Postwar reputation of ex-Serb general illustrates lingering animosities in former Yugoslavia

By Dusan Stojanovic, AP
Friday, March 19, 2010

Ex-Serb general: hero or traitor?

BELGRADE, Serbia — Is Vlado Trifunovic a traitor, war criminal or hero? It all depends on whom you ask in the war-scarred Balkans.

The fate of the former Serb general is a reflection of the animosities that still pit the federation’s former republics against each other 15 years after the end of the wars in the Balkans.

Serbia this week dropped criminal charges against Trifunovic, who was declared a traitor by Slobodan Milosevic’s nationalist regime for refusing to obey orders to fight and instead negotiated his way out of a Croat armed siege of his military barracks.

Croatia has sentenced him in absentia to 15 years in prison for war crimes, including the death of two of its civilians. Slovenia has also charged him for the deaths of civilians during clashes at the start of the ex-Yugoslavia war in 1991.

But many in the former Yugoslavia believe that instead of being prosecuted, Trifunovic should be honored for a decision that backers say saved hundreds of lives.

The myriad ways Trifunovic is viewed in what used to be Yugoslavia underscores the mistrust that still lingers years after Europe’s worst carnage since World War II.

Each ethnic group considers itself the victim in the Yugoslav wars, which erupted after Yugoslav strongman Josip Broz Tito died and the region disintegrated into warring factions. Those recriminations poison the atmosphere nearly two decades after the first shot was fired.

Bosnia and Croatia are pressing genocide charges against Serbia. Serbia is trying to extradite a former Bosnian vice president from Britain to stand trial on war crimes. And a new war could erupt over threats by Bosnia’s Serb minority to secede.

The disputes complicate the Balkan countries’ attempts to join the EU.

Trifunovic was in charge of a main Yugoslav army unit in Croatia when war broke out there in 1991. He and his men suddenly found themselves surrounded in army barracks by independence-seeking Croatian troops.

But unlike many other ruthless Yugoslav commanders — like genocide suspect Gen. Ratko Mladic, wanted for the Srebrenica massacres and the Bosnian war atrocities — Trifunovic chose dialogue over guns.

This, his supporters say, likely saved the lives of more than 220 of his young army conscripts and officers and many more civilian victims who would have died had he ordered his troops to fight their way out of the northern Croatian town of Varazdin.

“Varazdin would have been destroyed if I gave the orders to fight,” Trifunovic, 73 said in an interview Thursday. “My soldiers and I would probably have ended up in some mass grave that would become a symbol of Serb-Croat hatred.”

He spoke in a cramped Belgrade hotel room where he has been living since 1992 when he was convicted by a Serbian military court for “undermining the defense of the country.” He was able to avoid serving most of his 11-year sentence while he appealed.

In the aftermath of his actions, “everyone here thought I was a villain and a traitor,” he said. “We had to ask our friends to do the shopping for us,” because whenever his wife tried to buy groceries “they chased her out of the shop.”

In formally revoking charges against Trifunovic, the Belgrade prosecutor’s office said this week the ex-commander acted in an “emergency situation” when he refused the orders to fight.

Not all agree. “If he refused his superiors’ orders to fight, he has committed treason and he must be punished,” said Dragan Spasic, a Belgrade law student.

But fellow student Marija Jovanovic applauded the move.

“Trifunovic was a rare Serb general who used his head and only wanted to save lives,” she said Friday. “Bravo for him.”

Now, several non-governmental groups are calling for formal state rehabilitation of Trifunovic, including activists in Croatia — a glimmer of reconciliation in a still bitterly divided region.

Miljenko Dereta, a prominent human rights activist who leads the campaign, said the prosecutor’s decision to drop the charges is “great encouragement.”

“This is important because it changes the way we see the past,” he said.

Associated Press writer Jovana Gec contributed from Belgrade; Snejzana Vukic contributed from Zagreb.

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