The defendant confessed his participation in the crime at Ovčara

The confession of the defendant, Ivan Atanasijević, at the trial of 16 persons accused of war crime against prisoners of war committed at the Ovčara farm (Croatia) on 20 November 1991, before the War Crimes Chamber in Belgrade, is the first confession of guilt before a domestic court.

Although the defendant confessed his guilt toward the very end of the trial, this is something new that contributes toward the establishment of the truth. The defendant was not persuasive enough in his defense, that is, in his claim that he had been forced to shoot. It was obvious that he was trying to protect other defendants by his statement that he had seen one of the protected witnesses at the scene of the crime and some other persons who had been either unknown to him or had died in the meantime. The fact that he had repeated, several times, that he was afraid for the safety of his children, and that he had received indirect threats to his life, leads toward a conclusion that that was the reason for his not disclosing the truth about the participation of the remaining defendants and of other, not indicted persons, in the shooting of more than 200 Croats at the Ovčara farm. At the end of the trial, the trial chamber will asses the validity of this confession, given at the very end of the trial which had lasted for almost two years.

In a detailed statement, the defendant, Atanasijević, declared that, after he had been at the Ocčara farm for an hour, when no more than 60 or 70 prisoners had remained in the hangar, he had seen a group of 30 or 40 prisoners being taken out and, among them, he had seen the late Zorić, a member of the Vukovar territorial defense, and one of the protected witnesses. He said that he had seen the prisoners, including Zorić, entering the tractor trailer, and that he himself had followed them. He had heard that the tractor was supposed to transport the prisoners to the collection center, Velepromet. However, after some 15 minutes they had stopped and they were told to get off. Once he got off, he saw between 40 and 50 uniformed persons who were standing near a large hole in the ground where the bodies of previously shot prisoners from the hangar had been thrown.

“A command was given. Everybody knew what they were supposed to do.” These were the words used by the defendant to describe what he had seen at the scene of the crime. In his opinion, those uniformed person had been, mostly, volunteers and reservists whom he did not know. He saw that a firing squad had been formed which, from the distance of two or three meters, shot at the groups of seven or eight prisoners, lined up along the hole, facing it. Those who had been shot dead, but did not fall into the hole, were tossed into it by a pair of prisoners who, thereafter, were shot as well.”

One of the prisoners tried to run away from the trailer, but a number of uniformed persons started after him, shooting. The defendant heard that they, once they were back, had said that they had killed those who had tried to escape. Allegedly, the defendant was shocked by the scene and was standing on the side. At one moment, a volunteer known as “Topola” hit him in the back, got hold of his arm and brought him to the middle of the hole, ordering him: “Stand there, you have to shoot at your own”, in view of the fact that the defendant was a Croat, although he had been fighting on the side of the Serbs. The defendant, in his words, under the threat of a rifle leveled at him, was forced to shoot the prisoners standing in front of him. After that, he was again forced to shoot, but the late Mirko Vojnović, who had also been indicted, pulled him aside and told the others: “Leave the man alone. He is not an ustasha.” He had also heard the voice of one of the protected witnesses who had also tried to protect him from the accusation that he was an ustasha.

After all the prisoners from the trailer had been killed, most of the uniformed persons started back, while the defendant was kept behind by the late volunteer, Dragica. After half an hour or so, the tractor with the trailer was back, with fewer prisoners than before. When even those prisoners had been killed, by the hole there remained only the defendant, volunteer Dragica and some three or four soldiers or volunteers. Dragica told him to go to the hole and check whether anybody there might still be alive. A prisoner rose and was killed immediately. The defendant did not remember anything after that, except that he had returned to the hangar at Ovčara where some 30 persons had remained, among whom were Topola and Dragica, while in the hangar itself there were about a dozen prisoners. In an answer to the question put to him by the judge, whether he had seen any of the defendants, he said that he did not remember having seen them at the crime scene.