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.
After the Croatian town of Vukovar fell to the Serbian-controlled Yugoslav People’s Army in November 1991, Hicham Malla was one of the men who was captured and taken away by bus to Serbia to be held in detention.
“The radio was on in the bus, and we heard war songs, and we heard an announcement that a convoy of 1,200 ‘Ustasas’ [Croatian World War II fascist fighters] from Vukovar would be passing through this and that place,” Malla told the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY.
“So in populated areas, when we were passing through, there were crowds [of Serbs] outside throwing stones [at the buses],” he said.
That winter, Malla was held prisoner in an abandoned agricultural farm which was turned into a notorious detention camp in the village of Stajicevo, near Zrenjanin in Serbia’s northern province of Vojvodina.
Originally from Syria, Malla had come to Yugoslavia in 1964 as a medical student and stayed on to work as a doctor. When the war broke out, he was working at the hospital in Vukovar, and was captured alongside his colleagues.
“We were told that the [Yugoslav] army would let women, children, and medical personnel to go to Vinkovci [in Croatia], whereas the others would be taken prisoner,” he recalled.
“But when we got out, they began separating us – men to one side, women and children to another. Without asking anyone their name or their ethnicity or anything, they started pushing us into buses using weapons and insulting us.”
Decades after the conflicts that accompanied the collapse of Yugoslavia ended, the question of whether Vojvodina was actually in a state of war in the 1990s has yet to be comprehensively established. Serbian officials have always insisted that the 1990s conflicts only happened outside the country’s borders.
BIRN’s research in the archives of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, ICTY, and the personal testimonies of those who survived, shows however that a series of crimes were committed during the war years in Vojvodina, and that many of the perpetrators have never been prosecuted. Meanwhile, the crimes themselves are still being downplayed or ignored.
‘How much we have suffered’
In April 2013, Hicham Malla appeared as a witness at the ICTY in the case against Goran Hadzic, the Serb wartime leader from Croatia who headed the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina rebel statelet.
According to the ICTY’s indictments of Hadzic and Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, hundreds of Croats who had lived in areas of the country that were seized by Serb forces ended up in detention in Vojvodina.
They were held in a prison in the town of Sremska Mitrovica, at agricultural complexes in the villages of Stajicevo and Begejci (since renamed Torak), and in military buildings in the cities of Sid and Zrenjanin. Some ex-prisoners said they were interrogated in the cities of Novi Sad and Sombor as well.
Nowadays, Vojvodina’s government presents the northern Serbian province, with its many ethnic minorities, as a kind of multicultural paradise.
Nenad Dimitrijevic, a professor at Central European University, pointed out that in its modern history, Vojvodina has belonged to various different states – the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Yugoslavia, socialist Yugoslavia, and today’s Serbia.
“Each of these regimes in its own way played with the ethnic composition of Vojvodina, through oppression, favouritism, colonisation or expulsion of ethnic groups. It is perhaps true that, despite all this turbulence, a kind of culture of mutual respect existed in certain periods,” said Dimitrijevic.
“But I am afraid that the wars of 1990s revealed that the story of the unique multicultural quality of the region is largely a myth.”
In successive elections after Slobodan Milosevic came to power in Yugoslavia, a sizeable proportion of Serb voters in Vojvodina supported nationalist parties.
“The consequences are clear. If we look at the population censuses of 1991, 2002, and 2011, we will see figures revealing a constant decrease in the presence of national minorities, both in absolute numbers and proportionally. So whoever speaks of Vojvodina as a ‘multicultural paradise’ is either ignorant or cynical,” argued Dimitrijevic.
The crimes of the 1990s are often overlooked. A museum was opened at the Sremska Mitrovica prison last December, but the history it documents ends abruptly before the last decade of the 20th Century.
Instead it focuses on Serb victims of suffering. When it opened, one Belgrade-based tabloid published a report under the headline: “Creepy Exhibition at Sremska Mitrovica Penitentiary: Innocent Serbs Tortured, Hanged and Burned Alive.”
The tabloid article quoted prison warden Aleksandar Alimpic, who said that Serbs “quickly forgive, but [we] are often quick to forget as well. I am worried that our children are not learning how much we have suffered”.
Hundreds of non-Serb prisoners from Croatia were held at the Sremska Mitrovica prison from November 18, 1991 until August 22, 1992 and subjected to torture and psychological abuse. But at the museum at least, their suffering definitely appears to have been quickly forgotten.
‘A sea of human bodies’
Testimonies from trials at the ICTY show that Croatian Serb leader Goran Hadzic visited the prison in Sremska Mitrovica at least once.
“He just observed it and walked around,” recalled former prisoner Vilim Karlovic. “Some people who accompanied him said things to people, taunted them.”
Another prisoner, Ljubo Pribudic, was even interrogated by Hadzic. “And he turned back to me and said: ‘Which side of the face did they slap you on?’ And I said: ‘This one.’ And then he slapped me on the other side. And he said: ‘Just so you’re not beaten always on the same side.’”
Witnesses testified that the brutality would start on their arrival at the prison. “They took us out into a basketball court. It was a concrete surface and they told us to lie prone on it. There was pouring rain. We lay there for quite a long time. Then they told us, ‘Get up.’ And they forced us to run a gauntlet,” recalled Pribudic.
“I was knocked off my feet, but I managed to get up and run the gauntlet to the end. Then we reached a patch of grass. They told us that we should sit down and take our shoes off. Then they started beating us by giving us blows to the soles of our feet, and kept on hitting us all the way up our body.”
At the trial of Hadzic, a protected witness codenamed GH-080 described the conditions in the prison as being “just awful, especially for those who were wounded… There were people there without arms or legs. Just the sight of them was terrible.”
Pribudic remembers people “lying cheek by jaw, like sardines… If you had to go and relieve yourself at night, you had to step over someone and then you would fall over them. It was a sea of human bodies.”
Prisoner Zeljko Sandor described how Croat deserters from the Yugoslav People’s Army were kept in isolation cells and were subjected to even harsher physical and mental punishment.
“Apart from beatings, they had to sing [Serb nationalist] Chetnik songs. They had to bark like dogs at light bulbs and say things like ‘Long live Serbia’,” Sandor said.
BIRN contacted Serbian Administration for the Enforcement of Penal Sanctions to ask if it has documents or artefacts from this period and if they might be available to the public. BIRN also asked why the prison museum does not mention what happened there in the 1990s. There was no reply.
‘God damn every traitor’
Other detention facilities in Vojvodina were also characterised by inhumane treatment, overcrowding, forced labour, inadequate medical care and constant physical and psychological abuse.
The Youth Initiative for Human Rights NGO has reported that the decision to create the detention camps in Stajicevo and Begejci was signed by general Veljko Kadijevic of the Yugoslav People’s Army. Kadijevic died in Moscow in 2014 without ever standing trial. Croatia incited him for war crimes and issued an arrest warrant, but Russia never extradited him.
When the captive doctor Hicham Mala arrived at Stajicevo in his “convoy of 1,200 Ustasas”, the first thing he saw was a dirty barn that looked like it had been used for 15 years. There was no electricity, lights or windowpanes. Prisoners were crammed into stalls built for cattle.
“As we entered, we were shouted at, we were beaten, they trained those lights on us and they instructed us to lie down on the floor and said we should not lift our heads,” Mala said. “There was commotion and chaos. There were dogs there as well. It was like in a movie.”
Every morning, around 1,000 prisoners were woken up at 5am and forced to sing the Yugoslav national anthem.
“There’s one part of the anthem that says, ‘God damn every traitor’, and they were supposed to repeat that part at least 100 times because they were the traitors, and everybody who did not sing would be punished by being beaten,” Mala recalled.
While Mala was locked up at the farm in Stajicevo, another doctor, Mladen Loncar, was being held prisoner 34 kilometres away, at another farm in the Serbian village of Begejci, near the city of Zrenjanin.
Among some 750 inmates who were held at Begejci, there was a group of female prisoners, some of whom were taken out of the camp and sexually assaulted.
After he was freed under a prisoner exchange, Loncar said he started to provide psychosocial help to former inmates and spoke to some of the women who survived.
“They corroborated my suspicion and told me devastating stories. Some women had been taken not only to the guards’ dorms but also to hotels in Zrenjanin. They felt like private prostitutes,” he said.
One protected witness at the Hadzic trial codenamed GH-085 was two-and-a-half months pregnant when soldiers entered her village in Eastern Slavonia in Croatia. She eventually taken to the Begejci detention facility, where she spent two months.
In the camp, she lost a lot of weight, so the guards didn’t even know she was pregnant. Eventually she gave birth to a healthy son.
“When I returned to Vukovar, I was asked: ‘Is it possible that you survived the camp and the beatings and the mistreatment?’ Because they had heard from other camp inmates what had been going on,” she told the ICTY.
“And I said: ‘Yes, I survived. Man is stronger than steel.’”
Back in 2008, the Vukovar 1991 lawyers’ association filed a criminal complaint to the Serbian War Crimes Prosecutor’s Office in Belgrade about the crimes committed in five wartime detention camps in Serbia.
“As regards the camps, the killings in the camps, the rapes of women, the beating of detainees, responsibility lies with the then leadership of Serbia and former Yugoslavia, the Yugoslav People’s Army chain of command and, of course, the then leadership of Vojvodina,” said Pero Kovacevic, vice-president of Vukovar 1991.
There has been no apparent progress in dealing with the lawyers’ complaint in the 12 years since it was submitted.
Five years ago, a delegation from Vukovar 1991 met Aleksandar Vucic – then prime minister, now president of Serbia – and it was agreed that Serbia would enable former inmates to pay a commemorative visit from Croatia to the site of the former camp in Stajicevo.
“Unfortunately, Vucic didn’t keep his word and did not allow us to go to Stajicevo, light candles and lay wreaths and flowers in memory of those murdered in camps in Serbia,” said Kovacevic.
‘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.
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.