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

UN Officers Recall “Smell of Death”

Witnesses also testify that Croatian forces retreating from Medak Pocket seemed “out of control”.
United Nations officers this week described how Croatian troops commanded by two generals on trial for war crimes destroyed houses and left corpses to burn.

Steve Marissink, who was a UN policeman in the international force that assumed control of the Medak Pocket area, said the retreating soldiers he saw were dirty and dishevelled and appeared to be totally out of control.

“The destruction was fresh, and you could smell death around the area,” Marissink told the court in Zagreb.

Generals Rahim Ademi and Mirko Norac are on trial as commanders of the troops that seized the Medak Pocket, which was held by Serb rebels, in September 1993. According to the indictment, troops under their command killed prisoners and destroyed civilian property during the operation.

Prosecutors say that 29 Serb civilians were killed and dozens seriously injured. Many of the victims were women or elderly.

After Croatian troops seized the area, they came under strong international pressure to pull out and finally handed over control to UN troops. Marissink was part of the UN team that subsequently searched the area.

He described how in the village of Citluk he found a henhouse containing the corpses of two burned women whose faces were unrecognisable.

“In their skulls, I saw holes from which worms were coming out,” he said. He added that he thought the women had been killed and then burned just before the UN entered the area.

“All the buildings were destroyed, some were still burning and we didn’t find anyone alive.”

The court was shown contemporary television footage where UN officers described finding destroyed property and corpses.

In the footage, one officer said, “It was planned in the sense that it was committed before we came, absolutely. I think they wanted to be sure that nothing would remain before we entered.”

Most of the witnesses told the court that Croatian troops obstructed the UN forces’ entrance into the area.

At the end of last week, however, UN military observer Sean Heynes said that he was unsure who was in charge out of Norac and Ademi.

While Ademi should have been the higher-ranked officer during the operation, his defence team claims that Norac was not under his control and took orders from a parallel chain of command led by General Janko Bobetko and then minister of defence Gojko Susak, both of whom are now dead.

Prosecutors allege that Ademi, by virtue of his high-ranking position as a brigadier and acting commander of the Gospic Military District, played a central role in planning, ordering and executing the Medak Pocket operation.

At the time of the operation, Norac was a colonel and commanded the 9th Guards Motorised Brigade, the main unit involved. Both officers, said Heynes, were present at the meeting when the Croatian retreat was finally agreed.

“It was obvious that General Norac better understood the political issues and that General Ademi disagreed; that he was angry, he argued, and at one moment he left the meeting. I couldn’t tell the difference in their authority,” said Heynes.

Klaus Byrjalsen, another UN policeman, last week described how villages in the area were completely destroyed. He was part of a team that found 22 corpses, but could not determine the causes of death because too much time had passed.

“Some of the destroyed houses had graffiti saying, ‘We’ll be back’,” he said. He also described seeing graffiti featuring emblems harking back to the Ustashe, the Croatian troops that allied with Nazi Germany in World War Two and committed numerous atrocities against Serbs.

“[The Croatian troops] looked like Rambo…weren‘t disciplined and it was obvious they were not under direct military command,” he said.

The trial continues.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR reporter in Zagreb.