Slavonian Massacre Inquiry
Forensic investigators probe massacre of Serb villagers at the height of the Croatian war
By Dragutin Hedl in Osijek (BCR 238, 19-Apr-01)
A massacre of 13 Serbs in Western Slavonia nearly a decade ago looks like coming back to haunt the Croatian government.
The victims' bodies were exhumed last December from a mass grave in the Western Slavonian village of Snjegavic, on the orders of the State Prosecutor, following an anonymous tip-off.
The remains now lie in the Institute for Forensic Medicine in Zagreb, awaiting an autopsy which should show just how the victims died.
Investigators need to establish whether the Serbs, who died in October 1991, were Yugoslav army soldiers from the Banja Luka Corps or elderly civilians too feeble to flee Snjegavic.
The former version was put out by Anto Bagric who at the time of the killings was president of the Slavonska Pozega Crisis Committee, a body dominated by hardline Croatian nationalists. Bagric is now prefect of Pozesko-slavonska county.
Witnesses, however, have recently come forward to back the latter version.
The official report into the Western Slavonian killlings could overshadow the findings of the probe into the Gospic massacre the same year, which recently prompted a Rijeka court to indict General Mirko Norac and his associates for alleged war crimes against Serbian civilians.
Unlike the events in Gospic, there is written evidence to support the Western Slavonia massacre allegations.
The Slavonska Pozega Crisis Committee issued an order on October 28, 1991 - broadcast on the radio and posted on banners in the streets - for the evacuation of 26 predominantly Serb-populated villages. It gave the inhabitants 48 hours to leave.
Shortly after the deadline, Croatian troops, led by Miljenko Crnjac, marched into the area, pillaging and burning the villages. Three were spared because they had a few Croat inhabitants.
Most of the villagers abandoned their homes, but the elderly stayed put. Witnesses said Croatian troops killed about 70 of those who remained. Some like Marija Milinkovic, from Ozdakovci, were burnt alive after their homes were set ablaze. "She was too old and weak to escape from the house," Filip Martic, a Croat from the neighbouring village of Oljas, told IWPR. "I am not quite sure that the soldiers even knew she was there."
HDZ officials claimed the houses were burnt by the Serbs themselves during their retreat.
Bagaric said the 13 people found in the Snjegavic mass grave were villagers who joined the Banja Luka Corps to fight the Croatian army. However, witnesses said all the victims were over 70 years of age.
The truth about this should emerge from the findings of the Institute of Forensic Medicine inquiry.
In addition to the crisis committee order which points the finger of guilt at the then-local authorities, there is evidence implicating high-ranking military officials in Western Slavonia.
The army headquarters in the region delivered an order on October 24, 1991, to the Slavonska Pozega Crisis Committee. Its text - signed by the local commander General Karl Gorinsek, now a senior official in the governing Liberal Party - was almost identical to the wording of the one issued by the committee.
One crucial difference was that the army warned that Croatian soldiers would be entitled to shoot without warning anyone left in the villages after the 48-hour deadline. This was omitted from the crisis committee order.
In February of this year, this journalist visited about 20 villages on the evacuation list. They looked eerie and lifeless. Only a few Serbian families had returned. Living conditions were terrible. There was no electricity, the water was badly polluted and the roads destroyed. The state has no plans to rebuild the villages.
Dragan Mirkovic and his wife Dusanka were among those who'd returned.
"We spent nearly ten years in different refugee camps in Bosnia and Serbia - now we are in our home again, " said Dragan at his home in Odzakovci, a village at the bottom of Papuk Mountain. " We are happy, although everything we had has been destroyed."
The elderly couple looked like two castaways on a desert island. They realised the villages had been burnt to the ground so that nobody could ever return. But although they are not welcome, they are in nobody's way so nobody bothers them.
Dragutin Hedl is a regular IWPR contributor