JNA Reservists Resisted Fighting in Croatia

Day 264

JNA Reservists Resisted Fighting in Croatia

Day 264

With a high degree of protective measures, a former Yugoslav People's Army (JNA) officer, C-57, testified in the Milosevic trial about JNA activities in Croatia during the war. For perhaps the first time in the trial, C-57 brought to light a major reason Serbian forces relied on volunteers and paramilitaries to wage war: the high draft resistance and desertion rate in Serbia. He also testified about the common use of propaganda and subterfuge -- directed at the general public and also at soldiers in the JNA.

In June 1991, his unit received orders to prepare for movement to Vukovar to provide a buffer between the local Croatian and Serbian populations. A mobilization order was issued to bring their battalion up to full strength. And they received a bit of propaganda to prime them for the operation: '[A]n oral order [was given] to be as cautious as possible when we crossed the border with Croatia, because all members of the Croatian community were Ustashas, and their domestic animals as well.' One has to wonder how a cow demonstrates its political orientation.

Apparently, not everyone succumbed to such fear mongering. Parents and relatives of the reserves (constituting 70% of the force) gathered round the barracks to prevent their children from taking part in the operation. 'There was an anti-war feeling among 90% of the reserve force, regardless of their nationality,' according to C-57.

Eventually, the military out-waited the relatives and the battalion left for Croatia. When they arrived at the Danube River, additional orders were given directing the troops to be prepared for a serious clash, as 3000 Croatian MUP (police) forces were awaiting them on the other side. A glance through binoculars, however, showed 'there was no way that 3000 people could have been there.' Nor did the Croats provoke the JNA troops in any way, according to C-57.

The actions of the JNA, however, did provoke its anti-war reservists, who 'rebelled on several occasions. It was a sort of passive mutiny. They expressed their revolt by abandoning combat vehicles, discarding weapons, gathering on some flat ground, sitting and singing 'Give Peace a Chance' by John Lennon. They asked to speak to the battalion commander personally or some other, even more superior, commanding officer in order to impart to them that they did not want to wage war and that they wanted to go home. . . . During that month [July 1991] we had 5-8 movement orders that were not carried out.'
Under these circumstances, the JNA eventually incorporated volunteers from Seselj's Radical Party in Serbia.

The JNA began its march through Eastern Slavonia allegedly in response to provocations by the Croatian MUP, but in reality they were actions designed to drive out the non-Serb population, leaving an ethnically pure Serbian area. Witness C-57 testified that there was no resistance or attack, so the JNA manufactured one. A gunner on the JNA command personnel carrier opened fire on the witness's unit. At the time, he thought the source of attack was the Croatian MUP, but a year later learned the truth. In his statement, he concluded, 'It is very likely that they needed 'a suitable victim' for the 'liberation' of Erdut, for which they would definitely blame Croatian MUP forces.'

C-57's battalion proceeded to 'liberate' village after village in Eastern Slavonia: Aljmas, Sarvas, Luzac, Ernestinovo, Laslovo, etc. There was little if any resistance, since most of the non-Serb population fled before the onslaught. On cross examination, Milosevic elicited the witness's agreement with a point he has made often, that people were not forced to leave their villages but fled voluntarily to avoid fighting. The witness also agreed that the JNA only shot at what they assessed to be military targets. This does not preclude intentionally erroneous assessments. Moreover, the practice of firing on villages from which no fire is coming violates the Geneva Conventions.

Resistance within the JNA among the reservists continued, resulting in an unsuccessful attack on Borovo Naselje when 'an entire Novi Sad infantry battalion fled their line of attack.' This inspired other reservists. 'Around 20 October 1991, due to the said incident and the general mood, the reservists organised themselves in platoons, threw away their personal weapons on a pile (rifles and ammunition) and started deserting the units in the whole battalion. They were leaving on foot for Vojvodina across the Bratstvo i Jedinstvo (Brotherhood and Unity) Bridge in Erdut.'

As a result, the JNA replenished the command with two busloads of volunteers 'who joined the JNA by enlisting through the SRS (Serbian Radical Party) branches. . . . [T]hey spent seven days at a JNA barracks in Novi Sad. There they were issued with JNA uniforms and had a brief training.' The JNA incorporated other groups of volunteers as well. According to C-57, 'The replenishment of the unit with troops through the SRS was the result of very close cooperation between the SRS and the JNA leadership.'

Arkan (Zeljko Raznatovic) and his troops also 'operated as part of the JNA, under the command of the Novi Sad Corps commanding officers.' The operations, according to C-57, were organized and coordinated by the JNA. The witness's assertion was corroborated by a videotape of the Novi Sad Corps' Commanding Officer at a press conference, where he praises Arkan and his forces for taking Vukovar, when his own men refused to attack. 'The greatest credit for this goes to Arkan's volunteers! Although some people accuse me of acting in collusion with some paramilitary formations. [sic] These are not paramilitary formations here, they are men who came voluntarily to fight for the Serbian people. We surround a village, he dashes in and kills whoever refuses to surrender. On we go! . . .' C-57 also testified that the order to incorporate Arkan's men in a JNA tactical group for attacks was made at the Corps Command level.

The SRS volunteers were 'people from the margins of society,' according to the witness. Not only was their training abbreviated, but they were not subject to regular military discipline 'since we had no one to go forward anyway.' As a result, they looted and committed atrocities with impunity. In one case, one of the SRS volunteers, Mile Ristic 'cut off the ears of a Croatian prisoner in Luzac and brought them impaled on a stick to where the company was positioned. He was very proud of this. . . . One active-duty soldier . . . started vomiting when he saw the cut-off ears, and the rest of the radicals present there laughed at him because of this. I did not inform anyone about it because I had already received instructions earlier not to restrain them.' In cross examination, he noted that his superiors were nearby and did not intervene.

Even for regular troops, orders to abide by the Geneva Conventions were, at most, written but not passed on. In answer to the OTP (Office of the Prosecutor) investigator's question, 'whether we were instructed during these briefings to respect the Geneva Conventions and the laws and Customs of War, I can definitely say that we were not,' C-57 stated. He went on to say that based on his experience 'it can be inferred that the Geneva Conventions and the Laws and Customs of War were not observed during combat operations in Eastern Slavonia.'

Yet another example of official deception involved an order to JNA troops to fire on a Russian freight vessel, resulting in the deaths of several crew members. C-57 later saw an evening news account blaming the incident on 'Ustasha formations.' 'The Croats,' he said, 'did not fire at all.' Written orders which differed from oral orders included a command to fire only in self-defense. Before the attack on Erdut began, however, troops were ordered to open fire by all means to prevent any possibility of an attack on the JNA. The objective was to assure that JNA forces sustained no losses.

C-57 described additional murders, looting and destruction of civilian and religious property, as well as the continued close relationship between Arkan and certain JNA officers, which enabled Arkan to take over and start businesses on property from which Croats had been forcibly driven out. Arkan presented one of the commanders with a pistol and two cars. The OTP investigator asked C-57 'whether I know of any case of an indictment being raised in Serbia in the period from 1991 until today for war crimes against civilians committed in Eastern Slavonia in 1991-92, I hereby reply that I have not heard of a single such case.' While C-57 admitted he did not report instances of war crimes, he testified that JNA commanders knew about them and were present at many of those he witnessed.

C-57 was forced to resign from the JNA in 1994, when all non-Serbs were given three options: to leave the JNA without any mutual obligations, an army-aided training for a civilian vocation, or early retirement.

The witness was unable to connect the MUP (Ministry of the Interior) of Serbia or its State Security Service to action in his zone of responsibility. However, his testimony that the JNA fought in Croatia on the side of Croatian Serbs contradicts Milosevic's position that the JNA was a neutral force separating opposing sides. Also important is the testimony of a JNA officer that it was common practice for written orders to be in proper form, but not to incorporate actual orders which were given orally. Milosevic routinely points to written orders directing the protection of civilians and proper treatment of prisoners of war. What was generally known before -- that these written orders were directed to a different audience than military officers and soldiers -- is now part of the record in the Milosevic trial. Still, it is unlikely to stop Milosevic from continuing to deny reality on the ground when it conflicts with the reality he created.
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