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

Family Anguish at Vukovar Trial

Witnesses say Šljivančanin in charge at hospital.
By Goran Jungvirth
A Vukovar woman this week told the Hague tribunal how she lost much of her family including her injured husband during the destruction of the eastern Croatian town in 1991.

Ljubica Došen’s husband Martin, two brothers-in-law, sister and nephew were all killed during and in the days following the take over of Vukovar by the Yugoslav People's Army, JNA.

Došen, who testified via a video link from Zagreb, is a prosecution witness in the case against JNA officers Veselin Šljivančanin, Mile Mrkšic and Miroslav Radic.

The three are accused of having command responsibility over soldiers alleged to have killed at least 264 Croatians taken from the Vukovar hospital and executed near the Ovcara farm - one of the worst atrocities of the war in Croatia. They are charged with being part of a joint criminal enterprise whose purpose was “the persecution of Croats or other non-Serbs who were present in Vukovar hospital after the fall of Vukovar”.

She told the court that her husband was left injured and unable to walk after trying to save people from a burning house during the shelling of Vukovar.

Like many others, they went to the Vukovar hospital on November 17 hoping to be evacuated to free Croatian territory. She said the hospital was filled with civilians from all parts of town, adding they looked starved and uncared for.

But instead of expected evacuation, JNA reservists arrived at the hospital with a list of people who had participated in the defense of the city. Došen speculated it had been supplied by their Serb neighbours.

Her husband’s name was first on that list, along with those of his two brothers. They were soon loaded by JNA soldiers onto army trucks “like sacks”. “We never saw them again,” she said.

She admitted that Martin had taken up arms to defend his family during the JNA attack, but insisted that because of an injury to his spine, he was no longer an active soldier. The defence says it was only active Croatian military members and not civilians and wounded who were taken from Vukovar’s hospital.

Before Martin and the other were taken away she asked a soldier where they were going and was told, “They are going to be eaten by dark in the middle of bright day.”

Desperate, she appealed to a “tall, dark officer” for help. She identified that man as Šljivančanin and said he appeared to be in charge of the operation as everyone obeyed his commands. He told her to leave Martin’s bag, asking, “Why would he need it any more?”

In tears, she described her last moments with Martin, who handed her a gold chain and asked that she give it to their 14-year-old daughter Tanja. “It is the only thing that is left [for her] from her father,” she said. She remembers covering him with a blanket and watching him cry, saying he was all too aware of what was going to happen.

Later, she and her daughter were transferred by the JNA to the Serbian prison Sremska Mitrovica. After two days they were taken across Bosnia and Hercegovina to free territory in Croatia.

During cross-examination, Sljivancanin’s defence counsel, Novak Lukic, suggested that Došen had not actually spoken to the defendant but had only seen him on television after the war. The witness admitted she had seen him on TV but also at the hospital directing operations there.

Though she accepted the defence claims that some taken from the hospital had faked their injuries, she said that many who were put on the trucks and later executed were seriously wounded and couldn’t walk, like her husband.

All the defence teams in turn probed inconsistencies between her testimony and statements she gave to Office of the Prosecutor, OTP, investigators in August 1995. She was asked to explain whether her husband "could move his toes" as she said in 1995 or could not as she told the tribunal.

Došen’s daughter Tanja also testified this week, though unlike her mother appeared at the tribunal in person.

She remembers sitting with her mother and injured father when members of Vojislav Šešelj's notorious Chetnik paramilitary unit entered the hospital, “insulting the wounded, pointing guns then pulling them back ... they found it amusing”.

It was Šljivančanin who stopped further Chetniks entering the hospital, said Tanja.

The prosecution is trying to prove that the JNA was in charge of paramilitaries and reservists on the ground in Vukovar.

Tanja also described how JNA soldiers put a visibly pregnant woman, her father’s cousin, in a bus full of men meant for the Ovčara farm. That was Ružica Mrkobašić, a mother of three and five months pregnant at the time, who was one of two women killed at Ovčara.

During his cross-examination, Šljivančanin’s defence lawyer Novak Lukic also probed inconsistencies in Tanja’s testimony.

He pointed out that in 1995 she told OTP investigators that she did not hear the conversation at the hospital between her mother and Šljivančanin. The witness explained that she was mistaken then and pointed out that statement wasn’t as detailed as the one she gave to the tribunal.

Late in the week, another witness, known only as P-007 to protect his identity, described the scenes of horror he experienced at the Velepromet detention camp.

The witness, whose identity is protected, testified that it was Šljivančanin who announced they were being sent to Velepromet, violating an agreement that they would be evacuated.

At the prison camp, the man, whose son died at Ovcara and was buried in a mass grave, saw horrifying scenes of Chetniks carrying around the heads of people they had killed and general chaos made worse by sporadic gunshots nearby. “Women were crying and begging to bring their family members back,” he said.

There are about 30 prosecution witnesses still to testify, which could take until the end of April.

The trial continues.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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