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Serbia: Witnesses Recall Ethnic Cleansing As Seselj Prepares For Hague Surrender

  • Jolyon Naegele

Vojislav Seselj, the head of the Serbian Radical Party and a former presidential candidate, is expected to fly to the Netherlands on 24 February to turn himself over to the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague. The tribunal last week indicted Seselj for crimes against humanity and violations of the laws or customs of war. RFE/RL looks at the indictment, Seselj's past, and how he is viewed in the region more than a decade after his alleged involvement in ethnic cleansing.

Prague, 21 February 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The indictment by the United Nations war crimes tribunal accuses Vojislav Seselj of having planned, ordered, instigated, jointly committed, or otherwise aided and abetted a variety of crimes against humanity. According to the indictment, Seselj -- a native of Sarajevo, a political scientist by training, and a radical nationalist politician -- recruited, financed, and directed volunteer units known as "Chetniks," which allegedly engaged in ethnic cleansing.

Seselj denies the charges and says the indictment is part of a U.S.-led plot to remove him from Serbia, where he says he is perceived as posing a threat to pro-Western leaders. He garnered 1 million votes last year in a failed bid for the Serbian presidency.

Nevertheless, Seselj has been extraordinarily open about his extremist views. At a press conference for his Serbian Radical Party in Belgrade on 15 July 1991 -- just 2 1/2 weeks after fighting erupted over the secession of Slovenia and Croatia from the former Yugoslavia -- Seselj described himself, in English, in response to a question from our correspondent: "I am the leader of Serbian Radical Party. I am the leader of Serbian Chetniks movement. I am the member of Serbian parliament today, and I will try to take part in Serbian politics in future.... No, we are not fascists. We are a democracy, a democratic party.... During the communist regime, I was a dissident, and I was in jail because of my political opinion, because of my manuscripts in which I spoke about multiparty system, human rights, and I supported all people which fought for human rights in Yugoslavia."

The UN indictment accuses Seselj of having made inflammatory remarks and speeches in the media, at public events, and during visits to volunteer units and other Serbian forces in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, instigating those forces to commit war crimes.

Seselj also predicted that the war with Croatia would be brief. He said he thought that "it wouldn't be war in the common sense of the word. It would be a short war, and Serbs will win in that war."

In the end, the war lasted nearly 4 1/2 years.

The UN indictment says Seselj espoused and encouraged the creation of a homogeneous Greater Serbia by violence, thereby participating in war propaganda and inciting hatred toward non-Serbs.

The indictment says Seselj and his men persecuted Croatian, Muslim, and other non-Serbian civilians in western and eastern Slavonia, in parts of Bosnia and the Serbian province of Vojvodina. The indictment says the persecutions were committed on political, racial, and religious grounds and included the killing of many non-Serbian civilians, including women and the elderly.

The indictment also mentions the prolonged imprisonment of non-Serbian civilians; the establishment of inhumane living conditions for non-Serbian detainees; instances of forced labor, sexual assaults, torture, beatings, and robbery; the deportation of tens of thousands of non-Serbian civilians; and the deliberate destruction of property.

Ethnic cleansing was just beginning in Croatia as Serbian forces chased Croats from Serb-majority areas and Croats chased Serbs from Croat-majority areas.

At the time, in 1991, Seselj sought to justify the expulsions and minimize their importance. "I am not aggressive," he said. "I am ready to fight for Serbian territories, and there is not any Croatian that could say that he was attacked by Serbian Chetniks if he was without any arms. You know, we haven't attacked any Croatian women, any Croatian child. We haven't attacked any Croatian village anywhere."

War would not erupt in Bosnia-Herzegovina for nearly one more year, but Seselj was already making territorial claims, suggesting that as Serbia sought to seize nearly half of Croatia's territory, it would also take all of Bosnia. "[We don't want a border] through Bosnia-Herzegovina because our border is on [the] line [through] Karlobag, Ogulin, Karlovac, Virovitica [all towns inside Croatia]. All territory of Bosnia and Herzegovina is Serbian territory," Seselj said.

Similarly, Seselj laid claim to Kosovo. "Kosovo is part of Serbian land. [There] are about 360,000 Albanian immigrants in Kosovo, and we think that they have to go back. And the others, if they want to live in Serbia, they could have all human rights." If they don't, he added, they would have to leave.

The UN indictment accuses Seselj of having made speeches calling for the expulsion of Croatian civilians from parts of Serbia's northern province of Vojvodina and thus instigating his followers and the local authorities to engage in a campaign of persecution against the local population.

Seselj launched his anti-Croat campaign in Vojvodina in May 1992. RFE/RL's correspondent in Novi Sad, Marina Fratucan, recently spoke with Croatian and Serbian witnesses of the ethnic cleansing that took place in the villages of Hrtkovci and Novi Slankamen.

Ethnic Croatian eyewitnesses who have since returned to their homes in Hrtkovci remember Seselj's rally in the village and the subsequent expulsions. One said that Seselj arrived "on the sixth or seventh of May. I don't know for sure. He read out the names of the people who were important in Hrtkovci [and who had to leave]: doctors, people working in the agro-industrial factory and in the lumber yard. Everything happened so quickly."

Another witness told our correspondent: "I attended [the meeting] out of sheer curiosity. [Seselj] asked: 'What are the Croats waiting for here in Hrtkovci? If they don't know where Croatia is, we'll provide the buses to take them there.'"

Someone else said Seselj's men "came on a Saturday at 8 in the morning. They attacked the house until 12 [noon], when they expelled us. There were plenty of people in the yard -- men, women, and children -- and they told us, 'Get out of here'."

Yet another also described a forced expulsion: "Some people came and stuck a bomb under my shirt and told me I had to leave, and that's it, I had to leave. I didn't want to go. Where could I go?"

In another instance, a witness told them: "'There is nowhere I can go.' They asked, 'Would you go if we slit your son's throat?' I said, 'I don't have a son.' They said, 'You have a son.' And they knew which school he went to. They knew everything."

Seselj recently recounted his version of the events of 6 May 1992, suggesting that it was little more than an exchange of property. "We, the Serbian Radicals, wanted to speed up the process of exchanging property, and if Serbs were being expelled form Croatia, then disloyal Croats in Serbia could exchange their property so the process would be finalized," Seselj said.

In an interview published in Belgrade this week, Seselj said the list of names he had read out in Hrtkovci was a list of Croats who were rebels, according to available information.

Seselj told Blic News, "I never expelled a single Croat, nor were any expelled [from Vojvodina]." But he suggested that as retribution for the expulsion of Serbs from Croatia, all Croats should leave.

According to data compiled by local nongovernmental organizations, in the course of three months in 1992, 10,000 Vojvodina Croats left the province. Most of them remain in exile in Croatia. Last year's census in Vojvodina showed that the number of Croatian residents in the province had decreased by 20,000 compared to the 1991 census.

Zaharije Trnavcevic was a Yugoslav television (Yutel TV) correspondent at the time and said he witnessed Seselj and his men expel non-Serbs from Vojvodina. "At any rate, in [the villages of] Slankamen, Golubinci, and Hrtkovci, people were threatened. And as a journalist from Yutel TV, I was able to interview people who had Kalashnikovs and were firing at night at gates [and] windows and harassing people. That led to the flight of many people from Slankamen, Golubinci, and Hrtkovci," Trnavcevic said.

Nenad Canak is speaker of the Vojvodina Assembly and head of the League of Social Democrats of Vojvodina. He said he wants to see justice done in The Hague. "As long as the crimes committed at Hrtkovci and elsewhere in Vojvodina go unpunished, I think there will be few people in this country who will be able to sleep peacefully," Canak said.

Canak said yesterday he will testify against Seselj, as well as against former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic about war crimes committed in Vojvodina.

For his part, Seselj says he intends to defend himself before the tribunal as Milosevic himself has done for the past year. He says he is willing to remain in pretrial detention during the year or more that it is likely to take before his own case comes to trial.

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