Children’s Killers in Refugee Bombing Go Unpunished
Twenty years after Croatian planes bombed a column of Serb refugees, killing four children and five adults near Bosanski Petrovac in Bosnia during military Operation Storm, no one has been prosecuted.
I only remember grabbing the silver foil [from the cigarette packet] to open it. I think I noticed some flames and a detonation, and that’s all I remember before the rocket hit the column,” Jovica Piplica, a Serb refugee, told BIRN as he remembered the Croatian air strike on August 7, 1995.
Piplica, alongside many of his friends and relatives from the tiny Serb-populated village of Donji Lapac in the Lika region of Croatia, found himself in one of the many columns of refugees fleeing by car, truck and tractor from the Croatian Army’s advance during Operation Storm.
Among the people in his truck were his friend Krstan Vukovic and three of his neighbours’ children, aged nine, 11 and 13.
After the explosion, Piplica woke up in hospital in the town of Bosanski Petrovac in western Bosnia and Herzegovina. Later that day, he found out that everyone else in his truck had been killed. A total of nine people died when a rocket fired from a Croatian plane fell 80 metres away.
Operation Storm started at dawn on August 4, 1995, when Croatian forces launched an offensive to retake a self-proclaimed Serb rebel statelet called the Republic of Serbian Krajina, which had held 18 per cent of Croatia’s territory for four years.
As Croatian forces advanced and the rebels were ousted, over 200,000 ordinary Serbs started to flee Croatia in fear, many heading for the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina.
After Piplica and the other villagers from Donji Lapac crossed the border, they were attacked by two Croatian planes in the village of Kapljuh near Bosanski Petrovac.
The children in Piplica’s truck included 11-year-old Nevenka and nine-year-old Zarko, the daughter and son of Piplica’s friend Spaso Rajic.
Rajic recalled how the children begged him to let them go with Krstan Vukovic in his amazing big truck with its yellow tarpaulin.
“Krle [Vukovic’s nickname] told me, ‘You don’t trust me to let them drive with me,’” he said.
“I told him, ‘Krle, where you go, they go’… and they went together… and they went together,” he continued after a long pause, almost weeping.
Rajic went in another car which, as it turned out later, saved his life.
Leaving the children to travel with Vukovic and arranging to meet up in a bar in the village of Kravsko, Rajic went on his way with his wife. He said they were already at the bar when they saw the plane that would minutes later kill his children.
But it wasn’t until later on August 7 that he found out Nevenka and Zarko had died in the bombing. “I didn’t believe what anybody said about anything, I was convinced that it was not so,” he said.
Families united in grief
Jovanka Vukovic, the wife of Krstan, the truck driver who lost his life in the bombing, also lives in Apatin. The three families have stuck together ever since, bound by the same tragedy.The children were buried in Apatin, a small Serbian town on the border with Croatia, where the Rajic and Piplica families have lived ever since the 1995 exodus.
Jovanka not only lost her husband, but also her 13-year-old son Darko, who was the third child in Krstan’s truck.
Darko was actually not supposed to leave Donji Lapac on the truck, but to go with his grandmother instead. But he insisted on going with his father.
“My mum told him, ‘Don’t go, stay here with your grandmother.’ But later she said, ‘How can I forbid him from going with his father?’” Jovanka said through her tears.
Jovanka, then 35, saw on television that the column of refugees had been attacked by planes and later that her husband and son had been killed there.
Their remains were collected in a plastic bag and were buried at a cemetery in a village of Han Kola, close to Banja Luka in Bosnia.
It’s been 20 years now, but she is still haunted by her losses.
“I have to stay calm, life goes on. All the time people call from all over the place, asking for statements, but nothing happens, nothing ends,” she said bitterly.
‘The pain will not go away’
Over the past 20 years, the victims’ families say they have given several statements to various prosecutors’ offices about the killing of their relatives, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the Serbian and Bosnian war crimes prosecutions.
Piplica gave testimony to investigators from the UN-backed war crimes tribunal in The Hague, but the bombing was not included in its sole indictment for war crimes committed during Operation Storm – the case against Croatian generals Ante Gotovina, Mladen Markac and Ivan Cermak, who were all acquitted.
No one has been prosecuted, let alone convicted, and the families still have no idea who was ultimately responsible. “Knowing who did it would mean a lot to us,” said Jovanka Vukovic.
They also blame the Serbian authorities for not helping them after they fled Operation Storm 20 years ago.
“Nothing, nothing – they gave us nothing,” Rajic said angrily.
Both Rajic and Vukovic visit Croatia from time to time; Piplica says he has never returned since he left on August 7, 1995, and has no intention of ever going back.
None of them has ever received any kind of compensation, either for the loss of their loved ones or for the property they left behind.
Rajic said he doesn’t care much about the property anyway.
“Our hearts are in pain and that pain will not go away. It just gets worse each day, especially when August 7 comes around,” he said.
Ivana Nikolić, Sven Milekić, Selma Učanbarlić – BIRN