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

Ovcara Atrocities Revisited

Television news reporter describes Vukovar devastation.
By Goran Jungvirth
A television journalist this week told the Hague tribunal that the eastern Croatian town of Vukovar looked like a scene from the film Apocalypse Now after its fall in November 1991.

Sky News reporter Dutch Ernot van Linden said not a single house was undamaged and “the smell of death” was spreading throughout the town. He told the court of Serb soldiers drinking and partying among the ruins and of corpses still littering the ground.

Van Linden was a witness for the prosecution in the case against three JNA, Yugoslav People’s Army, officers - Veselin Šljivančanin, Mile Mrkšić and Miroslav Radić. The three are accused of having command responsibility over soldiers alleged to have killed at least 264 Croatians taken from the Vukovar hospital and executed near the Ovčara farm – one of the worst atrocities of the war. They are charged with being 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”.

Van Linden also described the dramatic events that took place on November 19 and 20 in the Vukovar hospital where preparations were underway for the evacuation of around 500 civilian and military wounded along with hospital personnel.

“Other journalists and I came in front of the hospital, because we knew a massacre could happen. We wanted by our presence, to stop this,” said the witness, who arrived in the Balkans in 1991 to cover the Slovenian bid for independence, and from there went to Belgrade where he followed the conflict between the Croats and Serbs.

He described how the hospital was attacked with heavy arms artillery, and said that no weapons or uniformed officers were present in the building at the time. Defence lawyers say that only Croatian soldiers who were hiding in the hospital among civilians were taken to Ovčara.

“[There] was not the usual smell of antiseptic like in other hospitals. It smelled of death,” he said.

“I felt pity seeing the expression on people's faces which reflected what they were going through,” answered Van Linden when asked about his feelings upon entering the destroyed building.

Van Linden was also present at a quarrel between Šljivančanin and a Red Cross representative who was angry that the JNA had violated a previous agreement about allowing the evacuation of Vukovar’s wounded. The Red Cross worker was concerned that JNA soldiers were inside the hospital, to which Šljivančanin said to Van Linden, “that gentleman is naïve, because he doesn’t understand Vukovar is in the war zone”.

He watched the wounded and others including women, children and Croatian soldiers being put into trucks but said his request to film inside the vehicles and find out where they were being taken was denied.

During his time covering the conflict, Van Linden said he never saw Croatian fighters attack the JNA with heavy artillery, “Only one side, the JNA, used heavy artillery, and that was a one-way street, always towards Vukovar.”

Van Linden also testified that most JNA soldiers were uncommitted to the war and that he had been told that desertion was a big problem at the time. “These were not men who were proud of what had happen in Vukovar. They didn’t see it as some great victory. And they were also aware that whole of Vukovar was completely destroyed during this operation. And they themselves said that a professional army should have been able to take a relatively small baroque town on the Danube in a matter of days rather than taking two months and destroying it completely,” he said.

In trying to undermine his testimony, Radić’s defence council Mira Tapušković showed that Van Linden had testified in other cases and is a well-established witness for tribunal prosecutors.

The week’s other witness, whose identity was protected, described how he avoided execution at Ovčara.

He came to the Vukovar hospital with his wife on November 19, because he thought he’d be evacuated to Croatia with the rest of the sick and wounded. He described seeing Šljivančanin direct the separation of the men from the women and children, and on November 20 he was taken to Ovčara with 300 others.

Arriving at the farm, the prisoners were led past a line of Serbian Territorial Defence soldiers who beat them with sticks and crutches. “Everyone had to pass and got beatings,” he said.

The witness said he was spotted by a Serbian soldier, a friend of his son. The soldier spoke to the JNA officer in charge who allowed him to leave. Though he’d escaped death at Ovčara, his suffering hadn’t ended. He was taken to the Velepromet detention facility in Vukovar where he was put in a room with 50 other Croats. The witness – like others who has testified before him – called it “the room of the dead” because no one taken from it ever came back. He was eventually taken to the Sremska Mitrovica prison in Serbia.

Prosecutor Marks Moore had previously told the court that Velepromet, which was located close to a JNA barracks, was under the control of Operation Group South, a JNA unit which Mrksic commanded and where Sljivancanin was a security officer.

Although the defence tried to undermine the witness’s testimony, searching for discrepancies between his and other witnesses’ statements, the only result was more horrific stories about beatings in captivity.

The trial resumes on January 31.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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