January 16, 1995 Vreme News Digest Agency No 172
General Trifunovic's Boys
Back From the Dead
by Nenad Lj. Stefanovic
Asked whether he would agree to give expert testimony at the trial of the Varazdin corps officers, a Yugoslav army general said: "How can I be an expert witness when I carried a hand grenade with me for days, hoping I'd meet that traitor Trifunovic and kill him." Those words were spoken in 1993 just prior to the second court martial General Trifunovic and his staff officers faced, but they were not enough to get them sentenced
At both the first and second courts martial, the military tribunal in Belgrade freed the Varazdin corps commander and his officers. The third trial was the "lucky" one. Perhaps not as much as the grenade carrying General wanted because Trifunovic got only 11 years but successful enough for the political and military leaders of Yugoslavia to erect a barrier to protect themselves after they got involved in a senseless war.
Some of the crown witnesses who testified against Trifunovic the third time around seem to feel the barrier is not strong enough and they turned to the press to comment the case and sentence.
General Jevrem Cokic, Trifunovic's predecessor as commander of the Varazdin corps, told one daily paper that the length of the sentence is immaterial. Cokic said honor demanded that Trifunovic kill himself. "He should have defended his honor with his life, not one 10th of the corps," he said.
Cokic's views on an officer's honor, treason and death differs greatly from the views of the boys he commanded from March (when they were recruits) to June (when he left). They all went through seven days of hell in September, trying to defend what they could, with no experience or help from outside. They feel Trifunovic is a noble man who saved their lives. None of those boys who were mainly aged 19 at the time is not sorry to be alive, nor do they believe their parents would be happy today gazing at pictures of sons who "died as heroes". Nor do their parents understand the philosophy of war which says "fight to the last bullet" and "the last of someone else's sons".
Redzep Selimi is one of the young men who were in the army in September 1991 in Varazdin. Today he is 22 years old and lives in Zrenjanin in the Romany suburb of Dudara. He hasn't got a job and "doesn't keep up with current events". He sells socks and batteries on the Zrenjanin market to survive. That's where he found out the Trifunovic (who he calls My General) was sentenced to 11 years.
"How could they sentence him, wasn't he freed once?"- Redzep asked. "11 years just because he saved our lives."
Before Varazdin, Redzep spent several weeks on the front lines in Knin and Okucani. He was part of Trifunovic's personal security as a military policeman. Redzep's friend Sinisa Mrdja from Elemir described Redzep as "a very brave and unpredictable fighter".
On the day the war erupted in Varazdin, Sergeant Major Cedomir Mladen was killed. Redzep and his friends carried him into the command building where the body lay for four days until the Croatian authorities allowed the family to claim the body. Redzep also remembers Major Sead Delic who "fought bravely" and was wounded. He found out that the war took that man to Tuzla where he joined the Bosnian Muslim army and organized an attack on a Yugoslav Peoples' Army (JNA) column that was withdrawing from the town. Some estimates place the number of dead JNA soldiers at close to 100 in that incident.
"You see, General Trifunovic was clever enough to take hostages to get us out of Varazdin," Redzep says. "He let them go when we crossed the border. If he hadn't we would all have been killed. I though we'd never get out of there alive. We knew they were going to attack, we were ready, but it was horrible. Many officers abandoned us and crossed to the other side. I'm still sorry I wasn't on guard so I could take out at least some of the men who escaped through across the fence. Several days before they attacked us, I was shown how to operate a mine thrower. I shelled the Croatian police. I don't know how many shells I fired. I couldn't hear anything for days and there was blood trickling from my ears. We were in the command building and we were attacked from all sides, the only help we got was from Colonel Popov who attacked them fiercely from another barracks. Popov is also a super officer," Redzep said.
"Several days later," he continued," we realized we wouldn't be saved and that we'd all die. We, ordinary soldiers, decided to put pillow covers on our rifles and surrender. When General Trifunovic and Colonel Raduski heard that they came running. The General told us that they would not leave us, he asked us to fight on and promised that help would come. He and Raduski were like parents to us. They organized things so we could call home and that encouraged us a little. They were there with us. Whenever things were bad they were with us. We continued fighting but it was no good. The Zengas (Croatian national guard) were close to storming the building and killing us all. No one helped us and then the General took his hostages and ordered us to destroy weapons. I broke my rifle."
On September 22, the Varazdin corps soldiers, following their surrender and agreement on a peaceful withdrawal, stood in front of the bus that would take them to Belgrade. The Croatian police wanted to know who had fired the mine thrower. "One of them with a lot of stars on his shoulders came up to me and asked if I was Romany or Albanian," Redzep says. "When I told him I was Romany he asked if I had shelled them and punched me in the face so hard he knocked a tooth out. I thought they had recognized me and would kill me right there."
To Redzep and most of his 20 year old friends, the worst moments of their soldiering were not the fighting in Varazdin but their short stay in the Bubanj Potok barracks near Belgrade. "They humiliated us and called us traitors there," Redzep says. "They said we surrendered without a fight, which is a lie. Then they let us go see our parents for 10 days. My parents heard I had been killed. My mother Fatima got sick then and her hair turned gray. When I got back from my leave they wanted me to go to Vukovar as a "traitor". That hurt. I told them I wasn't a traitor and I won't go to Vukovar. I told them my heart was weak after Varazdin so send someone else. They locked me up for three days."
Redzep's father Zejnulahu said he would like to meet General Trifunovic and shake his hand. "They can sentence him to whatever they like, but he brought my son back alive. A son is a son. He's more important than the tanks they left there. I don't understand politics. I went to Varazdin when my son was a recruit. The war hadn't started but I didn't dare say where I had come from. I saw all those Croats there and I knew that the Serb army, if the war started, couldn't survive there."
Sinisa Mrdja lives in Elemir, several kilometers from Zrenjanin. He was also a soldier in Varazdin in September 1991, also 22 and also unemployed. He's a qualified machinist but there's no work. He works occasionally in a local cafe but it's closed now. "When they sent the boys to war it was all right, now there's no work for them," Sinisa's mother Koviljka said. She wipes tears from her eyes at the mention of General Trifunovic: "When we heard he had been sentenced we all cried. He brought our child back alive. Should he be tried for keeping my son alive instead of dying there."
"Many officers and soldiers left or crossed to the other side, some even while there was fighting. Not all of them were Slovenians or Croats. Before he ran away, one of them disabled the gun on our armored car while we carrying the dead Sergeant Major away," Sinisa Mrdja said. At the start of the war he spent several days in Slovenia securing the border. The soldiers then spoke of Colonel Berislav Popov's bravery for which he has now been sentenced with Trifunovic. "As soon as we got to Varazdin from Slovenia we saw foxholes and a state of alert," Sinisa said. "We knew what was coming. When the attack on the command building began they fired at us non-stop day and night. We were just kids then, I was just over 18. The previous generation of recruits had done their tours and been released home before the fighting began. We survived thanks to our fantastic officers. They are brave and honorable men who didn't abandon us."
"I felt fear for the first time when the fighting stopped and we were waiting to get on the bus for Serbia. Armed men came out from everywhere, cursing and threatening us and I realized who had surrounded us. Some of them had guns I had never seen before. Obviously there were some special forces among them. Later, on the road through Croatia, our bus was stopped often and we survived thanks to the hostages."
What happened later Sinisa would rather forget. As soon as the Varazdin corps soldiers arrived in Bubanj Potok a lot of generals and security officers surrounded them. "Some of those generals never left Belgrade during the war, they told us that we were cowards and traitors," Sinisa said. "My father saw all that when he came to see me. We were both disappointed."
The label of traitor and the fact that he was set apart from the others as a "Varazdiner" (he had to wash out toilets for example which is job reserved for raw recruits) forced Sinisa to request a transfer to Vukovar.
"When I heard, I called and asked if anyone else's son could go to Vukovar after mine had been in Slovenia, Okucani and Varazdin. They told me had requested the transfer himself," Sinisa's mother said.
Sinsisa added that it was hard for him to see General Trifunovic and his officers sentenced. "It's a tragedy for the men who saved our lives. As long as I'm alive, I'll be grateful. I heard some people are saying we should have fought to the last bullet. As if Varazdin would have been in our hands after that. Even if we had survived, fighting to the last bullet, we would still know that we had blood on our hands unnecessarily. I knew in Bubanj Potok that people were sorry we were still alive."
Retired General Jevrem Cokic tried out some thoughts about what could have happened. When he left Varazdin he spent 35 days as commander of the operations group for eastern Herzegovina and Dalmatia. He was in command of the Dubrovnik operation until October 5 when he was wounded in a helicopter. If he hadn't been wounded, Cokic said, Dubrovnik would have become the Dubrovnik Republic the next day. He said he had planned to take a corridor through Ljubosko and Livansko Polje all the way to Split, Zadar and Sibenik because that fits into the plans for a shorter Yugoslavia (Karlovac-Karlobag-Virovitica) and was an opportunity for the Serbs to have access to the Sea.
If Generals can imagine what could have been, so can journalists try to imagine what would have happened if Cokic hadn't left Varazdin. If he had stayed, it's hard to believe he would have given up without a fight. Something similar happened in Virovitica where a garrison with modern anti-tank equipment fell into the hands of the enemy without a shot being fired. The commander of that brigade is reported to still be serving in the Yugoslav Army and his name is being kept secret. Possibly Cokic would have fought like Colonel Rajko Kovacevic did (commander of a mechanized brigade and garrison in Bjelovar) Bjelovar fell a week after Varazdin, 20 soldiers were killed in the fighting and every bit of equipment was captured. Croatian troops shot four prisoners: Colonel Kovacevic and three of his officers.
Possibly Cokic would have fought to the last bullet in Varazdin, destroying civilian housing and killing many civilians. In that case, Redzep, Sinisa, and their friends would most probably not be alive, all their equipment would belong to the enemy and a destroyed Varazdin would still be in Croatia today. General Cokic would not be planting roses in Belgrade as he does now but would be dead along with his soldiers and would have ideally served the military and political leaders as proof that the war against the genocidal enemy was not senseless. There would also have been some "patriotic" journalist who would have written a morbid report about the mothers of the dead soldiers who "marched proudly and joyfully behind their hero sons' caskets".
Or perhaps, he would have realized that dying for no reason is senseless and decided to save the lives of his soldiers. In that case he would now be in a military prison reading someone else's thoughts of an officers' honor which demands his suicide.
A Third Man
Dalibor Nastic from Zasavica village near Sremska Mitrovica was the third Varazdin corps soldier who spoke to VREME. Dalibor is also a machinist and also unemployed. He got shrapnel in his leg in Varazdin. He said he jumps at every loud sound today even at creaking chairs. He's most worried about his mother's coming heart surgery.
"She was sick sometimes before Varazdin, but afterwards she almost went crazy," he said. "She couldn't believe I was still alive when I called from Varazdin in the middle of the fighting. She searched army lists of live and wounded but couldn't find me. I was on a list of dead, It's a pity she can't tell you what she thinks about General Trifunovic's sentence. To me it's an unbelievable injustice. I was close to the General and I heard a lot of his phone calls those days. I remember one General, I forget his name, called him one day in the middle of a battle and shouted: "Don't use artillery, fight with your rifles!". General Trifunovic was very angry and he said: "If you don't want to help us don't hamper us". Now they say we didn't fight enough. If our officers hadn't held their pistols on those hostages we would not have crossed the border, we wouldn't be alive today. There were 11 Generals waiting for us in Belgrade. One kept explaining about Varazdin, as if we hadn't been there, as if he had moved from Belgrade at all. He said he'd give us all aprons and send us back."