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

Croats Describe Wartime Persecution

Hadzic trial hears of curfews, deportations and mistreatment by Serb soldiers.
By Velma Šarić

At the trial of Croatian Serb political leader Goran Hadzic this week, two female witnesses testified about the harsh treatment they endured after war broke out in Croatia in 1991.

Prosecution witness GH-061 testified with face and voice distortion, and much of her testimony took place in closed session.

The prosecution read out a summary of her evidence which explained that she was a Croat from the Vukovar area who lived before the war in a village “populated by Croats, some Serbs and other nationalities as well”.

The witness told the court that one day in autumn 1991 – she could not give an exact date – the Yugoslav army (JNA) burst into the village and “introduced a regime of control and surveillance” for the Croats and other non-Serbs there.

“We were forced to give up our documents and were only allowed to follow certain paths in the village, never walking alone, and always being followed by soldiers who seemed fully armed,” she said.

GH-061 also stated that the JNA soldiers introduced a curfew in the village, which was began at five each evening.

All the Croats had to wear “white bands on their arms” and report daily to the local community administration office to be assigned tasks by JNA soldiers, for example cleaning the homes of Serbs or working in their fields.

“While doing these tasks, we were... always fearing that we may get shot or arrested or deported into uncertainty,” the witness said. She added that many local inhabitants, “about 30 of them”, had their homes occupied by soldiers, “both JNA and others”.

The witness said that she too was detained and questioned, and “insulted and threatened” by the individual who arrested her.

“I managed to run away from the village in January 1992, after which even worse came upon my mother, who was being questioned, insulted and coerced to give away where her ‘Ustasha’ daughter had hidden”, the witness said.

The Ustasha movement ran Croatia under Nazi rule in the Second World War, and the term later became a pejorative term for Croats.

The accused Hadzic held senior political positions in Serb-held parts of Croatia during the conflict. He was president of the Republic of Serb Krajina from February 1992 to December 1993.

Hadzic is charged with 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against Croats and other non-Serbs during the war in Croatia in the early 1990s, including persecution, extermination, murder, imprisonment, torture, inhumane acts, cruel treatment, deportation, wanton destruction and plunder.

He is alleged to have been part of a “joint criminal enterprise” with other political and military officials, whose purpose was the “permanent forcible removal of a majority of the Croat and other non-Serb population from approximately one-third of the territory of the Republic of Croatia” in order to create a Serb-dominated state.

During the cross-examination of GH-061, most of which was closed to the public, the witness confirmed that there were various “Serb soldiers” present in the village, some in JNA uniform and others in camouflage.

“It was recognisable that they were speaking as if they were from Serbia, not speaking in the local way,” she told the defence.

A second protected witness, GH-085, testified anonymously but without face and voice distortion. Her testimony was also largely given in closed session.

GH-085 said she was arrested in her home village of Opatovac in the Vukovar area in October 1991, and taken to Sid, just over the border in Serbia.

“This was a police station, where we were searched, forced to be silent, look down, and endure beatings and torture,” she said.

From Sid, she was taken to Begejci, an improvised detention camp which has already been the subject of several testimonies in the Hadzic case.

“It was a horrible place. We were all in large stables, very dirty places where we were forced to sleep on the floor and endure beatings.”

The witness said she herself was subjected to “several heavy beatings, three times or so”.

The witness said she spent two months at Begejci, her situation further complicated by the fact she was pregnant. She said her condition went unnoticed because as her stomach grew, she was simultaneously losing weight due to poor nourishment in the camp.

She nonetheless gave birth to a healthy baby after she was released in a prisoner exchange in December 1991.

The trial continues next week.

Velma Saric is an IWPR contributor in Sarajevo.