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

Martic Witness Claims Croat Resistance Led to Massacre

Defence witness claims victims of the massacre in the village of Saborsko brought it on themselves.
By Katherine Boyle
A former local official from the Serb-held village of Plaski testified this week at the trial of the former leader of the rebel Serb authorities in Croatia Milan Martic about increased tensions between ethnic Serbs and Croats prior to the outbreak of violence in Krajina in the early Nineties.



He also flatly denied prosecution’s claims of widespread abuse of power by Martic and his government, claiming they were only helping local Serbs to defend themselves.



Appearing as a defence witness, Nikola Medakovic, former president of the local authorities in Plaski, also gave his account of the Serb attack on the predominantly Croat village of Saborsko in November 1991, which left 29 Croat civilians dead.



According to the witness, the residents of Saborsko suffered this fate because they resisted the attack instead of surrendering to the Serb forces.



Martic, the former president of the self-proclaimed Serbian Autonomous District of Krajina, SAO Krajina, is charged with leading the local police force and other armed forces in the expulsion and murder of non-Serbs in Croatia between 1991 and 1995.



He is also accused of the prolonged and routine imprisonment of hundreds of Croat, Muslim and other non-Serb civilians in detention facilities within and outside Croatia during that period.



The indictment against Martic alleges that from early August 1991 till 12 November 1991, the SAO Krajina police force, known a Martic’s Police, carried out several attacks on the Croat-held villages, “killing all remaining non-Serb inhabitants they found”.



It further states that on November 12, 1991, “members of Martic’s Police… entered the village of Saborsko where they killed at least twenty nine Croat civilians. Afterwards, the village was levelled to the ground”.



But Medakovic suggested that the villagers brought the attack on themselves, by not accepting Serb rule in Krajina.



Just like many other defence witnesses testifying before him, Medakovic, who was also a company commander directly subordinated to Martic during the war, blamed the hostilities between Serbs and Croats in Krajina on the new Croatian government, elected in 1990.



He said Serbs felt threatened and put up the resistance in order to protect themselves.



“Croatia was jingling its weapons,” Medakovic told the court.



However, during cross-examination, prosecutor Alex Whiting said the witness had “turned reality on its head” in his depiction of the conflict.



Medakovic described Serb-Croat relations as harmonious before the Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, won Croatian elections in 1990.



During his testimony, Medakovic repeatedly invoked the death and destruction Serbs suffered at the hands of the fascist Ustasha regime in Croatia during World War II, echoing statements made by several previous defence witnesses in Martic trial.



At the time the HDZ took power, Medakovic said the atrocities the Ustasha had committed were still burned in the memories of Serbs in Croatia. He also noted that the HDZ’s use of the traditional Croatian checkerboard symbol, which was also used by the Ustasha, brought these “spectres of the past” to the forefront of Serb civilians’ minds.



Whiting referred to the checkerboard symbol as “a historic Croatian symbol that dates back hundreds of years”.



Medakovic strongly disagreed. “I’m not an expert in heraldry, but several members of my family were thrown alive into a pit by Ustashas who were wearing that symbol”, adding that this emblem was used “just like the Germans used the Swastika”.



It was for this reason, said Medakovic, that Serbs began to organise themselves.



During the summer of 1990, the predominantly Serb village of Plaski and other local communities held a referendum in which they chose to secede from the Croatian municipality Ogulin and annex themselves to SAO Krajina.



“We didn’t want the Croats to carry us out of Yugoslavia,” said Medakovic. “I believe the Croat secession [from Yugoslavia] was illegal, violent and done by criminal means.”



Plaski officially announced independence from Croatia in the beginning of 1991.



A few months later, Medakovic said he went to see Martic, then the minister of the interior of SAO Krajina, asking him to help arm the local reserve forces.



According to Medakovic, Martic said he would only arm those who had training, claiming he did not want “some kind of cowboy police [force] to emerge in Plaski”. Those who wished could receive brief training and be issued with rifles.

By July 22, 1991, Medakovic said serious armed conflict had broken out and Plaski was entirely surrounded, lacking water, electricity and supplies.



Less than two weeks later, on August 5, Medakovic said Croat residents of the nearby village of Saborsko gathered on a hill and fired on Serbs from Plaski working the land below. The action, he claimed, provoked the villagers of Plaski to attack Saborsko in order to protect themselves.



Medakovic said by September 1991, over 200 armed men from Zagreb arrived in Saborsko, bearing arms for residents. He claimed this move, along with a Croat attack on the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, barracks, ruined negotiations between the Serb and Croat sides.



“After the group arrived, there was shooting into the air, people celebrating, those in prison had to pass through a gauntlet and were beaten,” said Medakovic. “Saborsko then became a Croat stronghold with about 400 men armed.”



When questioned by Whiting, Medakovic also said that some local Croats were taken prisoner by Serb forces and Martic’s Police between September and November of 1991, but strongly denied that they suffered any mistreatment by his forces or Martic’s men.

“That is a lie…a blatant lie,” he said.

Describing the events that led to the November 12 massacre of 29 Croat civilians in Saborsko, Medakovic said the attack on the village was provoked by a brutal murder of three Serb men at a local crossing, four days earlier.

The witness said he personally had found the murdered men near the crossing.



According to Medakovic, the men were badly mutilated. One was missing a hand, another’s ear was cut off, and all had been beaten.



This event, he said was the “watershed in the line of thinking in Plaski” that precipitated the attack. From that point on “the term Ustasha was too mild for [the Croatian forces]”.



But Whiting attempted to prove that this murder had nothing to do with attack on Saborsko. He produced a copy of the order for the attack on this village, which was dated November 7, 1991, one day before the killing of the three Serb men took place.



On November 12, 1991, Serb forces and JNA, who were clearly superior to the Croat forces in numbers and in weaponry, launched an assault on Saborsko, said Whiting.



The prosecutor asked Medakovic if he agreed that after the attack on this village the remaining civilians were killed or driven out of their homes.



Medakovic denied that he knew what had happened to Saborsko after the attack, but his testimony was directly contradicted by that of a Serb police chief Dusan Latis, who was with him at the time, and wrote a report describing how he saw all of Saborsko burning on the day of the attack. The prosecutor presented this report in court this week.



But Medakovic that by putting up resistance to Serb forces, Croats from Saborsko brought this end on to themselves.



“They let themselves be victims,” he said.



The Martic defence continues next week.



Katherine Boyle is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.