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SERBIAN PARAMILITARY ACTIVITY
Vukovar County is in eastern Croatia, separated from Serbia by the Danube River. According to the 1991 census, the population of Vukovar County was 84,024, of which 37.4 per cent was Serb, 43.7 per cent Croat, 7.4 per cent 'Yugoslav'and 11.6 per cent 'others'.
Serbian paramilitary activity
On 1 April 1991, in the town of Borovo in Vukovar County, six weeks before Croatian Stipe Mesic was to become the president of the collective head of state, some of Seselj's troops moved into the village of Borovo. The 'Cetniks'had been sent to the region to protect the minority Serbs from the increasingly nationalistic Croatians. The 'Cetniks'allegedly surrounded two police patrols, injuring five, one critically. Barricades and armed sentries were established at various locations in the region, but reports suggest that they were mainly staffed by Serbs from the neighbouring communities of Vukovar and Vinkovci. Seselj, however, had personally visited Vukovar the night of 31 March. The 'Cetniks'remained in the region and the JNA remained silent and made no attempt to disarm them.
Seselj returned to the region on 21 April 1991 to give a speech in the village of Jagodnjak. The speech prompted the district public prosecutor's office to issue a warrant for Seselj's arrest on 7 May for provoking and fomenting national hatred and intolerance between Croatians and Serbians.
On 8 May 1991, a gun-fight broke out in the region between police in the village of Borovo Selo and 14 members of the 'Cetniks'accompanied by two members of the Serbian Renaissance Movement, and six local Serbs. The shooting began as a result of an alleged ambush of the police by the 'Cetniks', in which 12 police were killed and at least one had his eyes extracted.
Seselj publicly acknowledged that his Cetniks killed the 12 Borovo Selo police, but insisted that the altercation resulted after an attack by members of the Croatian Ministry of Internal Affairs and was an alleged ambush. Seselj confirmed that the eyes of one policeman were missing and attributed it to the strong impact of the bullet from the Thompson automatic sub- machine-gun to the head of the victim.
The names of the 12 or 13 police that were killed were not disclosed in the reports, nor were the names of the witnesses. According to a Newsday report, the deputy commander of the Cetnik operation was 23 year-old Oliver Denis Barret. A Los Angeles Times report did name Vladimir Mrklja, a 21 year-old unemployed Serbian, as one of the 'Cetniks' involved in the incident.
The battle over Vukovar raged in the summer and fall months of 1991. A report quoted Arkan, while in battle over Serb-populated areas of Croatia, as saying, 'We have to free our children and our women which are holding [sic] as hostages there'.
On 14 October 1991, Serbian irregulars and members of the JNA entered the village of Bapska. In the first few days of occupation, 70 Croatian houses were burned and 18 Croatian civilians killed. In November 1991, Arkan's troops arrived and the assaults against the Croatians increased.
A Yugoslav army internal memorandum, signed by Colonel Milan Eremija a month before the fall of Vukovar and sent to the army's regional command office, identified two militia groups in the Vukovar region as dangerous to 'military morale'. One was a band led by Arkan and the other, the Cetniks led by Seselj. The memorandum said that there were many paramilitary formations from Serbia and self-proclaimed volunteers, whose primary motive was not fighting against the enemy but robbery of private property and inhuman treatment of Croatian citizens. The memorandum reportedly recommended that all paramilitary groups in the area be disarmed.
In November of 1991, Serb militia forces devastated the city of Vukovar. According to a New York Times report, during the final days of the Vukovar battle, Western reporters saw Serbian soldiers pulling men in civilian clothes from columns of refugees and shooting them on the spot. Women, children and the elderly were among the victims. In late November 1991, the last defenders of Vukovar, which had been predominantly Croatian, hid in cellars with their families to escape the shelling. Reportedly, those who had refused to surrender when the army took the city's centre were blasted when guerrillas lobbed grenades to flush out each basement. Reports describe that on 19 November 1991, Serbian paramilitary units under the command of Vlado Kovacevic took Vukovar civilians from their basements to the Pekara bakery, where they were reportedly killed with knives and burned in a baker's oven.
According to several witness testimonies, Seselj himself was in Vukovar on 19 November 1991. He allegedly paid each of his troops 23,000 dinars. He gave the instruction, 'Surrender and stab to death'. About 960 persons were allegedly stabbed to death that day.
On 19 November 1991, having heard a report that hundreds of wounded Croatians, many with gangrene, were hiding in the hospital basement without medicine or electricity, U.N. peace envoy Cyrus Vance and International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) representatives reportedly demanded access to the hospital in Vukovar. The field commander of the Serb-led Yugoslav army, which had captured the city, did not permit access. The commander reportedly said that the hospital was mined, and he could not guarantee their safety.
Concurrent with the Vance/ICRC visit, Yugoslav Army soldiers and Serb paramilitaries put Vukovar hospital patients and medical personnel on several buses to Ovcara and frequently beat and mistreated the prisoners during the journey. Along the way, the buses stopped at the JNA barracks where the prisoners were again beaten. Upon their arrival at Ovcara, the prisoners were stripped of their belongings and further beaten. One witness stated that at least two men were beaten to death. On 20 November, the Yugoslav army soldiers divided the prisoners into groups of 20 and loaded each group onto a truck to be driven away. Fifteen minutes later the truck would return, empty and ready to take on another group of prisoners. A witness said that many of the Serb paramilitaries spoke openly of the shootings. One gunman reportedly said: 'Since five in the afternoon to one in the morning, we were killing them in Ovcara'. According to the 29 November 1991 edition of the Croatian magazine Globus, a Serbian soldier who introduced himself as one of Arkan's men told a reporter who visited Vukovar one day after it fell: 'We summarily executed 300 prisoners. We have a people's court here, you shoot and that's it.'
Several witnesses related that several factions were involved in the imprisonment and eventual mass killing of the Croatians from Vukovar Hospital: the White Eagles, the Serbian Volunteer Guard (led by Arkan), the Cetniks (led by Seselj), the first company of the territorial defence unit of Vukovar, and other Yugoslav army regulars. The SAO Krajina Police (possibly Martic's Militia) were also mentioned. A witness mentioned several individuals as perpetrators of the detention, beating, and killing of between 200 to 300 Croatians. The witness identified six of the men who beat the prisoners while they waited at the JNA barracks to be transported to Ovcara. However, their names are not disclosed for confidentiality and prosecutorial reasons. The witness identified the officer who directed the Vukovar hospital evacuation and named four others. Names are not disclosed for confidentiality and prosecutorial reasons.
In the fall of 1992, international forensic experts discovered a shallow mass grave about six miles south-east of Vukovar. The scientists found the mass grave by following detailed map information provided by a Vukovar hospital patient, who said he escaped from a truck full of prisoners by jumping out. At the mass grave, the scientists saw hundreds of bullet holes in nearby saplings and mounds of metal casings from spent machine-gun bullets. The experts reportedly concluded that the grave was the site of a machine-gun execution of about 200 people. They found an area of disturbed earth and, within minutes, skeletons. Reportedly the area looked as if a bulldozer had shoveled out a trench. Scientists had a list of 180 missing patients and 30 staff members who were in the hospital when Vukovar fell as well as hospital records showing what wounds the patients had when they were admitted to the hospital.
Clyde Snow, an American forensic anthropologist who headed the team investigating the Vukovar case, said in a January 1993 interview that evidence found at the mass grave was consistent with witnesses' testimony of how Croatian patients were taken from the hospital by Serb combatants. Snow indicated that the artifacts found on the bodies were Croatian, and that the bodies were suspiciously close to where witnesses said they would be. According to Snow, Roman Catholic crosses and rosary beads found on two bodies exhumed at the site suggested that the dead were Croats. Of the two bodies examined thus far, both had gunshot wounds to the head. Snow's team, organized by a US-based group called Physicians for Human Rights, released a report in January 1993.
Seselj and his men were also said to have been at Velepromet, the holding facility for civilians who were eventually taken to other prison camps. This report stated that with help from local 'Cetniks', 250 persons were stripped and killed with a knife. The bodies were stacked one upon another, face down. Croatians were forced to bury the bodies at an old brickyard at Sajmiste. From there, the corpses were transported to Grabovo and thrown into a hole.
As a result of the fighting in Vukovar, 1,798 people are known to have died and 2,500 are missing on the Croatian side. The Serbian side has not released casualty figures. Another report puts the death toll at 5,000. Slavko Dokmanovic, the Serb-installed president of Vukovar's city council, said that about 5,000 people had died in the fight but did not indicate how he calculated the figure.
The city of Vukovar sustained massive destruction: every tree was reduced to splinters; every vehicle perforated; every roof torn off; not a single home habitable; no shop, church, or public building intact; and a rubber factory which had provided 60,000 jobs was in shambles. A report said that the stench of rotting flesh emanated from under the piles of rubble. In September 1992, a reporter observed in residential neighbourhoods, reportedly with no strategic value, that every single home had been gutted by grenades, tank fire, and machine-gun salvos, every window broken, and every roof blown off. Some homes had Orthodox Serbian cross painted on ruined walls, others the Catholic cross of Croatia, symbols reportedly intended to protect the homes from respective opposing armies.
According to a San Francisco Chronicle report, Arkan's troops were responsible for much of the destruction in the Croatian neighbourhoods. Another report attributed the wreckage to the work of Yugoslav federal forces, and quoted Arkan as saying that the destruction of Croatian 'fascists' had been necessary in order to protect against 'genocide'. Shortly after the fall of Vukovar, Arkan reportedly said that his forces were under the direct command of the Yugoslav armed forces. A news article claims that he told reporters in Erdut that Osijek would fall more easily than Vukovar.
By the end of November 1991, Vukovar was named the capital of the Serbian Autonomous Region of Slavonia, Baranja, and West Srem. After surveying the ruins of Vukovar, Belgrade, Mayor Milorad Unkovic vowed to rebuild the city as a monument to Serbian determination. Unkovic told a handful of unshaven, middle-aged guerrillas, 'To rebuild this town is the humane thing to do. It's something that has to be done for the people who lived here and wish to remain.' These guerillas, who had stopped looting to join the Belgrade delegation, wore Serbian nationalist insignia.
Serb paramilitary groups also allegedly operated in Lovas and Borovo, two villages within Vukovar county. Arkan himself was once in Borovo, at which time he personally killed a village resident in front of witnesses.
The attack on Lovas began on 10 October 1991. During the first few days of the attack, 'Cetniks' allegedly killed over 70 persons and burned over 50 houses. The report identified the 'Cetnik units' as those of Dusan Silni and the White Eagles.
On 22 December 1991, a resident of Lovas was taken from his house with another civilian to the town police station, where Arkan's units were located, along with White Eagles and Knindza's units. The citizens were beaten, kicked, and abused. They were then taken to a garage with other villagers, and three of them were crucified and made to sing Croatian songs. Eventually all of the villagers were released.
In addition, an Amnesty International Report from March 1992 refers to numerous summary executions of civilians in the Lovas area. These executions were carried out by several different paramilitary groups, including the Beli Orlovi (White Eagles), Dusan Silni (Dusan the Great), Arkan's and Seselj's men, Jovicevci and Marticevci. Specifically, the report notes that on an unspecified date, 51 Croatian civilians were killed by Serb irregulars, and an additional 17 civilians were forced to hold hands and enter a minefield. Many of them were seriously wounded in the subsequent explosions.
Serb paramilitary forces were also active in Tovarnik, a town south-east of Vukovar city, on the border separating Croatia from Serbia. According to reports, on 7 September 1991, Dusan Silni forces killed a Catholic priest and set homes on fire there. Reports also describe how, between 27 and 30 September 1991, a Serbian paramilitary unit called Drago's Group raped two 14 year-old girls in front of their grandmother and killed approximately 80 people.
In Borovo Naselje, a local paramilitary unit allegedly detained civilians and transported them to a prison camp at Stajicevo in Serbia. A witness stated that during the ride to the prison camp, members of the paramilitary unit beat the prisoners. The same witness stated that the Stajicevo prison camp held 6,500 people from Vukovar County and that many women were detained there.