Tanja Došen, a young Croatian teenager, described how her father and several of her close relatives were taken from the Vukovar Hospital by Serb forces and never seen alive again. She testified on 6 February 1998 in the case against Slavko Dokmanović and on 8 February 2006 in the case against Mile Mrkšić, Miroslav Radić and Veselin Šljivančanin.
“ 'Sometimes shrapnel would come flying in whenever a shell landed in front of the building. There was always some mending to do.' Eventually, the windows of the house were boarded up with planks and the family survived without heating, electricity, or water. ”
Life was peaceful in Vukovar in early 1991. Ms Došen said that she had a “quite an ordinary life, the situation was all right, everything functioned properly, we all attended school, people went to work .”
Prior to the summer of 1991, Ms Došen noticed that some of her fellow Serb classmates were absent from the last month of school . During her testimony, Ms Došen recalled that “at the time I couldn’t grasp exactly what was going on… but I did realize that there was a conflict between Croats and Serbs because Croatia wanted to become independent .”
In late August life changed. On 24 and 25 August 1991, the centre of the city of Vukovar was shelled by the Yugoslav People’s Army (JNA). At first, Ms Došen recalled how she and her family spent most of their time indoors, in the safety of their home. When the shelling became very heavy and dangerous, the family would seek shelter in their neighbour’s cellar .
Eventually, the shelling worsened, and the JNA began air attacks and shelling from the Serbian side of the Danube . Standing in the courtyard of her house, Ms Došen could see the muzzle flashes from the opposite riverbank : “Some shells hit; one hit the courtyard, and another one hit a part of the house .” Once her father realized the danger, he decided to move the family to a flat in Olajnica, a more residential part of the city . Olajnica was a settlement comprised of “civilian houses and apartments, shops…there was nothing of military nature there .” The family thought that they would be safer there.
However, in her testimony, Ms Došen recalled “When we moved to the flat at Olajnica… the shelling turned heavy, and the town's life became difficult ...” “Every day brought new destruction. Sometimes the window-panes were shattered. Sometimes shrapnel would come flying in whenever a shell landed in front of the building. There was always some mending to do .” Eventually, the windows of the house were boarded up with planks and the family survived without heating, electricity, or water . “Occasionally, when the shelling would stop we would go out to look for food and water and we would return as soon as possible, because we couldn’t move freely outside, since there was shelling and shooting .”
Ms Došen and her mother were trapped in the flat for two to three months during the worst of the shelling . The shelling intensified, and as time went by, the “…shells fell all the time, and there was firing all the time, and shells were landing around the apartment block all the time .”
Tanja Došen last saw her father at the Vukovar Hospital.
Photo used in court as defence exhibit No 00859 in the case Mrkšić et al.
In response to the shelling in Vukovar, local residents set up a guard duty in certain streets and neighbourhoods, in an attempt to try to protect the women and children . Ms Došen’s father was stationed at a department store, Zagrebačka Nama, near their old apartment on the Danube . “My father was at the Nama department store. That was his posting, his assignment, because by this time the food supplies had been cut off for the town of Vukovar. There was no food, and whatever food was still available was being distributed to people right there .”
One day, her father returned to the flat where Ms Došen and her mother were staying, and he had a bullet wound in his leg . Ms Došen remembered that “…he was the one bringing us water and food, the bare necessities, and he told us that he had been hit by a sniper. The second time around he came home with a plaster cast. He told us that he had been shot [in the arm] and released from the hospital. He stayed for several days until the building caught fire .”
In fact, as a result of the consistent shelling and incendiary ammunition, a fire broke out in the Došen’s flat on 16 November. Ms Došen and her mother immediately ran downstairs and came out in front of the building. Her father stayed behind to help an elderly lady who could not leave her third-floor apartment . Then, Ms Došen described how “…all of a sudden the building started burning from the lower floors up, and he could no longer come down, because the staircase was on fire by [that] time. She [the elderly neighbor] did manage to come down, but it was too late for him. The fire became too strong by that time .” Ms Došen recalled looking up at her building and seeing flames in the apartments below hers.” And then we saw him [her father] on the balcony. He was trying to tie a rope to lower himself to the ground…” “He could no longer go down via the stairs… since one of his arms was in plaster, he couldn’t use his left arm, and he fell on his legs, injuring his spine .”
Ms Došen’s father was carried to the hospital on pieces of an old door, because they had no stretchers. She and her mother spent that night in an abandoned apartment next door which had managed to escape the fire . The following afternoon, 17 November, her father sent notice directing them to go to the Vukovar Hospital because there was going to be an evacuation and convoy organized from there . “We couldn’t leave right away because there was heavy shelling, as well as rain. We packed some things that we had left, and together with a few other people from the building we started moving towards the hospital. It was dark by that time .”
Overnight, many civilians arrived at the hospital, and it was full of the wounded and beds were placed literally next to each other . Ms Došen and her mother quickly found her father in the emergency ward. “He could move his legs and arms, but as far as the upper part of his body, he couldn’t sit, sit up. And he also couldn’t stand on his own feet .” That first night, “…my mother stayed with my father, next to him, or on his bed. I spent the night with my grandmother on the first floor of the hospital .”
“ And then she said, ‘Well, what's all this for?’ And he said, ‘Don't ask me, please. This bus will be swallowed by the night in broad daylight.’ ”
Thereafter, Ms Došen learnt that her father would likely be paralyzed as a result of his injuries: “...he was told by the doctors that in case he should be operated on any time soon he had a chance of walking again…and if that didn't take place, he could remain paralyzed…but they didn't have the conditions necessary for the operation in the hospital .”
The family remained in the hospital for two or three more days. On the day before the evacuation, local Serb militia, or so-called Chetniks entered the hospital, followed by the JNA. Ms Došen told the Tribunal’s Office of the Prosecutor that “the local Chetniks entered first, and they were quite arrogant. They were insulting people. Some of them pointed their guns or rifles at people and then they would move the barrels away, as if they were just joking. It seemed funny to them. They were insulting the wounded. They didn’t abuse them physically, but verbally only .”
Ms Došen was able to distinguish the local Chetniks from the JNA soldiers on the basis of their appearance and attire. As she recalled in her testimony before the Tribunal, the Chetniks “…wore jackets or camouflage pants, but they didn’t wear uniforms. They had beards, they had the four S’s and cockades and cartridge belts. They were not soldiers in the proper sense of the word. They didn’t wear the same uniform or one couldn’t say that they belonged to any particular army .” The JNA, on the other hand, wore uniforms: “…they had olive-drab uniforms, caps with a five-pointed star, as well as the insignia used to be worn by the JNA before the outbreak of the conflict ”.
Their offensive behaviour lasted for about a half an hour until the arrival of Major Veselin Šljivančanin, who was later convicted by the Tribunal. He entered the hospital, ordering two JNA soldiers to guard the door behind him, and preventing the other soldiers from going inside. “Major Šljivančanin wore a JNA uniform. He was tall and slender, with a black moustache, black hair, and a cap on his head. He clearly introduced himself as ‘Major Šljivančanin.’ He then turned immediately around and left. He didn’t even linger at the door .”
Night fell and Ms Došen spent her last evening in the hospital waiting room. During the night, her father handed her a necklace and she recalled how “I tucked it into my shirt and managed to hold onto it .” The next day, 20 November, they received word of the evacuation .
In the morning, “…the nurses gave each of the wounded their personal documents and medical documentation… They placed the relevant documentation on each of the patients’ beds. Then a soldier came in through the waiting-room door with a list, a piece of paper in his hand, and he read from this list names of persons who were to leave the hospital. My father’s name was the first on that particular list. However, since my father was unable to walk… my mother asked them to bring a stretcher or something to use to carry him out of the room .”
All those who were able to move on their own were to leave the hospital immediately. Ms Došen’s father was placed on a stretcher and two soldiers lifted the stretcher and took it out of the hospital. Ms Došen and her mother followed .
Ms Došen described the walk out of the hospital: “As soon as we left the emergency ward to the right, there were those of the wounded who were able to walk lined up against a wall …the line stretched from the emergency ward exit to the buses, and some of them were, in fact, already getting onto buses … To the left there was a mound of small items, watches, toothpicks, coins .”
Eventually, Ms Došen reached Gundulić Street, where four buses and trucks were waiting to transport them . She passed Major Šljivančanin again, who was standing amongst the JNA soldiers issuing orders to them. The soldiers walked her father as far as the third bus. She remembered how “they tried to lift him on to the bus, but the stretcher was too wide to get it through the door of the bus, so they just lowered the stretcher beside the bus, so my mother and I remained standing by the stretcher.”
As Ms Došen and her mother were standing outside the bus, the JNA soldiers brought over her father’s cousin, Ružica Markobašić, who was five or six months pregnant and loaded her onto the bus. She was never seen again. Right afterwards, Ms Došen’s cousin, Martin Jakubovski Došen, was lined up against a fence near the bus and told to spread his legs and arms. Ms Došen recalled how “…his arm had been immobilized… he was wearing pyjamas and he was in no position to be hiding anything, but they still searched him. I asked him what was going on, and he replied ‘Don’t worry, everything will be fine .’”
Ms Došen recalled that her mother was becoming extremely anxious and asked one of the soldiers guarding the bus to explain what was going on. “Listen, young man, what's going on? What's going on here? And he replied, ‘Please, madam, don't ask me.’ And then she said, ‘Well, what's all this for?’ And he said, ‘Don't ask me, please. This bus will be swallowed by the night in broad daylight.’”
Ms Došen’s father had become agitated. He started telling his wife to take Ms Došen away, asking her if she did not realize what was going on. Ms Došen remembered her father “… taking off his watch and giving it to my mother .”
Ms Došen’s mother refused to give up and continued walking around trying to find out information. She accosted another soldier, but again did not learn where the buses would be taking the hospital patients. “And then my mother asked him if anybody could collect his [Mr Došen’s] things. And then the man answered, ‘He will not be needing those things anymore.’”
Ms Došen’s mother then pushed her aside and told her that they would be joining the women and children who were on the other side.
As they headed back to the hospital main entrance, where all the other women and children were, they saw buses waiting for them. The soldiers asked the women if they wanted to go to Croatia or Serbia, and Ms Došen’s mother said Croatia, and the bus later drove them there.
Among the men that Ms Došen recalled boarding the buses that day were her two uncles: Ivan Došen, her father’s younger brother and a construction worker in his early thirties who lived in Vukovar, and Tadija Došen, her father’s older brother, who was married with a daughter and lived and worked in the shoe factory in Borovo. Tadija was wounded and had sought treatment in the hospital, whereas Ivan had come to the hospital because he heard rumours that there was going to be an evacuation. Ms. Došen also saw her uncle Ivo Vulić and her two cousins, Ivo Ahmetović and Zvonko Vulić, board the buses. In her testimony she said that many other close friends and neighbors boarded the buses, including Josip Kožul, Siniša Glavašević, Siniša Veber and Karlo Fitus . Ms Došen testified that all of these men were mobilized for the town’s defence . Finally, Ms Došen’s cousin, Martin Jakubovski Došen, a twenty year old soldier in the Croatian army, boarded the bus.
At the conclusion of her testimony, when asked if she had seen her father since she watched him being taken away on the stretcher on 20 November 1991, Ms Došen replied: “No. I never saw any of them, any of those who were there … The images that still haunt me and all the things I remember can never be changed .”
The Tribunal found Veselin Šljivančanin guilty of violating the laws or customs of war, for aiding and abetting the torture of prisoners of war at the hangar at Ovčara on 20 November 1991, and sentenced him to 17 years’ imprisonment. His co-accused Mile Mrkšić was found guilty of murder, torture and cruel treatment. Specifically, he was found guilty for his decision to withdraw the JNA officers and soldiers who were guarding the prisoners of war at Ovčara on 20 November 1991. By this act, he rendered substantial practical assistance to the territorial defence and paramilitary forces at Ovčara who were then able to commit the murders. Further, Mile Mrkšić was held responsible for his failure during that afternoon to prevent the continuance of offences of cruel treatment and torture occurring at the site, of which he was informed. Mile Mrkšić was sentenced to 20 years in prison. Miroslav Radić was found not guilty.
Tanja Došen also testified on 6 February 1998 in the case against Slavko Dokmanović, president of the Vukovar municipality between 1990 and 1991. .The trial was never completed, as the accused died during proceedings.