Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
When I started to work as a journalist for the Croatian Commercial Network, CCN, in 2001, I covered events related to war crimes prosecutions only sporadically - when demonstrations were taking place against trials of Croat citizens in local courts or when Croatian generals were extradited to the Hague tribunal.
However, when I came to The Hague in 2003 to work as a reporter for IWPR, covering cases at the International Criminal Court for the Former Yugoslavia, I was suddenly in a position to see war crimes cases from a very different perspective.
Following the trials of war crimes suspects for months enabled me to put pieces of the puzzle together and made me understand what really happened during the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the early Nineties. It also made me realise why it is important that countries try their own wartime heroes accused of war crimes – to challenge their perceptions and help them face up to what happened during the wars.
I have been following war crimes proceedings ever since my time in The Hague, even after I returned to Croatia. This is not only out of professional curiosity, but because I find trials to be the best source of information on the events that took place during the wars.
Testimonies given and documents presented during trials both in The Hague and at Zagreb County Court – where I regularly cover the trial of two army generals, Rahim Ademi and Mirko Norac – complete the picture I have about the background of the Balkan wars.
Cases I’ve been following have also helped me realise that even people we have regarded as heroes may be capable of committing atrocities.
However, the Croatian public in general still doesn’t seem to see any connection between crimes committed against Serb civilians in Croatia and attacks on this country and the crimes against its civilians in 1991.
For example, during the trial of three Serb army officers charged with crimes in Vukovar in 1991, which I followed in The Hague, the defence repeatedly said that Serb attacks on Vukovar were provoked by killings and mistreatment of Serb civilians by the Croatian authorities.
When I followed the discussion at the Hague tribunal about the referral of the Norac-Ademi case to the Croatian judiciary in 2005, I remember thinking that Croatia would be under great pressure if the case was indeed transferred to Zagreb, both by international observers who would want to make sure the trial is fair, and also by local people, who would find it hard to accept that their own kin were responsible for atrocities.
In 2001, war veterans launched protests because Norac was put on trial and later sentenced to 12 years in prison for his role in the killings of imprisoned Serbs in 1991. A hundred thousand people gathered then in the coastal city of Split to protest the indictment against the general, while tens of thousands rallied in Zagreb.
But once the Croatian public heard details that emerged during the trial about mistreatment and murders of Serb civilians in the Gospic area in 1991, the number of Norac’s supporters shrank significantly.
In 2007, Norac was again put on trial, this time with Ademi, for crimes against Serb civilians which allegedly occurred in the Medak Pocket area in 1993. Even war veterans, who were Norac and Ademi’s main supporters, have been unpleasantly surprised by what they have heard at this trial so far, and especially by the defence tactics employed by both generals – to try and put the blame on each other.
The generals have repeatedly accused each other of lies, which even at this relatively early stage of the trial arouses suspicions that crimes were committed in the Medak Pocket and that someone has to take responsibility for them.
Most of my colleagues in Croatia agree that referring the Ademi-Norac case to Zagreb was the right move, because the public can find out first-hand information about some unpleasant facts of the 1991-95 war.
I recently discussed the Norac-Ademi trial with a fellow journalist and we came to the conclusion that this case is a test not only for our own judiciary, but also of the readiness of Croatia to confront a dark side of its recent past.
We also agreed that maybe this and other war crimes trials held in Croatia will finally expose war criminals and profiteers, so that they won’t be able to hide behind nationalism any more, as well as behind real war heroes who were until recently completely ignored.
This is why I’m glad that by following war crime trials I can, in some way, help my fellow citizens confront the truth about their past.
Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR reporter in Zagreb.
Link to original article by Goran Jungvirth in Zagreb. Published in TU No 531, 8-Jan-08.
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