The Vukovar Murders: Which Units Killed Civilians in Croatia in 1991?

Yugoslav People’s Army troops leave a destroyed house in the suburbs of Vukovar in Croatia in November 1991. Photo: EPA/MAJA ILIC.

The Vukovar Murders: Which Units Killed Civilians in Croatia in 1991?

18. November 2020.13:06
18. November 2020.13:06
BIRN’s analysis of Hague Tribunal evidence reveals which Yugoslav People’s Army and Serb paramilitary units were deployed in villages around Vukovar in Croatia in November 1991 when Croat civilian prisoners were murdered after the town fell.

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Witness statement given to the ICTY by Ivan Gasparovic. Source: ICTY.

After Vukovar fell, the non-Serb population was expelled from the area, and a number of prisoners of war and civilians were deported to jails and detention camps in Serbia, while more than 200 people were executed at the nearby Ovcara Farm and in other places like Dalj.

Gasparovic testified at the Hague Tribunal’s trial of Goran Hadzic, who was the prime minister of a self-proclaimed Serb rebel statelet in Croatia called the Serbian Autonomous Region of Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem. The short-lived statelet was established in June 1991, after Croatia’s decision to secede from Yugoslavia.

According to the Hague prosecution’s indictment of Hadzic, “the JNA transported a large number of inhabitants of Vukovar to the detention facilities in Dalj on around 20 November 1991”.

“There, local Serb TO [Territorial Defence] members selected those suspected of participating in the defence of Vukovar. The selected detainees were interrogated, beaten and tortured. At least 35 were executed,” it said.

The bodies were then transported to a farm called Lovas, a few kilometres from Dalj. Most of the victims were exhumed at the site in 2001, although some bodies were found earlier at another mass grave in Dalj.

List of people found in a mass grave at the Lovas farm in Dalj. Source: ICTY.

Gasparovic survived because of his daughter’s friendship with one Territorial Defence fighter, although he was also interrogated and brutally abused in Dalj, and beaten using “whatever means they had”.

Some prisoners even attempted suicide “by jumping out of the window because they feared that they would be tortured to death”, he said.

“I know this because I had to collect their bodies. The paramilitaries killed them after they attempted suicide,” he explained.

Crimes committed in and around Vukovar in the wake of the fall of the town in November 1991 have been documented, but only a few of those involved have been convicted.

Two senior JNA officers, Mile Mrksic and Veselin Sljivancanin, were convicted by the Hague Tribunal of bearing responsibility for the killings of prisoners at Ovcara Farm. Their fellow officer Miroslav Radic was acquitted.

Three other defendants also accused of bearing responsibility for crimes in the Vukovar area died before the verdicts in their trials: former Serbian and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, Croatian Serb rebel leader Goran Hadzic and the former mayor of Vukovar, Slavko Dokmanovic.

Vojislav Seselj, the leader of the extreme right-wing Serbian Radical Party, was acquitted of sending paramilitary volunteers to fight in Vukovar.

The role of the Serbian State Security Service in deploying units in Croatia is being considered at the ongoing retrial in The Hague of the service’s top wartime officials, Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic.

In this investigation, by analysing evidence from all of these cases at the Hague Tribunal, BIRN has managed to establish which Yugoslav People’s Army and Serb paramilitary units were present in the field when the killings took place and who was responsible for these units.

‘A pile of human bodies’

A map of the Serbian Autonomous Region of Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem area used at the ICTY. Source: ICTY.

Dalj lies on the Croatian side of the River Danube, some 20 kilometres north of Vukovar.

On August 1, 1991, the JNA, together with paramilitary volunteers from Serbia, attacked and took control over what was then an ethnically-mixed village. By the time Vukovar fell, Dalj had become part of the Serbian Autonomous Region of Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem, which was led by Goran Hadzic.

Milan Miladinovic, a Serb born in Dalj, worked for an agricultural company driving a mechanical digger.

A couple of times during the Croatian war, Miladinovic was engaged to help bury dead bodies in the Dalj area. According to his witness statement to this ICTY, he did this “in September or October 1991”.

In November 1991 after the fall of Vukovar, three Territorial Defence officials from Dalj ordered Miladinovic to go to the nearby Lovas farm with his digger.

“When I arrived at the Lovas farm, I saw a pile of human bodies lying on the ground in front of the farm rest rooms [field toilets for workers],” Miladinovic told Hague Tribunal investigators in May 2001.

Miladinovic said it appeared to him that “the bodies were killed only recently since I did not sense the smell of decomposition”.

“As far as I could see, they were all male bodies of people aged between 45 and 55. I recall seeing one head being separated from the body, but I cannot recall any other details,” he added.

Photographs of the Territorial Defence force training centre in Erdut. Source: ICTY.

After his digger was loaded up with corpses, Miladinovic transported them several hundred metres away from the main gate of the Lovas farm, where a hole had already been dug.

“As I was ordered, I put those bodies in the hole and immediately covered them with soil,” he said.

“From the discussion I heard there, I realised that those people were Croats brought from Vukovar,” he added.

The murders of over 30 people who were taken from Vukovar to Dalj after Vukovar fell was a count in the indictments of both Slobodan Milosevic and Goran Hadzic.

In his statement, Miladinovic identified Pavle Milovanovic as the person who ordered him to go to Lovas farm. Milovanovic was a commander of the Territorial Defence force in Dalj. What he did after the war and his current whereabouts are unknown.

Territorial Defence units used to exist in socialist Yugoslavia and when the break-up started, the local Serb population started to re-establish them, this time mainly as single-ethnicity units. According to the Serbian Autonomous Region of Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem’s legislation, Territorial Defence units were under the control of the rebel statelet’s defence ministry.

The ICTY’s indictment of Goran Hadzic, the Serbian Autonomous Region’s prime minister, named him as the man ultimately in charge. It said that “from at least 26 June 1991 to and including December 1993” he was “the de jure commander” of the Territorial Defence forces in the rebel statelet. This was the period in which the crimes around Vukovar were committed.

Serbia’s alleged control over Territorial Defence units operating in Croatia during this period is also one of the subjects of the ongoing retrial of two former Serbian State Security Service chiefs in The Hague, Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic. They are accused of participating in a joint criminal enterprise to remove Croatian and Bosnian civilians from large parts of both countries during the wars.

To do this, it is alleged that they organised training centres for Serb fighters, some of whom were then deployed to work with the Serbian Autonomous Region’s local Territorial Defence force.

Yugoslav troops deliver prisoners

Photograph of the initial investigation into the Ovcara grave site by Clyde Snow. Source: ICTY.

The Yugoslav People’s Army, which had initially portrayed itself as playing the role of a ‘mediator’ in the developing conflict, increasingly openly took the Serb side as 1991 progressed, as could be seen during the attack on the village of Dalj on August 1.

In his testimony to the Hague Tribunal, local Serb mechanical digger operator Milan Miladinovic, who participated in burying the bodies of those who were killed in Dalj, said that “heard in the village that after the fall of Vukovar, the JNA brought a large number of civilians to Dalj to the hangars of the [agricultural company] IPK Dalj in order to accommodate them overnight.

Map of the Lovas farm in Dalj. Source: ICTY.

Map of the Lovas farm in Dalj. Source: ICTY.

“The JNA soldiers guarded those people in the hangars… Those people whose bodies I buried by the Lovas farm belonged to a group that was being transported by the JNA to the camp in Sremska Mitrovica [in Serbia]. The bus was stopped at the Lovas farm and the Borovo Selo (Savulja) TO [Territorial Defence] members killed them.”

The area held by the Serbian Autonomous Region of Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem was in the zone of responsibility of the JNA’s 1st Military Department, whose commander was Zivota Panic.

The 1st Military Department was a large area, but documents show which specific units were in villages close to Vukovar such as Dalj, where crimes were committed after the town fell.

A UN Security Council report published in 1994 said that in the village of Erdut after Vukovar fell, soldiers from the JNA’s 12th (Novi Sad) Corps and members of “irregular militia comprised of Serb villagers from Erdut” arrested some Croatians and ethnic Hungarians.

These prisoners and other non-Serbs arrested in the area were then taken to the village of Dalj, the report said.

It also mentioned that “it was reported that a number of captured Croatian civilians from Vukovar were transported and temporarily detained in the village of Dalj during the last week of November 1991, after the fall of Vukovar”.

It further noted reports that “several Croatian civilians who were arrested in Erdut by members of JNA Novi Sad Corps and members of the ‘Krajina Militia’ were imprisoned in Dalj in the ‘Kooperacija’ company building”.

JNA documents from the same area in the summer and autumn of 1991, including reports, plans and decisions, offer more details about the units that were in Dalj at the time of the crimes and their commanders.

One report sent to the 1st Military Department command on September 21, 1991 said that the 12th (Novi Sad) Corps had a command post in Dalj.

The initial commander of 12th (Novi Sad) Corps was Mladen Bratic, until November 2, when he died during the battle for Vukovar. After his death, Andrija Biorcevic became the new commander.

According to a report issued on October 4, 1991, signed by Srboljub Trajkovic, chief of staff of the 12th (Novi Sad) Corps, its units were deployed north of Vukovar and conducted combat operations there – in the area around Dalj and Erdut.

Order from the JNA 12th Corps’ command, signed by Major General Andrija Biorcevic. Source: ICTY.

On November 17, Biorcevic issued an order putting all other armed groups in the area “under the command of JNA units”, which means that the JNA effectively assumed responsibility for the actions of all the paramilitary and volunteer groups operating there.

‘He kills those who won’t surrender’

Photographs of the initial investigation into the Ovcara grave site by Clyde Snow. Source: ICTY.

Besides JNA and Territorial Defence units, volunteer fighters and paramilitary units were also operating in the Croatian conflict, the best-known being the Serbian Volunteer Guard, led by Zeljko Raznatovic, alias Arkan.

Before the war, Arkan was a career criminal, a thief who stole both abroad and at home. When nationalist tensions started to rise before the wars broke out, Arkan became leader of Red Star Belgrade football club’s hardcore fans.

In 1990, together with a couple of close friends, he established the Serbian Volunteer Guard, also known as Arkan’s Tigers.

Although formally a voluntary unit, documents from the Hague Tribunal reveal that it was connected to the JNA and local Serb armed authorities.

According to a report on the activities of the Serbian Volunteer Guard, signed by Chief Major General Mile Babic of the JNA’s 1st Military District and dated October 18, 1991, its members were “engaged in combat activities and mopping up of the area together with the JNA operations units”.

Wartime documents also show that the JNA had noted Arkan’s problematic behaviour in the field during the autumn of 1991.

On October 18, Colonel Milic Jovanovic from the 12th Corps security organisation wrote to the 1st Military District’s security organisation that Arkan’s “conduct in the zone of combat operations causes the disapproval of the inhabitants and soldiers of the JNA”.

In his report from January 1992, Jovanovic wrote that Arkan had been in the Slavonia area since May 1991 and that from September 1991, he had been based in Erdut, a village ten kilometres from Dalj.

Jovanovic wrote that Arkan was officially subordinate to the 12th Corps, but that he “enters and leaves combat when he wants”. He also noted that Arkan had been “a professional criminal”.

He added that Raznatovic’s “activities in liquidating the Croatian and Hungarian population have been noted and written about a number of times”. He said these killings were most frequently carried out by Milorad Stricevic, “a driver from Osijek who has a number of criminal convictions”, to whom Raznatovic awarded the rank of colonel.

At a meeting in the town of Beli Manastir in Croatia’s Baranja area, the commander of the JNA’s 12th (Novi Sad) Corps, Andrija Biorcevic gave a speech, in Raznatovic’s presence, as documented by TV Beli Manastir, on January 1, 1992, and praised Arkan’s volunteers.

“These are not paramilitary formations, these are men who came voluntarily to fight for the Serb people – we besiege a village, he takes it over and kills those who won’t surrender, and we move on,” Biorcevic declared.

Dalj police station chief Zeljko Cizmic documented some of Arkan’s activities in his reports.

According to a report from October 5, 1991, Milorad Stricevic, the chief of security with the Dalj Territorial Defence force, came to Dalj prison the previous night with four men to interrogate some detainees. Some two-and-a-half hours later, Arkan arrived with 20 of his men and asked to see Stricevic.

Cizmic’s report said he heard occasional sounds like “an object was being struck against a table” from the room where the Arkan and the detainees were.

At 4am, three detainees carried 12 dead bodies out of the room, loaded them into a truck, and then “drove them off somewhere”.

In the 2013 verdict in the initial trial of Serbian state security chiefs Jovica Stanisic and Franko Simatovic, the Hague Tribunal found that on October 4 or 5, 1991, Arkan and a number of his men, including Stricevic, killed 22 detainees “at or in the area of the police building in Dalj and of the junction of the ‘Jama’ stream and the Danube River, into which their bodies were dumped”.

Dalj police chief Cizmic’s report from September 23 described how Arkan and Goran Hadzic took 11 people from the prison in Dalj two days earlier.

On the same day, Hadzic issued an order saying that Arkan “until now commander of the Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem Autonomous Region Territorial Defence special units, is hereby appointed commander of the Territorial Defence Centre in Erdut”.

Arkan never stood trial for any of his wartime crimes because he was shot dead in Belgrade in 2000. Neither did Stricevic, who was reportedly killed in the war in 1992.

Goran Hadzic and Slobodan Milosevic also died before justice was served for the killings in the area around Vukovar.

Of the other suspects, Croatia prosecuted Dalj police chief Zeljko Cizmic for his role in the unlawful arrests and mistreatment of prisoners. He was initially convicted but the verdict was quashed and then the proceedings in his case were suspended in 2014.

Croatia also prosecuted five Territorial Defence fighters and JNA troops. One was acquitted and three couldn’t be tried because they lived outside Croatia. But one of them, named only as M.L., was sentenced to five years in prison in 1993 for “assisting torture and inhumane treatment in Dalj”, according to a report this year by the Croatian State Attorney.

The evidence and witness statements analysed by BIRN suggests that other suspects could have brought to trial for crimes committed after the fall of Vukovar. But apart from the unidentified M.L., no one has yet been convicted under a final verdict.

The suspects: where are they now?

Goran Hadzic went from being prime minister of the Serbian Autonomous Region of Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem to being president of the Republic of Serbian Krajina rebel statelet until the end of 1993. After the war, he moved to Serbia, where he lived until he went on the run when the Hague Tribunal announced it had charged him with war crimes. He was arrested in 2011 and died in 2016 during his trial.

Milorad Stricevic, a member of Arkan’s Tigers allegedly responsible for various killings, has also died. One Hague Tribunal witness said he was killed in 1992, together with a family he was trying to help to leave the Slavonia region. Another said Stricevic’s body was founded in a well in Daljski Atar, a place near the village of Dalj; the same well that victims from Erdut were thrown into.

Zeljko Cizmic, the chief of the Dalj police station, was sentenced to a year and ten months in prison by the county court in Osijek in Croatia in 2011. According to the indictment, in 1991, during an armed rebellion by local Serbs in Dalj and Erdut, Cizmic, as chief commander of the Dalj police station, organised, ordered and carried out the unlawful arrests and imprisonment of a large number of civilians and approved physical and psychological torture by his subordinates. Croatia’s Supreme Court later overturned the first-instance verdict, and in 2014, the criminal proceedings against Cizmic were suspended.

Zivota Panic, commander of the JNA’s 1st Military Department, advanced in his military career after the siege of Vukovar. In 1992, he was briefly the chief of staff of the JNA and also a Yugoslav federal secretary for defence. After that he become chief of staff of the newly-established Yugoslav Army. He died in 2003.

Andrija Biorcevic, commander of 12th (Novi Sad) Corps, ended his active military duty in 1993. The leader of the Serbian Radical Party, Vojislav Seselj, told the Hague Tribunal in 2014 that Biorcevic “died several years ago”.

Zeljko ‘Arkan’ Raznatovic was shot dead at Belgrade’s InterContinental Hotel in January 2000. Former police officer Dobrosav Gavric was convicted of his murder, but he fled the country and is currently fighting extradition from South Africa. Arkan maintains posthumous fame in Serbia due to his marriage to singer Svetlana ‘Ceca’ Raznatovic, with whom he had two children, who have also become celebrities.

Relevant documents

These documents are multipage TIFF files.
You can browse it with Windows > Photo Viewer or Mac > Preview.
Command of the 12th Corps Report armed conflict near Dalj on 1 August 1991, sent to the command of the 1st MD, Colonel Srboljub Trajkovic, 9 August 1991

Copy Order 4396-517 of the Command of the 1st Military District, 22 November 1991, signed, Chief of Staff Lt.General Vladimir STOJANOVIC, to be delivered to the Command of 376. atb

Map of SAO SBWS created by Mapping and Photovisuals Unit, from markings made by witness GH-016

Report on deployment of units in Vukovar area, signed by Colonel Srboljub TRAJKOVIC, Command of 12th Corps, dated 4 October, 1991.

SAO SBWS, Police Station Dalj, Information on the Hand-over of prisoners from Dalj Police Station, sent to SBWS Ministry of Interior, signed by PS Commander Zeljko Cizmic, 23 September

Supplement to the statement – Stjepan Dasovic

Witness statement – Ivan Gasparovic

12th Corps Command’s Document signed by General-Major Andrija Biorcevic, dated 23 November 1991

12th Corps Command’s Situation Report sent to the 1st MD Command, Colonel Srboljub Trajkovic, 21 September 1991

12th Corps, Security Department, Report on Reaction of the JNA members and the loc population to conduct of Arkan and SDG members, Colonel Milic Jovanovic, 18 October 1991

Command of the 1st MD, Security Organ, Information ‘Activity of the so-called ‘SDG’ in the former Pre-military Training Centre in Erdut’, 68-443, 19 19 October 1991

A coloured map of the SBWS area

Map of SAO SBWS with majority population shown in different colours

Bodies found in mass grave in Dalj

Series of photographs of the initial investigation into the Ovcara grave site by Clyde Snow late 1992 to early 1993

Witness Statement – Milan Miladinovic

Anja Vladisavljević

This post is also available in: Bosnian