No Justice for Elderly Serbs Executed in Croatian Villages

Memorial for the victims of killings in Varivode in August 1995. Photo: Tamara Opacic.

No Justice for Elderly Serbs Executed in Croatian Villages

4. August 2020.12:56
4. August 2020.12:56
The Croatian fighters who killed elderly Serbs who didn’t flee their villages when the army’s Operation Storm crushed Serb rebel forces in 1995 have never been convicted - and officials who obstructed the investigations have never faced sanctions.

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Jovo Beric (75), Jovan Beric (56), Radivoj Beric (69), Marija Beric (69), Milka Beric (71), Marko Beric (82), Spiro Beric (55), Dusan Dukic (58) and Mirko Pokrajac (84) were brutally executed, mostly with shots to the head, in their homes or yards.

There were no direct witnesses, but survivors and relatives of the victims claim that people in military uniforms came to the village in the days before the attack, and robbed and abused the remaining Serb residents who had not already left because of the police and military’s Operation Storm, which began at the start of August 1995.

“Mother called me during that period and told me how armed men mistreated my father. He was in the end-stage of diabetes at the time so he was unable to get up to greet them. They were very aggressive because of that,” said Jovan Beric, the son of Radivoj and Marija Beric, who had fled to Banja Luka in Bosnia in the early days of Operation Storm.

Croatian investigators buried the dead at the cemetery in the town of Knin. An external examination of their bodies was conducted, but no autopsy.

“The police called me two days after the murders. No one told my sisters, who at the time lived in Zagreb and Cakovec, what had happened. They did what they did without our knowledge,” Beric said. “We managed to move their bodies to the family tomb after eight years of agony.”

A week after the murders, Croatian military and civilian police launched an operation to find the perpetrators.

As a result, six Croatian Army soldiers were arrested. Four of them were also suspected of killing seven other elderly Serb civilians in a separate incident in the nearby village of Gosic. Milka Borak (80), Dusan Borak (56), Kosovka Borak (77), Grozdana Borak (70), Vasilj Borak (75), Marija Borak (81) and Sava Borak (70) had been executed one month earlier, on August 27, 1995.

From 1996 to 2002, the two cases went through the Croatian courts. Meanwhile, the murders in Varivode and Gosic were also listed in the indictment of Croatian generals Ante Gotovina, Mladen Markac and Ivan Cermak, filed in 2001 to the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY.

The Croatian courts established that there were numerous failures during the investigation of the killings of the elderly Serbs in both villages, and the ICTY’s trial chamber concluded that some Croatian officials intentionally prevented the suspects from being probed.

This new investigation by BIRN makes it clear that to date, as the 25th anniversary of Operation Storm is celebrated in Croatia, the actual perpetrators have not been prosecuted, and that no one has been held accountable for the obstructions to the investigation which were documented in a special report by Croatia’s Criminal Military Police Department in 2002.

BIRN found that document, classified as a military secret, in the ICTY case file of Gotovina, Markac and Cermak.

Croatian soldiers arrested, tried, acquitted

Jovan Beric at the place where his parents were killed. Photo: Tamara Opacic.

In the days after the Varivode murders, international media reported on the traces of blood that were found by United Nations representatives in many villages that had previously been held by rebel Serb forces.

“The latest slayings [in Varivode] are the worst single act of killing since the Croat military authorities took control of the area,” Alun R. Roberts, then UN spokesman in Knin, told the New York Times.

At the beginning, the Croatian authorities claimed that the state was not responsible for these crimes, but that they had been committed by armed civilians dressed in military uniforms.

But after criticism from the European Union and the United States, Croatia’s Interior Minister Ivan Jarnjak and his deputy Marijan Benko declared on October 18, 1995, that the perpetrators had been apprehended and transferred to the investigative centre at Zadar County Court.

In February 1996, the County State Attorney’s Office in Zadar filed charges against the Croatian soldiers. Nikola Rasic, Ivan Jakovljevic, Zlatko Ladovic and Nedjeljko Mijic were indicted for aggravated murder motivated by greed in Varivode.

Together with Pero Perkovic and Ivica Petric, Rasic and Ladovic were also indicted for the same crime in Gosic. According to the ballistics findings, the two cases were connected by shell casings fired from the same weapon, and the crimes were tried together as the Varivode-Gosic case.

On the eve of the indictment, Zadar’s District Public Prosecutor Ivan Galovic told local newspaper Narodni list that the six had committed the murders on their own, mostly after robberies.

They are “persons who had previously shown forms of behavioural disorders and some of them had been convicted before”, Galovic claimed. “That is why I can already say that, based on what is known, this is not about ‘killing Serbs’, but about killing in the context of organised robbery.”

Most of the accused denied involvement in the crimes from the start. At the same time, Ladovic and Mijic admitted to the investigating judge that they had been in the villages on the dates of the crimes.

However, at the trial at Zadar County Court, they claimed that these confessions were the result of police brutality.

They and the other defendants testified that police officers blackmailed them, read them the alleged confessions of others, and forced them to tell the investigating judge a false account of what happened at the murder scene.

Some of them complained that the police punched them and beat them with batons, threatened them to kill them and falsify the dates of their demobilisation from the Croatian Army so it appeared that they were not soldiers at the time of the crime.

BIRN contacted the Interior Ministry and the Police Directorate twice by email to ask for a comment on these allegations, but neither responded.

During the trial, none of the witnesses who were in Varivode and Gosic in the days before or on the dates of the murders recognised the accused.

It was also established that the killings were not committed with rifles taken from the accused.

“Regardless that the court established that the same group of defendants was wont to go to the liberated areas, wont to steal in those areas and take away abandoned property… it has not been established whatever these defendants were at the murder sites at the relevant times or how or why would any of them kill any of the injured parties,” judge Milan Petricic concluded. He acquitted all six of the crimes in Varivode and Gosic.

Under the same verdict, Petric was sentenced to six years in prison for the murder of civilian Djuradj Canak in mid-August 1995 in village Zrmanja, where his unit was involved in mop-up duties of possible remaining enemy groups.

Nikola Rasic was convicted of attempted robbery and the attempted murder of Jeka Tanjga in Ocestovo in the Knin municipality, on August 20, 1995, and sentenced to a year in prison.

Suspect never arrested, investigation halted

Signpost to Varivode. Photo: Tamara Opacic.

Three years later, in May 1999, the Supreme Court accepted an appeal from the County Prosecutor’s Office in Zadar, quashed the acquittal part of the verdict and sent the Varivode-Gosic case for retrial.

Due to the territorial reorganisation of Croatia, the case than came under the jurisdiction of the County Court in Sibenik. But on February, 7, 2002, before the end of the trial, Sibenik County State’s Attorney Zeljko Zganjer dropped the indictment.

“I studied the material that I found in the file and based on, in my opinion, a comprehensive and critical analysis of the case, concluded that there was not enough serious and relevant evidence that could convict the accused,” said Zganjer, who is now a Zagreb-based lawyer.

In cooperation with the Criminal Military Police Department, Zganjer then began a new investigation and found out that in October 1995, Zadar State Attorney’s Office also had expressed suspicion that Goran Vunic, one of the platoon commanders of the Reconnaissance Unit of the 113th Croatian Army Brigade, was involved in the killings.

Vunic was suspected of being in the two villages at the time of the murders, and of killing civilian Gojko Lezaic together with two other unknown people in Gosic a few days after Operation Storm – but he was not arrested, nor was his apartment searched.

However, Zganjer said: “As far as I remember, I didn’t find a clue in the case file that I received earlier from Zadar that would indicate that Vunic was a possible perpetrator.”

Zganjer then received a special report from the Criminal Military Police Department on June 27, 2002. Several documents were attached: a letter from the Zadar County State’s Attorney’s Office asking on October 23, 1995 for the police to interview Vunic and check what weapons he possessed, an order from the Split Military Court on October 25, 1995 to search Vunic’s apartment, and an official note from Damir Simic, a criminal military police investigator and Senior-Lieutenant of the 72nd Military Police battalion from Sibenik.

In Simic’s note, he said that, the Commander of the Sibenik Criminal Military Police 4th Company, Captain Nenad Mrkota, had ordered him to halt the investigation of Vunic.

Simic testified at the ICTY in 2008 that Mrkota never ordered him to continue the investigation into Vunic.

Simic claimed that until he left the Sibenik Military Police in 1998, no one ever had asked him why he hadn’t executed the warrant to interview Vunic and search his apartment. He also testified that he informed his superior Boris Milas, who was the head of the Crime Prevention Service of the 72nd Military Police Battalion.

But Milas told the ICTY that they did not know anything about this, as did the wartime chief of the Military Police administration, Mate Lausic, and then the Zadar District Public Prosecutor, Ivan Galovic.

Marija Rukavina, who was Galovic’s deputy at the time, who signed a letter on October 23, 1995, asking the police to conduct an interview with Vunic and check what weapons he possessed, declined to talk to BIRN, explaining that she is now retired.

In the Criminal Military Police Department’s special report from 2002, it is also said that there was a suspicion that Nenad Mrkota, who is now a civilian, influenced or personally acted in order to destroy or conceal evidence related to the criminal offences committed in Gosic and Varivode.

“Furthermore, according to the information collected, Nenad Mrkota and other persons, together with Bozo Bacelic [also one of the platoon commanders of the Reconnaissance Unit of the 113th Brigade] are exerting pressure on the witnesses in the criminal proceedings over the crime committed in Prokljan and crimes committed in Gosic and Varivode that are suspected to have been committed by Bacelic and Vunic,” it said.

The same document, signed by major Ante Glavan, confirms that nine automatic rifles of the same calibre as the ones with which the murders were committed were found in warehouses used by the 113th Croatian Army Brigade.

Zganjer said that the weapons were analysed later, “As far as I can remember, Vunic and Bacelic were not interrogated during my mandate,” he said. “I can’t remember if there were any actions toward Nenad Mrkota either, but it’s possible that something happened after I left the State Attorney’s Office.”

War criminal’s release celebrated

Commemoration for the victims of the killings in Gosic. Photo: Vaska Radulovic.

BIRN asked the Sibenik Attorney’s Office if an investigation had been carried out in the meantime and any charges filed against Vunic, Mrkota and Bacelic or others.

“The Attorney’s Office, in cooperation with civilian and military police officers, is conducting investigations to identify the perpetrators. Since the investigations are secret, we cannot answer your questions related to the Varivode-Gosic case,” it responded by email.

In a telephone interview with BIRN, Goran Vunic said that he doesn’t know anything about the killings. He didn’t want to talk about the details of the case.

“I was interviewed by the Attorney’s Office a couple of years ago. No charges have ever been filed against me,” said Vunic.

“I don’t know if anyone prevented any investigation. I have nothing more to say about it. I am long over it.” He did not want to answer a question about whether he knows Mrkota personally.

Mrkota, who was awarded the Medal of the Homeland’s Gratitude for Honourable and Exemplary Service for his actions in the war and a medal called the Order of the Nikola Subic Zrinski for wartime heroism by President Franjo Tudjman in 1996, did not respond to BIRN’s calls and messages.

His lawyer Zeljko Ostoja said that Mrkota speaks to journalists exclusively via him.

“As regards all the evidence that you have presented to me, we believe that it is exclusively verbal evidence that was produced for the purposes of internal disputes within the police force. There have been such cases before,” Ostoja said. “Mrkota never obstructed any investigation. He always approached his job extremely professionally.”

“As far as I know, Mrkota has not been questioned about this at the State Attorney’s Office. It is possible that he was at some kind of interview a long time ago, but for the last ten years he has certainly not,” he said.

“There is no information about an investigation being launched or an indictment being filed against him,” he added.

BIRN was not able to get in touch with Bozo Bacelic, one of the only two men convicted by Croatian courts of war crimes against Serb civilians during and after Operation Storm.

In 2014, Bacelic was sentenced to seven years in prison for the murder of Nikola Damjanic (83) and his wife Milica (74) in the village of Prokljan on August 11, 1995.

Bacelic, who at the end of 1995 was given a medal called the Order of the Croatian Trefoil by Tudjman for excellence in wartime, was also convicted under the same verdict of the murder of Vuk Mandic, a member of the army of the rebel Serbs’ self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina. According to the verdict, Bacelic drove the Serb soldier to an abandoned house in the Varivode area and killed him there.

During the trial, Bacelic claimed that since the end of the war, the criminal police and prosecution had been trying to “construct various stories about the murders of various people… in which I did not participate or know anything about”.

One of the witnesses to the war crime in Prokljan was Goran Vunic. He testified that upon arriving that day in a village near Skradin, where his unit was involved in mop-up duties of possible remaining enemy groups, he heard gunshots and saw “two elderly people burning” in a yard. He also confirmed that he saw Bacelic nearby.

Bacelic was released from prison in September 2016. As shown in photos and video posted on Bacelic’s Facebook page, another convicted war criminal, Dario Kordic, a former military commander in the self-proclaimed Croatian Republic of Herzeg-Bosnia wartime statelet, was among those who gathered to celebrate his release.

‘There was no will to solve the case’

Memorial plaque in Varivode. Photo: Tamara Opacic.

Boris Milosevic, the former president of the Serbian National Council, which represents the interests of Croatia’s Serb minority and organises a commemoration for the victims every year on the anniversary of the Varivode murders, noted that Varivode was one of the cases that Croatia reported to the European Commission during its EU accession negotiations to try to prove it was acting effectively to prosecute war crimes.

Milosevic said that although the State Attorney’s Office has described the case as a national priority for years, justice has not been done because there no one has been convicted.

“The only conclusion that emerges is that there was no will, from the top to the lowest levels of the entire state apparatus, to shed light on the case and punish the offenders, but on the contrary, to keep the truth hidden,” Milosevic, who was recently appointed as a deputy prime minister in Croatia’s new government, told BIRN.

“If we haven’t got the truth and justice in a case like this, then we can’t expect it in others in which Serb victims were killed after [Operation] Storm. And that is harsh to know today,” he said.

Jovan Beric, whose elderly parents were among those killed in Varivode 25 years ago, now lives on a modest pension and from the proceeds of making honey.

After years of legal action and the 2012 Supreme Court ruling that the Croatian state was responsible for killings of the civilians in Varivode, he and his sisters only managed to get compensation for the deaths of their parents two weeks ago.

“I don’t believe that the police and the judiciary don’t have the ability to find the perpetrators,” he said. “Whether they are actually willing to do it, and how much politics has an influence on this, is another matter.”

Tamara Opacic is a journalist with Croatian weekly newspaper Novosti. This article was produced as part of BIRN’s Balkan Transitional Justice grant scheme, supported by the European Commission.

Tamara Opačić

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