The Dossier “Crimes against Croats in Vojvodina” Presented in Belgrade
On Thursday, January 31, 2019, the Humanitarian Law Center (HLC) presented its eleventh dossier on possible perpetrators of war crimes during the armed conflicts of the 90s in the former Yugoslavia. The Dossier “Crimes against the Croats in Vojvodina” shows that in the period 1991-1995, in the territory of the Autonomous Province of Vojvodina, there was a campaign of intimidation and pressure on Croatian civilians, with the aim to force them to leave their homes, and Serbia as well.
Opening the event, the director of the HLC legal programme, Ivana Žanić, stated that evidence was presented in Dossier about threats, intimidation, destruction of property and the disappearances and murders of Croats throughout Vojvodina. The main inspirers of the campaign of intimidation and persecution of Croats were members of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS), led by Vojislav Šešelj, as well as various groups associated with this party. In this persecution of Croats, members of the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA) and of the Serbian Ministry of the Interior (MUP) also participated, including the State Security Service (RDB). Šešelj explicitly called for the persecution of Vojvodina Croats in his speeches, advocating for the forced removal of as many Croats from Serbia as of Serbs forced to move from Croatia. At that meeting in Hrtkovci, on May 6, 1992, Vojislav Šešelj said that there was no place for Croats in Vojvodina, which is why Serbs from Hrtkovci should “get rid of them” as soon as possible. After this speech, a campaign of intimidation began, which resulted in the departure of around 450 Croatian families from Hrtkovci. Žanić concluded that there is nothing surprising about the absence of any reaction by state organs to the statement made by Vojislav Šešelj after the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) had convicted him of persecuting Croats from Hrtkovci – that he would gladly repeat his war crimes – since the current political officials of Serbia were mostly members of the SRS at the time when the Croats were expelled from Vojvodina.
The author of the Dossier, Jovana Kolarić, pointed out that the Croats from Vojvodina were exposed to threats and intimidation on the territory of the entire province from 1991 onwards, and that a large number left Serbia and went to Croatia. Although the case of the persecution in Hrtkovci (in the municipality of Ruma) is the most famous example of the persecution of Croats from Vojvodina, since the ICTY has convicted the president of the Serbian Radical Party (SRS) Vojislav Šešelj for that crime, Kolarić pointed out that in other places in Vojvodina also, Croats were expelled in the same or a similar manner. The Dossier also describes the circumstances of the killing of 17 Vojvodina Croats. And the Dossier also shows the ultimate result of the campaign of intimidation and persecution. Namely, according to the population census in the period between 1991 and 2002, the number of Croats living in Vojvodina decreased by 18,262. According to Kolarić, the representatives of relevant institutions and political leaders in most cases did not respond to the allegations of human rights violations of Croats in Vojvodina. A rare case of insistence upon the principle of accountability was the removal of the president of the Local Community of Hrtkovci from his position in August 1992, because of the persecution of Croats. On the other hand, the RDB documents published in this Dossier clearly indicate that the institutions of Serbia knew of the persecution of Croats, but did nothing to prevent it.
Vesna Abjanović testified about the taking away of her father and uncle, Mate and Ivica Abjanović, from a family house in the village of Morović (municipality of Šid) on October 23, 1991, by members of the JNA. She clearly remembers all the details of the event, which marked the entire life of her family, although she was only 11 years old. On October 23, in the afternoon, four uniformed persons came to their home, where she was with her parents, brother, grandmother, and uncle. They demanded that her father, Mato Abjanović, come with them to the police station. They assured them that he would return home after interrogation. Mato Abjanović at first refused to go, claiming that he had done nothing wrong and that there was no need for an interrogation, but finally decided to go to the police station, along with his brother Ivica. Uniformed persons drove them in an unknown direction with a vehicle with JNA licence plates, and that was the last moment that members of the Abjanović family saw Mato and Ivica. As Vesna Abjanović said, although there were witnesses who saw Mato and Ivica on the premises of the police station, no state body has ever conducted an investigation to determine what happened to these members of her family.
During the discussion that followed the presentation of the Dossier, Father Marko Kljaić, himself a victim of intimidation during the 1990s, thanked the HLC for their detailed investigation and referred to the case of the murder of members of the Oskomić family in July 1993 in Kukujevci (the municipality of Šid). He took the opportunity to point to the fact that this was one of those rare cases which received a court epilogue, since the murderers of Agica and Nikola Oskomić were prosecuted and punished, and their son Stjepan was compensated for the ethnically motivated murder of his parents. Father informed the public of his book “How My People Were Dying”, in which he described in detail the suffering of Croats in Vojvodina.
Tomislav Žigmanov, a deputy in the National Assembly of the Republic of Serbia and a representative of the Democratic Alliance of Croats in Vojvodina (DSHV), said that achieving criminal justice is very important for victims, and that memorialisation is also necessary. He considers that a place for Croats’ suffering should be marked in Kukujevci, as 7 people were killed in that village alone just because they were Croats. He also emphasized that the DSHV has documentation regarding the intimidation campaign that resulted in the departure of more than 40,000 Croats from Vojvodina.
Ivana Andrić Penava, in front of the Association of Displaced Croats from Srijem, Bačka and Banat, thanked the HLC for publishing the Dossier, and expressed his respect in particular for Vesna Abjanović, for her courage in talking about the event that had left such a great mark on her life.