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War crimes and punishment

The repression of war crimes committed in the former Yugoslavia is principally the remit of the International Criminal Tribunal in The Hague, which focuses on the most high-profile cases. For several years, however, national war crimes tribunals have been set up in Croatia and Serbia to complement the work begun in The Hague. The ICRC regularly visits individuals charged and sentenced by these courts and, in certain cases, arranges for the families to visit their detained relatives.

“The hardest thing is to get used to being in prison, especially when you are young. I didn’t see my family for three years,” says Dragan — not his real name.

His story unfolds against the backdrop of the disastrous succession of forced migrations in the former Yugoslavia that affected primarily the Albanian, Bosniac, Croat and Serb communities. Like most Serbs who had been living in Croatia for generations, Dragan’s family was forced to leave their home, located near Sibenik on the Dalmatian coast. That was in August 1995, during the Croatian army offensive known as ‘Operation Storm’ in the ‘Serb Republic of Krajina’. While his mother and brother fled the region, Dragan and his father stayed and fought alongside Serb paramilitary forces. Then they were arrested near their village, tried for war crimes by a Croatian civil tribunal and sentenced to 9 and 15 years’ imprisonment respectively. Detained first in Split, they were transferred after five years to Lepoglava, north of Zagreb. “The war separated me from my mother and brother. We were so worried about them until we learned through a Red Cross message that they were safe and sound in Montenegro.”

Like countless other exiles of the various communities of the former Yugoslavia, Dragan, a free man for the past two years, has ruled out returning to his home village in Croatia. “Our house was burned down, our cattle taken away and in any case who would still want to give me a job over there?” he says wearily. Dragan has already seen too much in his lifetime and is unsure of what to do with his future. Like many other compatriots of a country that no longer exists, his youth was swallowed up by a fratricidal war. Suffering from chronic hip and back pain, he does odd jobs, occasionally working as a driver in Belgrade. Recently, his father was transferred from the Croatian prison in Lepoglava to one in Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia. The transfer took place as part of cooperation agreements concluded by the authorities of Croatia and Serbia and Montenegro, enabling detainees still serving their sentences in Serbia to be closer to their families and thus see them more often. It is heartening to see the buds of trust between the former enemies beginning to peep through. Time heals, even if it is a long and drawn-out process.

Built during the reign of the Habsburgs at the end of the 19th century, the huge prison of Sremska Mitrovica in Serbia holds some 20 inmates found guilty of war crimes in the former Yugoslavia. According to its director, Dusan Makovic, “Family visits are crucial to the psychological well-being of the detainees.” The frequency of family contacts varies according to a prisoner’s treatment regime, of which there are three: closed, semi-open or open. “The better a detainee’s behaviour, the more family contact he is allowed,” continues Makovic.

Sremska Mitrovica prison in Serbia holds several inmates sentenced for war crimes in the former Yugoslavia.






A family visit in Lepoglava jail, Croatia.

Family lifeline

“I never gave up hope. I had the feeling that my brother was alive,” Vera — not her real name — tells us warmly, her voice gravelly from smoking. It was she who, through sheer determination, found her brother Milan in 1997. He had sought refuge in Vojvodina after fleeing Petrinja in Croatia, where he had fought with the Serb paramilitary group, the Red Berets. Milan was tried and sentenced in 2000 to 20 years in prison for war crimes against Croatian civilians. He is serving his sixth year of detention in the Lepoglava prison in Croatia, a place his sister has come to know well. “In 2002, I heard about the family visits organized by the ICRC for detainees. Since then, I visit my young brother regularly, up to four times a year. We leave Belgrade by bus at 5 in the morning, crossing the Serb-Croatian border at around 9 o’clock. We get to the prison around midday. I take him cigarettes, clothes and newspapers.” Once there, the families — around 30 people who have come from Serbia — gather in a sort of large classroom in the presence of the guards. “We don’t talk about politics or the war.” Since her brother was sentenced and imprisoned in Croatia, Vera has done everything she can for him and taken a number of steps in the hope that one day he will be allowed to complete his sentence in Serbia, even though the likelihood of this happening still seems remote.

“Before the visit, I have a thousand questions in my head and then when we see each other, they all vanish — apart from asking how he is — and the only thing that matters is to hug each other, look at each other, touch hands.” Once the prescribed two hours of visit are up, the families head home, reaching Belgrade around midnight.

Attached to the ICRC delegation in Belgrade, Biljana Zdravkovic has been organizing family visits for Serb detainees in Croatia for several years. This humanitarian service facilitates the relatives’ passage across the border between Serbia and Croatia. Clearly, Zdravkovic finds this responsibility rewarding but something of an emotional rollercoaster ride. “The detainees live for these family visits; they help them to keep going. Moreover, most of the families live in difficult circumstances and could not afford to make the trip without our help.” Zdravkovic, who keeps contact alive between hundreds of sentenced prisoners and their relatives, goes to great lengths to sort out, with the help of the Croatian authorities, the administrative issues that crop up with each family visit. On leaving the apartment of the niece of one detainee, she comments: “If the women are so resilient around here, it is surely because they had to take their affairs in hand while the men were preoccupied with making war.”

Jean-François Berger
Jean-François Berger is ICRC editor of Red
Cross Red Crescent.


The fight against impunity

In the ten years of its existence, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) has brought to justice senior individuals accused of crimes perpetrated during the conflicts in the 1990s in the territory of the former Yugoslavia. The ICRC currently visits some 50 detainees held in the ICTY detention centre charged with war crimes, crimes against humanity or genocide. In addition, its delegates continue to visit detainees found guilty by the ICTY and serving their sentences in Austria, Denmark, Finland, France, Italy, Norway and Sweden.

For several years, responsibility for trying these cases — which initially fell solely to the ICTY — has been gradually handed over to the countries of the former Yugoslavia. To date, some 150 people have been charged with or found guilty of war crimes by these courts.
The ICRC follows these people individually in different places of detention in the territory of the former Yugoslavia, mainly in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Montenegro, Serbia and Kosovo. The overriding purpose of the ICTY and the national tribunals is to put an end to impunity with respect to war crimes, while broadening the reach of international humanitarian law and international criminal law.


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