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Hague prosecutors opened their case this week against three former Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, officers accused of overseeing the massacre of more than 250 people taken from a hospital in the town of Vukovar during the early stages of the war in Croatia.
According to the prosecution, JNA and Serb paramilitary forces stormed Vukovar hospital on November 19, 1991. The next morning around 300 patients and refugees were loaded onto buses and taken to JNA barracks in the town.
From here, the captives were driven to a farm in nearby Ovcara, where they were beaten, tortured and sexually abused. A few hours later, at least 264 of the captives were executed and buried in a mass grave.
Mile Mrksic, Veselin Sljivancanin and Miroslav Radic, known collectively as the Vukovar Three, are charged with five counts of crimes against humanity and three counts of violations of the laws or customs of war for their alleged involvement in the atrocities.
All three have entered pleas of not guilty.
In his opening speech, prosecutor Marks Moore argued that while the accused did not personally carry out the crimes in question, they all “contributed to the implementation of a common plan” and did nothing to prevent the killings or punish those responsible.
The indictment alleges that Mrksic was commander of the JNA’s Operational Group South and was initially responsible for the evacuation of the Vukovar hospital, a task he then delegated to Sljivancanin, who was the group’s security officer. Radic, who was in charge of three assault groups under Mrksic’s command, was apparently well known to be Sljivancanin’s “right hand man”.
Moore said Operational Group South had been closely involved in the three-month siege of Vukovar, which was accompanied by a devastating air bombardment campaign. When the city finally fell to Serb forces on November 18, hundreds of civilians fled through the rubble to seek refuge in the hospital, believing it would be a safe haven.
But despite the JNA’s initial agreement that the hospital refugees could be safely evacuated under the supervision of the International Red Cross, Moore insisted that the international monitors were “deliberately delayed” from getting to the hospital.
“Quite clearly, the evacuation agreement was a worthless piece of paper as far as the JNA and the three defendants were concerned,” he said.
While they were supposed to be arranging for the secure passage of the hospital’s inhabitants, JNA staff were actually preparing a pit at Ovcara with a mechanised digger. The size of the grave, said Moore, was evidence of a premeditated intention “to kill, to bury and to hide” a large number of people. When the area was later excavated, 200 bodies were exhumed.
The prosecutor sought to convince judges that the three accused knew exactly what was about to take place. On the day of the massacre, Radic apparently warned a journalist that the captives were “all dead men”. And Sljivancanin is said to have told a woman witness, “They will be swallowed by the dark in the middle of the day.”
Such boasts were allegedly made despite a November 18 order from the JNA’s chief of general staff Zivota Panic that any commanders found to have violated the Geneva conventions governing the treatment of prisoners would face legal action.
Given a chance to address the chamber, both Radic and Sljivancanin protested their innocence.
Radic said he hoped that the Hague tribunal would be a “forum for truth and justice” and that those really responsible for the Vukovar massacre would eventually be punished.
Sljivancanin embarked on a more ambitious speech, setting out to inform the court of what he called “the framework of my truth”.
“I am not asking for mercy,” he assured the judges, before going on to outline the limits of courtroom justice. “No-one, not even this court, can make up to a mother the loss of her son, a sister the loss of her brother, a wife the loss of her husband.”
But he insisted that he wasn’t to blame for the killings, claiming, “The crime was committed by those who hated the JNA and wished to prevent its efforts to preserve Yugoslavia.”
The prosecution will present their first witness, Dr Vesna Bosonac, head of the Vukovar hospital, on October 25.
Helen Warrell is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.
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