Separating the heroes from the villains of the Balkan wars (1991-95) is still no easy task for many in the region.
On one hand, Belgrade journalist Antonela Riha recently criticized Serbia's ruling Progressive Party for inviting a convicted war criminal, Veselin Sljivancanin, to one of its events.
Meanwhile, out of the wider public glare, former Yugoslav Army (JNA) General Vlado Trifunovic died at the age of 79 and was buried in his hometown of Prijedor, in northern Bosnia, on January 21. Trifunovic had the dubious distinction of being the only high-ranking JNA officer to be accused of war crimes in Croatia and court-martialed in Serbia for refusing to commit a war crime.
In September 1991, Trifunovic was the commander of the Yugoslav Army's 32nd Corps, based in the Croatian town of Varazdin. Croatia had declared its independence from the federal republic of Yugoslavia earlier that year and was engaged in an armed conflict against the JNA and Serb paramilitaries. Trifunovic’s base was surrounded by Croatian forces, its water and power supplies cut off.
With around 280 officers and recruits, he was expected to hold out against a vastly bigger Croatian force of around 15,000. If he had chosen to continue fighting, it is likely that all those under his command and many civilians would have been killed. But those were precisely his orders from Belgrade.
Trifunovic chose instead to negotiate a surrender to save the lives of his soldiers. He spiked his guns, and he and his men were escorted to the border.
“I wasn’t born to spread hate,” he said later. “I did not want the bones of my dead soldiers to become a symbol of hatred between two peoples. That’s why I saved my men.”
However, upon his return to Belgrade, he was declared a traitor and put on trial.
On December 26, 1994, a military tribunal in Belgrade sentenced him to 11 years in prison on charges of "high treason and undermining the defensive capabilities of the Yugoslav Army." Amid pressure from NGOs and human rights activists, his sentence was later reduced to seven years and he was pardoned and released from prison after less than two years.
Yet he did not want a pardon, he insisted he wanted justice. He continued to work to clear his name, publishing three books about his experience. Serbia’s Supreme Court finally quashed the guilty verdict against Trifunovic in 2010.
By that point, however, Trifunovic was already gravely ill.
Around the time of his trial in Serbia, a suit was brought against him by Croatia for alleged crimes committed in the course of the fighting in that country. He was convicted in absentia and sentenced to 15 years in jail. The Croatian Supreme Court later upheld that conviction. In 2013, Trifunovic personally requested a new trial, which was granted, although it never took place.
'Killed By Injustice'
Some, including the former Croatian President Stipe Mesic, praised his courage.
"If there had been more generals like Trifunovic," Mesic said, "politicians could not have made the decisions that led to bloodshed."
At Trifunovic's funeral, on January 21, the Orthodox priest and Trifunovic's surviving family members were joined by one of the soldiers saved by the general’s refusal to fight.
Former conscript Darko Jovanovic made the long journey from Slovenia to pay his respects: "Today I have a family, two kids, thanks to General Trifunovic. If he had acted differently in 1991 in Varazdin, all of us would have been dead."
Trifunovic was buried next to his son, Zelko, who died young in 2010.
"Both were killed by injustice," said Trifunovic’s widow, Milka.
Reminiscing years later about the reception he and his men got on their return to Serbia in 1991, Trifunovic observed: "Serbia needed dead heroes, not living officers who wanted to spare their men."