WAR CRIMES HAUNT CROATIA
By ALISON SMALE Associated Press Writer
September 5, 1997
GOSPIC, Croatia (AP) Deep in the forested mountains above this town stand the charred remains of a memorial to the Jews, Serbs and others killed at the first death camp set up by Croatia's Nazis, the Ustashas, in World War II.
Nearby gapes Saren's Pit, an eerie abyss. The Ustashas hurled victims' corpses into this hole. And so, say locals, did Croats who murdered hundreds of local Serbs during the 1991 war of independence.
The Croatia of President Franjo Tudjman doesn't like to mention these crimes the Ustasha camps and massacres; the persecution and murders of members of Croatia's Serb minority; the destruction of the memorial to the Ustashas' Camp Jadovno.
Tudjman's Croatia has dwelt instead on the crimes perpetrated by Serbs in 1991, keeping silent about its own attacks on dissenting Croats, Serbs or Bosnia's Muslims. Perpetrators have not been prosecuted they've been freed and amnestied.
This could change now that a Croat has confessed to slaughtering Serbs from Gospic. He admits to killing at least 72 people and has described vicious torture techniques: electrocuting people with hooks under their fingernails or cables up their rectums.
The extraordinary confession by Miro Bajramovic in this week's independent Feral Tribune newspaper forced Croatian authorities to take action on the case, detaining him and three other men he named as accomplices.
A Zagreb court ordered Friday that the investigation be widened.
The investigation will inevitably attract the attention of the U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague, Netherlands, which is not known to have indicted any perpetrators in Bajramovic's case, apparently for lack of evidence.
Whether or not the probe will touch Tomislav Mercep, the commander of a notorious special unit blamed for Serb murders in Gospic and nearby Pakrac in fall 1991, will be a test of the Tudjman camp's willingness to come clean about its own sins.
From 1991-96, Mercep was a prominent right-winger in Tudjman's ruling Croatian Democratic Union and even sat in Parliament. He remains a radical nationalist force in Croatian politics, and emphatically denied Bajramovic's charge that he was behind the slaughter of about 280 Serbs.
Exposure of the 1991 horrors around Gospic and Pakrac could cut to the quick of the proud, nationalist Croatia built by Tudjman. If perpetrators like Bajramovic start to talk, the murder of Serbs in 1995 offensives to recapture Serb-held land and other long-rumored atrocities from 1991 may become public knowledge.
Croatia's most outspoken human rights activist, Ivan Zvonimir Cicak, was skeptical things would go that far.
``It may well spark interest in other unresolved cases,'' Cicak said. ``But I think the arrests will stop there, as the list of suspects could spiral towards the top.''
In a sense, Tudjman's party unwittingly set the stage for this week's confession which has horrified many Croats and stoked sentiment for a trial.
Last spring, another man blamed by locals for 1991 crimes in Gospic was elected mayor of a nearby town for the Croatian Democratic Union.
The return of Tihomir Oreskovic shocked residents who remembered the terror of his wartime spell in Gospic, a depressed and isolated town of a few thousand, and prompted three former military men to speak out to Feral Tribune.
Their report, published in June, was not nearly as specific as Bajramovic's on what the newspaper called ``the mass slaughter of Serbs'' in the Gospic region in fall 1991 and the killing of 40 Croats ``in circumstances that are at least unclear.''
But it did detail how the perpetrators of 1991 crimes had survived attempts even by Tudjman to unseat them. Oreskovic, Bajramovic and others were briefly jailed in early 1992, but released on the orders of a so-far unknown authority.
The trio of former military men also said that several wartime commanders in the region profited from power gained during the war to establish businesses that afforded them a comfortable life in an otherwise impoverished region.
Gen. Mirko Nurac, army commander in Gospic in 1991, is now head of the huge military command in Split.
One of the three men made an impassioned plea that hinted at the consequences of breaking the chain of hatred, murder, fear and blackmail that helped establish what passes for authority across much of postwar former Yugoslavia.
Gospic today ``is being governed by fear,'' Milan Levar, a former intelligence officer, told the Feral Tribune. ``To remove fear, accounts must be settled.
``So it must be established who was killing, who was looting, and everyone take the rap for what he did. As it is now, all of Gospic is responsible for that. And those who did it, by holding all authority in their grip, turned us into their hostages, governing us as their slaves.''
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