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Last Updated: Saturday, 13 March, 2004, 16:36 GMT
Vukovar massacre haunts Serbs

By Allan Little
BBC world affairs correspondent

The first major war crimes trial in Serbia since the Balkan war has opened in Belgrade. Six Serbs are accused of massacring 192 Croat prisoners of war during the 1991 war in the Balkans.

Allan Little recalls the events of 13 years ago and asks if the Serbian people are finally ready to face up to the bloody actions carried out in their name.

For days we sat waiting for the end.

Serb troops lead Croat civilian after entry into Vukovar in 1991
Many Serbs are only now finding out about the Vukovar massacre

The only way into Vukovar had been along a treacherous dirt track through a field of unharvested corn. But now even this was impassable.

The windscreen wipers smeared mud across the glass and we peered out across the autumnal gloom.

The regular crump of mortar fire shook the vehicle. On the dashboard radio, day after day, the voice of Sinisa Glavasevic, the young Radio Croatia journalist assigned to cover the siege.

Day by day he chronicled the destruction of the town, the plight of those trapped there, how they had fled to the hospital compound in the city centre and were living there among the dead and wounded.

He described how the town's defenders were being steadily, systematically ground down by the unstoppable barrage of the Yugoslav Army and Serbian Militia.

I will never forget his voice - compelling, clear, persistent, determined, and, in the end...unbearably desperate.

Neither will I forget the faces of those who got out just before the end.

Young men, not much more than boys, who had made the dash through the over-ripe corn on foot in the dead of night to the neighbouring town of Vinkovci where we had taken shelter.

When they learned at dawn that the town had fallen, and that they were the last to make it out, their grief was unspeakable. Exhausted, sunken grey faces whose eyes sought each other out, to find out who had made it and who had not.


The Yugoslav Army were now in charge in Vukovar.

Acting with them, bands of semi-autonomous militiamen bent on revenge.

You could buy a hand grenade from a Serb irregular on the siege lines around Sarajevo for one US dollar

This duality was something we would see again and again in Bosnia in the years that were to follow.

The relative discipline of regular officers and professional soldiers of the Yugoslav Army who were acting in tandem with the wild criminality of the irregulars.

The two colluded.

The following year you could buy a hand grenade from a Serb irregular on the siege lines around Sarajevo. The price? One US dollar.

Inside the city, the same amount would buy you an egg.

Serb forces
Serb paramilitary soldiers rejoice after capturing Vukovar in 1991

Those who fell into the hands not of the Yugoslav regulars, but of the local militia, did not come back.

Six army buses pulled up at the main gate of the hospital. Almost 200 men - selected it seems at random - were ordered at gun point to get on board.

They were taken to a clearing in a wood near a pig farm, a couple of miles outside the town, and ordered to stand beside an open pit.

They were machine gunned to death. Two hundred prisoners of war summarily executed.

'In denial'

But as we gazed across the cornfield through the damp gloom that day in November 1991, we were not to know.

Serbia today is still in denial about the crimes that were committed in its name

My Croatian interpreter and I sat in silence.

Then he said: "We should make a fuss about Sinisa Glavasevic. We should do a story about him for the BBC.

"On the Serb side he is hated for his broadcasts. If we try to give him an international profile, it might give him some protection. They might be afraid to harm him."

Serbia today is still in denial about the crimes that were committed in its name.

That is why the trial that opened this week has the potential to make history.

For years, Serbia has thought of itself as the principal victim of the Milosevic years. Public opinion has always been hostile to the idea that Serbs engaged in anything other than legitimate defence.

The accused

It has been easy for Serb sentiment to dismiss the Hague tribunal as part of the international anti-Serb consensus, one more brick in the edifice of Serb victimhood.

Major Slivancanin, one of the 'Vukovar Three' is awaiting trial in The Hague
Veselin Slivancanin, charged with responsibility for the massacre, is being tried in The Hague

The three men accused of giving the murderous order that day in Vukovar are in the Hague awaiting trial.

The most senior, Major Slivancanin, like many of those indicted by the Hague, is something of a national hero.

But the trial that opened this week in Belgrade is not an international court.

It is Serbian, with Serbs in the dock, accused of killing non-Serbs.

These six are charged with pulling the triggers - not of giving the orders, but of obeying them.

Day of reckoning

The Serbian judiciary is also on trial. The case is a test of its willingness to pursue justice in crimes committed in the name of the Serbian people.

It is a test of its ability to hold up a mirror to the Serb nation and force the country, collectively and for the first time, to really confront what happened.

Miroljub Vujovic
Stanko Vujanovic
Jovica Peric
Milan Vojnovic
Ivan Atanasijevic
Predrag Madzarac

It must face the evidence that mass murder was not only committed, but also perhaps ordered as a deliberate act of state policy.

We never did make a fuss of Sinisa Glavasevic.

We never gave him the international profile that my Croatian friend hoped might save him.

Serb nationalists considered him a war criminal for what he had broadcast, day after day. It did not fit with their conception of Serbia as uniquely blameless.

They killed him with the others, on the edge of that open pit, taking their revenge not just against one man, or against Croatia, but in a sense, on the very idea of bearing witness.

Is Serbia ready at last to scrutinise its past?

We shall see.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 13 March, 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

War crimes trial test for Serbs
09 Mar 04  |  Europe
Serbs welcome 'mini-Hague'
09 Mar 04  |  Europe
Profile: The 'Vukovar Three'
09 Mar 04  |  Europe
Vukovar massacre: What happened
13 Jun 03  |  Europe

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