The outcome of the armed conflict in the former SFR Yugoslavia, between 1991 do 2001, is the violent death of 130 000 persons. Over 10 000 are still classified as missing. Serbia’s officials and institutions have, from the beginning of the armed conflict to this day, with very few exceptions, denied the involvement of the SFR and Serbian armed forces in the conflicts in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. They have also denied the existence of any war crimes on the territory of Serbia in relation to these armed conflicts.
As an antithesis to the practice of forgetting the atrocities of war, the platform ratusrbiji.rs strives to inform and educate about the existence of secret mass graves, concentration camps and torture, murders and persecution of minorities, forced mobilization, paramilitary units’ crimes, as well as the human rights breaches in the Presevo valley between 1991 to 2001. The platform does this through connecting court-determined facts, official data of state and international institutions, testimonies of witnesses, survivors and victims’ families, as well as public information gathered by civil society organizations in Serbia.
The platform ratusrbiji.rs was supported by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany. The content and opinions featured on the ratusrbiji.rs website are those of the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, and may not reflect the official stance of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The first multi-party elections were organised both in Croatia and in Serbia in 1990. In Croatia, the nationalist party Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ), led by Franjo Tuđman, won the elections. On May 30 1990, Tuđman became the President of the Presidency of the Socialist Republic of Croatia and on that occasion expressed his view regarding the independence of Croatia and a need for it to leave the Socialist Federative Republic of Yugoslavia (SFRY). At the same time, another nationalist party – the Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS), led by Slobodan Milošević, won the elections in Serbia.
On August 16 that year, the Serb National Council (SNV) called for a referendum on the autonomy of Serbs in Croatia. The Croatian Government declared the referendum unconstitutional and headed to the towns in the Krajina region where Serbs lived as majority to remove the weapons from the police stations. Serbian population responded by putting the barricades made of logs on the roads.1After that, in the spring of 1991, in an incident at Plitvice Lakes on March 31, two citizens were killed. The conflict in Borovo Selo followed on May 2 1991, when Croatian police officers once again tried to take over power, after the volunteers of the Serb Volunteer Guard (SDG) and the paramilitary unit Dušan Silni appeared in this town in April.
As presented in the Humanitarian Law Centre’s (HLC) Dossier, Crimes against Croats in Vojvodina,2since the summer of 1991, the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) had become an army which openly sided with Serbia and started shelling Croatian towns. The shelling and siege of Vukovar lasted for 87 days, from August to November 1991.
Besides the JNA, the volunteers of Vojislav Šešelj’s Serbian Radical Party (SRS) also participated in the war in Croatia. The SRS was formed in 1991 by Šešelj’s having integrated the committees of the People’s Radical Party into the Serbian Chetnik Movement, established in 1990, which failed to register as a party.3 The SRS was indirectly sending volunteers to the battlefield, where they were mostly deployed in the units of the Territorial Defence or smaller volunteer groups. The volunteers were not necessarily SRS members, while the SRS, i.e. its party structures did not participate in the war. In June 1991, Šešelj became a deputy at the Parliament of the Republic of Serbia,4while during 1992, he formed a minority government with Milošević and SPS.5
Vojislav Šešelj’s nationalistic rhetoric of Greater Serbia resulted in ethnic cleansing, persecution and forcible displacement of Croats from Vojvodina, which was implemented in the field by his supporters. The supporters and members of Šešelj’s party, together with other paramilitary units such as Arkan’s Tigers, as well as the Ministry of the Interior and the State Security Service (RDB), started intimidating and harassing Croats in Vojvodina as soon as in 1990 and this lasted until 1995.
What can be observed is that the terror and persecution of the Croatian population in Vojvodina in different towns and villages, and in different time periods, were unfolding following almost identical pattern.
The violence would start with the arrival of strangers who would appear around the house and start making enquiries about the possibility of exchange. The exchange meant that the Croats from Serbia would give their houses to the Serbs from Croatia and move into their houses in exchange. Vojislav Šešelj was emphasising that the exchanges were a fair response to the expulsion of Serbian population from Slavonia, which resulted in the arrival of more than 10,000 Serbian refugees to Vojvodina by the summer of 1992.6Šešelj also claimed that Croats got Serbian houses on the Adriatic coast which were of much higher value.7
After the inquiries, threatening telephone calls would come, followed by the planting of bombs in the yards. Such an atmosphere was created that the citizens of Croatian origin were forced to leave. The first to be targeted were the wealthier families and their estates, because it was considered that after their expulsion, others would move out more easily.
The involvement of state institutions, presence of the persecution pattern, as well as the frequency and duration of their implementation, indicate that the expulsion of Croats was planned and systematic, and that it was not about isolated incidents and a consequence of actions of uncontrolled extremists. In addition to intimidation and harassment of Croats, their evictions and expulsion to Croatia, the cases of disappearances and murders of Croatian population were registered in the first half of the 1990s, as well.
The terrorising of Croats in Vojvodina started by planting explosive at the Franciscan monastery in Bač in the summer of 1990,8 but the violence only intensified a year later. In 1991 in Novi Slankamen, a Croatian checkerboard was raised on the building of Croatian Peasants’ House. After that event, the citizens of Novi Slankamen were terrorised by Mihajlo Ulemek, member of Arkan’s Serb Volunteer Guard. A rape was also reported.9 The same year a bomb was thrown at the building of the “Matija Gubec” Cultural and Educational Society in Ruma,10 which is situated in the Ruma suburb of Breg, where many Croats lived. Attacks on cultural monuments, in addition to daily intimidation, were another way of terrorising Croats and trying to make them leave their homes.
One of the more striking events from 1991 took place in Apatin. Namely, Antun Silađev, water supply worker, was beaten heavily by two JNA soldiers. The HLC launched a procedure on his behalf in 2002 for the recognition of the status of civilian invalid of war. The Administrative Court in Novi Sad rejected HLC’s lawsuit in 2014, saying that: “the Law stipulates that only persons victimised by ‘enemy forces’ could be considered civilian invalids of war, while the JNA is not considered an enemy army.”11
In the autumn of 1991, uniformed persons in the JNA vehicles arrested and took Stevan Đurkov, a Croat from Sonta (Apatin municipality), as well as brothers Mato and Ivica Abjanović from Morović, Šid municipality. They have been registered as missing persons ever since and nobody has been held accountable for that.12 Krešimir Herceg, Croat from Višnjićevo (Šid municipality) was killed as well, although it is interesting that there are two versions of how his murder happened. According to the first version, Đorđe Dvoranac, by his own confession, shot the unknown person on the bridge; according to the second, the villagers saw Dvoranac beating Herceg while taking him towards the bridge. Still, Dvoranac was never prosecuted for this crime, although criminal charges were raised against him.13
On May 6 1992, in the village of Hrtkovci, Ruma municipality, Vojislav Šešelj delivered a speech stating that there was no place for Croats in Serbia and called Serbs to unite and expel Croats from Hrtkovci. Following this event, around 10,000 Croats left Vojvodina by August 1992.14 Ostoja Sibinčić, president of the Hrtkovci Local Community Office (MZ) and Rade Čakmak, a refugee from Croatia and former commander of the Territorial Defence in Grubišno Polje,15both SRS supporters, particularly stood out for their participation in the expulsion of Croats from Hrtkovci and its surroundings. Zvezdan Jovanović,16 member of the Special Operations Unit (JSO), also participated in expelling Croats from Hrtkovci. Later, he was sentenced to 40 years’ imprisonment for the assassination of Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Đinđić. Ostoja Sibinčić even tried to install a board with a new name of the village – Srboslavci; however, the police removed it soon.17There was also an attempt to change the name of the village of Kukujevci.18 Although such attempts had failed, the names of the streets in these villages were changed.
It is interesting that in Kukujevci, Šid municipality, an agency was set up dealing with the exchange of houses between Serbs and Croats; it had its branches in Šid and Vinkovci (Croatia).19
According to HLC data, during 1992, seven Croats were killed: 1) Živan Marušić from the village of Jamena because of the rumours that he had kept contact with Croatia via radio station; Zoran Filipović was convicted for his murder and sentenced to six years.20 2) Ana, Jozo, and Franjo Matijević from Kukujevci, who were first harassed by ten villagers while they were preparing to leave Kukujevci in April 1992, but were later found in a mass grave in Mohovo, Croatia; no one has been prosecuted for these murders.21 3) Mijat Štefanac, who was beaten and then run over by a car by six refugees from Croatia; in the judgment of one of them, sentenced to the imprisonment of four years and six months, the court stated that something like that could have been expected having in mind what the victim was saying and the atmosphere in society at that time.22 4) Nada and Stevan Guštin, wife and husband in a mixed marriage from Bač; nobody has been prosecuted for their murder, either.23
During 1993, the leaving of Croats lessened, but the murders did occur. Agica and Nikola Oskomić and Marija Tomić were murdered in Kukujevci by Goran Vuković and Pavle Drašković, who, before beating them up and killing them, asked why they had not left yet.24 In the same year a Slovak, Stevan Krošlak was killed in the village of Sot, also by Drašković and Vuković, Serbian volunteers from the battlefield in Croatia, as he was considered to be a person who was helping “Ustashe”. Goran Vuković was convicted for the murders in Kukujevci and sentenced to imprisonment of 15 years, while Pavle Drašković was sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for the murder of Stevan Krošlak.25Šešelj’s coming to Kukujevci additionally aggravated the life of Croats, while his visit to the hospital in Stari Slankamen resulted in the firing of workers of Croatian origin.26Vojislav Šešelj’s appearance and his flammable rhetoric of labelling unwanted citizens was regularly encouraging his supporters to turn those words into actions.
In February 1994, a Croat national, Marija Purić, was stabbed to death in her house in Golubinci. Nobody has been prosecuted for her murder, although the police investigated the murder scene.27
Year 1995 was marked by two large operations of the Croatian army – the Flash and the Storm. As a result, a great number of people from the territory of the then Republic of Srpska Krajina were expelled. The Serbian side responded by intensifying the expulsion of Croats from Vojvodina. It is estimated that around 5000 Croats left Vojvodina in the period between May and October 1995.28 Although it frequently happened that the houses were taken by force, including those in which the refugees had already settled, the police was trying to prevent the harassment and expulsion of the owners.29 During the violent takeovers of Croats’ homes, Živko Litrić from Kukujevci was killed by Vilim Vint, a refugee from Croatia, sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment for this murder.30
After the SRS came to power in the municipality of Zemun (Belgrade) in 1996, the pressure on Croats intensified. In July 1997, Ljiljana Mihajlović, Vojislav Šešelj’s secretary at that time, moved into the flat of the Barbalić family who were away on holiday. Shortly after, Ljiljana Mihajlović signed an agreement on the purchase of the flat with the Zemun municipality.31The Barbalićs filed for court protection and as soon as July 1997, the Fourth Municipal Court in Belgrade ordered a temporary measure of returning the Barbalić family to their flat. However, it did not happen because the police and municipal authorities refused to evict Ljiljana Mihajlović who had moved in unlawfully. In the same year, the Barbalićs initiated proceedings against Ljiljana Mihajlović, and in 1998, both the Zemun municipality and Ljiljana Mihajlović initiated proceedings for the revocation of the tenancy agreement and the termination of tenancy right of the Barbalić family. In 2004, the Fourth Municipal Court rendered a judgment in favour of the Barbalićs, but the Belgrade District Court quashed it in 2005 and ordered retrial. The judgment finding that the Barbalićs did not have the right to the flat was rendered in 2013 and the Court of Appeal in Belgrade confirmed it in 2015.32 The Lawyers’ Committee for Human Rights (YUKOM) then filed a complaint to the Constitutional Court for the violation of the right to trial within reasonable time, right to a reasoned court decision, legal certainty and the right to property. The Constitutional Court accepted the complaint in 2019, but only in the part relating to the trial within reasonable time, but not with regard to the violation of the right to property.
The Barbalić family now live in Krk Island, Croatia. They are planning to submit an application to the European Court for Human Rights. Ljiljana Mihajlović is a Serbian Radical Party’s MP at the National Assembly of Serbia and Deputy President of the Parliamentary Committee for Human and Minority Rights. She has reported the flat of the Barbalić family to the Anti-Corruption Agency as her personal property.33
“A man named Đuro, a refugee from Slavonska Požega, rang the doorbell. He used to work in the police there. I think he currently lives in Veternik. He asked me if I wanted to swap houses with him. He advised me to move out because, according to him, it would not be ‘good for me here’ as a Croat. He told me about his house, which was supposedly big and modern. We talked for a couple of hours. I agreed on the exchange. The next day we went to Petrovaradin to see a lawyer. We agreed on everything there. However, when I returned home, I got scared and decided not to do it. As a matter of fact, I did not even believe in all his stories about the house he allegedly owned. I rang him and told him my final decision. He became furious. He was shouting that I was endangering a Serbian family and that ‘my case’ would be reported to the SRS which would take measures against me. Threatening phone calls followed all over again. I tried to tell everything to the local police officer Miloš, several times. He shrugged my words off” – the inhabitant of Sremska Mitrovica.34
“There was horrible propaganda at that time. For example, in Ekspres politika daily, as well as on TV, they were saying: ‘Ustashe are cutting children’s fingers and using them to make necklaces’, horrible things. People views on that varied. When that thing happened in Vukovar, the tanks were passing by my café, they were throwing roses at them, giving them cartons of cigarettes, and they were going there to kill. It was awful. You know, at that time, the worst thing was the propaganda. People who were only watching TV and reading only one side, and did not see the other side, it was only natural that propaganda served its purpose. For example, Šešelj was passing through Beška and shouting, he had speakers on his car” – Petar Andrić.35
“For example, in Ruma, in Breg, and in a part of Iriška Street, it is the street towards Novi Sad, so that area, this is where Croats were a majority. The premises of the Cultural and Educational Society ‘Matija Gubec’ are there. A hand grenade was thrown at it. They threw hand grenades at the Rakoš family three times. All of this is in close proximity to the police building, and right on the right side towards Kraljevci, at the corner, there was a restaurant ‘Greater Serbia’, owned by Nenad Neca Mušicki. Unofficially, this restaurant was the headquarters for the expulsion of Croats from Ruma. On the other hand, some individuals of Serbian nationality were warning about what was happening in Hrtkovci. I was in Hrtkovci for the first time in April, I remember it was Orthodox Good Friday and the rally of the Serbian Radical Party was announced. It was horrible. It was raining, they were playing ‘Who is saying, who is lying that Serbia is small’ (Ko to kaže, ko to laže, Srbija je mala), ‘Get ready Chetniks’ (Sprem’te se, sprem’te četnici), flags with skulls, black flags”, Đorđe Subotić.36
“I was missing Kukujevci. I was seeing the streets and me playing in them in my dreams, and all of that was interrupted abruptly, like some unfinished story. If we are going to talk about that, I just hope it will never happen again. Not only in Serbia, Croatia, but anywhere in the world. It is important to talk about it”, Željko, Kukujevci.37
During the harassment of the Vojvodina Croats in the first half of the 1990s, the authorities were denying all allegations of ethnic cleansing, persecution, and forcible transfer, although the UN Special Rapporteur for Human Rights Tadeusz Mazowietski was giving warnings of the violation of human rights and freedoms. The authorities were saying that young people were emigrating, mostly those running away from conscription, that these were individual cases, that Croats were throwing bombs into their own courtyards in order to justify their desire to go to Croatia,38and that the exchanges of homes were done legally, with lawyers’ assistance.39 In the summer of 1992, a group of intellectuals organised panels with villagers, as well as press conferences in Hrtkovci, and also made a report on human rights violations that was submitted to the then Justice Minister in the FRY government, Tibor Varadi.40
Of a total of 74,808 Croats in the 1991 census, only 56,546 were left in 2002. It means that Croatian population decreased by 18,262 persons in the period of 11 years.41 In the document of the Provincial Secretary for Regulations, Administration and National Minorities of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina (APV) from 2003, it is said that Croatian population decreased in 39 out of 45 municipalities in Vojvodina and that “the drop is seen as a consequence of the 1991 war in the immediate neighbourhood, and related to it, certain political forces at the time which were heavily engaged in expelling the Croatian population, especially in those populated places where they comprised a prominent or relative majority.”42 The assertions made in this APV document represent a rare admission of the state authorities of Serbia that the citizens of Croatian nationality in Serbia were persecuted.
Besides Vojislav Šešelj, other members of the SRS also advocated for the forcible displacement of Croats. Thus, Milan Bačević, at that time Federal MP, said at the SRS’ panel in Novi Pazar in June 1992 that as many Croats should be expelled from Serbia as there were Serbs expelled from Croatia. As an example, he said that 6.500 retired Croatian officers lived in Belgrade, enjoying every privilege. From May to July 2012, Milan Bačević was an adviser to the then President of Serbia Tomislav Nikolić and today he is a member of the Presidency and the Main Board of the Serbian Progressive Party (SNS) and Ambassador of the Republic of Serbia in PR China.43
Former Vice President and Secretary General of the SRS Maja Gojković was also the President of the SRS Vojvodina branch at the time of the expulsion of Croats in Vojvodina. At the trial of Slobodan Milošević before the International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY), the protected witness C-047 stated in their testimony that Maja Gojković was present at the meeting at which the expulsion of Croats from Hrtkovci was discussed. For this reason ICTY Prosecutor’s Office considered that she could not be Šešelj’s legal adviser as she might “possibly be a co-perpetrator” of the accused.44 Maja Gojković is currently the President of the National Assembly of Serbia and a member of the SNS Presidency.45
In 2003, the ICTY accused Vojislav Šešelj of crimes against humanity, that is, persecution on political, racial or religious grounds, deportation and forcible transfer, as well as the violation of laws or customs of war, i.e. murder, torture and cruel treatment, wanton destruction, destruction or wilful damage done to institutions dedicated to religion or education, and plunder of public or private property on the territories of Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, but also Serbia.46 Thirteen years later (2016), the ICTY Trial Chamber acquitted him, but in 2018 the Appeal Chamber sentenced him to imprisonment of ten years for inciting and conducting persecution, inciting deportation and forcible transfer in Vojvodina, while parts of the indictment for crimes in Croatia and BH were dismissed. Šešelj is the only person convicted for forcible transfer of Croats from Vojvodina.47
Ostoja Sibinčić, one of the main actors in the expulsion of Croats from Hrtkovci was arrested in 1993, but three months later he got suspended sentence and returned to work at the Local Community Office in Hrtkovci.48 He has since passed away.
In 2004, the Assembly of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina passed a Declaration calling for the return of all citizens who were forced to leave Vojvodina in the period of 1990-2000, which is an important symbolic gesture.49There is no physical memorial in Vojvodina dedicated to the suffering of Croats. Vojislav Šešelj is a deputy at the National Assembly of Serbia and sits there as a monument to the crimes of the 1990s, although the Law on the Election of Members of Parliament50stipulates that MPs convicted to the imprisonment of at least six months shall have their mandates taken away. However, having in mind the past of the state leadership and narratives they use to describe the wars of the 1990s, it seems that there is nobody to apply the Law while Vojislav Šešelj continues to use the hate speech and intimidation as normalised methods of political fight.