Serb war crimes trial: Farce or facing horror?

November 19, 1994|By Dusko Doder | Dusko Doder,Special to The Sun

SABAC, Serbia -- The date is uncertain. June 27, perhaps, or maybe June 28. But that is the only question mark hanging over the horrific massacre of Muslim civilians that took place in a Bosnian village hall two years ago.

A Serb paramilitary, Dusan Vuckovic, 31, has told police investigators that he machine-gunned Muslim prisoners because he didn't like them and cut off the ear of one man to make others "confess." All of which, he said, "satisfied my soul."

But as Serbia's first war crimes trial gets under way Tuesday in this provincial town west of Belgrade, in the dock will be a former mental patient whose defense will be that he is a psychopath.

Most observers expect it to be little more than a showcase event after which the defendant -- charged with murder, rape and plunder -- is almost certain to be locked away in a mental institution for the rest of his life. No similar trials are on the legal agenda.

Apart from his history of mental illnesses, the profile of Mr. Vuckovic is chillingly similar to those of hundreds of Serbs that the United Nations war crimes tribunal in the Hague would like to question. Their alleged crimes have been painstakingly documented from a variety of sources, including the accounts of witnesses.

Serbia, however, says its constitution prevents it from extraditing them. It will deal with its own war criminals. Just how well will be seen at the Vuckovic trial.

Mr. Vuckovic's war crimes, according to his own confession and the testimony of witnesses, began shortly after he joined the "Yellow Wasps," one of numerous bands of paramilitaries who crossed from Serbia first into Croatia and later into Bosnia to "assist" in the wars. Serb army commanders have depicted them as uncontrollable brigands, intent only on plunder.

The Yellow Wasps went one better than that.

They were led by Mr. Vuckovic's 32-year-old brother Vojin (also on trial but on the lesser charge of illegal arms possession). In April 1992, the Yellow Wasps linked up with other groups such as the White Eagles to help in "ethnic cleansing" of Muslims from the town of Zvornik on the Serbia-Bosnia border.

The Yellow Wasps' actions astounded even the Bosnian Serbs. They targeted not just Muslims but anyone who was rich -- Serbs included -- getting away in one raid alone with a haul of 600,000 German marks, 40 pounds of gold and 50 cars. They captured the Serb mayor and took weapons from the town's territorial defense force in an effort to run the town themselves. The Bosnian Serbs arrested them and sent them back to Serbia, but they soon returned.

Though Mr. Vuckovic is charged with several murders and rapes, the trial will focus one frenzy of killing when he allegedly pumped 30 bullets from his AK-47 into Muslim civilians who were being held in a village hall. Sixteen died, 20 were injured. Their crime, as he put it, was not to tell him the whereabouts of two men with whom he had previously quarreled.

He was similarly proud of the way he extracted "confessions" from Muslim men. "The prisoners did not want to tell the truth," he complained. "I pulled out a knife, cut off the ear of one, placed it on the chair and warned the rest that they would have the same done to them if they continued to be uncooperative. Afterwards, everything went smoothly and the commander congratulated me because the prisoners confessed to everything and told the truth."

The exact reasons why Serbia is holding this trial are unclear. Certainly Belgrade would like to show the international community that it is dealing with its war criminals as it claimed it would. Serb President Slobodan Milosevic is anxious to prove he is behaving well and deserves a complete lifting of U.N. sanctions against his country for aggression in Croatia and Bosnia.

Another possibility is that this is part of an internal facing-up to Serb excesses in the Croatian and the Bosnia wars. The strident rhetoric of Serb patriotism has disappeared from the state-run media in recent weeks. Unprecedented admissions have thrown the Bosnian Serbs in a less-than-favorable light.

The admissions have been aimed at bolstering Mr. Milosevic's decision to cut off supplies to the Bosnian Serbs -- a move which won him a partial lifting of U.N. sanctions. But he is also believed to want to calm the nationalist hysteria he unleashed four years ago and find some pragmatic solution to the war.

If so, Mr. Vuckovic can claim to be a victim of a new sort, long after he must have assumed he would not be punished for the 1992 crimes.

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