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

UN Witness Shocked by Croat General's Denials

Cermak said to have dismissed UN reports of arson and looting following Operation Storm.
By Goran Jungvirth
An ex-United Nations military observer said former Croatian general Ivan Cermak rejected international observers’ reports relating to the violation of Krajina Serbs’ human rights in August 1995, saying no crimes had taken place.

Former acting chief UN military observer Mikhail Ermolaev said that following the Croatian military offensive Operation Storm, the UN mission sent a number of protests to the defendant, Cermak, about the widespread destruction, looting and torching of homes of Serbs who had fled the town of Knin and neighbouring villages.

Yet Cermak denied that any crimes had been committed under his watch, he said.

“When we strongly suggested to General Cermak that he should put a stop to these human rights violations and finally take control of the sector, we received a reply from this gentleman that really shocked us,” said Ermolaev, a Russian navy captain.

“Apparently, in Sector South (a UN-protected area in southern Krajina), from the time he took over the command, there hadn’t been any looting…nothing.”

The operation, staged to retake the Krajina region from Serb rebels, ran from August 4 to 8, 1995.

At that time, Ermolaev said he came to the conclusion that Cermak, who was military commander of the Knin Garrison from August 5, could not have been ignorant of what was happening on the ground.

“..All the roads and all operations by Croatian forces were under [Cermak’s] control,” he said. “I was sure that Cermak knew what was going on in his zone of responsibility.”

Cermak is being tried along with the commander of Operation Storm, Ante Gotovina, and special police commander Mladen Markac. The three are accused of command responsibility for crimes committed against Serbian civilians during and after Operation Storm.

The generals are charged with taking part in a “joint criminal enterprise” to cleanse the Serb population from Croatia. The indictment says that at least 30 people were killed in Knin and at least 150 in the entire Krajina region from August to November 1995.

This week, the witness also described how while UN military observers went out into the field as much as they could after the Croatian army entered Knin, their movement was severely restricted.

However, during cross-examination, Cermak’s defence lawyer Andrew Cayley said his client had issued an explicit order granting UN observers freedom of movement, and it was the civilian police who prevented them from travelling through the region – over whom he had no control.

Ermolaev disagreed. He said that at their first meeting, he got the impression Cermak controlled all of Sector South - including the police units in the field - after the general assured UN officials he would take various measures in the area, particularly those relating to the UN observers’ freedom of movement.

“I think that if a person claims he’s in charge of a certain area … I think that I can’t then blame the chief of Knin police,” said the witness.

Cayley said his client was the commander only of the Knin garrison, and not the whole of Sector South, which included the surrounding area, and also argued that his client had no control over checkpoints.

“And you can’t say that anyone has really told you that General Cermak was in charge of checkpoints in the Knin area, can you?” Cayley asked the witness.

The witness replied, “No, no, I can’t.”

Markac’s defence lawyer, Tomislav Kuzmanovic, pointed out that Serbian forces had also restricted the movement of UN personnel a month previously.

During the session, the defence also presented a request made by Serbian forces for the evacuation of 32,000 civilians from the UN’s zone of responsibility. This was to support their argument that contrary to indictment, the Serbs themselves organised the departure of civilians from the rebel region and that the Croatian army did not expel them.

When he questioned the witness, Gotovina’s lawyer Gregory Kehoe provided a defence for part of Ermolaev’s testimony which appeared to support the prosecution argument that the Croat army had targeted residential areas.

At the beginning of Operation Storm, said Ermolaev, he was in his Knin apartment, which was hit by a shell along with other civilian buildings.

Kehoe argued that as Ermolaev’s apartment was close to Serbian barracks, this could be seen as collateral damage.

The trial continues next week.