700 charges against Serbia
by Natasa Kandic
For over five years Natasa Kandic, director of the Fund for Humanitarian Law based in Belgrade, has been representing a few hundred Bosnian and Croatian Serb refugees forcibly mobilized by Milosevic’s police and sent from various transit camps in Serbia to join units of the Army of Republika Srpska. She here explains to Dani (Sarajevo) the genesis of the case in which the Fund is seeking to prove that Serbia is the guilty party.
‘Of the several thousand refugees from B-H and Croatia who moved towards Serbia after Operation Storm, between two and three thousand were detained as they entered Serbian territory. The FRY police halted them at the frontier, mobilized them and from Raca transferred them to Erdut, to the training centre of former ‘Tigers’ leader Zeljko Raznjatovic Arkan. Those who were not stopped at the frontier were placed in various refugee centres, with assistance from the Red Cross and the Commissariat for Refugees. Within the next ten days, however, a few thousand of these too were mobilized and temporarily imprisoned at assorted transit camps round Sremska Mitrovica, whence - escorted by the Serbian police - they were transferred to the territory of Bosnia-Herzegovina, where they joined units of the Army of RS. According to subsequent testimony from these people, it is certain that the police found them through the Red Cross and the Commissariat for Refugees. They were the ones who issued lists and then handed the refugees over to the police, who then integrated them into military units.
Nobody asked those people whether they wanted to go to war. They were simply, without any explanation, first arrested and then taken to Erdut, where they were all mistreated in the most unheard of manner; since they had been mobilized by force, they received special treatment in Arkan’s camp. Eventually they were integrated into military units, where they were left with little choice but to fight.
Some of them managed to escape; we obtained the first information about what they had experienced at Erdut from individuals who had fled the battle front. Some were granted a few days of leave after two months; they came here and never went back. But for most of them, the final stage was being captured by the Fifth Corps of the Army of B-H; once set free, they came here at our invitation and began to talk about what had happened to them. With their consent, we pressed charges in the name of 700 forcibly mobilized refugees. Through these charges we wanted to show not just that their right to be protected by the country they had come to had been drastically violated, but also who had been waging war and how. Our particular aim was to prove that the Serbian state had in fact been deeply involved in the war; and that, once it had run out of regular units to send to war, it had opted for this most sinister option and used these refugees as cannon fodder.
We have still not obtained justice for these people, because from 1997 - when we first pressed the charges - up to today we have not won a single verdict in which the responsibility of the Serbian state is acknowledged. In late 1997 we won a first ruling from a municipal court which for that time was astounding: a certain municipal judge, Vojkan Simic, ruled correctly, stating that the Serbian state had used the police illegally and that these people had been deprived of their freedom illegally, being transferred to B-H to become soldiers against their will. That first ruling, however, although it was in accordance with what we considered to be justice, was overruled by the district court in Belgrade, and right up to today we have not obtained a ruling that we would call just.
The fact is that even today’s judges are dealing with the procedure very carefully, in order to avoid leaving traces behind that might point to the responsibility of the state. So in every ruling we have a decision of the court stating that Serbia, or rather its authorities and police, is responsible for unlawfully arresting the refugees, but that the Serbian state is not responsible for their forcible mobilization. Today we are at the stage of seeking, by means of various memoranda, to compel first of all the Supreme Court of Serbia to deliver a legal opinion clearly confirming that there is no doubt about the Serbian state being responsible. We shall continue with this process until we obtain justice for these people, because I think it is very important - including for people in Bosnia - to know under what circumstances people were mobilized here.’
This comment has been translated from Dani (Sarajevo), 15 March 2002