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News Feature: Bobetko Mastermind of Medak Horrors

Ageing Croatian general at the centre of an extradition dispute is said to have played a vital role in the Medak atrocities.
By Chris Stephen

Janko Bobetko is accused of committing war crimes at an age when most men are happily digging the garden, well into their retirement.


He was 74 and Croatian army chief of staff when elite troops of the 9th guards brigade stormed into a cluster of Serb villages in the region of Medak, 150 km south of Zagreb.


The Medak pocket was a sliver of land, made up of rolling farmland and woods, which jutted like a finger into Croatian territory. It was populated by 400 Serbs and guarded by a few militia units.


The attack was hugely significant. Croatia had been at war for nearly two years by then, and forced to absorb blow after blow from the vastly better armed Serbian forces. Medak was to change all that: the army launched the operation as a signal to its enemies, and a morale-booster for its troops.


A fierce bombardment opened at 6 am on September 9, 1993, and guards units quickly overwhelmed the weak Serb defences, capturing the villages behind the front line along with many of the local inhabitants, who had had no time to flee.


According to the indictment against Bobetko – whose government is currently defying calls for to be extradited to The Hague - this is what happened next, ”At least 100 Serbs, including 29 Serb civilians, were unlawfully killed and others sustained serious injury.”


Crimes included “the public killing of Boja Vujnovic by burning her alive while mocking her,” as well as “shooting, stabbing, cutting of fingers, severe beatings, burning with cigarettes, jumping on bodies, tying bodies to a car and dragging them along the road.”


Such horrors were common in fighting across the Balkans at the time, but Medak was different because there were United Nations troops immediately on hand to record the atrocities.


A Canadian battalion based nearby in a UN Protected Area was quickly activated, and Croatia promptly agreed to withdraw its occupying troops, pulling them out by September 17.


As they waited to go into the villages, Canadian officers recorded hundreds of explosions as Croat troops blew up buildings – the prosecution says a total of 164 homes and 148 barns were destroyed, leaving little but ruins for Serb survivors to return to.


Next, the Canadians found the bodies.


In what became part of one of the first systematic war crimes investigations of the Croatian war, a UN Commission of Experts arrived, and reported on a string of ghastly sights: two badly burned bodies stuffed into a chicken coup; many other bodies mutilated with smashed faces and missing ears, eyes or fingers; and what the commission noted was “a perhaps higher portion of head and close range wounds than might be expected”.


The commission’s report in December 1994 quoted Serb survivors as having witnessed brutalities, but recommended that because of a lack of conclusive evidence, the only charges that should be made would be for destruction of property.


The commission recommended three charges: grave breaches of the Geneva Conventions and violation of the laws and customs of war, in both cases for the destruction of property, and a third charge, also violation of the laws or customs of war, for the plunder of private property.


But after further investigation, tribunal chief prosecutor Carla Del Ponte’s indictment, issued on August 23, 2002 went much further.


It charges Bobetko with two offences: crimes against humanity and violations of the laws and customs of War, involving five counts - persecution, plunder, wanton destruction and two of murder.


Del Ponte appears no nearer finding the men who committed the atrocities than the Commission of Experts were all those years ago – but she had no trouble at all in finding their commander.


Bobetko had retired from the former Yugoslav army 20 years before war erupted in the Balkans.


He fought with Croatia’s former president Franjo Tudjman for the Partizans during the Second World War.


Tudjman assumed power in 1991, when the republic broke from Yugoslavia, precipitating the Croatian war. In April 1992, the then president reached for one of the men he could trust, appointing Bobetko corps general of the newly formed army.


In November 1992, he was appointed chief of staff, quite simply, the most senior man in the army, answerable only to Tudjman, who was supreme commander.


Prosecutors accuse Bobetko, now 83, of masterminding the Medak action, saying he “played a vital role in developing, planning, authorising, ordering and/or executing the Croatian military operation in the pocket”.


The chain of command from Zagreb headquarters to the killing fields of Medak was a long one, but prosecutors say this is no defence.


Further, prosecutors will say Bobetko is also guilty because, as commander, he had a responsibility to ensure proper investigation of the atrocities once he had got to hear about them from the UN officials on the ground. This, they claim, he did not do.


Chris Stephen is IWPR Bureau Chief in The Hague.