Whatever he used to say, to kill a man in his own backyard, in front of his child, that’s a crime and must be punished, writes Mrs. Gall for New York Times about the murder of Milan Levar
Press Release . Communiqué de presse (Exclusively for the use of the media. Not an official document)
OFFICE OF THE PROSECUTOR BUREAU DU PROCUREUR
The Hague, 30 August 2000 PR/P.I.S./523-e REPORTED MURDER OF MILAN LEVAR IN CROATIA
Yesterday the Prosecutor’s Office received reports that a Croatian citizen, Milan Levar, was murdered on 28 August at his residence in Gospic, Croatia.
Any murder investigation is properly a matter for the Croatian authorities. The Prosecutor has no information which suggests that Mr. Levar’s death was in any way associated with his dealings with the Tribunal. However, having regard to the fact that questions arising out of Mr. Levar’s death are being directed towards the Tribunal concerning the safety of potential witnesses, the Prosecutor believes it is necessary to make the following clarification.
Staff of the Prosecutor’s Office interviewed Mr. Levar during 1997 and 1998 in relation to investigations being conducted by the Tribunal. Following these interviews, protective measures were offered to him, however, instead he chose to approach the media to give details of his co-operation and interviews with the Tribunal. Notwithstanding this, Mr. Levar indicated that he wished to remain in Croatia and asked the Prosecutor to approach the Croatian Government to request that arrangements be made to provide protection for himself, his family and his property.
In response to this request, on 1 April 1998, the Prosecutor wrote to the Croatian Government requesting that protection be provided to Mr. Levar, a potential Tribunal witness. On 15 April the Croatian Government acknowledged that it would accept this responsibility. Since that time there has been no contact between Mr. Milan Levar and the Prosecutor’s staff.
The Prosecutor regrets the unfortunate death of Mr. Levar, however, this is not a situation where the Tribunal had entered into any agreement with this potential witness to provide protection to him or his family.
A Croat’s Killing Prods Action on War Atrocities
GOSPIC, Croatia, Sept. – Milan Levar always knew he might be killed and gave a trusted friend a letter naming the 4 men he thought were most likely to order his assassination and 10 more who would carry it out.
Mr. Levar, Croatia’s most outspoken critic of crimes committed by Croats in Croatia against minority Serbs, was killed by a bomb in his backyard in Gospic on Aug. 28. His five-page handwritten letter makes sad, and damning, reading.
The four men Mr. Levar suspected of plotting to kill him were men he had been accusing since 1997 of committing war crimes against the Serbs of Gospic, a hardscrabble town of 5,000 set in the thick forests and craggy white mountains of a region that was notorious even in World War II for being the home of hard-line Croat nationalism.
Mr. Levar said these four men were responsible for killing dozens of Gospić Serbs in 1991 and 1992, during and after the six-month war the Croats waged against rebel Serbs and the Yugoslav Army after Croatia declared independence.
But it took the killing of Mr. Milan Levar, a former military intelligence officer in his mid-40’s, to push the government to act on his information. Two weeks after his death, special policemen in khaki uniforms and berets surrounded buildings in the town and detained several men in connection with crimes committed against civilians during the war and with Mr. Levar’s death.
In a parallel raid in Zagreb, the police also arrested Gen. Tihomir Orešković, long accused by Mr. Levar of leading the killings of Serbs in Gospić, and brought him to Gospic to join the other detainees. The general headed Mr. Levar’s list of people who he believed wanted him dead.
Gospić still bears the scars of war, but exudes a calm that masks a Violent past and enduring hatred and fear.
Deep gashes from mortar shrapnel still scar the walls of buildings, a result of shelling by Serbian forces in 1991. The former Serbian quarter was devastated, each house methodically demolished with explosives, the work of vengeful Croats. Serbian forces seized control of part of the town in 1991, but within weeks were repulsed by the Croats, who held the town for the rest of the war.
Milica Majić, 68, a Serbian widow dressed in black, still lives on her Farm in Smiljansko Polje, just on the edge of Gospić. Her husband was beaten and shot beside his tractor in the fields behind the house in 1992. “I don’t know who killed him,” she said. “I am a Serb, and he was. That’s why they killed him.”
Over 100 Serbs are missing from the area around Gospić, the site of the first death camp established for Jews and Serbs by the Ustasha who ruled the Nazi puppet state of Croatia during World War II.
Mr. Milan Levar collected evidence of the atrocities committed here by Croatian troops and paramilitary units in 1991 and 1992, witnessed some events here himself and said, in an interview just 12 days before his death, that up to 500 civilian victims might be buried in this area. When he started speaking out in 1997, the Croatian government refused to accept that Croats did any of the killing, which both sides carried out.
In the interview, Mr. Milan Levar said he was speaking out because the truth had to be told. “They killed my people, my friends,” he said. “It is my Business to say something of what happened.”
In the smashed Serbian suburb on the south side of town lies a small enclosed orchard. Plum trees heavy with fruit bowed over what appeared to be graves marked with simple wooden crosses. On a visit here with Mr. Levar in August, it appeared that someone had been digging, opening graves. The grass was young and the soil loose underfoot.
“We are walking on top of a morgue here,” Mr. Levar said.
The cemetery was one of several mass graves Mr. Milan Levar said he knew of. A bulldozer had broken through the fence of the orchard, and there could be as many as 100 bodies in a pit between the trees, he said.
Even he was nervous and did not stay long in the place. The victims may not have all been Serbs. Croats who objected or got in the way were also killed, he said. “And the same people are still in power,” he remarked, alluding to local authorities, most of whom are still dominated by the hard-line nationalist party of the late President Franjo Tuđman.
Mr. Tudjman, who died in December, resisted almost all requests for cooperation with the United Nations war crimes tribunal in The Hague.
However, the new government, led by Prime Minister Ivica Račan, and the new president, Stjepan Mesić, have allowed investigators from the tribunal into Croatia. Earlier this year, they performed their first exhumation in the country, digging up 10 bodies from a septic tank near the orchard cemetery in Gospic.
“He felt it was a personal victory that they came,” said his widow, Vesna Levar, sitting in their kitchen surrounded by photographs of her husband and candles. Nevertheless, it made their situation more precarious, she said, and her husband had finally decided to take her and their 10-year-old son, Leon, abroad.
“In the last two months leading up to his death, he was intensively seeking to leave the country,” she said. He spent hours assembling documents and depositing them with friends.
The new government’s policy of cooperating with The Hague has alarmed many Croats, in particular members of the Croatian Army and of Mr. Tuđman’s party, the Croatian Democratic Union.
“Those responsible have begun to feel endangered now,” said Dobroslav Paraga, the leader of the Croatian Party of Rights and the friend to whom Mr. Levar entrusted the list of those he suspected would kill him. “If Tudjman were alive, there would be no chance that The Hague would be walking around Gospic.”
Mr. Paraga said he suspected that Mr. Levar was killed not only because he was a witness, but also to scare future witnesses and deter the government from pursuing war criminals. “The intention was to scare the democratic movement in Croatia, to shut people up, and if not block, then drastically reduce, cooperation with The Hague,” he said.
In Gospic, the issue raises charged emotions. Before his death, a waitress seethed at the mention of Mr. Levar. “What do you want with that traitor?” she snarled. Mr. Milan Levar said people knew deep down that he was telling the truth. “I know my people and I know they want to find out what happened,” he said.
There was a miserable turnout at his funeral, with barely 60 people and few locals. “The entire circumstances were terrible,” Mrs. Vesna Levar said bitterly.
“It could not have been worse had an animal died.” A government delegation came from Zagreb, but the mayor, Milan Kolić, declined to attend.
“Mr. Levar is not a person who has done anything more or less for this town, and I do not see why the mayor should attend the funeral,” he said in an interview.
Fear kept most townspeople away, said one resident, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “Sixty to 70 percent of the town would have gone to the funeral if it were not for fear,” he said. Everyone had been shocked by the murder, he said.
“Whatever he used to say, to kill a man in his own backyard, in front of his child, that’s a crime and must be punished.”