Skip to main content
November 26, 1995
. Vreme News Digest Agency No 217

The Trifunovic Case

by Nenad Lj. Stefanovic

One day, when sitting in prison (or the prison hospital), former commander of the Varazdin Corps Gen. Vlada Trifunovic reads the recently published book of notes titled "The Last Days of Yugoslavia" written by former President of the Presidency of the former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia Borislav Jovic, all he can do will be to wonder once again: "In the name of what justice and which laws and principles am I decaying in jail as the only official culprit for the breakdown of the country which could not have been saved from its incapable state and military leadership?" And when he learns that peace was signed in Ohio and that everyone is now sorry about all those victims of the four-year-old war, while most of the former state is turned into ashes and graves, Gen. Trifunovic will only be able to conclude that there is, in fact, no justice in this world.

He, who at the beginning of the war decided to save the lives of his soldiers from senseless death, who did not accept the Varazdin Corps necrophile logic that "Serbia needs dead heroes and not alive soldiers," he who did not want to turn Varazdin into another Vukovar and to kill civilians, is still in prison as a "traitor." In the meantime, the things for which he had been sentenced to years in prison, became absolutely senseless: the peace agreements place the destroyed towns and villages, more or less, where they had belonged, displaced persons are invited to live together again, everyone mourns the victims and condemns the criminals and Bora Jovic publishes the diary from which one can learn that Trifunovic's Corps and many other units of the former Yugoslav People's Army had simply been sacrificed.

The attorneys of Gen. Trifunovic and of the other officers in this trial had requested that Borislav Jovic and other political and military officials of the time be called to testify in court. The court rejected the proposal and it is now clear that Jovic might have been one of the key witnesses. Everything that accompanied the trial, however, led to the conclusion that the court did not care too much about key witnesses: the witnesses had apparently been carefully selected, the president of the tribunal showed obvious animosity toward the defendants and was determined to find such a tribunal which would eventually, after two acquittals, find the generals of the Varazdin Corps guilty.

DECISIVE DEFENCE: To brush up the memory it should be mentioned that apart from Gen. Trifunovic, two other officers of the Varazdin Corps, Col. Sreten Raduski and Col. Berislav Popov, were also sentenced to years in prison for "undermining the country's military and defence power." They were sentenced for what they did or did not do in September 1991 when the (unproclaimed) war was beginning in the territory of Croatia. Like many other units at the time, Trifunovic's unit was blocked in its barracks, encircled by Croatian units. In this case, 220 soldiers and 60 officers were encircled by about 7,500 Croat troops. In early September, some twenty days before battles in Varazdin broke out, a large number of soldiers of this corps were dismissed and Trifunovic, Raduski and Popov had 19-year-old recruits at their disposal. At the same time, many officers - Croats and Slovenes by nationality -left the corps and joined the opposite side.

The Federal Defence Secretariat, in a meeting held in early September, decided that the soldiers who had completed their compulsory military service be dismissed and that new recruits not be sent to the 5th military district, part of which was the Varazdin Corps. Some of them got as far as Bihac, but it was impossible to go any further.

Trifunovic's unit, alone and isolated, deep in the territory where Croats were a majority, resisted for a few days. When he realized that further resistance was futile and that it would lead to senseless losses, Gen. Trifunovic reached an agreement with Croatian authorities in Varazdin. Having taken several local officials, members of the so-called "crisis staff" as prisoners, Trifunovic ensured a safe passage to the Serbian border for all his men. The first two trials found that such a solution was the only reasonable one and that the lives of the soldiers were more valuable than the partly damaged mechanization (a large number of tanks and armoured vehicles). In the third trial, opposite logic prevailed - Trifunovic was to have organized "decisive defence" to the last bullet. Some of the generals who appeared in court to demonstrate subsequent wisdom after the battle claimed that after "the last bullet" Trifunovic's unit still had at their disposal fists and knives with which they could, allegedly, have fought against the 7,500 troops.

SEA UP TO OUR KNEES: Some of the JNA soldiers who were in Varazdin at the time commented on what was happening in September 1991. Sinisa Mrdja from Elemir said: "It was clear to all of us that we might get killed... I watched people dying next to me. You had nothing but the rifle to defend yourself with. Heavy armament was about one and a half kilometres from the barracks. No help from anywhere. We expected a bullet or a knife. Is that how we should have ended up?" Dragan Govedarica from a village near Niksic said: "We had no chance to survive. When I think of Varazdin, the same picture always comes back to me. I watched them kill one of our soldiers, a Croat by nationality, who wanted to see his wife and kids perhaps for the last time. A hollow-tipped bullet hit him in the back, his chest burst and his heart flew out."

The opinions of these young men and their claims that most of the Varazdin Corps officers had acted honourably and bravely until resistance to the much stronger enemy no longer made any sense, were not of great importance for the court. A new tribunal, different from the first two which had acquitted the officers of the Varazdin Corps, favoured the claims of the witnesses who wore generals' epaulettes, which may be understandable. But not all such opinions were of equal importance. Former JNA Chief of the General Staff Gen. Blagoje Adzic's statement that Trifunovic's corps was left alone and that any further resistance to the stronger enemy would have led to useless sacrifice of men was given no special attention. Unlike Adzic, some other witnesses of a lower rank (according to the number of stars on their shoulders) were being driven to the court in service cars. And unlike Adzic, many of them suggested prison sentences for the officers of the Varazdin Corps. One of the esteemed witnesses personally suggested to Trifunovic to commit suicide, because that was all that he could do. This was Gen. Jevrem Cokic who had been transferred from the Varazdin Corps a few months before the war broke out. He was later on the Dubrovnik front where, according to his statements, he intended to establish the "Dubrovnik Republic" and ensure a corridor to Split, Zadar and Sibenik, so that the new Serbia would have a large enough part of the sea. Someone seems to have prevented such a daring idea, so instead of Zadar we arrived as far as Dayton and got only the sea around Prevlaka.

Borislav Jovic's recently published book titled "The Last Days of Yugoslavia" made in the form of a diary, written behind the scene of the events at the beginning of the war, proves that the military and state leadership of the time were in total confusion concerning war aims and borders of the future state and that correction of those aims and borders was a day-to-day duty. The book clearly shows that Gen. Cokic was indeed not the only one who had planned "Serbia's sea to Zadar," or that Vojislav Seselj was not the only politician who believed that the sea was "up to our knees". Jovic also showed that Trifunovic was not the only one who had been left to the mercy of the enemy because, unfortunately, he was the commander of the unit whose location did not exactly fit within the stretching borders of the former Yugoslavia.

JOVIC AS WITNESS: The idea which runs through Jovic's book is his assessment that the military leadership, generals Kadijevic and Adzic in particular, had been incapable. He considers them a "great failure" especially at the time when the constitution of the former state was to be protected at the beginning of the crisis. Kadijevic and Adzic, he says, are responsible because it took them too long "to leave and forget about" Slovenia, not undermine the rule of the Croatian Democratic Union but to place their troops in those regions of Croatia where Serb population was a majority. One could deduce from all this that Gen. Trifunovic is sitting in prison because he did not fiercely enough fight for something which was, indeed, not worth fighting for and which, in the plans of nationalist map-makers, had been planned to be "given away."

© Copyright VREME NDA (1991-2001), all rights reserved.