Serb Police Chief Denies Krajina Authorities Ordered Evacuation

Witness describes how panicked Serbs fled Benkovac when Croatian offensive began.

Serb Police Chief Denies Krajina Authorities Ordered Evacuation

Witness describes how panicked Serbs fled Benkovac when Croatian offensive began.

Saturday, 27 June, 2009
A Serb police officer called this week to testify as a defence witness at the Hague war crimes trial of Croatian general Ante Gotovina described the panic that set in among Krajina Serbs at the start of Croatia’s Operation Storm offensive.

The evidence challenged the claims of the defence that it was Serb authorities themselves that ordered the exodus of ethnic Serbs from the rebel region.

Djuro Vukasinovic was in charge of the public security station in Benkovac at the time of the August 1995 Croatian counteroffensive on Krajina, which resulted in dozens of deaths, the shelling and torching of Serb towns and villages, and the exodus of an estimated 150,000 Serbs.

Gotovina and fellow Croatian generals Ivan Cermak and Mladen Markac are accused of orchestrating the “deportation and forcible transfer, destruction and burning of Serb homes and businesses, plunder and looting of public or private Serb property; murder [and] other inhumane acts” and failing to prevent and punish the crimes committed by their subordinates.

According to the indictment, in his capacity as commander of the Split Military District of the Croatian Army, HV, Gotovina was overall commander of Operation Storm, which included the offensive on Benkovac.

During his testimony, Vukasinovic described the specific locations hit by Croatian artillery fire on the morning of August 4, 1995, the beginning of Operation Storm, using a map of the Benkovac municipality as a visual aid to explain the events.

Vukasinovic first marked the locations hit by artillery fire - a petrol station, the fire brigade, the army barracks and two factories - then answered questions about the targets’ proximity to the town centre and to the front lines. Up to this point, his testimony appeared to support the defence argument that the HV targeted only a limited number of objects in populated areas, which were important to the military.

Then the defence turned to the critical question of whether there existed a prior plan to evacuate ethnic Serbs from the area.

The issue is of particular importance to the case because the prosecution alleges all three defendants are guilty of planning, instigating, and carrying out a campaign of terror aimed at expelling Serbs from the Krajina region, a mountainous area in southern and central Croatia that had been settled by ethnic Serbs since the Middle Ages.

Throughout the trial, the defence has argued that Krajina Serbs were not expelled by Croat forces, but rather ordered by their own authorities to leave their homes under a plan drafted before Operation Storm even began.

“Were you aware of [the existence of] plans to evacuate Benkovac and other towns before Operation Storm was launched?” the defence asked Vukasinovic this week.

The witness stated that he knew of no such plan, and challenged the possibility of a plan existing without him knowing.

“[I] would have known if such plans existed … because I was in charge of organising traffic in situations such as these,” he said.

But there was a plan of a different nature, Vukasinovic said, a standard evacuation plan for the municipality that was drafted in the days of socialist Yugoslavia and intended for use in the event of war or a major natural disaster.

“These were plans drawn up as part of the defence plan for the municipality,” he testified. “They were drafted [from] 1974 up until the war” by the civilian defence and national defence separately.

Vukasinovic said that he was involved in drafting evacuation plans for Benkovac before 1991.

“I participated because I was supposed to take care of traffic control in the event of evacuations, because at the time I was in charge of preparing general national defence plans within the [Yugoslav Secretariat of Internal Affairs] SUP,” he said.

At around 5 or 6 pm on the evening of August 4, Vukasinovic said, he heard for the first time that an evacuation plan was to be activated.

“I was informed by the president of the municipality … that we should organise the evacuation of the civilians,” he said.

The defence then read aloud a portion of the statement Vukasinovic gave to prosecution investigators in April 2007.

“I returned to the municipal hall at around 6 pm. Around 10 people were at the meeting, and assignments were given to each person, to ensure that the evacuation was carried out in an orderly manner,” the statement read.

But by this point in time, Vukasinovic said this week, it was too late for an organised systematic evacuation.

“Panic had set in as a result of the shelling and as a result of misinformation and some news that caused unrest,” he said. “[By] around 4 pm people began to take things into their own hands. [They] used the vehicles that they had at their disposal: cars, tractors, whatever they had, [and] they started moving out from the town in the direction of north-northeast.”

For those who had not fled on their own, the police provided buses and trucks, Vukasinovic said, but “that was the only thing that was organised in this entire project of leaving the area”.

Under cross-examination by the prosecution, Vukasinovic reiterated that the evacuation was not intended to be of a permanent nature.

“When the action of the Croatian army started in the early morning hours of the 4th of August, the assumption was [it] would be a short-lived exercise, [and] that it would not involve the civilian population permanently leaving the municipality area,” he said.

The prosecution then turned to the subject of Croatian artillery fire, which it alleges targeted civilians and civilian areas.

“In your statement you said that you saw the petrol shed, the fire brigade, and two factories being shelled. Is it correct that there were civilian structures in the vicinity of those places?” the prosecution asked the witness.

“Absolutely,” Vukasinovic replied, saying that shells landed on a major road intersection, on the high school and its sports grounds. “That part of town … is part of a settlement, a neighbourhood of private homes, and in the immediate vicinity is also the railway station and there were two residential buildings there with some 20 or so apartments for the families of rail workers.”

Gotovina’s defence counsel Greg Kehoe asked whether Vukasinovic knew of orders dating from August 2 that called for preparations for the evacuation of Benkovac.

“This is the first time I am seeing this order,” Vukasinovic replied, “so I was not aware of [its] existence.”

The trial is scheduled to continue next week.

Andrew W Maki is an IWPR contributor.

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