War crimes and
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.
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
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.
©A. MONTANARI / ICRC
“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 is ICRC editor of
Cross Red Crescent.
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
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