Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Croat War Crimes Cases Reopened

Veterans speak out against fellow soldiers who allegedly went too far in defence of Croatia’s independence.
By Drago Hedl

The murders of several Serb civilians and the destruction of Serb villages during the Croatian war are to be re-investigated after several army veterans came forward with new evidence against their former comrades-in-arms.

Observers have expressed cautious optimism over the development, saying it suggests Croatian society, which has always reacted with anger to any suggestion that its soldiers may have committed war crimes, may be ready to face the darker side of its recent history.

On September 14, the Bjelovar district state attorney launched a new investigation into the murders of five Serb civilians in Orahovica and the burning of over 200 Serb houses in the villages of Slatinski Drenovac and Pusina, in the north-eastern Slavonija region, in late 1991 and early 1992. The incidents allegedly happened just after the Croatian army captured the area, which was at that time under Serb control.

The decision was taken after new charges were filed by a former middle-ranking Croat military policeman, who is not being named by the authorities.

Branka Merzic, Bjelovar’s district state attorney, told IWPR, “We received a report from a former member of the Croatian army’s 132nd brigade, who is demanding an investigation into those events and has backed up the demand with documents and a videotape.”

These documents apparently indicate that daily reports were sent from the military intelligence service warning the 132nd brigade command that war crimes were being committed by some members of the unit. However, nothing was done to punish the alleged offenders, some of whom were later promoted.

General Slavko Baric, now fourth in command of the Croatian army, was the commander of the 132nd brigade at the time of the alleged offences. He declined to comment on the new developments.

Just a day later, on September 15, the Republic Organisation of Demobilised Defenders of the Homeland War – a Croatian war veterans group – officially asked the Hague tribunal to investigate the 1995 murders of 16 Serb civilians in the south-west Croatian villages of Varivode and Gosici.

The deaths occurred during the Croatian army offensive codenamed Operation Storm, when the town of Knin and its surrounding villages were captured from Croatian Serb forces.

The veterans group is demanding a fresh investigation into the killings, and the alleged command responsibility of late president Franjo Tudjman and his associates. They also claim that former prime minister Ivica Racan – whose centre-left government fell from power last year – did not want the perpetrators to stand trial.

“Every crime must be punished even if the top officials of an internationally recognised state were involved,” said Vladimir Gojanovic, chairman of the veterans organisation.

“We are addressing the Hague tribunal because we have lost trust in the Croatian judiciary.”

Gojanovic claims to have material evidence implicating Tudjman and members of his defence and national security council – which was formed as a wartime crisis staff – and suggesting that Croatia was following an “official policy of ethnic cleansing following Operation Storm”.

He did not specify the nature of the evidence, but confirmed that he is willing to hand it over to the Hague tribunal’s chief prosecutor Carla del Ponte.

The Varivode and Gosici murders have already been investigated by the authorities, but the local state attorney decided against pressing charges after prosecutors were unable to establish that the prime suspects had actually been in the area when the crimes were committed.

The point of a fresh investigation, the veterans argue, would be to establish the then-leadership’s responsibility for creating an atmosphere in which such crimes became possible.

Analysts believe that the process of examining such responsibility could help Croatia come to terms with its recent past.

Professor Zarko Puhovski, chair of the Croatian Helsinki Human Rights Committee, told IWPR that while Croatia had made some progress towards accepting that some of its “defenders” had also committed war crimes, the process was a very slow and difficult one.

The recent war crimes conviction of former general Mirko Norac – who was indicted by The Hague on unrelated charges earlier this year – was an important step towards greater acceptance, he said.

“We had to wait for certain people such as Norac to receive sentences for an awareness to be formed in society that crimes were committed on the Croatian side, and that it is okay to admit this,” said Puhovski. “That is important for the well-being of our society.”

However, analysts agree that it is too early to view the calls for fresh investigations as proof that Croatian society has made a dramatic shift in its position on war crimes.

A significant part of the population still views the fugitive general Ante Gotovina – who has been on the run since he was indicted by The Hague in 2001 in connection with Operation Storm – as a national hero and fiercely oppose any mention of handing him over to face trial at the tribunal.

Gotovina’s biography is a bestseller in the republic’s bookshops, and posters lauding him as a Croatian hero still appear periodically in towns and cities across the country.

Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor in Osijek.