by Drago HEDL
When last summer former Osijek county head Dr. Ladislav Bognar again initiated the talk about numerous murders of civilians in wartime Osijek and when that raised quite a lot of noise, it seemed that dark pages of the book about murderers who far from the front line executed innocent citizens - while the true defenders of Croatia defended Osijek - would finally get their conclusion. However, although quite a lot is known about murders of Serbs from Osijek, as well as - as Bognar emphasized - defenders of Croatia, for now no one has been charged with these terrible crimes. Ratkovic therefore doubts that his story now, after being published for the first time in a Croatian newspaper, would change anything. However, after a long consideration he nevertheless agreed to talk to Feral, aware, as he said, that his story could disturb those who today freely live in Croatia and prompt them to finish what they started in 1991. Namely, he is the only, very unpleasant witness of executions in Osijek.
Until the beginning of the war in Croatia Ratkovic and his wife lived in Nova Tenja, near Osijek, at 135 Osjecka Street (today Josip Reihl-Kir street), exactly at the spot where on July 1, 1991 Osijek Police Chief Reihl-Kir and another two persons were murdered, while the fourth person was gravely wounded. Immediately after that murder the Police and an investigative magistrate who came to investigate the crime scene ordered Ratkovic's wife, who was in shock after witnessing the murder, to pick up the most important belongings and leave the house, since she could not live there for the next 3-4 days. Ratkovic's wife went to stay with her relatives in Osijek. Rade Ratkovic joined them the very same afternoon after finishing his shift at the Osijek Hospital where he had worked as an electrician for about twenty years. Croatian Police moved into their house in Nova Tenja, and the Ratkovics lived with their relatives until the fateful December 7, 1991, regularly going to work.
"That day, around 4:15 p.m. a stranger rang the door of our relatives' house. He came to report that our son, who had worked for Agrovojvodina in Novi Sad, had died near Divos on November 20. You can imagine how we felt upon receiving such news; we were in total shock; my wife fainted. Ten minutes after the departure of the first visitor, the door bell rang again. Three young men in uniforms were at the door; they had no insignia and were wearing military fatigues. They had come in a maroon Yugo, without number plates and with one missing window. They asked if Rade Ratkovic lived there. After our cousin answered affirmatively, they told her to ask me to come. You can imagine how I felt. I had just received news about the death of my son and then these men... They were arrogant and forced me to come with them for a questioning," Ratkovic relates.
He put on a coat and set in the windowless Yugo, on the right back seat. They drove him to Dubrovacka Street. The sun had already set. The city was dark, without street lights and house lights also had to be shielded. They stopped in front of a house in Dubrovacka Street. A flagpole poked through its roof and a Croatian flag was hoisted on it.
"They took me through a corridor and then to a building in the yard, and finally down the stairs to a cellar," Ratkovic continues. "It was a small building, most likely not used as living quarters. As soon as I came down to the cellar, I realized that this was not going to be a questioning. There was no furniture in the room, only one chair. They forced me to sit on the chair. Beforehand they searched me to make sure I had no arms on me. They started with provocative questions: ‘Which Chetniks do you cooperate with?', ‘Which Chetniks do you know?'. I found that a bit funny; I am by nature an easygoing person, so I tried to make a joke. However, I realized that they were not in the mood for jokes so I responded that I knew of no Chetniks and that I had no contacts with them. Then they took me next door, to a different room. There was only one chair in the room. A lamp hung in the corner. The floor around the chair was covered with blood and then I realized what was going on."
They set him on the chair; they did not tie him, but continued with same questions. They cursed his "Chetnik mother", and he responded that they were not insulting him since his mother was not a "Chetnik" but a German, Elizabeta Schmidt. He added that they were not insulting him either as although he was a Serb and Eastern Orthodox Christian, he was not a Chetnik. Then the beating started.
"One of them kicked me with his feet, another one with a gun, the third one kicked me in the chest. I fell off the chair and one of them continued to kick me with his boots... They picked me up, set me again on the chair and the gunman - that's how I refer to him - kept hitting me with his gun. I had a big injury above the ear, perhaps even a scull fracture; they kept beating me... I don't know how long it went on. If I knew what they wanted me to say, I would have admitted to whatever they wanted, just to stop the beating. They were merciless; once they realized that I had nothing to say they threatened that I would talk once ‘the boss' came," Ratkovic continues his horrific story.
Then all three of them left the room and locked the door. After thirty minutes three men returned, the gunman and two strangers. "The boss" came with them, a slim tall person who carried a professional police baton with a side handle. "The boss" hit him with the police baton, the gunman with his gun and the third one anyway possible. "I suppose when they got tired and after I, due to all the blows, stopped reacting to pain, they took me back to the first room where ‘the boss' took away my personal effects," Ratkovic says. "I had numerous personal documents in my wallet: driving license, personal identification card, car registration, weapons permit, health insurance booklet and two salaries, my wives and mine, that I had picked up earlier that day. He took all of that, put money in his own pockets and gave the documents and the wallet to one of the men saying: ‘Destroy all of that, he's not going to need it anyway'. I understood what was going to happen next."
The soldier took the wallet with Ratkovic's documents. Next he ripped a piece of a paper bag (used for sugar or flour) that was lying empty on the floor. He made a small ball and stuck it in Ratkovic's mouth and then covered his mouth with brown packing tape. Then they tied his hands on the back with packing tape and carried him outside. They dragged him over the yard to the street. At the street a new car was parked, Audi 80, an old model, pea green color, without number plates. They pushed him in the car and left. However, according to Ratkovic, one of the two new soldiers, who drove the car, did not know Osijek, so that "the boss" kept giving him directions: "turn left here", or "keep going straight". They turned at Tvrdja, near Kuga's monument and reached the stairs on the Drava riverbank passing by the former Proleter's soccer field.
"There they stopped the car, pulled me out and took me towards the Drava river. Then ‘the boss' said: ‘This is your last chance. Tell me what I want to know'. I made a face; I simply could not speak. I heard a shot being fired on my left side. The gunman had shot. I did not feel any pain even though the bullet hit my jaw on entry and smashed it on the way out. They kicked me in the back and I fell in the Drava. Small ice flows floated in the river, while a thin ice crust also covered the water along the riverbanks. I was suffocating. However, since I hadn't shaved for a few days the packing tape did not stick well to my face. It let go on the right side and I managed somehow, with difficulty since my tongue was injured, to push the paper ball out of my mouth. I touched the river bottom with my knees, pushed my head above the water and inhaled. The gunman was shining light from a flashlight on the river. When he saw me come up for air he shot one more time and hit me. The second bullet passed through my open mouth, almost along the same path as the first one. He shot me twice in the head, but he failed to kill me! I was aware that they were waiting for me. I pulled my head underwater and tried to stay as close to the riverbank as possible. My face touched the stone embankment. I slowly came up for air and kept breathing quietly, afraid that they might hear me. However, I saw car lights up on the embankment. They turned around and left," Ratkovic says.
He tried to climb the embankment, but he failed. He was exhausted and extremely cold. He managed to tear off some of the packing tape by rubbing hands against the embankment (the rest was taken off in the hospital). Crawling and loosing consciousness from time to time he managed to climb on the embankment. That took him about 30 minutes. Then he again saw car headlights and thought that his executioners were coming back to finish him off. He hid trembling with fear, pain and cold. It was the same Audi. It stopped, they pulled a man from the rear seat, took him to the same spot where Ratkovic had been shot, and shot the new victim in the back of the head.
"I recognized the characteristic walk of the victim, although he was half dragged to the riverbank. Later, while I was in the hospital (some soldiers who had found me unconscious by chance in Tvrdja took me to the hospital) I learned that Dr. Kutlic's body had been found in the Drava and realized that I had seen his execution. I knew Kutlic very well, his characteristic gait, since we had both worked for a while in the General Hospital and I had met him often," Ratkovic says.
He spent more than a month in the Osijek Hospital. He was released from the hospital on January 11, 1992, and a week later he received a permission from the General Hospital Crisis Staff to leave Osijek. The police came to see him as soon as he was brought to the hospital although initially, while he was still in the intensive care unit, the doctor had not allowed them to see him. Only after he was released from the intensive care unit an officer of the Osijek police visited and took his statement. After leaving the hospital Ratkovic took that policeman to the house in Dubrovacka Street where the initial "questioning" had taken place.
A week after being released from the hospital Ratkovic went with his wife to Sarajevo where they stayed with his sister. He spent some time there and then returned to Tenja, which was at the time controlled by the "Republic of Serb Krajina" authorities and where he was given a house for temporary use. Today he lives in a village in Vojvodina [northern Serbia], without a social security pension or any damages for the torture he survived. He is convinced that he knows the identity of the "gunman" and he informed Croatian investigators who spoke to him two days ago about his assumptions. Ratkovic dispelled the last doubts regarding the identity of the man who shot him twice in the head in 1997 just before the end of the peaceful reintegration, when Jacques Paul Klein, temporary administrator of the UNTAES territory, established an open air market in the road Osijek-Vukovar, where for the first time after the war inhabitants of the occupied and free parts of Croatia could meet once a week. A Ratkovic's acquaintance from Tenja who had gone to "Zika's market", as Klein's project was known in Osijek, met the gunmen there. At the time the gunmen lived in Osijek. Since they had known each other from before the war Ratkovic's friend talked with the gunmen. The gunmen inquired about the news from Tenja. "Nothing special," said Ratkovic's acquaintance. "Some people, like Rade Ratkovic had returned to Tenja".
The gunman went silent for a moment and said, betraying disbelief: "Rade Ratkovic got back? No way, I killed that Chetnik myself!"
"At the district court I gave another statement to investigative magistrate Ilija Bernatovic. My relative, from whose house I was taken in 1991 was also present. I told everything to the magistrate, just the way I told you today. I signed the statement, but was not given a copy.
"When everything was over I had to sign another statement - that I had understood everything the magistrate had asked and that I had not asked for an interpreter from Croatian to Serbian.
"No one has contacted me or asked me anything since that statement. Two policemen with whom I talked and who organized my trip to Osijek, Petric and Mamuza, left mobile phone numbers. I had tried to call them several times to inquire about the progress of the investigation, but they did not pick up or call me back," relates Rade Ratkovic, the only surviving victim of Osijek executions in late 1991 and early 1992.