At a press conference in Zagreb on October 22, 1992, the The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UNCHR), under the leadership of Tadeusz Mazowiecki announced that a mass grave had been discovered in the area of Ovčara near Vukovar.
The tomb had been untouched prior to the arrival of members of UNPROFOR (United Nations Protection Forces), who at that time had established a round-the-clock guard at the still secret location.
According to the Vukovar hospital, after 87 days (August – November 1991) under siege by the Yugoslav People’s Army, 1,624 people died and more than 2,500 were wounded in Vukovar. About 5,000 women and men were then taken from the city to camps in Serbia. On November 20, 1991, the Yugoslav People’s Army took out about 300 patients, including civilians, from the Vukovar hospital itself, all of whom were subsequently lost without a trace. Almost a year had passed since their disappearance, and no one knew anything about their fate.
Dr. Miodrag Višić, president of the Executive Council of the Serbian municipality of Vukovar, reacted to the news about the discovery of the mass grave, stating that he categorically rejects Mazowiecki’s claim and that there was only a military collection center in Ovčara, where the surviving Vukovar residents were sent to Croatia or Serbia at their own request.
For understandable reasons, UNCHR representatives did not provide more in-depth details about the location, wanting to protect the discovered site before exhumation so that evidence would not be removed.
Among the 5,000 inmates in Serbia was the only person who survived the shootings near Ovcara. He arrived in Croatia on August 14, 1992, nine months after the massacre committed by Serbian forces, in a prisoner exchange based on the “all for all” principle.
It was precisely thanks to the testimony of the only survivor, whose interview was published on October 2, 1992, by the Zagreb daily “Vjesnik”, that the UN investigative team found a mass grave near the agricultural estate “Ovčara”, which was revealed at the press conference in Zagreb.
An AFP (Agence France-Presse) correspondent from Belgrade, Helena Despić-Popović, was at that press conference and asked UNCHR representatives if there was a connection between the discovery of the mass grave and the people who went missing from the hospital in Vukovar. She did not receive a response for the above reasons. She had previously read an article in “Vjesnik” in which an eyewitness under the pseudonym “Ivan” described in detail what happened at Ovčara in November 1991.
When she returned from Zagreb to Belgrade, she called her colleague Florence Hartmann, who at that time was a Belgrade correspondent for “Le monde”, and told her: “Let’s go there together and find out if there is any connection, because they refuse to give an answer.”
Six days after the press conference in Zagreb, the two fearless journalists drove from Belgrade to Vukovar to check if there really was a mass grave there and what happened to the people who disappeared from the Vukovar hospital. With foreign journalist accreditations from the Federal Ministry of Information at that time, they could move without additional permits through the Serb-controlled territory of Croatia. After arriving in Vukovar, they followed the detailed descriptions from the newspaper article in their search.
As a prosecution witness before the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) at the trial for war crimes committed in Ovčara in the Mrkšić, Radić and Šljivančanin case (IT-95-13/1), Florence Hartmann stated:
“We weren’t sure where to go, because there were several places in that area where we could turn left, and of course, we were afraid of mines in the fields. And a little further, we came to the small Grabovo lake, but we knew that we had gone too far and we stopped there. When we stopped, we saw a small hangar right on the side of the road. Then a boat arrived at the lake shore just below us. And several locals got out of that boat. They asked us what we were doing there and asked for our documents. They asked us some more questions. A few minutes later, a UN truck arrived, carrying two UN peacekeepers. They were Russians. They didn’t ask us to leave. We were actually attending a meeting between them and the local Serbs who arrived on the boat. They talked, ate some sandwiches, I think, and they drank something. After that, the Russians gave the local Serbs fuel in canisters. The Serbs then left with that fuel. After they left, my colleague and I were about to get into the car, seeing that the Russians were also about to leave, but then we stopped. And that’s because we saw UN license plates on the truck, after which we told them that we would report them for fuel smuggling if they didn’t tell us where they were working. Then they suggested that we follow them, and that’s how we found where we should have took a left turn in the first place.”
They followed the Russian soldiers to the end of the grove and saw a white tent and a UN truck. The soldiers they found guarding the site did not allow them access to the tent, but told them that they had seen skulls and body parts there.
The location itself, along with the testimony of the surviving eyewitness, clearly indicated that there was a connection between the missing people from the hospital in Vukovar and that mass grave. But for two experienced journalists, that was not enough for a reliable and exclusive news article. They needed confirmation from an official source. And because of that, they immediately drove from Grabov to Erdut, the headquarters of the UN for the region of Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Syrmia. There they found Blandine Neggae, UNPROFOR Civil Affairs Coordinator in the UN Sector East, and told her that they had located the mass grave that had been discussed at the press conference in Zagreb.
She was surprised by the fact that it took two journalists from Belgrade one day to find the location of the mass grave that the special UN team had been looking for since September, also struggling to find the location of the execution site itself. The two journalists showed her a newspaper article that led them in their search, after which she confirmed to them that on October 27, 1992, a mass grave had been discovered in Grabovo near Vukovar, the first in Europe after WWII.
Florence and Helena agreed that the following day, October 28, 1992, they would publish articles about the discovery of the missing people from the Vukovar hospital in the mass grave, one hour apart. On the same day, UNCHR special rapporteur Tadeusz Mazowiecki confirmed the information published by the AFP news agency and “Le monde”.
In spite of everything, four years passed between the publication of this news and the exhumation of the victims. After signing the so-called Erdut Agreement between Croatia and representatives of the Eastern Slavonia, Baranja and Western Syrmia region in November 1995, the area under the control of the Serbs came under the interim administration of the UN.
It was only then that the conditions were met to carry out the exhumation process.
During August and September 1996, the remains of 200 people, 198 men and two women – Janja Pothorski and Ružica Markobasic, who had been five months pregnant, were exhumed from a mass grave ten meters long, three meters wide, and two meters deep. Three persons were under the age of 18: Igor Kačić, Tomislav Baumgertner and Dragutin Balog.
The following people were sentenced before the ICTY for the crimes in Ovčara under the principle of command responsibility: JNA Colonel Mile Mrkšić, commander of the Operational Group (OG) South and the Guards Motorized Brigade (gmtbr) to 20 years in prison and JNA Major Veselin Šljivančanin, head of the security body of the OG South and gmtbr, to 10 years in prison.
At the trial in Serbia in 2017, 11 members of the local “Territorial Defense of Vukovar” and the paramilitary unit “Leva Supoderica” were convicted as direct perpetrators of the murders in Ovčara.
Thirty years after the discovery of the mass grave at Ovčara in the area of the city of Vukovar, the search for 383 missing persons is still ongoing.
Vladimir Milanović, born in 1971 in Belgrade, graduated history at the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade, passed a professional exam in archival science and obtained a license from the National Library to create bibliographic records in the COBISS.SR system. He coordinates the “Transfer of the Hague Archives” project and manages the Archive and Library of the Humanitarian Law Center.
Translated by Luna Đorđević