Monday, June 13, 2005

A Serb's Violent Past Catches Up With Him on Television - The New York Times

VUKOVAR, Croatia, Monday, June 13 -- Fourteen years on from a conflict that raged as Yugoslavia began to fall apart, taking more than 200,000 lives with it, the destruction in this once pretty Croatian region is still visible.

New and restored houses stand alongside overgrown ruins of once grand 19th-century buildings. Gleaming new roads lead through scrubland marked with red tape and signs that warn of minefields.

The Serbs and Croats who rose up against one another here are living in their old homes again, but with new neighbors: silent memories that few forget and fewer discuss, haunting culpabilities that often fester unclaimed. The former combatants, brutal in war, now try to lead very ordinary lives.

Take Slobodan Davidovic, an ethnic Serb, former waiter and part-time construction worker from a small village to the south of Vukovar, about three miles from the Serbian border.

Mr. Davidovic's war caught up with him this month in the most public of ways -- he appeared in a video shown on television networks throughout the Balkans. There he is, dressed in black, wearing a beret, ordering fellow soldiers around at the execution of six Muslim men and boys in Bosnia, some of the 7,000 from the town of Srebrenica killed by Serb forces in July 1995. He was identified by name by the Serbian police and by former members of his military unit.

The image is hard to match with the man living in the little village of Sidski Banovci. He has been here on and off since the end of war, staying with his elderly mother and brother in a small house off the village high street. Neighbors describe him as a good man, intelligent and hard working.

Officially, he has been described by the Serbian police as being in hiding, one of two suspects being sought in connection with the taped killings. But the Croatian police had said they had no knowledge of any war crimes suspects related to the video in their area. Five others have been arrested.

Approached outside a church on Sunday by a reporter and an interpreter, he admitted his membership in the Scorpions, the Serbian police in the tape.

Yes, he said, he had seen the video. ''How could anybody not feel bad about what was on that tape?'' he said, in Serbian. Pressed on whether he felt bad about it, he answered, in English, ''Yes.''

Mr. Davidovic was one of dozens of men -- many of them members of the same families -- who joined the Scorpions in 1991, when the fighting in this part of Croatia was at a height. But eventually, the unit went to fight in Bosnia. Later, it was incorporated into the Serbian police, and was sent to Kosovo. The unit has been accused of killing 14 ethnic Albanians there, seven of them children. It is described by Serbia's chief war crimes prosecutor as doing the Serbian police's ''dirty work,'' and acted on the orders of Serbian state security.

Of course, many things could not go back to even a surface of normality after the war. Many of the returning Scorpions left Croatia when it returned to Croatian control in 1997, moving to Sid, a town across the border in Serbia. But Mr. Davidovic came home.

In the video, he commands younger soldiers, and orders the six Muslim prisoners around. ''Come on, get down,'' he barks as they clamber down from a truck. ''Sit on that side, sit there. Quickly!''

They are lying facedown in the dirt when he shouts a curse at them and says, ''Pray like that!'' One tries to talk to him, perhaps protesting his innocence, and he retorts: ''Innocent! Innocent like I am!''

Finally, he emerges from a building where two prisoners were taken to be shot.

In and around Vukovar, the video is beginning to reverberate through those muted wartime memories and arouse spirits that suddenly seem to recall their burdens. And here, on each side, few take the easy recourse of blaming one small group of men for actions that many hundreds and thousands of others probably took, unfilmed.

Many Croats here know the Serbs in the videotape. They say they were ordinary people. ''Small fish,'' said Mijo Djuric, a Croatian hospital worker from Deletovci who grew up with several of those on the cassette. He said the politicians in Belgrade and more senior military commanders were to blame.

A former member of the Scorpions, who was in Bosnia with Mr. Davidovic, now lives in Sid. ''In war, men became animals,'' he said. ''We all did.'' He spoke on condition that his name be withheld, out of fear of retribution. He said he grew used to the sight of the unarmed and helpless being shot in cold blood. He also said Serbs and Croats behaved the same way, around Vukovar and later in the war. But the drive to simply get along, after the years of brutal war, is powerful.

''We don't talk about the war,'' said Mijo Vrkasevic, a member of the ruling Croatian Democratic Union who lives in Deletovci, a town near Sidski Banovci, used by the Scorpions during the conflict as their headquarters. ''It could make new problems. We have worked very hard on reconciliation in this area. It could be damaged by this tape.''

Why and how a man might become a ruthless killer was difficult to explain simply, he said. ''It depends on his education, childhood and what kind of family he came from,'' he said. For the Serbs, he said, this is a difficult time. ''It is hard especially for elderly people to know what their sons did during the war.''

Excavating the past, he said, disrupts the attempts to move on.

''I believe that there are people hiding around here who have problems from the past,'' he said, adding, ''It's not our business.''

So, in the little village on Sunday, before church, Mr. Davidovic was there, helping the disabled local priest out of his car and into a wheelchair. After he answered the few questions about his past, he said he did not want to talk any further, and went inside, to attend the service.

Less than 24 hours later, the Croatian police, acting in response to questions from Croatian reporters about the man in the videotape, went to the village of Sidski Banovci and detained a man. The police released no name.

Photos: Slobodan Davidovic, top, is wanted by the Serbian police in the killing of Muslim men and boys in Bosnia in 1995. In an image from a video recorded at the time, above, Mr. Davidovic appears alongside prisoners. (Photo by Nicholas Wood for The New York Times); (Photo by International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia)

Map of Croatia highlighting Vukovar: The Vukovar region is recovering from war, but still bears its scars.


Anonymous said...

I hope Martyr is reading this and isn't puzzled anymore why the West stood aside and let Croatia do its thing.
Be careful what you want because you might just get it.

Anonymous said...

It's always the neighbour :( one thing that doesn't cease to amaze me is how so many Serbs turned on their neighbours. This is sickness.

As the Serb saying gose "for ones luck, the others must die" (as in the animal). Is this the philosophy applied here? To all Anthropologists, you have a gold mine of distrubed culture sitting north of Kosova.

Anonymous said...

Well, you are and will always be among them buddy, you are and will be living in their southern province. Wait and see and we´ll talk again. Its a promise.


Anonymous said...

T.B., Serbia lost its right to rule over Kosova when it treated the Kosovars like animals instead of people. Read the American Declaration of Independence. Any government that fails to respect the rights of its people loses its legitimacy to govern them.

Anonymous said...

If things progress well, Kosovo’s legal status as a fully independent country will be decided thereafter, probably in 2006 or 2007, EU officials said.

Hey T.B. NYC can you please repeat what you said...

Too bad you're wrong :(

Chris Blaku said...

Serbia never had the right to govern Kosova, it was illegally given by a Russian influenced, and ill informed international community.

Serbian culture is war-ravaged and blood thirsty... Even early Serbian settlers in the 7th century, were described in Roman texts as "barbarous people who infrequently ventured past the mountains to plunder and pillage neighboring lands"... Doesn't sound far from today's Serbians, does it?