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

Croatia: Levar Widow Fights Lonely Battle

Almost eighteen months after a car bomb killed Milan Levar, no-one has been charged with his murder. His widow is still waiting for justice.
By Dominic Hipkins

Vesna Levar and her son Leon, 12, rarely receive guests at their modest flat in Gospic, a war-ravaged town in south-west Croatia, four hours away by train from Zagreb.


Beneath the framed portrait of her late husband Milan - a potential Hague witness assassinated a few hundred metres from their home in August 2000 - the calling cards of journalists who drop in from time to time are proudly displayed.


However, neighbours in the same building never knock on Vesna Levar's door. Locals cross the street to avoid her.


"There should be a street in Gospic named after Milan Levar," said Vjesnik journalist, Zeljko Peratovic, who last spoke to him hours before his murder. Peratovic, an expert on the case, is the author of a forthcoming book about Levar's life, entitled "Hero or Traitor".


Many Croats believe Peratovic deserves the latter label himself for his attempts to shed light on the darkest episodes of the war for independence. He was constantly harassed by the Croatian secret service during his investigations into the case. However, it is in part thanks to his example that the country has started to examine the record of the so-called homeland defenders in a series of trials.


One such trial is currently unfolding in Rijeka, where men Levar named as murderers in a 1997 magazine interview stand accused of massacring at least 40 people, mostly Serbs, in Gospic in 1991.


The group is led by Tihomir Oreskovic and former general Mirko Norac. The latter earned near-martyr status a year ago when 100,000 people took to the streets of Split in protest over moves to arrest and then extradite him to the war crimes tribunal. The demonstration forced The Hague to give Croatia the chance to try Norac on home ground.


In stark contrast to this show of mass solidarity, less than 100 people attended Milan Levar's funeral six months before.


A decade ago, Gospic just survived a pulverising two-month siege by rebel Serbs - supported by the Yugoslav National Army - striving to push forward the boundaries of the Serbian statelet in Croatia, the Republic of Serbian Krajina.


Levar joined in the frontline defence of the town but became alienated as radicalised outsiders assumed command roles. Oreskovic, a returning political émigré, became head of the town's crisis committee.


In December 1991, Oreskovic signed an authorisation, which Levar kept as evidence. It reads, "You are free to act militarily as you wish, no-one will try and stop you."


Levar interpreted this as confirmation that the killing of civilians was being endorsed from above. Appalled, he left the army. People in Gospic, prominent Serbs and some Croats too, had started to disappear.


"There were people trying to prove they were good Croats by killing as many Serbs as possible," Levar told his wife. He later contacted the newly established war crimes tribunal. When UN investigators were reluctant to come to Gospic, Levar met them in Zagreb. Other witnesses who were afraid to contact The Hague used the Levar home as a meeting point. Incriminating documents were handed over and eyewitness testimony recorded.


Levar was invited to The Hague on three occasions. The trips may have paid dividends for UN investigators who, acting on precise tip-offs, exhumed a mass grave site in a Gospic suburb.


But relations between Levar and the tribunal soured after the former publicised his allegations in the Croatian press. No one from The Hague attended his funeral or sent condolences to his family. "Why does The Hague distance itself from a man who died for the truth?" his widow said bitterly.


Peratovic says Levar was frustrated with the tribunal's lack of interest in certain individuals possibly implicated in Gospic atrocities. "The Hague didn't want to know about the role of [former defence minister] Gojko Susak, because he was protected by the Americans," Peratovic claimed.


Levar and others are alleged to have accused Susak of raping illegally detained civilians, who later disappeared. Peratovic quotes a former waitress alleging that Susak, who was close to Norac, played cards as dead bodies lay scattered around military headquarters in Gospic.


Susak is widely believed to have brokered a deal in Washington with former defence secretary William Perry that prepared the ground for Bosnia's 1995 Dayton peace accords


It is believed that US support for Croatia to re-take the Krajina was conditional on Croatia stopping its military sponsorship of the Bosnian Croats.


The widow of The Hague's first, and so far, only, murdered war crimes witness maintains no one will take responsibility for his death.


"My husband was alone when he was alive, but he couldn't be bought," she said, referring to hush money offered by his enemies and the offer of a new ID and life abroad by The Hague.


Levar miscalculated that his high-profile reputation would protect him at home. The Croatian authorities received a request from the tribunal to provide protection for Levar, which the Gospic police claim was later lost. His wife suspects foul play. "Either the killers are protected or the police are incompetent," she said.


Some suspect local police may have played a less than innocent role in the affair, possibly hiding evidence in the hours after the attack. A Gospic apartment block covered in pro-fascist graffiti overlooks the open-air workshop where her husband, a mechanic, was murdered.


"Anybody there would have seen who planted the bomb," Levar's wife said, suspecting that this line of inquiry was not pursued by the town's police.


The government is now attempting to evict the family from their flat, which was previously inhabited by a former Yugoslav army officer who left on the outbreak of war and has not returned. It is an attempt to force her out of town, Vesna Levar believes. She is defiantly determined to stay put.


The Levar case shows important lessons need to be still learned, if war crimes prosecutors in The Hague want their promises of protection for future witnesses and their families to have any credibility.


Dominic Hipkins is a freelance journalist based in Croatia