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

New Evidence of JNA Involvement in Vukovar Massacre

Witnesses challenge defence claims that killings were work of renegade paramilitary units, over which the army had no control.
By Goran Jungvirth
A former Croatian soldier and a Yugoslav army deserter this week recalled how they narrowly escaped death during the massacre of over 260 people from the Vukovar hospital in 1991.



Between them, they spoke of how troops of the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, systematically separated and abused prisoners before taking them off to be shot.



Their testimony forms part of the prosecution case against Mile Mrksic, Veselin Sljivancanin and Miroslav Radic, all former ex-JNA officers charged with commanding the slaughter.



The first witness to speak this week, Hajdar Dodaj, an ethnic Albanian who deserted from the JNA prior to the events in Vukovar, confirmed prosecution claims that the army was in complete control of the executions.



The outbreak of war in Croatia in 1991 found Dodaj, then a young man, doing his national service. Quickly coming to the conclusion that the JNA’s goal was to attack Croatia and defend Serb interests, he decided join the many who were deserting at that time.



Following his first attempt to escape, Dodaj was caught and sent to fight on the front lines around Vukovar. He recalled being ordered to block a road out of the town, in order to prevent the escape of “Ustasha”, a term referring to World War Two Nazi collaborators which was used as a derogatory label for Croatian fighters in the Nineties.



Commanders apparently told their troops that there were 20,000 Ustasha in Vukovar and that they were “going to destroy them”.



After 24 days, Dodaj managed to escape with three of his comrades and made his way into Vukovar, where he soon found himself trapped in terrible conditions. “People were starving and thirsty and hundreds of grenades fell daily on the town,” he told the court.



The witness then joined with men who were defending the town until, after another two months, Vukovar finally fell to the JNA. At that time, he and his fellow deserters took refuge amongst the hordes of civilians awaiting evacuation from the local hospital.



On the morning of November 20, Dodaj recalled, JNA troops under the command of Sljivancanin began separating men from the crowds and transporting them to a JNA barracks. From there, some 250 were driven to a farm at nearby Ovcara. The witness said all of them first had to pass by a line of soldiers and reservists who brutally assaulted them.



“I can’t describe how those people who came out were beaten, it was something terrible to see,” Dodaj told the judges. “One man who sat by me took out a picture of his wife and children and said, ‘I’ll never see them again’.”



The witness said the full gravity of the situation struck him when a reservist started up a bulldozer and began digging what appeared to be a mass grave. At that point, one of his fellow deserters announced that he was himself a member of the JNA, and claimed to have been captured by Croatian fighters.



After Dodaj and the remaining deserters also made themselves known, a JNA captain reportedly told them, “Today you are born again.”



While they waited for a military vehicle to transport them back to the barracks, Dodaj recalled hearing a Serbian soldier asking an officer to release another detainee. The witness took this as a clear sign that officers had the power to decide whether prisoners would survive or die.



“If the JNA liberated that man it could have liberated all 260 of them,” he told the court.



Dodaj’s account is in stark contrast with defence claims that crimes in Vukovar were committed by renegade paramilitary units, over which the army had no control.



Despite transporting them out of the Vukovar area, JNA officers had a hard time believing the story that Dodaj and his comrades had been captured by Croatian fighters. Having been taken to the JNA’s Topcider barracks in Belgrade, they were beaten daily for two weeks in a military detention facility.



“They broke all my ribs, my spine is destroyed and they broke my arm. I can’t describe how terribly we were tortured during those 14 days,” said the witness.



Dodaj subsequently received a five-year sentence for desertion but was released in a prisoner exchange.



During cross examination, the defence lawyers sought to show that Dodaj’s decision to desert from the JNA, which he considered to be a “criminal and aggressor army”, meant that he was not in a position to provide impartial testimony on the events in Vukovar.



They further tried to damage his credibility by questioning him about his role as a representative of the nationalist Croatian Party of Rights, HSP, in his village of Severin, close to the city of Bjelovar.



Lawyer Momcilo Bulatovic, who represents Sljivancanin, put it to the witness that the statute of the HSP stipulates that only Croats can become members. When Dodaj denied the allegation, Bulatovic swiftly wrapped up his questioning, perhaps hoping the judges would forget that Dodaj himself is Albanian by ethnicity.



This week’s second witness, a Croatian soldier who was wounded and laid up at the Vukovar hospital when the JNA took over the facility, testified with the use of protective measures, including voice and image distortion, to hide his identity.



The witness, who was also taken to the Ovcara farm, spoke too of the brutal abuse that faced the detainees when they arrived there. A few, he said, died as a result of beatings and knife attacks carried out by groups of around 100 Serbian JNA recruits.



“I don’t know how some of the men who were already wounded even made it through this,” added the witness.



From Ovcara, he and others were loaded onto a truck and told that they were to be taken elsewhere. The witness jumped from the moving vehicle, ignored the pleas of other prisoners, who were afraid how the soldiers might react if any of them escaped.



“I was in state of shock after all the beatings and what we had been through…it was a quick decision,” he told the court. As he fled, he heard gunfire from the area he had left behind.



The witness was eventually recaptured by Serbian reservists after approaching a house in search of water. After another couple of days of brutal questioning, he was taken to the town of Sid, in Serbia. From there, he was moved to a prison in Sremska Mitrovica, where he was held until being exchanged in February 1992.



Defence lawyers will cross examine this latest witness when the trial resumes next week.



Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.