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War Path of the Minister for War Veterans' Affairs

In Vukovar I was cannon fodder, as most fighters, and our only heroism is that we managed to survive - I did not shoot down airplanes or destroyed tanks, but I did share the fate of thousands of my fellow citizens and fighters


Nacional, Zagreb, Croatia, July 21, 2000

When somewhat more than six months ago Prime Minister Ivica Racan presented to the public new ministers who were in his government, 32-years-old Ivica Pancic was totally different from his present colleagues. Unlike most of them, he did not arrive to the Ministry from an institution or a private company. He was born in Vukovar and came to the ministerial armchair straight from a refugee room at hotel "International" that does not offer to its guests, who have overstayed their welcome, all that much comfort. From the room he had the view of the nearby Vukovar Avenue, as the former authorities renamed the Proletarian Brigades St., as a too quick obituary for a recently destroyed town. He also wasn't among those who only a few months after the fall of Vukovar paraded in dark limousines taking arrogant driving through Zagreb for one of privileges of the defenders.

After the appointment the youngest minister in the Government for weeks reacted with obvious unease when in informal conversations colleagues or friends addressed him by his function as "Mr. Minister". He soon felt the responsibility inherent in his ministerial function. Since he started his showdown with fake disabled war veterans, threats and accusations have become a daily occurrence, and one in a series was sent last week by Marinko Liovic, the president of HVIDRa. Ciriticizing Pancic for his decisions, Liovic accused him of not being competent to judge the status of the defenders since he had never participated in the Homeland War. The last insult on Pancic's account has arrived from officer Davor Perkovic in Slobodna Dalmacija. Perkovic claimed that Pancic had worked for the Communist Yugoslav secret service UDBA in the former Yugoslavia, that he had been educated in Belgrade and that he had managed to slip out of Vukovar using his contacts in the UDBA.

Last Saturday, ministerial obligations brought Ivica Pancic to his birthplace. When he left Vukovar in November of 1991, he says that he, out of superstition brought along his semi-automatic gun and about one hundred bullets, two meat tins, a piece of bread and a chocolate, thanks to which he persevered trough 20 hours of roaming through the forest that his group took to reach Nustar. Therefore, he admits that his story is not a story about war-time heroic feats.

Cannon Fodder

"As soon as I was appointed for the Minister of War Veterans' Affairs, I stressed that I do not consider myself to be because of that the greatest Croatian defender or a war hero. The fact that I wore a uniform and participated in the defense of Vukovar, and served several months in the reserves, could seem too little to someone and I agree with that. That is truly negligible in comparison with those fighters who spent several years in the trenches. But men like that mostly did not ask for anything from the state after the end of the war, and did not receive anything from it. I know that people like that support me today. I do not boast with my participation in the war, and I do not talk gladly about that. Simply I say it as it was," he recalls and continues.

"In 1991 I was a third year student of political sciences at the Belgrade University. That summer I returned home as soon as the school year was over, in mid-July. I left the town in the night between November 17 and 18, 1991. I was in Vukovar all the time. No one took me there by force. I was not mobilized by force. Both myself and my family stayed in the town until the last day and because of that my consciousness is clear," Pancic summarizes the last four months spent in Vukovar before it was occupied by the Serb army. To the question whether accusations appearing lately in the media are accurate, Pancic responds:

"I was an ordinary soldier in Vukovar. Better said, I was cannon fodder, like most fighters in the town. I am not spinning myths about that because Vukovar does not need myths. Not one of us, ordinary inhabitants of the town had ever even considered it likely that he would in the future have to bear arms. Our only heroism was that we survived. I did not shoot down airplanes, and I did not destroy any tanks, unlike individuals who did that. They should be commended and recognized for that, because the story about Vukovar boils down to a lot of suffering and a bit of heroism."

According to Pancic, the atmosphere in the town after his return from Belgrade was rather disconcerting.

"Both my brother and cousin had already been participating in the night sentries and as the time went by, we started to volunteer and go to the front lines. I spent the last month at one such location."

Next to the elementary school "Stjepan Supanc", at an elevated ground across the road from the park and the Health Center, behind which there is the Fair Ground, there was the position code-named "Osa 3" [wasp 3]. It controlled the approaches to the center of the town. According to Pancic, that position was among the last to fall, on November 17, 1991, when it was abandoned once it became obvious that to remain further would mean certain death. Among about ten fellow fighters, most were Pancic's age or younger, mostly from neighboring districts. While he shows in the yard the place where they usually hid during attacks, hiding from tank grenades behind school walls, he remembers that instead of trenches and sand bags, they sought first shelter behind gym equipment.

"Osa 3"

"We were not professional soldiers, but real reservists and all of that was simply improvisation. I arrived to the position in trainers, with several T-shirts and in jeans as most of my fellow fighters.

"We tried to recall lessons from the Defense and Protection in which we read that it was recommended to fill bags with sand and dig trenches, but we felt secure behind the school building. We wanted to make an observation post and decided to pull out a 'Swedish box' [a hollow wooden box used in school gyms for exercise] from the gym. We filled it up with books from the school library and used a monograph about Tito as a rest for binoculars. The box was soon blown to pieces from pressure wave caused by a first tank grenade that fell near the post.

"'Osa 3' did not have a commander or someone who would issue orders. We discussed everything and made decisions together. The oldest among us, restaurateur Ratko Radic got us sleeping bags, and instead of jeans we put on olive green fatigues from the civilian protection reserves. Only in November we managed to get yellow leather boots, well-known 'borovke'. That was veritable luxury for us."

A recoilless cannon, a machine gun from WWII, several Kalashnikovs and semi-automatic rifles, one launcher for rifle fired grenades, one anti-personnel mine and about 150 bullets per soldier was all they had. However, "Osa 3" was one of better supplied and armed positions.

"The life in the town was more-or-less normal until the end of June. The fiercest fighting took place in Trpinjska Cesta [road], Sajmiste [fair grounds], Borovo and Lusac. Our position was daily hit by tank grenades, mortars and machine guns, and several times even with poison gas. The attacks started at about 9:10 am and would continue usually until 5pm. However, even shelters were not safe. My mother was wounded in one of them, almost at the same time as my brother who was at a position near mine."

On November 17, at around 5pm, Pancic and another seven colleagues left their position and started towards the center of Vukovar.

"It was cold, foggy, and drizzly. After a month, I passed through the center for the first time and I think I will never forget that scene. It was at the same time scary and magnificent. It is difficult to describe it without sounding pathetic. I couldn't recognize streets through which I had passed all my life, and those ruins were evidence of our determination to defend the town. A lot of fighters had gathered in the City Hall and we discussed there whether we should try to break through towards Vinkovici. One suggestion was to take off our uniforms and join the civilians in the hospital. Those who did that are dead. They ended up in the mass grave in Ovcara."

Who and Why?

About two hundreds of us decided to cross the Vuka River. It was about 5 feet deep that autumn. I remember that we were followed by a beautiful dog, a collie. It almost got us killed. It followed us to the river, and when we started crossing the river, it stayed behind and started barking. Fortunately, because of cold and poor visibility, the enemy probably could not even guess that someone would decide to cross the river in the middle of night.

"Wet and cold, we continued walking towards Nustar, but none of us knew the correct way through the corn fields, so that during the night the group at times separated and got together again. At midnight we realized that we had been going in circles. One group got lost towards Henrikovci and stumbled onto a bunker. As we found out later, a lot of them died there. Finally, the next evening we reached the cemetery in Nustar and that meant that we were safe."

At that moment, Pancic knew nothing about the fate of his family. His mother was lying wounded in a shelter and was taken away together with other civilians to the collection center in Borovo. His brother and father, as he found out later, ended up in the Serb camp Stajicevo. The family got together in April 1992 when his brother was released from a camp.

204th Brigade

The Ivica Pancic's birthplace was flattened in the attacks on Vukovar. In 1997, after six years, he returned to Vukovar for the first time and sought its remains in Maksim Gorki St. He found only foundations and a piece of the concrete fence.

"At first I couldn't find the street because it was all overgrown with grass and shrubs. The hundred-meters-long street appeared to be only ten meters long. I recognized the ruins by the trees that grew in a nearby garden. I did not expect anything different. I simply shared the fate of thousands of my fellow citizens and because of all of them I stated last summer that late president Tudman should not have been named an honorary citizen of Vukovar because he should be blamed for the fall of the town. To this date we are convinced that Vukovar could have been and must have been helped. It was possible to pull out the civilians and bring in soldiers. Someone did not want that and we must get an answer who that was and why he did that. Someone has tried to saw division between the citizens of Vukovar at all cost in a very perfidious and systematic manner. After the return from captivity individuals were bought with privilege and money," says Pancic.

"Recently I approached president Stipe Mesic, as the commander in chief with a request to inspect the 204th brigade which the Ministry of Defense never recognized. President Mesic accepted my proposal and we will agree details with General Imre Agotic this week." These people will finally be given respect they deserve. After ten years these Croatian defenders will finally be returned their dignity. That is what "the red minister", "UDBA's spy", and "student from Belgrade" advocates.

Translated on September 20, 2000