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

Martic Implicated in Ethnic Cleansing

More harrowing evidence of Serb attacks against Croat villages.
By Helen Warrell
This was hell. Animals were burning in barns, people were moaning, you saw dismembered human bodies around you…these were horrible moments. You could not hear anything for the shooting, the mayhem all around. I would never have imagined that something like this could happen.”



These were the words of Marko Miljanic, a Croatian police commander whose testimony against rebel Serb leader Milan Martic told of his efforts to protect the village of Skabrnja, in southern Croatia, against incursion by Serb forces.



Miljanic, whose father and brother were killed in the violence, was one of four prosecution witnesses to give graphic testimonies this week about vicious attacks on the villages of Saborsko and Skabrnja, which left at least 67 civilians dead, including many elderly people.



According to the prosecution, the attacks on the two villages, which occurred within a week of each other in mid-November 1991, were overseen by Martic as part of a campaign by Serb forces to ethnically cleanse non-Serb civilians from Croatia’s Krajina region.



At the time of the attacks, Martic was minister of the interior for the so-called Serbian Autonomous District of Krajina, SAO Krajina. Prosecutors claim that in this capacity, he had command over all the police forces of the region, including the infamous paramilitary band known as “Martic’s police” who expelled civilians in joint operations with the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, and Krajina territorial defence forces, the Krajina TO.



Martic’s defence counsel have tried to argue that the Serb incursions into the Croat villagers were attempts to stop the growth of Croatian military strongholds.



However, all the witnesses testified that the Serbs’ military capacity was superior to that of the village defenders.



When defence co-counsel, Nikola Perovic, asked if the Skabrnja defence forces were members of the Croatian National Guard, the ZNG, Miljanic vehemently denied this claim. “These were just local people,” he said.



Perovic then went on to ask how, if the situation was “so unequal”, the villagers had managed to hold off Serb forces during the morning of the attack.



“Any man who defends his hearth and his home and sees his mother, father and children in danger will do his very best and will not fall into the hands of paramilitaries to be massacred,” replied Miljanic.



He added that far from being attacked for a military purpose, Skabrnja was a target due to Serb “political interests”, and that the intention was create a series of incidents, which would intimidate Croatian civilians into fleeing the region.



As evidence of the political nature of the attack, Miljanic pointed out that the Skabrnja incident, which occurred on November 18, 1991, was the same day as the massacre of some 250 non-Serbs from the Croatian city of Vukovar after it was taken by the JNA.



Another witness, Neven Segaric, described how Serbian television had broadcast reports laying blame for the Skabrnja attack on Croatian “fascists”, who were apparently “killing their own people”. The witness denied that this had in fact been the case.



Segaric, who was 11 at the time of the incursion, also told how he had seen his grandfather shot dead by a soldier whose uniform bore the Krajina TO insignia. He and his cousin were then pushed up against the wall by a member of the Serb force, and thought they were about to be shot. Just then, a JNA officer intervened and said, “There has been enough killing here, and we will not kill children.”



The indictment states that during the course of the Skabrnja attack, 38 non-Serb civilians were killed, and by February 1992, all Croat civilians remaining in the village had died.



Meanwhile, earlier in the week, a protected witness testified about events in Saborsko.



Giving evidence under a pseudonym with his voice distorted and face hidden from public view, the witness said that Serb forces had needed to claim Saborsko in a strategic move to “link up Serb lands”. He also stated that the incursion was carried out by regular police forces in cooperation with Martic’s police.



Vlado Vukovic, a Croatian police officer, described the events leading up to the attack on Saborsko. He said that from August 5, 1991, the village had been subjected to constant shelling by Serb forces.



Vukovic told the court that in September, 100 soldiers from Zagreb, mainly former Saborsko residents, arrived to aid the defence of the village. However, they were not the remedy the villagers had been hoping for.



“They were scared, it was their first mission of that kind,” said the witness. When asked whether the forces from Zagreb had engaged in any offensive military action, he said that, on the contrary, their only thoughts had been for defence.



He added that the village forces were so badly prepared that the incursion could be compared to a contest between “David and Goliath”.



Vukovic, who was arrested in late September, was not present in Saborsko for the attack itself, which began on November 12, 1991. He said that he had been driving through the woods when his car was ambushed by a group of five or six men in JNA uniforms, who called themselves “Martic’s men”.



The witness said that his hands had been bound behind his back, and he was detained in police stations in Plaski, Korenica and Manjaca, where he was badly beaten. By the time he returned to Saborsko, he said that it was a “ghost town” and no buildings were recognisable, even the church was a “heap of rubble”. According to the indictment, by the end of the attack, 29 Croat civilians had been killed and village was “levelled to the ground”.



Although Skabrnja did not suffer such serious material damage, Miljanic testified that the human cost was high. As his testimony ended, the witness told the court that although nobody had blamed him for failing to defend the village, he was still haunted by the memories of those who had died. “Those paramilitaries liquidated everyone they saw,” he said.



Helen Warrell is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.