denial about the Serbian role in the war. So Croatian allegations about the camps will have fallen on deaf ears.
There is a possibility that the public will take more of an interest in the detention centres if the war crimes prosecutor issues indictments in the case – but only if those most responsible for the alleged abuses are charged.
Some activists in Serbia argue that just low-level operatives will be indicted, letting the state off the hook. In which case, the message the public will receive through the media will be that while some terrible crimes occurred in the camps, they were the work of a few rogue elements.
Serbs are only likely to take the prison camps issue seriously if top officials are indicted. The biggest responsibility lies with Milosevic because of his influence over the JNA. But his military and political subordinates are also culpable.
However, there's a problem with such an argument. According to Serbian law, the case would have to be tried under the old Yugoslav criminal code, as this was in force when the alleged crimes took place. Under this code, command responsibility is not recognised, so senior politician and army officials are unlikely to be put on trial.
But in Serbia, everyone knows that the responsibility of commanders who issued orders is greater than that of the soldiers who carried them out.
If Serbia decides not to indict high-ranking officials in connection with the alleged crimes committed in the prison camps, it will miss another opportunity to face up to its recent past.
And if the real perpetrators are not punished, the cycle of violence in the Balkans will never end.
Aleksandar Roknic is an IWPR-trained journalist in Belgrade.
The views expressed in this article are not necessarily the views of IWPR.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight