Mrskic, Radic and Sljivancanin

Surgeon recalls role played by two accused in infamous Vukovar hospital massacre.

Mrskic, Radic and Sljivancanin

Surgeon recalls role played by two accused in infamous Vukovar hospital massacre.

Thursday, 24 November, 2005

A surgeon has identified two Hague defendants as being amongst those responsible for the killing of more than 260 people taken from a hospital where he worked in the Croatian town of Vukovar in 1991.


Dr Juraj Njavro said he “could never forget” former Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, officers Miroslav Radic and Veselin Sljivancanin, who are standing trial along with a third JNA commander, Mile Mrksic, for their alleged roles in the massacre.


Prosecutors say between them the three men oversaw the process of selecting non-Serb victims from amongst crowds of patients, staff and refugees at the hospital, transporting them to a farm at Ovcara, beating them and gunning them down.


Dr Njavro also spoke at length about terrible conditions in Vukovar in the run-up to the massacre, a theme which was taken up later in the week in the testimony of another prosecution witness, a senior United Nations official who visited the town.


Dr Njavro told judges that on the evening of November 18, 1991 – the day before the massacre is alleged to have taken place – he was told by patients during his rounds that Radic had paid a visit earlier that day and had verbally abused them.


Even at that point, he recalled, “there was panic, there was fear, a very heavy atmosphere.” He added that “people had lost any hope of surviving”.


The witness told the court that he was in little doubt about the purpose of these preliminary visits by JNA troops. “At the time they were actually picking out people that they were going to propose for the transport which ended... at Ovcara,” he said.


The following day, when JNA soldiers took control of the hospital, Dr Njavro said he saw both Sljivancanin and Radic amongst them. Sljivancanin was in overall charge of the hospital, he said, while Radic appeared to be responsible for picking out those who were to be killed.


Under cross-examination, defence lawyers demanded to know whether it was possible that the witness in fact just recognised their clients from media reports about the trial. Dr Njavro acknowledged he had seen Mrksic for the first time on television. But he insisted that the other two had been present at the hospital. “I saw [them],” he said. “I could never forget them.”


The witness also gave evidence in support of prosecution claims that the JNA blocked efforts by Medecins Sans Frontieres, MSF, to evacuate the most critically ill patients from the Vukovar hospital.


Explaining that the JNA had held up an MSF convoy before it could reach the town, Dr Njavro added, “My impression was that this was done in order to make the situation of the wounded patients worse.”


He also spoke about conditions in the embattled town and in the hospital itself. “Shells were falling like rain,” he said. “If you went out you might never come back.”


By the time the JNA arrived in November, he remembered, the hospital had been so badly damaged that doctors, patients and others who had taken refuge there were forced to shelter in the basement.


Dr Njavro’s testimony was cut short to allow him to attend a ceremony this weekend to mark the anniversary of the Vukovar hospital massacre. He will return at a later stage in the trial to finish giving his evidence.


Next to take to the witness stand this week was Herbert Okun, who was a special advisor and deputy to Cyrus Vance, the UN envoy to the former Yugoslavia, at the time the massacre is alleged to have taken place. He has previously testified before the Hague tribunal in the war crimes trials of ex-Yugoslav president Slobodan Milosevic and former Bosnian Serb parliamentary speaker Momcilo Krajisnik.


Okun told the court about a trip that he and Vance made to Vukovar in October 1991, with the intention of visiting the town’s JNA barracks and its hospital. Speaking of the terrible conditions he witnessed there, the 82-year-old, who spent time in Europe in the late Forties, just years after the end of World War Two, told judges, “I saw nothing that compared to what I saw in Vukovar.”


Defence lawyers have claimed that the JNA barracks in Vukovar were attacked and that shelling of the town and its hospital by forces positioned there was an act of self-defence. But, presenting his diary from the time as evidence, the witness said that he and Vance had seen no signs of damage to the barracks.


Okun went on to recall that Sljivancanin, who was acting as their JNA escort during the visit, told them that they couldn’t visit the hospital because a bridge that needed to be crossed to get there was mined. Since he and Vance could see pedestrians and vehicles crossing the bridge in question, the witness dismissed such claims as “demonstrable lies”.


When they insisted, however, the situation became heated. “At that point Sljivancanin raised his rifle,” Okun remembered, “and that was a very memorable moment. He pointed it at Mr Vance.”


Though Sljivancanin was a “hard” and “brutal” man, Okun said, he didn’t believe he would shoot at them. Still, he added, he and Vance decided not to press the issue any further.


Okun also recalled speaking with Vance about a meeting that the latter held with Milosevic on November 13, 1991. During the talks, Milosevic apparently told the UN representative, “Vukovar is a special case, the world will understand. Croats are brutes.”


The witness said that he and Vance discussed this oblique remark and came to the conclusion that something terrible had either already happened or was going to happen in the town.


In his own trial for war crimes in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, Milosevic is charged with responsibility for the Vukovar killings.


Adrienne N Kitchen is an IWPR intern in The Hague.


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