by Paula BOBANOVIC
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.
"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.
"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."
"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.
"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.