Home > 1997-1999 from the Balkans, Croatia, Yougoslavia > Croatia Confronts Its Past as War Crimes Suspect Returns

Croatia Confronts Its Past as War Crimes Suspect Returns

June 19, 1998

Article from: The Washington Post
Article date: June 19, 1998
Author: Guy Dinmore

Croatia was confronted with its fascist past today with the extradition from Argentina of Dinko Sakic, commander of the World War II Jasenovac concentration camp that became known as the “Auschwitz of the Balkans.” After arriving in Zagreb, the Croatian capital, Sakic, 76, was escorted off a plane to a waiting police van that drove him straight to jail.

Sakic had lived openly in Argentina for many years but Croatia’s nationalist government only requested his extradition on war-crimes charges in April after pressure from the country’s independent media following a television interview in which he spoke openly about his time as commander of Jasenovac. He has protested his innocence. Sakic’s trial, expected to begin in the fall, is seen as a test of Croatia’s willingness to face up to its wartime history, when a Nazi puppet regime led the country under the fascist Ustashe movement. His testimony may also bring to light links between former Ustashe leaders and President Franjo Tudjman’s ruling Croatian Democratic Union, which tapped Croatians in exile for money to fund the 1991-95 war of secession from former Yugoslavia.

Sakic visited Austria for a reunion of former Nazis in 1990 and met Tudjman at a reception in Buenos Aires in 1994.

How many people died in Jasenovac remains a heated controversy. Tudjman, who fought with Communist-inspired partisan forces led by Josip Broz Tito against the fascists but has since renounced his past as a Communist in post-war Yugoslavia, sparked an uproar in 1991 when he suggested that 20,000 people perished in Jasenovac.

Jewish groups estimate the death toll at more than 600,000 while Vladimir Zerjavic, a Croatian demographics expert, puts the number at around 85,000. Most of the victims were Serbs, followed by Jews, Gypsies and anti-fascist Croatians. Tudjman, a military historian who is accused by his critics of wanting an ethnically pure Croatia, has condemned the crimes perpetrated by the Ustashe but has also asserted that the government was not just a Nazi quisling regime but an expression of the Croatian people’s wish for independence.

Croatian Defense Minister Andre Hebrang, a Jew by birth, confounded many Croatians last month by asserting that Sakic “was a victim of circumstances.” Hebrang’s mother and other members of his family were Jasenovac inmates.

Suppressed nationalist sentiments have resurfaced in Croatia since the breakup of former Yugoslavia and the fall of the Communist Party that had ruled for more than 50 years. The kuna, the former Ustashe currency, was brought back. Members of rightist parties resurrected the old fascist salute at rallies. Jewish cemeteries have been desecrated.

Tudjman’s government has also played a role in removing the traces of Croatia’s partisan past. Zagreb’s “Square of the Victims of Fascism” was renamed the “Square of Great Croatian People.” Many Croatians say their new nation must confront its past — just as Germany did — to fulfill the country’s goal of becoming an accepted member of Europe. “It is not evil in itself to have fascists in your past. Most European states had them at one point in time or other,” said Ivo Banac, a history professor at Yale University and human rights activist. “But it is a pity if you relate to them benevolently.”

One man who cannot bring himself to attend Sakic’s trial is Josip Erih. He was just 15 when taken to Jasenovac in September 1942 and is one of several former inmates who allege they saw Sakic execute prisoners in person. “He was the terror of the camp, a beast in human form though just a young man,” recalled Erih, who now lives in Belgrade. At times breaking into tears,

Erih described how one day in the spring of 1944 Sakic selected two Jewish boys in their teens, Leon Perer and Avram Montillo. One had offended Sakic by giggling in nervous fear when Jews in the camp were lined up and Sakic demanded to know if they had any contact with a prisoner who had allegedly tried to escape. “He ordered them to kneel down and shot them in the head,” Erih said. He alleges that Sakic then ordered 22 other prisoners to be shot after spending two days without food or water. Erih demanded to know why Sakic’s wife, Nada Luburic, had not been extradited with him.

Holocaust researchers say Luburic, who changed her first name to Esperanza when the couple moved to South America in 1947, was the commander of the women’s section of Jasenovac and responsible for war crimes. Along with other survivors and Jewish lobby groups, Erih believes Sakic should be tried in Israel or Belgrade. “I would not take him to Zagreb. He will turn out to be a hero and a knight,” Erih said. Yugoslavia — now comprising just Serbia and Montenegro — also applied to Argentina for Sakic’s extradition but was turned down. Rights activists in Belgrade are furious that their government knew for years he was in Argentina but made no effort to secure him.

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