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In the spring of 1996 a mass grave was discovered in Mrkonjic Grad; the grave contained the bodies of 181 victims, apparently Serb civilians and prisoners of war. Although irrefutable evidence that these were war crimes was collected at the time, as of today no criminal proceedings have been initiated against the responsible Croatian officers

IN MRKONJIC GRAD MORE THAN 100 CIVILIANS WERE KILLED AND SOME MAY HAVE BEEN BURIED ALIVE

By Milkica MILOJEVIC

Nezavisne Novine, Banja Luka, Srpska, B-H, January 26 2000

Almost four years have passed since a mass grave was discovered in Mrkonjic Grad; 181 bodies of Serbian civilians and fighters were exhumed from the grave. The exhumations were attended by officers of IPTF and representatives of other international organizations. All exhumed bodies were examined by a professional team of forensic medical specialists, and later identified. The complete documentation has been preserved but as of today it has not been determined whether the evidence and criminal complaint against the responsible officers of units of the Croatian Army and the Croatian Defense Council [HVO, the Bosnian Croat militia] which were active in this region at the end of the war, has even reached the prosecution of the Hague tribunal.

Due to a combination of legal and concrete circumstances, a criminal complaint against those responsible for this, as the evidence irrefutably shows, massive massacre has not even been initiated in RS courts. The Mrkonjic case has been prepared in a very detailed and professional manner but according to people from this field, that has not produced any legal results. The documentation on the largest mass grave discovered on the territory of Republika Srpska is simply languishing, unused, in the desk drawers of the military prosecutor's office in Banja Luka.

In March 1996, when the exhumation of the mass grave next to the Eastern Orthodox cemetery in Mrkonjic Grad began, this locality was under siege for days by news crews from local and world media. The public was shaken by the horrific photos published that spring. Then, more current events pushed the tragedy of Mrkonjic Grad into the background to be forgotten by the media. For days after the exhumation the unbearable stench of decomposing human bodies permeated Mrkonjic Grad causing renewed wails on the part of the survivors. The funerals of those exhumed in this city also took many days...

Traveling across the damp, muddy terrain one could get to the mass grave itself only with a team of horses. For days the wet horses brought the exhumed bodies through the rain to the cemetery chapel where the forensic team performed the autopsies and identifications. Hundreds of relatives and friends of the missing descended upon the chapel, inspecting the corpses, seeking their loved ones but at the same time hoping that they would not find them here and that they would one day, somehow, reappear alive.

The forensic team was headed by the renowned Yugoslav forensic scientist, Colonel Dr. Zoran Stankovic from the Belgrade Military Medical Academy. The exhumation was witnessed by Srboljub Jovicinac, the military prosecutor from Banja Luka, and his associate, Slobodan Radulj.

All bodies were photographed according to guidelines; an official record of data was created; the victims' fingerprints were taken; a detailed list of the documents and objects found next to the bodies was maintained... It is thanks to this meticulous procedure that out of 181 bodies, as many as 140 were identified either immediately or within the subsequent month.

More than a hundred of the victims buried in this mass grave were civilians... Among them there were more than ten women, mainly elderly women. Also found among the victims were bodies of teenage boys; however, there were no children's corpses in the grave.

The bodies exhumed from the mass grave in Mrkonjic Grad were buried for six to eight months which made the investigation easier but also indicated that the deaths of those buried in this locality were the responsibility of members of the Croatian Defense Council (HVO) and regular units of the Republic of Croatia Army.

Abundant evidence indicates that the great majority of those exhumed from the mass grave in Mrkonjic Grad met a violent death which was not combat-related. Additionally, items were found in the grave which support this conclusion, including barbed wire used to tie the hands of the victims before they were shot or beaten to death, and a spiked club which was used to kill a large number of the people subsequently buried in this grave.

According to the testimony of Lieutenant Colonel Slobodan Radulj, today the military prosecutor in Banja Luka, the mass grave also contained traces of fresh blood. This demonstrates that the victims were buried immediately following their execution, shooting or killing by means of some other object, that is, that they were not bodies found on the battlefield following military operations. There is a possibility that the victims found in the part of the grave where traces of blood were present were buried while still alive and gravely wounded. Some victims, according to the forensic experts, were killed by choking or suffocation because it is evident that their ribs were broken and injuries inflicted on internal organs also reflect this type of violence.

What really happened in Mrkonjic Grad and this region in the fall of 1995? Croatian forces, including the Croatian Defense Council and units of the regular Croatian Army, occupied Mrkonjic Grad and the surrounding villages in a lightning speed offensive lasting only several days. A river of refugees headed from this region toward Banja Luka but many civilians did not manage to get away. Parts of units of the Republic of Srpska Army engaged in the area also were not successful in withdrawing and it is assumed that a great number of Serb soldiers were captured. Their bodies found in the mass grave show signs of having been shot from close range or killed in other savage ways.

Therefore, the "liberators" of Mrkonjic Grad at that time, according to all the available evidence, carried out war crimes against civilians and prisoners of war which are sanctioned by international conventions and by legislation of the Republic of Srpska, as well as by the regulations of the Hague tribunal.

After the Dayton agreement, Mrkonjic Grad again became part of Republika Srpska and on February 4, 1996, following the withdrawal of Croatian forces, the first refugees returned to city under protection of British IFOR troops. As far back as then, rumors of a mass grave began to be heard in Mrkonjic Grad and soon it was established that they were not just stories.

By March of that year, following orders of the competent military prosecutor's office, an investigation began; the investigation proved that the freshly dug up soil next to the Eastern Orthodox cemetery in this city really did hide a mass grave.

By the end of March, as soon as weather permitted, the huge task of exhuming the bodies and performing of autopsies of the victims by a forensic team had begun. 181 bodies were exhumed, the largest mass grave discovered in Bosnia-Herzegovina. An experienced IPTF officer who witnessed the exhumation, and had spent years on a mission with "different sides" on the battlegrounds of BH and Croatia, was stunned and stated that he had never seen anything as horrible.

The exhumations and autopsies were completed, evidence of war crimes was collected but despite this, criminal proceedings in the case of Mrkonjic Grad were never initiated before the Hague tribunal.

"When the documentation regarding the mass grave in Mrkonjic Grad was completed, several copies were made," says Slobodan Radulj. "One copy of the complete materials, together with a criminal petition against officers of the Croatian Defense Council and the Croatian Army, was forwarded to Pale to the officer who served as liaison to the Hague tribunal. To the best of my knowledge, that function was then performed by Goran Neskovic. No confirmation was ever received from the Tribunal indicating that the materials reached its prosecutor. Recently, I personally contacted the officer presently serving as liaison to the Hague tribunal, Mr. Trivun Jovicic, who is new. He has no knowledge of the matter but he promised to look into it."

Lieutenant Colonel Radulj also explained why the criminal petition regarding the massacre in the Mrkonjic Grad region was not filed with courts in Republika Srpska. Apparently, immediately after the mass grave at Mrkonjic Grad was exhumed, a law was enacted by which war crimes were removed from the jurisdiction of military court organs and transferred to the jurisdiction of the civil courts in RS. Civil courts, already swamped with "civil" matters, have shown no interest in this case. All the documentation relating to the case remained in the military prosecutor's office in Banja Luka.

"The documentation is superbly prepared. Besides, Mrkonjic Grad is one of the rare cases of war crimes in this region where there are live witnesses. The entire case is one of the most well-founded of all cases prepared in RS to date," said Slobodan Radulj.

"During the war, military courts prepared other cases regarding war crimes in which Serbs were the victims but due to the change in jurisdiction all of these cases have been turned over to the local civil courts. I know nothing regarding their further fate," said lieutenant colonel Radulj.

Slobodan Radulj cites, as an example, a highly detailed case regarding a massacre of Serb civilians in the village of Sijekovac near Brod; the case was turned over to the district court in Doboj, within whose jurisdiction it lies. Also turned over to the district court in Doboj was documentation regarding the horrific crime on the Ozren Mountain, where the beheaded bodies of more than ten Serb soldiers were found. These bodies were examined by Dr. Zeljko Karan, a forensic expert from Banja Luka.

Nevertheless, the mass grave in Mrkonjic Grad is the most glaring example of a war crime committed against Serbs in the previous war. In spite of the fact that, unlike in the enormous number of other cases in which Serbs were victims of war crimes, very thoroughly prepared documentary evidence exists, it did not result in a criminal case before the tribunal in the Hague.

"It is not my place to judge; in the preparation of the case there were many dedicated and involved people besides myself; I was involved only as an ordinary official of the military prosecutor's office; however, it seems a tremendous shame that so much effort, such detailed and thorough preparation, should not produce results," said Slobodan Radulj. "We Serbs have a habit of saying, even today, that the Hague tribunal is allegedly 'a court to try Serbs' but it is high time for us to ask ourselves why this is the case. To a great extent, are we ourselves not to blame? While the other two sides which took part in the past war during the whole war conscientiously collected documentation and evidence regarding war crimes in which members of their respective ethnic group were victims, we Serbs did not do this. There was no state organ nor any other official body which even concerned itself with this task. I have learnt that the RS government recently formed a body whose function will be to collect evidence regarding war crimes, and I hope that things will finally pick up some momentum."

The victims exhumed from the mass grave in Mrkonjic Grad in the spring of 1996 are not the only Serbs who were victims of the final operations of the previous war in this region of the Republic of Srpska.

In the whole region of the so-called "horseshoe", the southwest part of RS which was returned to Republika Srpska after the signing of the Dayton agreement and which is called thus because it looks like a horseshoe on the map, bodies of civilians who were killed were discovered; these were mainly elderly people who did not manage to get away in time from the onslaught of the Croatian forces. In various localities near Mrkonjic Grad and Sipovo, all the way to Petrovac and Kupres, 350 more Serbs were found, most of them civilians. They were buried in individual graves or simply left unburied; the marks on their bodies unquestionably bear witness to a violent death. Since they are civilians, the information regarding these victims was collected by the teams of the Center for Security Services [Centar sluzbi bezbjednosti] in Banja Luka. However, everything has been forgotten.

Will the international tribunal for war crimes committed in the regions of the former Yugoslavia finally consider these cases, as well? Based on the most recent contacts of the tribunal prosecution with government of the Republic of Srpska, the Hague Tribunal is open to this kind of collaboration. Does that mean that now everything is up to the Republic of Srpska? If any case, the perpetrators of those war crimes should not remain unpunished.


Translated by Snezana Lazovic (January 28, 2000)
SRPSKA