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Mrksic, Sljivancanin, Radic

By Helen Warrell in The Hague (TU No 433, 9-Dec-05)
The witness was a member of Croatia’s National Guards Corps, ZNG, who fought to protect Vukovar while it was under siege by the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, between August and November 1991.

The former combatant gave evidence under protective measures with his face hidden from public view. He described how early on the morning of November 19, the day after Vukovar fell to the JNA, he and another ZNG member left the basement where they were sheltering and set out towards the hospital.

On the way, they were stopped by a military vehicle, and a man whom the witness identified as “Major Sljivancanin” asked them where they were going. Sljivancanin offered the men a lift to the hospital, but when they arrived there they were placed under guard and then taken to a detention unit at Velepromet on the outskirts of Vukovar.

At Velepromet, the men were searched, beaten, and taken to a place called “room of death”, the witness said.

When prosecutor Karim Agha Khan asked why the room was known by this name, the witness replied, “Whoever left the room once never came back.”

The witness then recalled that when he arrived in the room, he saw a police officer who had a “gashing wound across his face inflicted by a knife”. Later, the policeman’s name was called and he went outside.

“We heard kicks being administered, we heard them beating him, he was begging them to stop but they just went on with it,” said the witness. “Finally we heard a gurgling sound, then silence.”

According to the indictment, the three accused, Mile Mrksic, Miroslav Radic and Veselin Sljivancanin were part of a joint criminal enterprise whose purpose was “the persecution of Croats or other non-Serbs who were present in Vukovar hospital after the fall of Vukovar”.

In his opening statement in October, prosecutor Marks Moore told the court that the Velepromet detention facility, which was located close to a JNA barracks, was “under the control” of Operation Group South, a JNA unit of which Mrksic was commander and Sljivancanin security officer.

Describing the interrogation at Velepromet, the witness told the court that a man who introduced himself as a military policeman asked the him how many people he had killed, how many Serb children he had slain, and “how many ears [he] had used to make a necklace for [him]self, how many fingers [he] had cut off to make a necklace”.

The witness said his interrogator searched around for some handcuffs, but unable to find any, tied his hands behind his back with wire. He said a second man, a Serb paramilitary, forced him to swallow two bullets.

After being kept in the room of death for three days, the witness said he was taken to a prison in Sremska Mitrovica, where he was detained for four and a half months.

In cross-examination, the defence lawyers representing the three accused did not dwell on the account of events at Velepromet, but questioned the witness exhaustively about the structure, location and military capability of ZNG forces in Vukovar.

Miroslav Vasic, counsel for Mrksic, asked the former soldier about where he was deployed in the Croatian front lines. The witness said he was in a sandbagged position, that he had a rifle that had been only issued to him when he was sent up to the front line, and that neither he nor his comrades had any “heavy weaponry”.

Vasic put it to the witness that joining a “paramilitary organisation” such as the ZNG and committing “armed rebellion” were against the constitution of the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, SFRY. The witness denied having been aware of this.

The lawyer reiterated the defence’s argument that after the fall of Vukovar, many ZNG members went to the town’s hospital and disguised themselves as patients in order to escape persecution and to be evacuated along with civilians.

The lawyer questioned the witness about why he and his companion had gone to the hospital, but the man claimed he had been trying to find his parents, who were no longer in their apartment.

When Vasic asked why he had not tried to breakthrough the JNA barricades and flee Vukovar like some other ZNG members, the witness replied, “I was very young, and I was scared.”

Earlier in the week, the court heard evidence from Irinej Bucko, a Vukovar resident who had volunteered for the town’s defence force. He said these irregular combatants were “not guilty”, since “they were civilians who loved their town and sacrificed themselves for their town”.

Questioned by the defence about his role defending the palace of Count Eltz from Serb forces, Bucko became increasingly agitated. Presiding judge Kevin Parker advised him that the lawyers were not trying to make a fool of him, and cautioned Borivoje Borovic, defence counsel for Radic, to stop laughing at the witness.

The trial will resume after the Christmas recess.

Helen Warrell is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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