Published in Nacional number 543, 2006-04-10

Autor: Stanko Borić


Croat victim in Slovenian war crime

In June 1991, the Slovenian territorial guards killed three YNA conscripts who had surrended, one of whom was Bosnian Croat Antonio Simunovic

At the time of his death, Antonio was not even 20 years oldAt the time of his death, Antonio was not even 20 years old"Why did they have to kill him after he already surrendered? Why did they shoot?,” through sobs said his Jela Simunovic, mother of Antonio Simunovic, one of the three YNA conscripts killed in an incident on the Slovenian-Austrian border crossing Holmec. Slovenia has been shaken in recent days by an affair which the public there knew of back in 1999. That was when Slovenian POP TV showed footage taken in 1991 by Austrian TV ORF in which it shows members of the Slovenian territorial guard allegedly killing unarmed YNA soldiers, who had surrendered with white flag in hand. The three men killed were 19 year old Antonio Simunovic from Jablanice, Goran Maletic from Novi Sad and 18 year of Zoran Jesic from Pancevo. The Maletic and Jesic families learned about the case from the Serbian press, while the Simunovic family heard nothing about the circumstances of their son’s death from 1991 until the visit from Nacional’s reporters. The search for the Simunovic family proved to be a complex task, as they had left Jablanice after the outbreak of the Croat-Muslim conflict. The father Pero remained in Jablanice till the last possible moment, joining HVO after leaving. The rest of the family, mother and brothers Bernard, Goran and Miro, fled earlier and experience the war calvary in various towns in Bosnia and Herzegovina. After Nacional’s reporters found them in the village Rastani in the outskirts of Mostar, the unhappy family was shocked and the initial disbelief was replaced with grieving for their killed son and brother.

“You are the first to contact us since we received the coffin with our Antonio’s body in 1991. We were not allowed to open the coffin, but we could only see his head. I did not have the strength to look, so the other family members did. This is the first time we’ve heard about how he was killed, and I cannot even describe the shock I am in,” said Jela Simunovic. Not long after our arrival, the father Pero arrived home from Mostar, where his friends had told him that the Serbian TV station B92 had shown footage of the incident at Holmec, and his son’s name Antonio was mentioned. “I was shaking when they told me this, and now hearing the details from you is much more difficult. It is so hard to accept that he died in that way,” said visible shaken Pero Simunovic. At the time of his death, Antonio was not even 20 years old.

“We couldn’t come to terms with the fact that we would never learn about what exactly happened to him, but the war in Bosnia and our difficult financial situation made it impossible for us to find out any more,” stated Miro, the youngest brother. After the distraught family received the coffin in 1991, they buried him in the cemetery near Jablanice, but the war soon took the entire family away from his final resting place.

“After the end of the war, we were again able to visit his grave, after a long time. Our house in Jablanica has been reconstructed, but we did not want to stay there, so we sold the house and began to build a new one here in Rastani,” said Antonio’s mother. The Simunovic family is currently living on only 200 marks a month, which is the veteran’s pension that Pero Simunovic receives.

Their financial situation has not allowed them to finish the house, like the others along the unpaved road. Goran Simunovic is in the seminary, while Miro and Bernard are both artists.

Antonio’s death certificate lists his place of death as the Holmec border crossing between Slovenia and Austria, is undeniable proof that their brother was one of the killed soldiers. Antonio, otherwise a large and happy young man, caused his parents great concern in his letters. “He wrote us that for three months they had not left the watch-tower and trenches and that he was very worried about the future, and he called his unit the “death platoon”. I received his last letter one week before his death,” said mother Jela.

The Holmec border crossing, where Antonio Simunovic was killed, is situated on the border with Austria, just near to Bleiburg. The battle for the passage and watch-tower began on 27 June 1991, and in the unsuccessful assault on the watch-tower, two Slovenian police officers were killed. The following day, fire was exchanged. In the morning at about 10:30, one group of YNA soldiers surrendered, while the other offered resistance until about 11:00, when they also surrendered. The ORF footage shows that the soldiers came out with arms up and white sheet in hand before the Slovenian guards. After that, a round of fire is heard which knocked over a number of the soldiers, while the rest threw themselves to the ground. According to the coroner’s findings, Simunovic and Jesic were killed instantly, while Maletic bleed to death. Initially the Slovenian territorial guards said that the YNA soldiers had killed one of their officers who had not permitted them to surrender, shooting him in the back. However, the footage clearly shows that they were hit from in front and the side, which was confirmed by the coroner’s report, and it is difficult to believe that the Slovenians would let off an imprisoned YNA officer who had allegedly killed soldiers.

The battle and surrender of the YNA solders and the crossfire which followed was filmed from the Austrian side of the border at a distance of 300-400 meters by ORF cameraman Ivan Klaric, who is also willing to testify about the incident. “At that time we were filming border crossings that had been taken by YNA and that’s how we reached Holmec. I remember a group of soldiers standing with arms in the air and a white sheet, and then hearing a round of fire and seeing the soldiers fall to the ground. It was hard for me to tell who was shooting, and I don’t know what happened with the soldiers and whether any and how many were actually hit. After the gunfire there was silence and I didn’t see anything else. I am willing to testify about what I saw if it proves necessary,” said Ivan Klaric for Nacional.

The official Slovenian bodies claim that the footage proves nothing. They confirm that the soldiers had surrendered, but claim they threw themselves to the ground when they heard gunfire nearby. He claims that it was impossible for these men to be killed from gunfire from their territorial guards, as they were in a position from which it was impossible to shoot at the soldiers, which is proven by the position of the soldiers in the footage.

President of the Helsinki Committee Neva Miklavcic-Predan is one of the people most responsible for the great attention given to the Holmec incident, which is a very uncomfortable one for Slovenia. “In 1999, the Helsinki Committee filed a lawsuit with the Slovenian State Prosecutor against unknown perpetrators for war crimes and violations of the Geneva Convention. Even though in the meantime we have sent in two notes of urgency, we still to this date have not received a response,” said Miklavcic-Predan. A response, though not the desired one, came against her, in the form of charges of libel against 25 Slovenian war veterans, even though she had never mentioned a single one by name.

“We have knowledge, and the name of two men responsible for the death of these three soldiers, but we are not able to release those names without concrete evidence. The problem is that this is the job of the Slovenian state, but they don’t want to do anything about it,” said Neva Miklavcic-Predan, who has faced numerous problems and threats due to her media appearances.

The situation only became worse after the testimony of former Slovenian President Milan Kucan in the Hague in the case against Slobodan Milosevic on 21 May 2003. “Kucan denied the existence of a crime at Holmec and later stated that the Holmec incident had been investigated and processes, even though there was never a real investigation,” said Miklavcic-Predan. If it can be proven that a crime was committed and that the perpetrators went unpunished, then it will be that Kucan lied in court, which was one of the reasons for increased pressures on the Slovenian Helsinki Committee. The footage shown on POP TV in 1999 was preceded by an article by Bojan Budje on 28 December 1997 in the Slovenian press.

The authorities repeated their investigation into the Holmec incident, but the result was the same as in 1999 – no crime was committed and the soldiers were killed in battle. It is interesting that the reporters of Slovenske novice learned about the existence of the footage by sheer chance.

Namely, one of the top officials in the Slovenian police, Borut Likar Budji gave information on the involvement of former director of the Slovenian police Marko Pogorelec in the looting of a duty-free shop at Vic in 1991, one of the Austrian-Slovenian border crossings. In his anger, Pogorelec told the press that they should instead investigate cases like Holmec, where much more serious violations occurred. At that time, information began leaking out of the Slovenian Interior Ministry and the result was that the public learned of the Holmec case. After the story was released, the Slovenian public rose up against reporter Budje and accused Slovenske of making allegations of treason and insulting the veterans of the 10-day Slovenian war.

However, there was no way to avoid this footage from coming to light. Public pressure resulted in Budje backing away from further investigating the case. Pogorelec became head of security of the Slovenian mobile operator Mobitel, where his salary is one million tolar per month. The majority of politicians and the public view Pogorelev as incompetent and unsuitable to be head of police, and there is speculation that he received his position in Mobitel in return for keeping quiet about the Holmec case, for in 1991 he was one of the leading police officials in the area where this crime was committed and he knew details unbeknownst to the public.

The Prosecutor for War Crimes in Belgrade has opened pre-criminal proceedings regarding Holmec and expects to work with Slovenia to collect sufficient information to launch criminal proceedings. They contacted the families of the deceased Jesic and Maletic, who were Serbian citizens, but no one informed the Simunovic family. The reason for this is that in all these years, they did not succeed in establishing the exact identity of the third killed soldier.

“Considering that the majority of YNA files disappeared, we were unable to determine the exact date of birth and personal number of killed Antonio, and there was even mention of the surname Simonjic. The discovery of his family and death certificate will certainly help the entire case, and we can hope that his family will receive satisfaction of justice over the death of their son,” stated Neva Miklavcic-Predan.
The entire case is very uncomfortable for Slovenia, which celebrates the battle at Holmec as its great victory. The Day of Slovenian Police is celebrated on 27 June, on the date of the murder of two police officers in the battle for the watch-tower at Holmec. If a violation of the Geneva Convention and existence of a war crime is proven, this will cast a great shadow over the creation of Slovenian independence. And while these days are days of pride for Slovenians, for the Simunovic family, they mark the day they lost their 19-year old son. It is impossible to predict whether those responsible will ever be punished, but the fact remains that this is the first war crime committed by a Slovenian.

In their attempts to find those responsible and establish the facts, the Slovenian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights has contacted the Hague Tribunal, but Chief Prosecutor Carla Del Ponte had no interest in the case. Del Ponte stated that the Hague Tribunal does not want to handle “smaller” violations of the rules of war, but only cases in which there were a larger number of victims, even though the Geneva Convention or Tribunal Statute makes no mention of the “number” of people who need to be killed for the case to be classified as a war crime.

“I’m afraid that this case is very uncomfortable for both the Slovenian government and the Hague. In looking at the situation where there is footage and a witness who can confirm that unarmed people were killed, it is difficult to lose the impression that the good guys and bad guys in the Balkan war were “determined” a long time ago, and it needed to be proven that the Slovenians are more civilized, unlike the Serbs and Croats who are portrayed as Chetniks and Ustasha. That fact is that such a crime was committed at Holmec in only ten days of war, which was not even close to the intensity as the wars throughout the rest of Yugoslavia, and that there are indications of pointless murders of several YNA soldiers at Skofija and the administrative ethnic cleansing in the citizens’ register, when certain people were erased from the register just because they were of another nationality,” stated Miklavcic-Predan.

Nacional’s reporters also visited the border crossing where just under 15 years ago an alleged war crime was committed against 3 conscripts of the Yugoslav army. The appearance of the place of battle between Slovenian territorial guards and YNA soldiers has changed greatly from that seen on the footage. The watch-tower has long since lost its military function. Now a restaurant is there, and the new owners built onto the existing structure and knocked down a number of the trees which formerly surrounded the watch-tower. Surrounded by tame Alpine hills and well maintained houses of the local population and weekend houses of city residents, it is difficult to believe that only 15 years ago, this was a battle front where, according to official information from the military archive, over 100 thousand pieces of ammunition were fired.

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