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Zvezdana Polovina. Photo: Geyrhalter Film
Zvezdana Polovina. Photo: Geyrhalter Film

On a long wall in the basement of the hospital in Vukovar in eastern Croatia you find 264 names, written in small black letters. Each is enclosed by a black frame. Below each name one finds the year of birth – and they all have the same year of death. This is a memorial. And these are the names of the victims of the mass slaughter that took place in the night of 20 to 21 November 1992 at Ovcara, premises belonging to a former agricultural conglomerate outside of Vukovar.

Among the names you also find Branimir Polovina. His wife Zvezdana, an anchor at the Croatian Radio Vukovar, married Branimir, a radio technician, in July 1991, just a few weeks before the Serb attack on Vukovar began. During the three-month siege, she and her husband worked from basements. When the town fell on 18 November 1991, they – like many others Croats – fled to the Vukovar hospital, believing that as civilians they would find shelter there.

On 20 November 1991, the hospital was set to be evacuated under the control of the Red Cross. At the backside exit, buses were waiting. Yugoslav Army Major Veselin Sljivancanin ordered the separation of men and women. It was the last time Zvezdana saw her husband. Together with 263 others, he was taken to Ovcara to be butchered.

His body was unearthed five years later, at the bottom of the pit, with 11 shot wounds in his body. When Svezdana was called to the Zagreb morgue in 1997 to identify his remains, she struggled with the final certainty that he was dead.

"Until I was faced with the evidence, I simply couldn't and wouldn't believe it. I so strongly, strongly believed that my husband was alive. Based on what? I do not know. It was probably simply the belief that a human being cannot do such an evil thing to another human being."

Zvezdana Polovina standing at the wall pointing with her finger to her husband's name. Photo: Geyrhalter Film
Zvezdana Polovina standing at the wall pointing with her finger to her husband's name. Photo: Geyrhalter Film

Perhaps this is why Zvezdana did not return to Vukovar and stayed in Zagreb. She took on a job in marketing. Her parents sold their house there. When she visits now Vukovar she stays with friends.

"I do not have a problem with Serbs in Zagreb. I have a problem with Serbs in Vukovar … It is because I never know who among them is the killer. And then I always worry that I might not act correctly towards those people. So I rather turn my head away, look somewhere else, because I don't know who is guilty and who is not.

I don't know those people. I don't know the people who killed my husband and I think that it would be easier for me to know that, because then my frustration would be directed towards that particular person."

Zvezdana testified against three Yugoslav Army officials charged with the killings at Ovcara at the Hague tribunal. Two of them were sentenced. One is Mile Mrksic, a former Colonel of the Yugoslav People's Army (JNA). He was surrendered to the ICTY in 2002. Mrksic is held responsible for withdrawing JNA troops and thus allowing Serbian paramilitary forces to commit the crimes at Ovcara. He was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment and is serving his sentence in Portugal.

The other man sentenced by the ICTY is Veselin Sljivancanin, who was arrested in 2003 in Belgrade. In 2007 he was sentenced to 5 years imprisonment for aiding in the torture of prisoners. In 2009 his sentence was increased by the appeals chamber to 17 years, which held him also responsible for aiding the murder of prisoners of war. In 2010 the case was reviewed once again after testimony of a new witness, stating that Sljivancanin had not been informed by Mrksic about the withdrawal of JNA troops. The sentence was reduced to 10 years. Sljivancanin was granted early release after 8 years in July 2011.

Slavko Dokmanovic, the former president of Vukovar municipality suspected of having aided or participated in the Ovcara massacre, died in detention in The Hague in 1998 before a judgement could be delivered. 16 others involved in the Ovcara massacre were subsequently sentenced by the specialised section for war crimes at the Belgrade High Court to sentences between 5 and 20 years imprisonment.

Zvezdana does not think these sentences are enough to bring about justice. What would help, she says, is the following: that the Serbs who fought in the war should reveal the sites of other mass graves where those still missing since the war are buried.

March 2013

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