Croatian generals' judgment (6)

Despite the fact that Milan Martic's government issued an order for the civilians to evacuate on 4 August 1995, the Trial Chamber concluded that the Croatian Army and special police were primarily responsible for the exodus of the Krajina Serbs during and after Operation Storm

In order for a set of events to be characterized as deportation or forcible transfer, the judges need to establish that "the people are moved against their will or without a genuine choice" and that there was justified fear of crimes that resulted in the civilians 'not having any other choice but to leave'. This is precisely what happened to the Krajina Serbs during and after Operation Storm in the summer of 1995, the judges found in their judgment of generals Gotovina, Cermak and Markac.

As the Trial Chamber concluded, the departure of civilians from Krajina occurred "during and just after the shelling" of Knin, Benkovac, Obrovac and Gracac and that 'a vast majority if not all' of those who left decided to do so in fear of the shelling. Here, the Chamber was also guided by its other findings: that the Brioni meeting defined the objective of the joint criminal enterprise, which was to expel Serbs, and that on 4 and 5 August 1995 the Croatian Army and special police launched artillery attacks "with the intent to forcibly displace persons" from Krajina.

In addition to the shelling, the residents of those four towns and the municipalities of Civljane, Kistanje and Orlic was caused by other crimes of the army and police, such as murders, inhumane treatment, detention of civilians, plunder and destruction of property. In light of the circumstances in which the exodus of the people from Krajina unfolded, the ethnicity of the victims and the time and place of the deportations, the Chamber was able to conclude that it was part of 'a widespread and systematic attack" on civilians.

The Trial Chamber did not disregard the fact that in the afternoon of the 4 August 1995, the president of the so-called Republic of Serbian Krajina, Milan Martic, issued an order for the civilians to evacuate. The judges however concluded that the order had 'little or no influence" on the decision of the civilians to leave their homes.

Firstly, the evacuation order was drafted much earlier, at 16.45, and it became operational some hours later, when the civilian population was already in flight; the shelling had commenced in the early morning hours. Secondly, the testimony of witnesses who were in the refugee columns 'give few or no indications' that their decision to leave was influenced by the Krajina authorities. Quite the contrary, they mostly stated that they had left in fear of the shelling and other crimes of the Croatian army and police.

Thirdly, despite the fact that there were evacuation plans in place at municipal level, the Chamber was not convinced that the Krajina authorities had any clear plan as to how the civilians were to be evacuated. In this respect, the Chamber relied on the testimony of the UN commander in Sector South, Alain Forand, who said that the representatives of the Krajina authorities that met with him on 4 August at around 6 pm appeared 'completely confused and in panic'; they never showed him any evacuation plans, although they promised they'd put it together in the hours after the meeting.

Finally, the Chamber states that the evidence does not show that the movement of the civilians had in any way been organized, or assisted by the Krajina army in any way. A more logical conclusion, the Chamber found, would be to side with the then chief of staff of the Serbian Army of Krajina Mile Mrksic who testified in court that many soldiers deserted their units in order to help their families leave Krajina, which resulted in a total collapse of the army. This is in effect what Tudjman envisaged as a desirable scenario for Operation Storm as he spoke to his associates at the Brioni meeting.

In light of all of the above, the Trial Chamber decided that 'generally speaking, the people did not leave their homes because of the existence of any evacuation plan' on the part of the Krajina authorities. This conclusion was to a large extent affected by the testimony of General Mrksic and his assistant for information, Kosta Novakovic. Mrksic's statement would not have been part of the evidence had he not been called by Ante Gotovina's defense. Judging by the conclusions presented in the Croatian generals' judgment, the strategy backfired and caused more harm than good to the accused.

The judgment states that about 14,000 people, most of them women and children and the elderly, left Knin on 4 and 5 August 1995; only about a thousand remained in the town. The judges also say that between 50,000 and 70,000 people crossed the border into Bosnia and Herzegovina in Donji Lapac. The judges conclude that 'at least 20,000' of those people had been deported from Croatia by indiscriminate shelling and other crimes against civilians.