The Ovcara crime on trial in Belgrade
by Nataša Kandic
Nataša Kandić, executive director of the Humanitarian Law Centre in Belgrade, represents 192 victims killed at Ovčara in 1991, following the fall of Vukovar, at the trial of 17 men before the war crimes panel of the Belgrade district court. This interview was given to the Croatian weekly Nacional in February 2005.
Nacional: There is wide agreement that the trial for the Ovčara crimes is proceeding correctly.
Kandić: Presiding judge Veselin Krstajić is indeed conducting the trial very correctly. The indictment seems to be directed against the immediate perpetrators, members of the Vukovar Territorial Defence (TO) and of Š ešelj’s Serb Radical Party. This appeared fine at the beginning, but when former JNA officers began their testimony, it became clear that the indictment was inadequate in view of the facts presented to the court. The officers argued that it had all happened against their will and that they had been unable to prevent it. They stubbornly tried to protect themselves and their superiors. They said that on 19 November members of the Croatian national guard had surrendered and had been treated in accordance with the rules pertaining to prisoners of war. They were taken in the presence of the International Red Cross Commission (IRCC) to Ovčara and then to Srijemska Mitrovica, and everything proceeded in the best possible order. The day before the massacre the prisoners spent the night at Ovčara, where they were given food and blankets. Everything changed on the following day, after the IRCC had left. There was some tacit agreement that the prisoners from the Vukovar hospital who had not been included in the convoy of wounded allowed out to Đakovo would be surrendered to the TO. The agreement to surrender responsibility for the prisoners came from the highest military authority at the time, personified by guard brigade commander Colonel Mile Mrkšić. It was stated in court that at a meeting of SAO Krajina held in Vukovar the JNA agreed to surrender the prisoners. The acts that followed make it clear that the TO understood that they could do whatever they wanted with the prisoners. When the wounded prisoners were taken from the hospital to Ovčara, high JNA officers were present there all that afternoon: the commander of the 80th motorised brigade, the head of security of the guard brigade Major Veselin Š ljivančanin and others. At a certain moment they all left. The twenty-odd military policemen who the day before had been entrusted with the task of ensuring the prisoners’ safety were also withdrawn, after which the TO became responsible for the prisoners. The policemen were withdrawn although it was clear that the prisoners were not safe. This too indicates the responsibility of these JNA officers for obeying the order from the guard brigade command - which perhaps indeed came from an even higher level, such as the security directorate, or the defence minister’s office. It this sense the indicted are right when they say to the officers whenever the opportunity presents itself : ‘You planned the crime.’
Some argue that the trial is being held in a manner designed to exonerate the JNA for the Ovčara crime, by blaming solely the direct perpetrators, members of the TO or drunken followers of Š ešelj.
The guiding intention was to prove that the crimes were not committed by the JNA officers indicted by the Hague tribunal: Mrkšić, Š ljivančanin and Miroslav Radić, but instead simply by groups out of control. All the officers told the court the volunteers were not under JNA control, that no one was in charge of them, that they came and went as they wished. What is happening, however, is that the defendants are starting to defend themselves rather than the institutions, the army and the police, as the government had planned. The territorials have destroyed that strategy, by bringing up facts showing that the responsibility for what happened at Ovčara cannot be ascribed solely to them, but that others prepared the stage and then, having done so, left at the last minute.
The Croatian public believes that during the past thirteen years they have come to know nearly everything about Ovčara, while in Serbia there exists a conspiracy of silence - that the Serbian public has not wished to know the truth.
I do not agree that people in Croatia know everything about Ovčara. They know who the victims were, but not all the facts now brought before the court. For instance, the story of the victims up to the point when those taken to Ovčara were seen for the last time, or the story of the seven who were taken to the farm but survived. People do not know about how the shootings were carried out, about the victims being forced to run the gauntlet, or which JNA officers were present on that occasion.
When do you expect the verdict?
Not before September 2005.
You are being often accused in Serbia that your concern with human rights is selective, that you are an ‘anti-war profiteer’, a hater of Serbs, a mercenary in foreign pay. A swastika was recently daubed on the building where your Foundation for Humanitarian Law is based, and opposite there is a graffito: ‘Nataša Kandić is a servant of Jewish Zionism - Serbia for the Serbs’.
Such stories are a consequence of the political climate created during Milošević’s rule. That climate changed briefly when Zoran Đinđić became prime minister, but returned after his assassination, when the participants in crime once again became dominant. They fear any establishment of the rule of law that could lead to clarification of who did what in the past.
We in Serbia cannot demand of Croatian justice to try those who have committed crimes. That should be the work of Croatian NGOs, who should do what we are trying to do here in Serbia: demand that the Serbian courts deal with those who come under their jurisdiction. Serious investigation of war crimes and involvement with the process of facing the past are a matter for those who actually live and work in the country concerned. This is a matter of importance for every individual: why should they live in a country with so many criminals and killers, where the law is not obeyed? It is only when this is changed that one gains the legitimate right to criticise others.
My impression is that you were not popular with the authorities even when Đinđić was prime minister.
Đinđić took international obligations seriously, including the surrender of indictees to the court in The Hague, and he delivered Milošević to it. But he never opened up the question of why this was being done, what Milošević was being charged with, why others too had been indicted. Đinđić managed to do a great deal for Serbia, but he did not like to be criticised for passing over in silence the essential issue: were we surrendering these people in order to gain foreign credits, or because they were charged with the most serious crimes. I recall a press conference at which Đinđić spoke critically about the judges, saying that they had been appointed under Milošević and were inactive. I asked him whether it was possible to expect prosecutors and judges to initiate trials, when he himself was publicly praising those who had helped him to bring Milošević down, and mentioned in that context Milorad Ulemko ‘Legija’, now charged with his assassination. Đinđić was greatly put out by my questions and replied angrily: ‘If you have proofs, show them.’ His statements to the press in regard to Legija show that he was unaware just how important it was to indict people like that, as well as those from the Special Operations Unit (JSO) - that this was the necessary condition for Serbia to move in the direction he wanted. Without this the whole picture - admission to the UN and OSCE, the compliments he was receiving, a Serbia changing for the better - could not last long. As soon became evident, this picture could at any moment be destroyed by Legija, the JSO and parts of the unreformed institutions. They destroyed it when they felt it was imperative for Serbia to go back to basics, back to the situation created by Milošević in which Legija, his unit and other police units had a free hand and could do what they wanted.
Legija, and Milošević’s policemen who continue to hold important government positions, play a main role in your story according to which in 1999, during the NATO bombing, bodies of murdered Kosovo Albanians were burnt at the Mačkatica factory in Surdulica, at the smelters of Bor and at the Smederovo steel factory. Your assertions upset many people, yet no one has charged you with telling lies.
They cannot file proceedings against me, since the police and the government know that I am telling the truth. The investigation is being hampered by those in power: interior minister Dragan Jočić, head of the Security and Information Agency Rade Bulatović, the people around Vojislav Koštunica and the government. Since they are unable to deny the charges, they wish to frighten people. I hope that a critical body of public opinion will be created that will understand how it is in our own interest to learn who has committed crimes, and to begin by reforming the police force, which includes people who in the name of alleged Serb patriotism went as far as using ovens to burn the bodies of alleged national enemies.
The justice minister Zoran Stojković has replied to your allegations by saying: ‘Does anyone care about Serb bodies?’
My reply to him was that the existence of Serb bodies and mass graves has nothing to do with the fact that there are mass graves in Serbia, and that factories built by public money were at one time employed for something that had happened only under Adolf Hitler.
Nothing has been done either about the mass graves containing the bodies of more than 800 Kosovo Albanians, the discovery of which was used in 2001 to pacify public opinion on the eve of delivering Milošević to The Hague.
Everyone agrees that was most useful to the government, in order to ensure that public opinion would understand that it had a good reason for delivering Milošević. No one has been charged thus far in connection with that.
How do you explain the creation of an atmosphere of solidarity with those indicted for war crimes by the court in The Hague? It seems that foreign minister Vuk Drašković is the only prominent politician who favours full cooperation with The Hague.
The minister for human and minority rights, Rasim Ljajić, has said that General Vladimir Lazerević’s decision to surrender to court is a highly commendable act, since in doing so he has helped Serbia to begin the process of adhesion to the EU. This is absurd, but the politicians seem to think they have to say such things in order to keep their posts. Ljajić has turned someone indicted for war crimes committed in Kosovo into a pro-European hero of Serbia.
Although it took Lazarević almost sixteen months to make his decision, members of the government have presented his gesture as brave, honourable, honest and patriotic.
Those who say such things foster an unhealthy situation in which we have to beg generals indicted for war crimes, asking them if they would accept 500,000 euros to go to The Hague. They are creating a climate in which anyone charged with a criminal act can demand that his family be materially secured before he serves his sentence. The fact that the state will pay 500,000 euros to the family of General Sreten Luković, and most likely the same amount to Lazarević’s family, opens many questions.
Such as, for example, whether crime pays?
In this case it pays very well. One can only wonder why the generals are still hesitating to go to The Hague, if they can leave 500,000 euros apiece to their families.
You also represent refugees from Croatia who in 1995 were arrested by the Serbian police and sent against their will to the front in Bosnia-Herzegovina. In several cases the court has decided that Serbia should pay these people compensation, but the sums involved are much smaller than those received by the people who took the state to court because they had been arrested during police operation Sabre following Đinđić’s murder.
It is striking that the alleged victims of Operation Sabre are being paid such sums, which shows that it is the result of a political decision. Those accused of participating in Đinđić’s murder hold power.
There is a general impression that people in Serbia no longer care about the suffering of others. Despite the Srebrenica massacre, the crimes and destruction in Bosnia, Croatia and Kosovo, it is often claimed that Milošević’s main victims were the Serbs. The tsunami victims were remembered with considerable delay in Serbia, while no one represented Serbia-Montenegro at the commemoration of the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz.
This is a completely closed, tribal society. No one cares what happens to others. A cultural model has been created according to which others have nothing to do with us. It is more important that some Serbs in some villages in Kosovo, who have not paid their bills, have been left without electricity than that so many people died from the tsunami. We are like that, you see.
Translated from an interview conducted for Nacional (Zagreb) in Belgrade by Davor Pašalić, 1 February 2005