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

Memory Loss Hampers Croatian Trial

Croatia's first attempt to hold a war crimes trial has not got off to a flying start.
By Drago Hedl

The trial of two former Croatian army soldiers accused of involvement in the 1991 massacre of 19 civilians appears to be turning into a farce.


Only two servicemen are being prosecuted, the indictment does not cover vital areas of the case, and many witnesses are now claiming ignorance of statements they made before the trial began.


It's a worrying development for Zagreb, which had agreed to take over the trial from the war crimes tribunal in The Hague as part of a programme to try lower-ranking suspects in the region.


Nikola Ivankovic and Enes Viteskic - former members of the Croatian army's 130th Brigade - are accused of firing automatic rifles and throwing grenades into a home in the Croatian village of Paulin Dvor, in which some 18 Serbs and one ethnic Hungarian were sheltering on the night of December 11, 1991. Most of the 19 dead were elderly, and nine were women.


But shortly after the trial got underway in Osijek on July 9, it became clear that the Croatian judiciary was going to fall short of the tribunal's expectations - a development which could jeopardise Zagreb's ability to try future war crimes suspects without The Hague's involvement.


A series of concerns have been raised, including issues about the contents of the indictment.


It is common knowledge that following the killings, the bodies were taken away and buried in a nearby mass grave and the house was blown up to conceal the evidence. Years later, in January 1997, the corpses were dug up, placed in black plastic barrels and reburied 500 kilometres away in Lika, south-western Croatia.


Yet aside from only naming low-level suspects, the 18-page indictment does not mention the cover-up that followed the killings. Neither Judge Dragan Poljak nor the prosecutor have asked who ordered the blowing up of the house or who ordered the initial burial of the bodies at the nearby Croatian military depot in Lug.


The witnesses called so far have only added to the concerns. Of the 50 or so people who have testified, the vast majority now claim to have no memory of what happened in 1991.


Even those who gave testimony during the investigation are now having difficulty remembering events, or else they give accounts that differ dramatically from the version of events they gave only a few months ago.


Many of these witnesses live in Vladislavci, the home village of the accused, and are reportedly fear an adverse reaction from their neighbours.


One witness even claimed that he could not remember whether or not he had served in the army. Nearly all stated in court that they didn't learn about the killings until years later, when Paulin Dvor began to receive press coverage.


One of the few who was able to remember something from December 1991 was retired Croatian army general Karl Gorinsek - the then commander of the Osijek Operative Zone, whose zone of responsibility included Paulin Dvor.


Gorinsek told the court that he had learned about the crime several hours after it happened, and immediately ordered an investigation so that the perpetrators could be punished.


He said he informed his superiors - the army general staff in Zagreb - but said he had no authority to ensure that the investigation was carried out, as it then passed into the hands of the military police and Croatian military intelligence, SIS.


Osijek SIS chief Mirko Groselj, who might have been able to testify on the fate of this investigation, committed suicide a couple of years ago, so Gorinsek's claims cannot be corroborated.


The retired general, who is now the secretary of the Liberal Party - part of Prime Minister Ivica Racan's ruling coalition - admitted that he had tried to keep the crime out of the headlines, as he feared that it might jeopardise Croatia's bid for independence. The country was recognised as a sovereign nation one month later, on January 15, 1992.


Another witness told the court that Ivankovic and Viteskic punished for the killings by being sent to the front lines. The two accused reportedly accepted this punishment, but asked the head of the SIS to let them go to Nasice - a town near Paulin Dvor - to spend one last evening at the local discotheque before going to the front. Not only was their request granted, the witness said, but the two men were provided with transport.


The case continues.


Drago Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor in Osijek.