RECOM Reconciliation Network

Serbia’s Prison Camps for War Captives
Map of detention locations in the Vojvodina region of Serbia. Source: ICTY.

06.11.2020.

Homeland Frontline: Inside Serbia’s Prison Camps for War Captives

Goran Hadžić, Hrtkovci, Investigation, Prison camps, Vojislav Šešelj, Vojvodina

Although there was no actual fighting in Serbia during the mid-1990s wars, thousands of captives from the Croatian conflict were imprisoned and abused at detention centres in the country’s northern Vojvodina province.

‘There is no room for Croats’

By May 6, 1992, the detention facilities in Stajicevo and Begejci had already been shut down, although many people were still being held at the prison in Sremska Mitrovica. On that day, Serbian Radical Party leader Vojislav Seselj held a notorious rally in the village of Hrtkovci.

The self-proclaimed ‘Chetnik duke’ addressed the people he called his “Serbian brothers and sisters”, declaring that “there is no room for Croats in Hrtkovci”.

Seselj promised to “drive them to the border of Serbian territory and they can walk onwards from there, if they do not leave beforehand of their own accord”.

He addressed the Serbs at the rally: “I firmly believe that you, Serbs from Hrtkovci and other villages around here, also know how to preserve your harmony and unity, and that you will promptly get rid of the remaining Croats in your village.”

Katica Paulic, a local Croat who ultimately moved to Zagreb, attended Seselj’s rally that day.

“Well, look, I was curious. I wanted to see what this man wanted. I don’t know whether you can understand this,” Paulic said.

“Everything was wonderful and peaceful, and now someone wants to destroy it. Why? Well, let’s see why, let’s hear what the reason is for this.”

According to Paulic, Seselj’s troops showed up in the village wearing traditional peasant hats with cockades. She knew they were not regular soldiers, and described them as “frightening”.

“Those were his people, his troops, all in black,” she said. “They had ammunition belts across their chests, hanging from one shoulder and another. They had rifles.”

Seselj even read out a list of names of Croats who he said should leave. “It was a concrete, clear attack on specific people, with a clear threat of what would happen to them if they did not move out,” said Branislava Kostic, a civic activist from the Vojvodina area.

Not long afterwards, Kostic participated in an anti-war event in Hrtkovci whose slogan was: “We will not be divided; we will not move! Vojvodina is my homeland!”

She recalls a stressful atmosphere that day, on the verge of physical confrontation, and being told by some local Serbs that as a Serb herself, she should be ashamed.

Kostic was also told that she was too young and didn’t know the truth about what happened in the area during World War II, to which she responded: “Croats from Hrtkovci cannot be blamed for my grandfather’s death [in WWII].”

She said the only thing achieved was that people parted peacefully that day: “We were naive and believed that we could change something with words.”

After Seselj’s speech, his supporters and associates launched a campaign of harassment and intimidation aimed at scaring Croats into leaving Hrtkovci.

ICTY witness Aleksa Ejic stated that Seselj’s associates held meetings at which they advised Serb refugees from Croatia to “break into houses” in Hrtkovci and draw up fake contracts to suggest that they had the right to be there.

“After this speech he [Seselj] made and that rally, a lady came to visit us with her son aged 16. She spent ten days in our house,” said Paulic. “I had to give her my new bedroom with the new furniture that my father had bought us as a housewarming present.”

She called the police, but they helped the unknown woman who moved into her house.

Amid this atmosphere of coercion and harassment, many local Croats, including Katica Paulic, left Hrtkovci by exchanging houses with Serb refugees from Croatia.

An expert report about non-Serbs who left Hrtkovci in 1992, produced for the ICTY by researcher Ewa Tabeau, indicated that the overall population of ethnic Croats fell by 76.3 per cent.

Over 700 left in total, according to the Hague court verdict in Seselj’s trial. The Serbian Radical Party leader was convicted in 2018 of instigating deportation, persecution on political, racial or religious grounds and other inhumane acts as crimes against humanity because of his speech in Hrtkovci in May 1992.

 

‘A duty to acknowledge the crimes’

Despite Seselj’s conviction by the UN court, the question of whether there was a state of war in Vojvodina remains unresolved.

The ICTY’s appeals chamber in the case against Seselj said that procedurally speaking, “it is immaterial whether there was a widespread or systematic attack specifically in Vojvodina itself”.

The Hague court did note, however, that crimes committed in Vojvodina “were part of the larger attack encompassing also areas in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina”.

Slobodan Milosevic and Goran Hadzic were accused, amongst other crimes, of torture and cruel treatment as a violation of the laws or customs of war at a number of locations in Vojvodina. But proceedings against Milosevic and Hadzic were terminated after their deaths in 2005 and 2016 respectively.

Courts in Serbia and Croatia have treated the abuses at Sremska Mitrovica prison as crimes committed during an armed conflict. In two separate cases, the county court in Vukovar found that former guards Slobodan Gojkovic and Zarko Amidzic were responsible for mistreatment of prisoners in February 1992. The Higher Court in Belgrade also convicted former guard Marko Crevar of the same offence.

In the ICTY’s case against Yugoslav People’s Army officers Mile Mrksic, Miroslav Radic and Veselin Sljivancanin, the Hague court confirmed that prison camps existed in Serbia.

According to Croatia’s Commission for the Missing and Imprisoned Persons, 7,666 people were freed under prisoner exchanges from the camps in Serbia. Of that number, 219 were under 18 years old, 932 were women and 424 were over 60. Almost half of the prisoners were civilians, 46 per cent, while 52 per cent were combatants (the status of the others has not been established).

Croatian authorities in Osijek launched a trial in absentia of Aleksandar Vasiljevic, the former head of the Yugoslav military counter-intelligence service, accusing him, as the senior officer, of bearing responsibility for the deaths of seven people at the Sremska Mitrovica prison and five more in Stajicevo and Begejci.

Central European University professor Dimitrijevic said that there is “a duty to publicly acknowledge the crimes” in Vojvodina which remains unfulfilled to this day.

“There could be different types of acknowledgment. We could think of a public declaration which would state that the crimes did happen, that that they were legally, politically, and morally wrong, and that they cannot be justified. We could think of a public apology to the victims and their communities. We could think of material reparations and compensation. We could think of memorialisation,” he said.

The sites of the crimes are still unmarked. The prison in Sremska Mitrovica still serves as the largest jail in the country, the farm in Stajicevo where detainees were held is now abandoned, while the farm in Begejci was demolished in 1992.

There is little public recognition of the fact that wartime crimes were committed in this province of Serbia, whose citizens generally believe that there was no actual war in their own country in the 1990s.

When Seselj returned to Belgrade from The Hague after being released, he took up active leadership of the Serbian Radical Party again, and served as an MP for several years.

In an apparent reference to the crimes of which he was convicted, he also bought a house in Hrtkovci.

 

Danijel Apro


This article was was originally published on balkaninsight.com.