Croat survivor recalls Hadzic-linked horrors

DARKO BANDIC - Associated Press,ELDAR EMRIC - Associated Press
View photos
Vijoleta Antonic visits the site where she was held in captivity in 1991, in Vukovar, Croatia, Thursday, July 21, 2011. Hundreds died cruel deaths inside a warehouse here during a weeks-long campaign of brutal violence orchestrated by Serb military leaders, including Goran Hadzic, who is set to be extradited to The Hague on Friday. (AP Photo/Darko Bandic)

VUKOVAR, Croatia (AP) — Back in the warehouse's "room of death," Vijoleta Antonic gasped for air as she remembered the screams, the corpses and how close she came to being executed.

"I saw it with my own eyes, people cut into pieces," said the former Croatian soldier-turned-activist. "Both men and women were raped."

Some 200 Croatian prisoners of war died horrific deaths at the warehouse and nearby sites during a weeks-long campaign of carnage orchestrated by Serb military leaders, including Goran Hadzic, who was extradited to The Hague on Friday.

Hadzic, 53, is accused of atrocities stemming from Croatia's 1991-95 war, including the leveling of Vukovar and massacres like the one from which Antonic narrowly escaped.

Over 14 days in the warehouse, Antonic was taken for a beating every day to a smaller room with walls sprinkled with blood: Inmates dubbed it the "room of death" because people rarely came back from it alive.

She thought only men were being killed after torture. Then one day, four Serb soldiers beat her so badly she could barely walk. In the middle of the night, they ordered her to step out into the yard and she knew what it meant — the firing squad.

"Here in this place," she said, pointing at a spot in the warehouse yard where she stood and waited for gunfire to end her life.

Antonic, who today fights for the rights of women soldiers of the Croatian Army, was among the rare survivors of the killing spree, one of the worst crimes of the Balkan conflicts that followed the breakup of the former Yugoslavia.

As Croatia declared independence, Antonic joined the newly formed Croatian forces and fought against the Serb-dominated Yugoslav Army for her country's independence.

Shelling during a 3-month siege had already turned the Danube River town of Vukovar, near the border to Serbia, into a pile of rubble.

Serbian forces overran the town on Nov. 19, 1991. Antonic picked up her 3 1/2 year-old son Zoran and joined several hundred residents seeking refuge in the local hospital. They expected to be evacuated according to a deal made between the Serbian forces and the Croatian government.

Instead, the Serbs took the patients, soldiers, hospital staff and other residents to other locations for interrogation, beating and death.

Standing out in the yard, Antonic recalled the terrifying moments in which she faced certain death.

"They decided the best thing was to shoot me because I did not have any information for them," she said.

"The same four took me out here in the middle of the night ... in the middle of piles of corpses which were lying just here," she told APTN as she stood in the middle of the yard.

"But then one of them said — we won't shoot you now. We might need you for something else," and she was taken back to the warehouse for further questioning and torture.

Antonic was later taken to a prison in Serbia, and eventually released in a prisoner exchange. After returning to Croatia, she began searching for her child, who had been taken away by a Serb woman before she was forced into the warehouse.

Antonic learned from Vukovar refugees that the Serb woman was still taking care of him. A few days later, mother and son were reunited.

The U.N. war crimes tribunal in The Hague indicted Hadzic seven years ago and since then he has been on the run. He was found by Serbian agents who had followed a money trail that began in December when Hadzic's aides tried to sell a Modigliani painting.

The leveling of Vukovar and the massacre of the Croat prisoners are part of his indictment.

Antonic takes bittersweet satisfaction in his arrest.

"There is not much remedy for us, except now we know there is some justice and he has been found," Antonic said.

Now living again in Vukovar, she says she crosses paths with some of her tormenters all the time.

"It is not easy to watch them walk the streets of Vukovar and you know what they did to you. Death is nothing to what we have been through, all the humiliation, the torture, the rape.

"Now we know at least he is behind bars, we know there is God."