“There were five of them; four wore green masks,” she said, describing how the gunmen took away six people, including two women, from a basement in which she and her family had taken shelter with a dozen other people during the fighting for Gospic. “You could only see their eyes. The one who didn’t wear a mask was blond-haired and wearing white-framed glasses.”
New York Times INTERNATIONAL, Saturday, January 25, 1992
By Chuck Sudetic, Special to the New York Times
DEBELO BRDO, Croatia, Jan. 23 — In this remote, snow-covered hamlet under the control of Serbs, local militiamen and a team of Yugoslav Army pathologists have collected hard evidence of a mass killing by Croat extremists of Serb civilians from the town of Gospic.
Local Serbs patrolling a no man’s land near the village of Široka Kula on Dec. 25 happened on the charred bodies of 15 men and 9 women, Col. Milan Milivojević, the local Yugoslav Army commander, said today.
“The bodies were in an exposed area on the front line,” the colonel said.
“We have identified 12 of them as Serbs who were taken from their homes in the town of Gospić on Oct. 16, 17 and 18,” said Dr. Zoran Stanković, a pathologist based in Belgrade who heads the army’s investigation of the remains.
Serbs Often Accused
The discovery of the bodies underscores the vengeful brutality of the fighting, which has now abated, in which half of the estimated 10,000 dead have been civilians. For much of the conflict it has been the Serb side that has been condemned in reports by the foreign press and international organizations for excesses and indiscipline involving the killing of civilians by irregular troops and Yugoslav Army reservists.
A report released today by Helsinki Watch, a human rights organization, describes and documents 14 incidents in which Serbian irregular forces killed at least 200 Croatian civilians or unarmed combatants, including 43 people in the village of Voćin in mid-December.
Serbs have for months complained that their civilians, too, have been the victims of violence, but until now Serb political leaders and army officials have provided no real evidence of specific instances.
“Cowards did this,” said Dr. Stanković, flicking through a stack of hundreds of color photographs of the tagged and numbered bodies, many of which were in pieces. “This war has given an opportunity to the primitives, the people prone to violence.”
The photos clearly show that some of the victims died of gunshot wounds to the chest or back of the head. Several victims had their skulls smashed with blunt instruments, Dr. Stanković said.
“This was Judge Branko Štulić,” said the doctor, offering a photo of the body tagged S-2. “He has a knife wound in the neck.”
Bodies Were Burned
Other victims were well known to the Gospić community, and included a prosecutor, a pension-fund lawyer, a travel agent and a teacher, he said.
The killers set the mound of bodies ablaze, apparently with gasoline or some other flammable liquid, the doctor said.
“The bodies lay in the open for almost two months,” said Colonel Milivojević. “The Croats who did this left the bodies suspiciously close to the front line, as if they wanted to use this as proof of a Serb atrocity against Croats.”
Serbs say that as many as 150 people have disappeared from Gospić and nearby villages since fighting began in the area five months ago. Many were reportedly abducted by masked Croatian gunmen.
A Zagreb magazine (Slobodni tjednik, from author Većeslav Kocijan, op. ž.p.) this week printed a list of 61 people who had disappeared from Gospić: 18 were listed as killed. The Croatian authorities have reported no progress in their investigation of the Gospić disappearances despite numerous requests from relatives of the missing persons and foreign diplomats.
No More Hope
For Milica Smiljanić, a 42-year-old half-Serb and half-Croat bookkeeper from Gospic, the macabre discovery has ended three months of hoping that her husband, a Serb lawyer, would return after being taken away by five Croat gunmen at 11:30 P.M. on Oct. 16.
“My husband, Stanko, is No. 5,” said Mrs. Smiljanic, who returned to Debelo Brdo today to arrange for a funeral.
Her brother-in-law, Milan, who was mentally disabled, is among the missing.
“I barely recognized Stanko,” she said, pulling her husband’s blackened gold wedding ring from a plastic bag.
“Look, my name is engraved inside the band,” she said. “That’s how I knew it was him.”
“Stanko was no danger to anyone,” she said. “He collected stamps and played chess. He had a heart condition and was in no shape to be in any kind of army.”
Mrs. Smiljanić witnessed the abduction and she has since identified one of the men who abducted her husband as a local Croat.
“There were five of them; four wore green masks,” she said, describing how the gunmen took away six people, including two women, from a basement in which she and her family had taken shelter with a dozen other people during the fighting for Gospić. “You could only see their eyes. The one who didn’t wear a mask was blond-haired and wearing white-framed glasses.”
“I was crying, hysterical,” she said. “I pleaded with them to leave my husband. But the men tied him up and led him away. Then they told us to go down into the basement and not to say anything to anyone.”
“None of them ever came back,” she said, adding that she spent the next few weeks huddled with neighbors in a basement in terror thinking that the men who abducted her husband might return for her.