Yugoslav town offers up secrets of army's terror

December 10, 1991|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Special to The Sun

TREBINJE, Yugoslavia -- There are conflicting reports about what happened at Ravno in the first week of October. But there is one undisputed fact: Ravno is dead. Its 128 homes are flattened, systematically destroyed by the Yugoslav army.

Ravno lives only as a symbol of the lack of justice and accountability in Yugoslavia's ethnic war, which is often little more than an orgy of murder and vandalism covered up by an avalanche of propaganda. It illustrates a recent European Community report that blames the Yugoslav army for destruction of civilian targets throughout Croatia.

The army has argued that Croatian guerrillas were hiding out in Ravno, a Herzegovinian village of debatable strategic significance just north of the Adriatic port of Dubrovnik, as an army convoy was passing through it.

The guerrillas shot some soldiers, it says. Col. Savo Lukic, deputy chief of the region, said that four soldiers died and five were wounded. Earlier claims said that 11 soldiers died, then six, then five.

Villagers say the figure was none.

In any event, the army destroyed the village and reportedly killed at least 16 elderly people after all the young men had been removed.

This correspondent has pieced together from eyewitnesses an account of Ravno's days of horror.

It was Ravno's ill fortune to be populated mainly by ethnic Croatians (there were six Serbian families in the village) and to be located just a few miles from the Croatian town of Cepikuce, which the Serbian-led army on the Dubrovnik front was determined to capture at the beginning of October. Cepikuce fell to the army only last week after 55 days of fierce fighting.

The inhabitants of Ravno first saw soldiers during the night of Oct. 1-2, recalled Bosko Skaramuca, 51, who worked in the grocer's shop. The soldiers came in some 100 trucks and set up camp in the local railway station.

Hoping to keep the soldiers in a good mood, many of Ravno's women went out on the morning of Oct. 2 to offer them food and local brandy. Mr. Skaramuca said he helped some soldiers repair a car.

"They promised us they would not harm us, that they had no quarrel with us," Anna Ljevak said.

Most of the people in the village were old -- tending cattle and vineyards with the help of relatives

That night, the soldiers joined up with other units for an assault on Cepikuce. It went badly wrong. Several soldiers were killed, others wounded. The soldiers returned to Ravno in a violent and angry mood, firing shots into the air. Villagers cowered in their houses.

The next day the army began rounding up the villagers. They released the women but ordered all men under 40 to take their cars and tractors to collect the dead and wounded from Cepikuce.

"Something happened at around 11 in the morning on the 3rd," Mr. Skaramuca recalled, "because the soldiers set the house of Bozo Buric on fire -- he was the owner of the only restaurant and he had a big house."

On the evening of Oct. 3, army Maj. Gen. Milan Torbica flew in by helicopter. The next day, Oct. 4, was quiet. It was on Oct. 5 that the attacks began.

First, according to one elderly resident, Ivan Cokljic, the soldiers set the forest area below the village on fire. "Presumably they wanted to get people out of the houses. Then scores of heavy guns positioned in the valley 10 days earlier began the bombardment. It ended in the evening. On that day, 28 houses were destroyed."

Many of the remaining villagers took to the forests to spend the night, including Mr. Cokljic, but they returned the next morning to feed the animals. When he returned, Mr. Cokljic said, he heard shooting. "Soldiers were coming down the street -- they were shooting at will."

He and his wife, Janja, fled back into the forest.

Others were not so lucky.

Mr. Cokljic and other people who had escaped counted and named at least 16 people who had died and believed that the total was higher.

For a while it seemed that Ravno was going to become the first place where the truth behind the army destruction would be made public. A parliamentary delegation from Bosnia and Herzegovina went to the ruins. But the army allowed the group, led by Muslim politician Ejub Ganic, into only one part of the village. Though he severely criticized the army in his report, Mr. Ganic had to accept a bureaucratic course of action: setting up yet another commission, which would include a Serb, a Croat and a Muslim, Bosnia's three main ethnic groups.

A local journalist sniffed: "With a commission like that, nobody is ever going to find out anything."

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