Witness Seized "Last Chance" to Escape Vukovar Massacre
A protected witness testifying the Hague trial of Goran Hadzic has described how he escaped certain death at the Ovcara farm near Vukovar when this eastern Croatian town fell to Serb forces in November 1991.
Hadzic is charged with 14 counts of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed against Croats and other non-Serbs, including persecution, extermination, murder, imprisonment, torture, inhumane acts, cruel treatment, deportation, wanton destruction and plunder.
During the 1991-95 war in Croatia, Hadzic held senior political positions in the country’s Serb-held regions. He was president of the government of the self-declared Serbian Autonomous District of Slavonia, Baranja and Western Srem, known as SAO SBWS, and was president of the Republic of the Serbian Krajina, RSK – which absorbed SAO SBWS territory – from February 1992 to December 1993.
The indictment against Hadzic includes the worst single crime during the war in Croatia.
On November 20-21, 1991, Yugoslav Army, JNA, forces which had captured Vukovar removed about 260 people from the municipal hospital and transported them to the Ovcara farm outside the town. These non-Serb detainees were beaten, tortured and eventually murdered. Their remains were exhumed from a mass grave at the farm in 1996.
The prosecution witness who testified this week was referred to as GH-080 and had image and voice distortion to protect his identity. He described himself as "a citizen who had the duty to protect his city", after Vukovar was subjected to "widespread shelling by Serb forces in 1991". No other biographical data was revealed in court.
The witness described to the court the events leading up to the massacre at Ovcara. He said that on the morning of November 20, he was at the Vukovar hospital, when he heard calls to "get up and get moving". Armed JNA reserve soldiers were ordering everyone to get out of the building and to board buses which were waiting a few blocks away.
"The buses were filling up with people, and there were about 50 persons on each bus. I saw there Croatian soldiers, but also civilians, people of all age groups," he said.
Witness GH-080 got on one of the buses, where he recognised some of the others on board.
"At first, it was not clear what was going on", he told the court, "but it soon became apparent that they would not get out of this easily."
According to the witness, the buses were first driven to the JNA barracks in Vukovar, which were "crowded with raging soldiers" who seemed "euphoric and empowered" because of what was going on.
"We were told that we would be killed, that they would get rid of us because they had had enough of our [acts of] terror," the witness said. "There were at least seven buses full of people that were brought to the barracks and parked there, and after an hour or so we left the barracks and moved toward Ovcara."
It was at this point that he realised that the people on the buses were not being evacuated, but "detained and held as prisoners".
Prosecutor Alex Demirjian asked the witness what happened when the buses arrived at the Ovcara farm.
"When we came to Ovcara, we were ordered to leave the buses and take off everything we had – clothes and anything of value. We were forced to go through a group of seemingly wild young men – also JNA reservists, judging by their uniforms – who were enthusiastically beating us," the witness said.
He said these reserve soldiers were armed with "sticks, rifles, bats, and their own hands and feet", and that the beatings continued at random while the prisoners were ordered to wait in a hangar on the farm premises.
"I guess some 300 people had been brought to Ovcara. Around 30 or so were very badly injured by the beatings and some even died on the spot," GH-080 said.
That evening, he continued, the prisoners were separated into "groups of ten, 15 or 20 people". The the group he was placed in was ordered to board a truck.
"The truck was moving towards Grabovo, and suddenly it left the main road and began driving on a dirt road," he said.
As the vehicle drove along, two of GH-080's fellow-prisoners, Zeljko Jurela and Mato Perak, talked about jumping out of the truck. Perak "wanted to jump, but Jurela was telling him that it would be pointless because they would be killed anyway",
"Then it struck me that this was my last and only chance to get out of this alive," the witness said.
He described how he jumped through a small opening at the back of the moving truck and ran "as fast as I could, running for my life."
"They did shoot behind me, but they didn't stop [the truck], so I managed to escape," he said.
The witness said he was detained the same evening by other JNA reservists, who took him across the border into Serbia and handed him over to police in the town of Sid. There, the witness said, he was "questioned about Ovcara".
After that he was taken to a prison in Sremska Mitrovica, also in Serbia. GH-080 believes this was because he was "considered a lesser danger" once police in Sid had ascertained that he had not personally witnessed summary executions of Croatian soldiers and civilians at Ovcara.
The witness said he remained four months in the Sremska Mitrovica jail, and was subjected to regular beatings there. After that, he was transferred to Belgrade and held in prison until August 1992, when he was "exchanged".
Referring to the accused, the witness remembered having "seen Hadzic once at the prison in Sremska Mitrovica, where he came to see the prisoners. He kept asking everyone whether they were from Vukovar".
"We were told that certain citizens of Vukovar who organised 'treason' would be charged and tried by the local Serb forces. And Hadzic was apparently there to select those who should be tried," the witness added.
Velma Saric is an IWPR-trained reporter in Sarajevo.