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A witness reports seeing more than 100 bodies during military operation, but defence disputes this claim.
By Goran Jungvirth
Witnesses told the Hague war crimes tribunal this week that they saw dozens of dead bodies, many of them civilians, during a Croatian army offensive to retake Serb-held territory in 1995.

They were testifying at the trial of three Croatian generals accused of responsibility for crimes committed by troops under their command in the south-east Krajina region.

Prosecutors say Ante Gotovina, the most senior Croatian to be brought before the tribunal, was in command of Operation Storm, which took place from August 4 to 8, 1995, in the course of which 350 Serb civilians were killed and 200,000 were forced to flee.

Gotovina is charged, along with Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac, with orchestrating the permanent removal of Serbs from Croatia between July and September 1995. Rebel Serbs, heavily aided by the then Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic, had held some 25 per cent of Croatia’s territory since 1991.

At the beginning of the trial, the prosecution argued that Operation Storm was part of a joint criminal enterprise led by the late Croatian president Franjo Tudjman with the intention of expelling Serbs from the region.

This week, the defence argued that local Serb political and military leaders had planned a mass departure in the event of a Croatian army offensive – the implication being that the exodus was a premeditated strategy on the part of the Serbs.

Prosecution witness Andries Dreyer, a former security coordinator at the United Nations base in Knin, the regional centre of Krajina, described seeing several the dead bodies of men and women who had been killed at close range, at the time relevant to the indictment.

“If I say that we saw dozens of dead, that is because I can’t [say] how many exactly. We saw one dead man who was already in his seventies and one woman as old as that,” said Dreyer.

“We found a shallow grave with a man whose arms were tied behind his back and he was also shot in the head. In the centre of Knin, we found one or two bodies, but we saw more killed in the suburbs – men and women of different ages who weren’t in military clothes.”

While the prosecution does not dispute Croatia’s right to reclaim Krajina region as part of its national territory, it condemns the methods that were used.

The three former senior officers are accused of presiding over “deportation and forcible transfer, destruction and burning of Serb homes and businesses, plunder and looting of public or private Serb property; murder [and] other inhumane acts”.

Prosecutor Alan Tieger told the court at the beginning of the trial that the Croatian army used excessive shelling to “demoralise civilians and get them to flee”, leaving behind a “scarred wasteland”.

Mira Grubor, a hospital worker who now lives in New Zealand, said in testimony this week that 120 dead and 180 wounded people were brought to the hospital in Knin where she was working on the first day of Operation Storm.

“Up to a third were wearing civilian clothes. All of them were victims of shelling,” she said.

Grubor said most of the people in Knin at the time of the Croatian attack were civilians, not combatants.

“Only people who lived there [in Knin] remained. There were no military targets, as most of the military men had gone to Bosnia,” she said. However, she later admitted that “every house was armed during the war”.

To rebuff these claims, the defence produced a Croatian interior ministry document that listed only 16 bodies present in the morgue on August 5.

Although Grubor said she didn’t go to the morgue in person, she remained adamant she had heard from colleagues that there were more than 100 bodies there.

The defence then argued that the reason Grubor saw such a large number of wounded because the hospital was the only medical facility in the area with an operating theatre, so all the wounded from the surrounding region were transferred there.

During her testimony, Grubor said that when the Croatian army took the city, the first soldiers who entered the hospital were polite. However, she later heard others shooting and yelling.

She said she fled to the UN base where she spoke to officers in a bid “to force them to go to hospital and save [the] patients”.

However, the defence showed video footage of the Knin hospital with no signs of damage. The film also showed that the new hospital administration established on August 6 took on Serb doctors and also continued to treat Serb patients who had not been evacuated to the base.

Additional footage showed surgeon Igor Torbica praising the behaviour of the Croatian soldiers who first entered the hospital. “I wish I knew their names,” he said.

A third witness, Tor Munkelien, who was a UN observer in the area in August 1995, testified that he investigated shell damage in the area ten days after Operation Storm.

He said the first thing he did when he arrived in Knin was to analyse six shell craters in a residential neighborhood 350-500 metres away from the military barracks. A preliminary UN report concluded that the shelling was concentrated on military targets. But Munkelien said it later appeared that the bombardment had caused more damage than was initially reported.

Munkelian said he did not think that the looting and burning of abandoned Serb houses was ordered from above, but rather that the Croatian soldiers engaged in this on their own initiative.

“Most of the looters were in military clothes, but… they were driving civilian vehicles,” he said.

However, he added that the Croatian authorities could easily have prevented this disorder “if they had wanted to”.

The defence argued it was impossible to have complete control over everything that was happening in a large area.

But Munkelien replied that the authorities need only have controlled the roads, because the looters “weren’t on foot”.

The trial continues next week.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR-trained reporter in The Hague.

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