Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
A German diplomat has told the Hague tribunal how Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic was adamant that the Krajina region would never “voluntarily” be part of Croatia.
From 1992 to 1996, Geert-Hinrich Ahrens, appearing this week as a witness for the prosecution, served as ambassador-at-large at the Geneva Conference on the Former Yugoslavia. As he told the court, he met the accused on a number of occasions, particularly at meetings on “ceasefires and peace accords”, where Hadzic attended as “a representative of the Serbs in Croatia.”
During the 1991-95 war in Croatia, Hadzic held senior political positions in Serb-held parts of the country. He headed the government of the self-declared Serbian Autonomous District of Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem; and was subsequently – from February 1992 to December 1993 – president of the Republic of Serb Krajina (RSK) after it absorbed the autonomous district.
He is charged with 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against Croats and other non-Serbs, including persecution, extermination, murder, imprisonment, torture, inhumane acts, cruel treatment, deportation, wanton destruction and plunder.
Ambassador Ahrens said he developed a "a very tight relationship and close friendship” with Yugoslavia and its people after he was posted to the West German embassy in Serbia in 1972.
“Whenever I went to Yugoslavia, I truly felt at home with all the people around me,” he said, describing how the conflicts of the early 1990s pained him.
Turning to the position of the Serbs in Croatia, Ahrens said they saw themselves as a “separate nationality of their own within Yugoslavia, and without any relation to Croatia, politically or otherwise”. They felt they should be allowed to join Serbia, to which they belonged “politically and culturally”.
Ahrens said that on one occasion, Hadzic told him that “the Krajina Serbs would be ready to pay the price for their freedom, even if it meant war”, and that RSK would never “voluntarily become a part of Croatia”.
He said that that while Hadzic himself, “advocated that position in many ways”, this was nevertheless “rather obviously not a position he personally identified closely with. He seemed to be repeating this idea that had come from somewhere else.”
Ahrens said that while Hadzic appeared to take a pragmatic and reasonable stance, he rarely took the kind of action needed for the RSK authorities to fulfil their obligations.
The witness gave one example where the defendant met him “asking me to help him with the establishment of a constitutional framework and [with] the protection of human rights in the RSK. I told him that in such a situation, the protection of human rights is of extreme importance.”
“Hadzic agreed, but never did anything about it in real life,” Ahrens added.
He said that Hadzic failed to publicly condemn atrocities committed against non-Serbs in RSK even though he was “quite certainly informed” of such cases.
Ambassador Ahrens told the court that Hadzic appeared to be “a very convincing leader”, an impression strengthened by a round of negotiations he attended in 1993, at a time when the Croatian army was beginning to get the upper hand over Krajina Serb forces.
“He still seemed convinced that his position was right and that while the Croats would have a state of their own, so would the Serbs,” Ahrens said. “I remember Hadzic mentioning that in case [Krajina Serbs] fell under attack from Croatia, then the Croats should better get ready to evacuate Zagreb.”
The witness said Hadzic’s statements seemed “very convincing”, and that he was sure the Krajina Serbs had the military force to back them up.
Cross-examining the witness, Hadzic’s defence council Christopher Gosnell put it to him that the defendant was unable to prevent crimes in RSK “because the Krajina Serbs were implementing the Vance peace plan”.
This plan, proposed by American politician Cyrus Vance and signed by Croatian president Franjo Tudjman and Serbia’s Slobodan Milosevic in November 1991, led to four United Nations protected areas being established in RSK. The plan called for the withdrawal of the Yugoslav army from Croatia, the demilitarisation of local Serbs, and the return of refugees to their homes in protected areas.
Gosnell argued that demilitarisation of the Krajina Serbs meant “reducing their ability to deal with crimes and preventing them”.
Ahrens said that he was unable to say whether the Serb side was “in a position to prevent crimes or not”, but that it was clear that atrocities were being committed by people on that side.
Under cross-examination, the witness said that Hadzic seemed “accessible as a person and, unlike some other Serb leaders, actually listened to proposals from the other side”.
He added that while Hadzic believed every nation should have its own state, he “never explicitly said that Serbs and non-Serbs should be separated by force”.
The trial continues next week.
Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.
[Correction: the original version of this story wrongly identified the defendant's counsel here as Zoran Zivanovic, when it was Christopher Gosnell. We apologise for the error.]
As coronavirus sweeps the globe, IWPR’s network of local reporters, activists and analysts are examining the economic, social and political impact of this era-defining pandemic.
- Europe & Eurasia
- Latin America
- Middle East & North Africa
- Focus Pages
- Training & Resources
- Print Publications
- IWPR Spotlight