Refugee Bombing Case Highlights Serbia and Croatia’s Enduring Antagonism

A destroyed car in a Serb refugee convoy from Croatia, near Bosanski Petrovac in Bosnia and Herzegovina, August 1995. Photo: Ranko Cukovic.

Refugee Bombing Case Highlights Serbia and Croatia’s Enduring Antagonism

Serbia plans to prosecute four Croatian officers in their absence for air attacks on a convoy of fleeing refugees in 1995 – but experts say that because Zagreb is not cooperating with Belgrade, the case is likely to be flawed.

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Witness 56 did not take the same route as a large convoy of Serb refugees who were fleeing from Knin into Bosnia and Herzegovina, and said he was able to see an air attack on the long line of vehicles.

“On about 7th or 8th August, 1995, while he was in Bosanski Petrovac, Witness 56 saw evidence of the convoy being bombed as it was moving towards Bravsko [in Bosnia and Herzegovina],” says a summary of his statement that was read out in court during a trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY.

Witness 56’s statement was cited in the trial of Croatian Army generals Ante Gotovina, Mladen Markac and Ivan Cermak, who were indicted for killings, deportations and the inhumane treatment of Serb civilians during Operation Storm. They were all acquitted.

However, the bombing of the refugee convoy near Bravsko on August 7, 1995 was not part of generals’ indictment; neither was the bombing the next day of another refugee convoy near the village of Svodna, also in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Twelve civilians have been identified as having been killed in the two attacks, including four children.

Evidence about the crimes was mostly gathered by anti-war NGOs. But Croatia has never prosecuted anyone for this crime and recently former Croatian minister Mate Granic attempted to justify the strikes as a legitimate military operations that caused “collateral damage”.

In May this year, the Serbia decided to prosecute four Croatian air force officers, sparking angry reactions from the Zagreb authorities and from right-wingers, who furiously disrupted a panel discussion in the Croatian capital about the incident. The decision also raised questions about whether the crime could be properly investigated and tried without cooperation between judicial institutions in all three countries connected to the case.

Nikola Vukobratovic of the Archive of Serbs in Croatia, which works to preserve Serb heritage in Croatia, said that only Croatia could conduct a real investigation into the air attacks on the convoys, “in cooperation, of course, with both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia’s institutions”.

“The victims and witnesses and the families of the victims were in Serbia immediately afterwards, the event itself took place in Bosnia and Herzegovina, the perpetrators are on the territory of the Republic of Croatia,” Vukobatovic told BIRN.

“In a situation where there is no intent or will to establish cooperation between the institutions of the three countries to investigate this crime, it is clear that any investigation will be very flawed,” he argued.,

Were civilians intentionally targeted?

A convoy of Serb refugees from Croatia near Bosanski Petrovac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, during Operation Storm in August 1995. Photo: Ranko Cukovic.

In September 1995, the month after the bombings, a refugee from Knin, who was identified only by the initials S.V., told researchers from the Humanitarian Law Centre NGO in a refugee camp near Sabac in Serbia that he was in the refugee column going towards Bosanski Petrovac on August 7.

S.V. said that in the column there was a truck with food that was handed out to the refugees. “At one point, one of our officers shouted at those who were standing around waiting for food that they had to take shelter in the woods, because he noticed that a Croatian plane was flying over them,” he told the Humanitarian Law Centre.

People start running and trying to hide, and “at that moment, the plane dropped the bomb right on the truck, which immediately caught fire”.

Other people interviewed by the Humanitarian Law Centre, whose testimonies were published in a report last Friday, testified that there was no military hardware near them in the column, just civilian vehicles.

Human Rights Watch published a report in 1996 about abuses committed during Operation Storm which said that “the attack that took place near the town of Bosanski Petrovac appears to have involved one or two Croatian aircraft”.

“If Croatian soldiers directly attacked fleeing civilians near Bosanski Petrovac, Dvor or elsewhere, such an act would constitute not only a serious violation of international humanitarian law but also a ‘grave breach’ or war crime,” Human Rights Watch said.

But some of witnesses of the August 7 attack whose testimonies were published by Human Rights Watch were Croatian Serb soldiers, who spoke about military equipment in the convoy that was being transferred to Serb forces in Bosnia and Herzegovina. If there was military hardware in the convoy, claims could be made that the Croatian attack was legitimate.

Human Rights Watch cautioned that if “military personnel and materiel were interspersed with the refugee column… the death of civilians may not have been a violation of the laws of war, but ‘collateral’ or ‘incidental’ to an attack on an otherwise legitimate target”.

“However, even under those circumstances, further investigation is required to determine whether attacking forces fulfilled their obligation to take all feasible precautions to minimise civilian harm,” it added.

In 2012 Croatian journal Magazine for Military History (Vojna Povijest) published an article about Croatian Air Force activities during Operation Storm, together with tables of flight details.

According to the magazine, a MiG-21 fighter jet sortie on August 7 at around noon had as its target “an armoured-mechanised column in the Medeno polje area [not far from Bosanski Petrovac]”. It said that the plane “destroyed one tank and slowed down the convoy”.

On August 8 at around 6pm, the magazine listed a flight targeting an “armoured-mechanised column in the area of the village of Svodna”. The outcome was “the destruction of several vehicles”, it said.

In a book called Storm published by the Croatian Homeland War Memorial and Documentation Centre, Croatian Air Force and Air Defence reports from August 1995 about operations involving MiG-21 planes were quoted. The reports only detail the destruction of military equipment on August 7 and 8 at the two locations, and do not mention any civilian victims.

Documents provided to BIRN by the Humanitarian Law Centre and Veritas show that the Croatian Ministry of Justice told the International Court of Justice in The Hague that “Croatian Armed Forces did indeed take certain actions against Serbian mechanised armoured columns on the territory of Bosnia, but in so doing did not target fleeing Serb civilians”.

On May 31, Croatian newspaper Novi List reported that Mate Granic, the Croatian foreign minister during the war, said that “tanks and trucks transporting weapons from Croatia to the Bosnian Serbs were interspersed in the convoy fleeing to Serbia”.

“They were therefore a legitimate target,” Granic insisted. He added that “of course, there were collateral casualties”.

Granic told Novi List that he did not know the details of the air attack on the column but said that he had information at the time “that it was by no means an attack on refugees” and that “no one ordered an attack on Serbs who left Croatia”.

Nikola Vukobratovic said that the crime, like many committed during and after the Croatian Army’s Operation Flash in May 1995 and Operation Storm in August the same year, was never prosecuted in Croatia.

“There are dozens of known and documented crimes for which either no investigation has been launched or, as the local police like to say, ‘the investigation is ongoing’, [which means] the investigation has been ongoing for 25 years and nothing has ever happened,” Vukobratovic said.

Military pilots remain unidentified

Serb refugees from Croatia near Bosanski Petrovac in Bosnia and Herzegovina, August 1995. Photo: Ranko Cukovic.

Croatian journalist Ivica Djikic said that, based on his journalistic research, Croatian air force sorties during Operation Storm were mostly approved at a high level of command, “and then it was up to the pilots, when they reached those targets, above those targets, whether they would open fire or not”.

“In the whole story, a lot depended on the pilot who was in that plane, who was given that task, because that pilot was the only one from 50 or 20 or 70 metres above the ground to see what was in that column,” Djikic said.

The names of the pilots involved in the attacks have never been made public.

The Serbian indictment of the four Croatian Army officers it alleges were involved was confirmed last week. The men who were charged are Vladimir Mikac, who was the commander of the Pula air base, Zdenko Radulj, commander of the Zagreb Pleso air base, Zeljko Jelenic, fighter squadron commander at the Pula air base, and Danijel Borovic, fighter squadron commander at the Zagreb Pleso air base.

Pula and Zagreb were the only air bases that had MiG-21 airplanes in their fleets.

Djikic pointed out that a proper investigation of what happened cannot be carried out without cooperation from Croatia. He argued that the pilots who opened fire should first be identified and whoever was responsible at the higher levels of command.

Djikic said the Serbian authorities approached the case from the other way around, however, since there are publicly available documents about who the commanders of Pula Air Base and Zagreb Air Base were: “They set out with names that could be found in public sources and which were made public,” he explained.

“They went the easier way, but in my opinion it was necessary to go this hard way [and find out who the pilots were], and it was not possible to go that way without cooperation with Croatia,” he added.

However, Djikic acknowledged that cooperation between the two countries could only be successful if Croatia wants to work with Serbia and has “fair intentions” about the case.

“I am talking about some kind of ideal circumstances, for the Croatian State Attorney’s Office to take over the investigation and then conduct it fairly, to do it properly and not to cover up, obstruct or conceal things,” he said.

Croatia ‘has no intent’ to prosecute crimes

A burned-out truck in the convoy of Serb refugees from Croatia near Bosanski Petrovac, Bosnia and Herzegovina, August 1995. Photo: Ranko Cukovic.

Serbian media reported that the prosecutor’s office in Belgrade said it wanted to try the four Croatian officer in their absence because “the passage of time [since the attacks on the refugee convoy] gives enough reason to doubt that Croatia or Bosnia and Herzegovina will initiate criminal proceedings against those responsible for the crime”.

Police in Bosnia and Herzegovina’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska entity did file a complaint in 2010 accusing Imre Agotic, wartime commander of the Croatian Air Force, his deputy Josip Culetic, fighter squadron commander Danijel Borovic and two unnamed pilots of being responsible for the attack on August 7, 1995. Agotic died in 2012 and Culetic in 2021, while Borovic is one of those charged in the new Serbian indictment.

The Bosnian state prosecution also said on May 27 in that it has an ongoing investigation into an unknown perpetrator over this crime.

“The difficulty with processing this case is that the evidence and the potential perpetrators, who are in the Republic of Croatia, and the injured parties, who are in the Republic of Serbia, are inaccessible to Bosnia and Herzegovina’s institutions,” the state prosecution was quoted as saying by N1 TV.

The Bosnian prosecution suggested holding a trilateral meeting of prosecutors from Bosnia, Croatia and Serbia, with the support of the Hague Tribunal prosecution, “to consider options for future action in this case”.

Despite the statements given to Hague prosecutors by witnesses like Witness 56, the crimes were not part of the indictment of Croatian Army generals Ante Gotovina, Mladen Markac and Ivan Cermak.

Croatian Chief State Attorney Zlata Hrvoj Sipek told media on June 1 that her office has “dug through all the archives of the Hague Tribunal” and found no evidence about the crime.

“Had there been, Hague chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz would surely have included that in the indictment [of the Croatian generals],” Hrvoj Sipek said.

Howvever, the prosecutor’s office at the UN’s International Residual Mechanism for Criminal Tribunals in The Hague, the successor to the ICTY, told Zagreb-based media outlet Novosti that it “officially submitted to the State Attorney’s Office of the Republic of Croatia and its liaison officer evidence of crimes committed during Operation Storm that are not covered by the indictment of Gotovina”.

The Hague prosecutor’s office said it had “not been informed that these cases have ever been investigated or prosecuted”.

Zagreb-based NGO Documenta – Centre for Dealing with the Past argued that the Serbian indictment of the four Croatian officers was “a direct consequence of the reluctance of the Croatian authorities and the judiciary to thoroughly investigate all the circumstances of these events and to determine possible criminal responsibility for them”.

Documenta said in a statement on June 2 that the various state institutions involved should “agree as soon as possible” in which country the legal proceedings should take place.

Both Vukobratovic and Djikic agreed that the acquittal of the three Croatian generals by the Hague Tribunal led to Croatia basically ending its efforts to deal with war crimes committed by its forces during the war, particularly during Operation Storm.

Vukobratovic said he thinks that Croatia made a “firm political decision” and that now “there is actually no will, no intent to prosecute any of the documented crimes on the Croatian side”.

The Hague court’s chief prosecutor Serge Brammertz voiced similar criticism in his latest report to the UN Security Council in New York on Tuesday, accusing the Croatian government of “taking political decisions to block the justice process” in 1990s war crimes cases.

Brammertz explained that Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia are “experiencing severe difficulties obtaining cooperation from Croatia”.

“Today, there is a widespread impression that in Croatia there is the will to pursue justice for Croatian victims but not for victims of other ethnicities,” he said.

Milica Stojanović

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