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Identity of Vukovar Volunteers Probed

Croat witness unclear whether Serb nationalist fighters recruited by Seselj.
By Simon Jennings
A Croat man this week described how Serb volunteers abused and killed Croatian prisoners in 1991, but was uncertain whether they were allied to a Serbian nationalist politician on trial for war crimes.

Prosecution witness Emil Cakalic was testifying against Vojislav Seselj, leader of the Serb Radical Party, SRS, about the massacres in and around the city of Vukovar at the beginning of Croatia’s 1991-95 war.

Asked by the judge to describe the perpetrators, the witness said he could not be sure they were volunteers recruited by Seselj.

“They came in an organised way; where from I do not know. The situation was very difficult because everybody looked out for themself,” he said.

Seselj is on trial for war crimes and crimes against humanity including the torture and murder of 200 Croats taken to the Ovcara farm outside Vukovar by Serb forces after they overran the city hospital.

According to the indictment against him, Seselj “espoused and encouraged the creation of a ‘Greater Serbia’”. He also allegedly recruited volunteer soldiers “to engage in a persecution campaign against the local Croat population”.

Cakalic is a former sanitary inspector who worked at the Vukovar hospital before he was taken to Ovcara along with six busloads of Croat prisoners.

He explained how Croats taking shelter from Serb forces in the courtyard of the hospital were loaded onto buses and taken to the Vukovar barracks.

According to Cakalic, they were held there for a few hours before moving on to Ovcara. The witness said that Serb soldiers were calling them names and stealing their possessions.

“They asked us to hand over everything we had,” he said.

Cakalic confirmed that there were volunteers among the Serb forces.

“The soldiers probably had some sort of ethics. The ones who weren’t soldiers beat people up,” he said, when asked to describe them.

The witness explained how on arrival at Ovcara, the prisoners were herded off the buses and into a hangar where they were stripped.

Prisoners, including himself and elderly people, were beaten as they stepped off the buses. Cakalic particularly remembered one soldier who he described as a Chetnik, a second world war-era term for Serb nationalists.

“He hit me with a metal baton and broke one of the vertebrae in my neck,” he told the court.

Seselj himself has proudly referred to the Serbs who fought for him as “Chetnik brothers”. The term Chetnik in the Yugoslav conflict of the early 1990s came to be used to describe Serbian ultra-nationalists.

Asked by the prosecution to describe Chetniks the witness replied, “These people did many evil things to many people.”

Describing the fate of one man at the hangar, the witness said, “They brought him to the hangar and threw him on the floor. They beat him for a very long time until he succumbed, he died.”

But when asked by the judge, Cakalic could not be specific about who they were.

“They were also people who did not have the whole uniform on…I would not say they were real soldiers. I would say they were other lads who had come to steal.”

The judge repeatedly asked the witness if he could be more specific about who was organising the atrocities he spoke of.

“Judging by their dialect they had come from somewhere in Serbia,” he told the trial chamber.

But Seselj, who is representing himself, disagreed with the witness, saying the Chetniks who carried out beatings at Ovcara were from Vukovar itself.

He referred to testimony the witness had given before the tribunal in other trials, particularly that of the late Serbian president, Slobodan Milosevic.

“You say in the Milosevic transcript that these were Chetniks from Vukovar,” Seselj told the witness.

Chakalic did not deny this, and Seselj went on to sow further doubt that the volunteers were from Serbia.

He told the court that Chetniks, as well as the Yugoslav army, also very frequently had army uniforms on and that SRS volunteers were issued with uniforms in Belgrade.

Seselj drew confirmation from the witness that several of the volunteers came from Croatia and that was why they wore “a lot of different badges and insignia”.

Seselj then put his theory before the court that crimes were committed against Serbs in Vukovar by Croats before the war started, prior to October 1991. According to him Serb volunteers were taking revenge for crimes committed against them by Croats before the war broke out.

Seselj spoke about a Croat who blew up Serb houses, creating an explosion that would force other Serbs to flee as quickly as possible.

He then read out a letter written by the Vukovar municipal commission in August, 1991 about the killing of Serbs by Croat forces. The letter concluded that such crimes had led to “a grave psychosis of fear among the Serb and Croat population”.

According to Seselj, 150 Serbs were killed by Croats before the war broke out.

“People did speak about that,” confirmed Cakalic.

Simon Jennings is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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