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Witness Says Croatian Troops Mistreated Serbs

Serb woman tells Zagreb trial chamber that civilians were abused at the hands of Croatian troops in 1993.
A Serb woman, her identity hidden for her own protection, told a Zagreb court this week that Croatian soldiers burned one of her neighbours alive after storming into her village.

Witness 22, as she is known, said that although she had been badly wounded by a grenade, she managed to hide in the hayloft.

From her position of safety, she saw Croatian soldiers using rifle butts to smash the head of Boja Vujnovic before they set fire to the woman, who was more than 70 years old.

“They laid her on the sofa, spilled something on her and set her alight. She was screaming and they were watching and jumping,” said the witness.

She said her son – who had never been a soldier because he had been paralysed as a child and walked with a limp - was taken away by the Croatian military. She never saw him again.

The prosecution witness was testifying in the case against generals Rahim Ademi and Mirko Norac, who are accused of war crimes allegedly committed by troops under their command during an operation to seize a Serb-held part of Croatia called the Medak Pocket in September 1993.

The indictment originally brought by the Hague tribunal alleges that at least 29 Serb civilians were killed and dozens were seriously injured during the operation. Many of them were women and elderly people.

On January 16, the trial heard from a number of witnesses who, in 1993, had been called on to identify the bodies of neighbours after the Croatian army left the area.

They described the people who had been killed as well as the manner in which they died.

Protected Witness 17 told the court that although his village of Citluk was guarded by local Serbs, they had offered no resistance to the Croatian forces because they had only a few rifles between them.

When the defence team, which has been trying to show that the civilians who died had been armed, asked the witeness who provided the weapons, he said, “The weapons were driven into the village.”

Because the witness escaped from the village he did not see actions carried out by the Croatian soldiers, although he did go to the town of Medak to identify bodies.

He recognised some older women from Citluk in spite of the fact that they were “completely burned, without anything left on their heads, all were burned…. skin and eyes and nose”.

Witness 22 said she had seen Croatian soldiers deliberately destroy the Serb village.

“This is Serb. This all has to be burned. Don’t leave anything,” she quoted the Croatian soldiers as saying.

“And that day when there was the attack they were shouting – this is Serb, slaughter everyone. Don’t let anyone escape… kill and slaughter them all.”

She said their destruction was systematic. “First, they collected all the cattle and construction materials from new houses and took that to [the town of] Gospic. And then later, after two or three days, they started to burn everything,” she said.

After these event, the woman said she walked for ten days through the woods – in spite of suffering from shrapnel wounds caused by a grenade thrown into her house – and reached territory still under Serb control, where she was told her son had been killed and his body burned.

This witness was questioned about a previous statement which she had given to investigators in Belgrade and in which she referred to the Croatian soldiers as “Ustashe” – an offensive term that was applied to Croatian Nazi collaborators in the Second World War.

She denied having done so, and also denied another claim in the statement that some civilians participated in burning and stealing.

“I promise that everything I’ve said today is correct and that I didn’t say what is written here,” she said, when the defence team confronted her with the contradiction between her present testimony and the previous statement.

Questioned by Presiding Judge Marin Mrcela, the witness replied that she had never signed any statement given to her by the investigators and that they had not read the document back to her.

The trial continued on December 18 with the presentation of documents related to the case.

Goran Jungvirth is an IWPR contributor in Zagreb.

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