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

Vukovar Trial Hears of JNA Abuse

Witness describes killings and horror at the Velepromet prison camp.
By Goran Jungvirth
A Vukovar resident this week told the Hague tribunal how he was beaten and tortured by soldiers of the of Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, after the city’s destruction in November 1991. Josip Covic, 67, said the memories of men and women slaughtered in front of him during the fall of Vukovar and betrayal by Serb neighbours, have also left mental scars that remain unhealed.



Covic was a witness for the prosecution in the case against JNA officers Veselin ŠljivanCanin, Mile Mrkšic and Miroslav Radic. The three are accused of having command responsibility over soldiers alleged to have killed at least 264 Croatians taken from the Vukovar hospital and executed near the OvCara farm – one of the worst atrocities of the war in Croatia.



They are charged with being part of a joint criminal enterprise whose purpose was “the persecution of Croats or other non-Serbs who were present in Vukovar hospital after the fall of Vukovar”.



The witness said he and his wife came to Vukovar hospital on November 19, joining several thousand other civilians who were gathered there along with JNA soldiers and members of the Serbian Territorial Defence.



They waited all day to be evacuated to safety but were eventually loaded onto JNA military trucks. The JNA ordered the men to be separated from the women and children, then transferred them to the Velepromet prison camp in Vukovar.



At Velepromet, Covic saw two members of Vojislav Šešelj's notorious Chetnik paramilitary unit kill a young man with a knife just metres from where he stood. He also described how Serb civilians came to the camp to name Croatian neighbours who’d participated in Vukovar’s defence. Those who were identified were taken away and never seen again, said the witness, who heard a series of gunshots from behind the building where he was being held.



He was also denounced by a neighbour who went to school with his son. The man told the soldiers “to take care of Covic”. Territorial defence soldiers began to beat him but were then called away by a JNA officer. “They obeyed immediately and left but one of them turned … [and said] we are going to come back,” said the witness.



The prosecution is trying to prove that the JNA was in charge of paramilitaries and reservists on the ground in Vukovar.



The killings went on all night, said Covic, adding that more men were killed at Velepromet than at the OvCara farm.



After Velepromet, he was transferred to the Stajicevo prison camp in Serbia where the beatings and torture continued during interrogations by JNA officers. He witnessed two young Croatians being beaten to death by guards who slammed their heads into the ground. Conditions were harsh, and the prisoners were kept on concrete floors in temperatures of minus 15 degrees Celsius. Many, including Covic, got severe pneumonia.



After 33 days in detention, he was released under a prisoner exchange and came to Zagreb with a broken jaw and nose and spine and brain injuries. He spent all of 1992 in hospital and still suffers from memory loss and post-traumatic stress.



Lawyers for Mrkšic, Radic and ŠljivanCanin objected to Covic’s testimony, saying the events he described were not connected to the killings at OvCara - which form the basis of the charges against their clients.



However, Presiding Judge Kevin Parker allowed the testimony after the prosecution team explained that Covic was called to give the court a broader picture of what had happened during the siege and fall of Vukovar.



During cross examination, the defence tried to show how Covic is far from impartial as he participated in the defence of the city, providing food and driving the wounded to hospital.

Covic also confirmed the defence claim that after Vukovar’s fall some of those who had defended the town went to the hospital and hid among civilians there, hoping they would also be evacuated to safety.



The defence says it is active Croatian military members, not civilians and wounded from Vukovar’s hospital, who are buried in OvCara’s mass grave.



They also claim that Croatian forces contributed to the destruction of Vukovar using heavy artillery taken from JNA barracks. All the witnesses have blamed the devastation entirely on the JNA.



Late in the week, a former employee of the hospital began his testimony about the destruction of the town’s suburbs and hospital by cluster bombs. The witness, whose identity is protected, said after Vukovar fell the JNA took around 300 men from the hospital, forced them into overcrowded buses and took them to JNA barracks where paramilitary soldiers threatened them with execution.



Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.