Serb refugees forced to fight in Bosnia are fighting for justice.


Serb refugees forced to fight in Bosnia are fighting for justice.

Serbia: Refugee conscripts fight for justice

A Belgrade court ruling earlier this month provided further proof that police routinely arrested Serb refugees and sent them to the front line in Bosnia.

It was the latest in a series of landmark rulings which indirectly help to establish Serbia's role in the Bosnian war.

The court ruled that the Serbian government was responsible for Milan Tadic's unlawful arrest and, in an unprecedented move, awarded his family damages. But, significantly, it did not find the authority guilty of dispatching him to the battlefields of Bosnia.

Tadic died on the front lines near Mrkonjic Grad in north-west Bosnia within weeks of arriving as a refugee in Serbia. His case, although one of many, is the first to be noticed by the Serbian media.

He fled from the Knin area of Croatia in August 1995 with his wife, children and a wave of other refugees, following Zagreb's successful seizure of Serb-held territory in Operation Storm.

A few days after his arrival in Belgrade, he visited Pancevo, north-west of Belgrade, with Rade Petrovic, a neighbour. Petrovic testified that police stopped them and demanded to see their documents.

Petrovic, as a Serbian citizen, was released immediately, while Tadic was taken away to an unknown destination.

When Tadic's wife, Ljubica, later called the police in Pancevo to find out where her husband was, they said he was in police custody in Belgrade. On September 21, Tadic telephoned and informed his family he was being sent to the front line in Bosnia.

In mid-October, the family learned he was stationed near Mrkonjic Grad. That was the last news that he was alive. Every trace of Tadic was lost a few days later when fierce fighting erupted around the town. A court in Kraljevo, central Serbia, established two years later that he was dead.

The Tadic judgment confirms reports that during the Yugoslav conflict police routinely arrested Serb refugees from Croatia and seemingly sent them to the front. This is not the first ruling of its kind but is the first which awarded material damages to be paid to the victim's relatives.

So far, 644 refugees from Croatia have filed similar suits, accusing the Serbian authorities of illegally depriving them of their liberty and endangering their lives by sending them to the front. Sixty-four have been filed by relatives of dead refugees.

The courts have ruled in 14 cases, establishing unlawful arrest, but have refrained from paying damages.

Most forced conscripts were sent for "training" in Erdut, in Serb-held eastern Croatia, at a camp run by the mafia warlord, Zeljko Raznatovic Arkan. Indicted for war crimes by The Hague, Arkan was killed by gunmen in Belgrade over two years ago.

The conscripts say the regime in Erdut was brutal and sadistic. Their heads were shaved and their personal documents snatched away along with their gold and valuables. As part of their training, they were forced to carry huge rocks. They were frequently abused physically and mentally by Arkan's elite fighters, known as Tigers.

After the training in Erdut, which lasted about a week, they were sent to the front. They say they were issued with the worst rifles and equipment. While they waited for the signing of the 1995 Dayton peace deal, some - like Tadic - lost their lives.

The survivors - and relatives of those who died - say the arrests were terrifyingly quick. One mother said her refugee son and husband were conscripted after they had only been in a temporary Red Cross refuge in Vranje, in southern Serbia, for a few minutes.

"We hardly spent half an hour there when police with automatic guns barged in and separated the men from women and children," she said. "They told me they would take away my husband and son and that I shouldn't ask any questions."

One man suing the Serbian authorities said the police simply stopped him in the street and arrested him. He never saw a warrant, never signed any papers and was never told what was going on. After several days, he was put on a lorry and taken to Bosnia.

The government of Slobodan Milosevic always flatly denied any Serbian involvement in the Bosnian conflict. But he admitted this was a lie in a letter he filed to the public in spring this year from the prison where he was being held after losing power. In it, he said it was perfectly normal to expect Serbia to materially aid fellow Serbs outside the republic to secure their rights.

But it transpires that this "help" extended to conscripting people who were on Serbian territory but had no Serbian papers. Most like the Tadic family only had documents from the self-proclaimed Serbian state in Croatia, the Serbian Autonomous Region of Krajina.

As refugees, no one knew much about them, so they were not likely to protest and risk their families losing humanitarian aid.

In the Tadic case, the court ruled that Serbia illegally deprived him of his liberty. It did not admit liability for what happened to him in Bosnia. As a result, damages award was only 450,000 dinars, or 15,000 German marks.

Mojca Sivert, of the Humanitarian Law Fund, which is filing lawsuits on behalf of other Tadic-like cases, said, "The position is that Serbia is liable only for the charge of illegal detention and is only responsible for damages inflicted on its territory."

Hopes that the courts might change their stance after the fall of the Milosevic regime in October 2000 have been disappointing. Earlier this year, the supreme court reviewed the cases of refugees forced to serve on the front and repeated that Serbia bore no responsibility for what had happened to these men beyond its border.

The Humanitarian Law Fund hopes the supreme court will reopen this issue in November and change its position. It expects the change to take greater account of Yugoslavia's obligations to protect refugees on its soil as a signatory of the Convention of the Status of Refugees of 1951 and the UN Protocol on Refugees of 1967.

"We always invoke Article 33 of the [UN] Convention on Refugees," Sivert said. "Under that article, the signatory state obliges itself not to use force to return people to territories where their lives were in danger because of their national affiliation or any other reason."

Sivert says the supreme court may rule that Serbia should be held responsible if refugees sheltering here were to lose their lives or suffer enormous stress.

For the moment, though, there is, unfortunately, very little interest in the fate of such people. Confronting Serbia's war guilt is not a popular topic. Amid a devastating economic crisis, the business of what happened to some refugees several years ago is not seen as a priority.

The question is whether the supreme court will use this public indifference to uphold the line that Serbia is guilty only of wrongly arresting refugees.

Marina Grihovic is a freelance journalist in Belgrade and a member of IWPR's war crimes reporting network.

Support our journalists