By R. Jeffrey SmithCroatia moves to expose its ugly secret
Thursday, May 18, 2000
GOSPIC, Croatia –– On an autumn afternoon 9 1/2 years ago, soldiers came to Branka Krajnevic's home and took her mother away for questioning. Ten days later, they went to a nearby village where her family had fled and forced her elderly father to climb aboard a truck.
She never saw them again, but Krajnevic--who still weeps when she recalls those days--has little doubt what happened. Her mother and father were almost certainly two of at least 120 ethnic Serbs slain by Croats when this corner of the old Yugoslav federation declared independence and dissolved into chaos and violence in 1991.
The killings in Gospic were perhaps the gravest atrocity committed by Croats against ethnic Serb civilians during four years of brutal conflict between the two peoples on Croatian soil. They embarrassed Croatian leaders acutely at the time, but a willful, collective amnesia quickly took hold of the country's populace.
Now, in a sudden burst of introspection following a change of government in February, Croats are beginning to acknowledge that terrible acts were committed during their nation's rebirth as an independent state and that justice has yet to be done. As Croatian Veterans Affairs Minister Ivica Pancic told an unprecedented war crimes symposium last week in Zagreb, the capital, the issue is now being discussed "with an explosive fervor."
This month, the government allowed forensic pathologists from the international war crimes tribunal in The Hague to visit Croatia for the first time. Their trip to Gospic prompted complaints by the town's mayor and an angry street protest by thousands of veterans of Croatia's war of independence. Government officials say, however, that they are determined to continue cooperating with the tribunal as a means of helping restore the country's reputation, which was battered by years of denials of any wrongdoing.
The forensic team stayed in Gospic just two weeks, but acting on tips from witnesses, it was able to extract 10 skeletons from a septic tank in the heart of the city's ruined Serb neighborhood. The bones were compacted between layers of clay and rubble, then covered by more debris from an expertly dynamited stone wall.
"The perpetrators of the crimes had gone to some lengths to make the job difficult," said Paul Risley, the tribunal's spokesman. "The events that occurred are a sad and tragic chapter" in the brutal history of Yugoslavia's breakup, Risley added, "but for the victims and their families, this is a very important investigation--and also for Croatia as it tries to come to terms with the violence that covered all of the country."
In an area of Gospic where more than 12,000 ethnic Serbs lived before war broke out in 1991, time has essentially stood still. Although the heavily damaged Croatian half of the town has been largely rebuilt with government funds, none of the hundreds of destroyed Serb-owned homes has been touched. Their gutted, roofless rooms still gape at the sky, while their weed-choked yards are still laden with land mines. About 40,000 ethnic Serbs have returned to Croatia since the war ended in 1995, but none has resettled in Gospic.
Like many atrocities, the killings in Gospic on Oct. 16, 17 and 18 did not occur in isolation. They came in a burst of anger after 30 Croatian civilians were slain in a nearby village and Gospic's Roman Catholic Church was destroyed by besieging Serb nationalist forces. Meanwhile, ethnic Serb militia units--backed by the Yugoslav army--had been shelling Gospic for more than a month in a bid to seize it and advance to the Adriatic coast, 17 miles away.
Many ethnic Serbs had already fled Gospic in fear, but in radio and television broadcasts, Croatian officials urged them to come back. Shortly thereafter, the town's police chief ordered that a list of returning Serbs be drawn up, ostensibly to ensure that none were hostile. But, witnesses say, the list formed the basis of a kidnapping and killing spree by the Croatian military, which particularly targeted ethnic Serb community leaders. On Oct. 16, 1991, for example, masked men entered a basement where dozens of Serbs and Croats had taken shelter from the Serb shelling. "They put guns in . . . [the Serbs'] mouths and led them out," said Maritsa Barac, a Croat who was present. On Oct. 18, townspeople saw local Serbs being loaded aboard 11 military trucks at the Gospic cattle market; none ever returned.
Witnesses say the corpses of many ethnic Serbs were later deposited at the edge of territory held by Serb nationalist forces. Milan Levar, a Croatian resident of Gospic who led a militia unit in 1991 but is now a tribunal witness, said he saw Croatian gunmen drive to the town cemetery with dead Serbs tied to the hoods of their cars. "Eighty percent of the people in this town have some connection to these  crimes," Levar said. "Everybody knows what happened here, but they don't want to expose it to the world."
For years, Croatian President Franjo Tudjman blamed the slayings on Serbs and foreign agents. He briefly arrested a Croatian militia leader in connection with the killings, but then released him and assigned him to the Interior Ministry. In 1997, a Croatian soldier confessed to killing 72 ethnic Serbs in the Gospic area in 1991 and said he knew of the slayings of hundreds more. He later retracted parts of his confession, however, and a Croatian court acquitted him of murder charges.
"The justice system, together with the police, were hibernating," said Ranko Marijan, the deputy justice minister in the government that took office after Tudjman's death last December. "I'm not confident that the Croatian police properly conducted their work." In an indication of the new government's greater openness, Croatia dispatched three planes to The Hague last month with 80 boxes of documents about Operation Flash and Operation Storm, 1995 military actions designed to drive ethnic Serbs from the Krajina region of Croatia and recapture Serb-held land in the country's western Slavonia region. Hundreds of ethnic Serb civilians are believed to have been killed in those operations.
A tribunal official said the documents may amount to only 20 percent of what Croatia should hand over, but, Risley said, a comparison between the new government's attitude toward the tribunal with that of the Tudjman regime is like "night and day."
But despite the government's new cooperative stance, resistance continues at lower levels. Gospic Mayor Milan Kolic keeps a picture on his office wall of him and some friends carrying automatic rifles. His town, he says, was "hit particularly hard" by the war, and as far as the slain ethnic Serb civilians go, they "don't exist, and this has been proven. . . . The people in Gospic want to move on."
But Branka Krajnevic, one of only a handful of residents who will acknowledge publicly that they are ethnic Serbs, says that many people in Gospic support the tribunal's investigation. "There is a minority which terrorizes the majority," she said, "people in high places [in Gospic] who are afraid of the presence of the investigators because it's a threat to them."