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

Witness Recalls Rescue From Vukovar Massacre

Survivor of atrocity says he owes his life to some of the soldiers involved.
By Goran Jungvirth
A witness who survived the massacre of non-Serbs taken from Vukovar hospital in November 1991 told judges at the Hague tribunal this week that he owed his life to individual members of the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA, who were involved in the episode.

By calling Vilim Karlovic to the witness stand, prosecutors hoped to shore up their case against JNA officers Mile Mrksic, Veselin Sljivancanin and Miroslav Radic, who are charged with helping to coordinate the slaughter of over 260 detainees.

Karlovic’s testimony suggested that regular members of the JNA chain of command had the power of life and death during the events in Vukovar.

He also described how JNA members exercised influence over Serb paramilitaries who were involved in the affair, casting doubt over defence claims that the killings were the work of renegade fighters over whom the accused had no authority.

Karlovic was a 21-year-old member of the Croatian National Guard, ZNG, when the JNA took control of Vukovar in the early stages of the war in Croatia. He told the court the he took refuge in the city’s hospital in the hope that “it would be better to surrender in a large group of people”.

The witness acknowledged that many of his wounded comrades were amongst the crowds of civilians at the hospital. But he insisted that all weapons had to be left outside the facility.

Karlovic said that after JNA troops arrived at the hospital, they took away some 300 men in buses. In the vehicle in which he was transported, he said, around 90 per cent of the passengers were wounded. They included people in bandages, others using crutches and one man who was missing the lower part of his leg.

The witness said the prisoners were first taken to a JNA barracks, where they spent a couple of hours being constantly harassed by Serb paramilitaries, who were present along with the regular army. In general, the JNA troops wouldn’t let the paramilitaries approach the detainees, said Karlovic. But at one point, the soldiers allowed them to take a number of prisoners away, apparently having consulted written lists.

“Fear got into all of us because great hatred against us could be felt,” said Karlovic.

After a few hours, they were transported to a farm at nearby Ovcara. Before entering a barn there, Karlovic recalled that they were stripped of their possessions, and some even of their clothes. They then had to pass through a line of soldiers and paramilitaries, who beat them.

Karlovic had a glimmer of hope as he got off the bus on which he had been transported and ran into a JNA soldier - nicknamed “Stuka”, meaning pike - from the Serbian town of Ruma, where the witness had a good friend.

When Karlovic begged Stuka to save him, he was initially met with the blunt reply, “Not a chance.”

But after he was put into the barn and was undergoing another round of beating, the young soldier came in with a JNA captain and picked him out. Apart from Karlovic and six other men, prosecutors say that all those in the barn were taken to a site at nearby Grabovo and executed.

Karlovic recalled that three or four senior JNA officers were present at the Ovcara holding facility and remained there as he and a number of other prisoners were driven away.

He remembered that Stuka had wanted to help him further by giving him money to pay for transport back to his home. But instead, the witness found himself driven to the premises of a company called Velepromet, which were being used as another holding facility.

There, he fell into the hands of a group of paramilitaries, who took him to a nearby house, where around 20 of them set about torturing him. One, whose nickname was “Belgium”, used a lighter and candles to scorch his hair, arm, ears and nipples.

“With them was a woman who urged others to rape me, saying how she would afterwards cut off my genitals,” said Karlovic.

The ordeal was eventually brought to an end by two JNA soldiers – Predrag “Kinez” Milojevic, whose nickname means Chinese, and Marko “Mara” Ljuboja – who took him back to Velepromet. Kinez and Mara angrily confronted the military policemen stationed there who had allowed him to be taken away in the first place.

Karlovic said he later found out that of some 15 Croatian prisoners taken from the Velepromet facility by paramilitaries, he was the only one to return.

The following day, he was transported to the Sremska Mitrovica prison in Serbia, where he was held for six months before being freed in a prisoner exchange in 1992. He subsequently returned to Croatia and again signed up to the Croatian army.

This was not Karlovic’s first time testifying about the events in Vukovar.

In 1998, he appeared before the Hague tribunal in proceedings against the city’s former mayor, Slavko Dokmanovic. Dokmanovic committed suicide a day before a verdict was to be issued in his case.

In 2005, Karlovic also testified - this time as a defence witness, alongside Stuka - in proceedings against the two JNA soldiers who saved him from the paramilitaries, Kinez and Mara. Mara was eventually acquitted of crimes during the Vukovar episode. Kinez received a 20-year sentence.

During cross-examination this week, Mrksic’s defence lawyer suggested that, having taken the controversial step for a former Croatian soldier to testify in defence of ex-JNA troops involved in the Vukovar massacre, Karlovic’s testimony in the Hague might simply be an attempt to rescue his reputation.

The witness denied the accusation, declaring, “Those two men [Kinez and Mara] saved my life. I live today and have six children.” He added that he would prefer it if Mrksic, Sljivancanin and Radic turned out to be innocent, too.

The defence also sought to point out discrepancies between Karlovic’s testimony and evidence he had given in the past about the events in Vukovar. They especially noted that he had never before mentioned the presence of JNA soldiers amongst the paramilitaries who lined up to beat detainees on the way into the Ovcara barn.

Karlovic replied that paramilitaries made up most of their number, but said he was “not excluding” that others, including JNA soldiers, took part in the beatings.

Radic’s counsel, Borivoje Borovic, went one step further and suggested that Karlovic had in fact been coached prior to his testimony by the Croatian secret service. He brandished a document from former secret service chief, Markica Rebic, which he claimed showed that the service had prepared witnesses at the tribunal in the past.

Karlovic confirmed that he had been in touch with military intelligence in 1996 when, over a period of two days, he gave them his account of what happened at Ovcara. But he insisted that no one had tried to influence his testimony.

The only advice he received, said Karlovic, was “to tell the truth about what happened to [him] – because that is sufficient”.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR reporter in The Hague.

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