Anja VLADISAVLJEVIC | BIRN, Zagreb
“The wounded defenders are still holding out, but the burning question is for how long… Incendiary bombs have been dropped on the city several times,” Sinisa Glavasevic reported from besieged Vukovar on November 9, 1991 for Croatian Radio’s ‘Chronicle of the Day’.
It was just a few days before Vukovar finally fell. By that point, Glavasevic’s voice was known to all his fellow citizens, not only in Vukovar but across Croatia where people were intently following what was happening in the eastern town.
Glavasevic was a war correspondent and the editor of Radio Vukovar during Croatia’s war for independence. From Vukovar, he sent reports to Croatian Radio and Croatian Television.
Vukovar was besieged from late August 1991 by the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian paramilitaries.
“Under constant fire from shells and projectiles of all kinds, there is no longer any space for illusions. Despite all the promises that were made, both defenders and civilians are dying relentlessly,” said Glavasevic’s report on November 9.
The defenders of the Croatian town surrendered on November 18, after which all the non-Serb population was expelled, and various prisoners of war and civilians were deported to prisons and detention camps in Serbia, while 260 people were executed at the nearby Ovcara farm and in other places.
Over 3,000 soldiers and civilians died during the siege of Vukovar and its aftermath, 86 of them children.
As for Glavasevic, he was taken from Vukovar’s hospital by Serbian forces on November 20 and was never seen alive again. Along with Radio Vukovar’s technician, Branimir Polovina, Glavasevic’s body was exhumed in 1997 at Ovcara.
They were buried in March 1997, next to each other.
Men ordered from hospital to their deaths
Vukovar radio journalist Zvezdana Polovina, the wife of Branimir Polovina, testified in the ‘Vukovar Three’ case in 2005 at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague.
After the Yugoslav People’s Army occupied Vukovar, the employees of Vukovar radio split into two groups on November 18, 1991. Some, considering it safer, tried to get out of the occupied town with the defenders of Vukovar, while others, including her husband Branimir Polovina, Sinisa Glavasevic and journalist Vesna Vukovic, went to the town hospital.
They were awaiting evacuation on November 20, but Glavasevic left the hospital earlier that day and the others didn’t see him again.
At the hearing in The Hague, Polovina said that a Yugoslav People’s Army soldier had ordered her, her husband and a female colleague from the Radio Vukovar to leave the hospital building. Yugoslav major Veselin Sljivancanin was standing at the exit directing the men to go to the left and women to go to the right. The men were then killed at Ovcara.
Danijel Rehak, the head of the Vukovar wartime defence secretariat who was imprisoned in a detention camp in Serbia and is now head of the Croatian Association of Prisoners of Serbian Concentration Camps, said that he believes that Glavasevic was probably killed immediately at Ovcara, in a very brutal way.
“It was never clear to me how a man could do so much harm to another man,” Rehak told BIRN.
The highest-ranking Yugoslav officers convicted of crimes related to Vukovar were the former officers Veselin Sljivancanin and Mile Mrksic, who were tried before the Hague court. Miroslav Radic, a third officer who was also tried in the ‘Vukovar Three’ case, was acquitted of all charges.
Sljivancanin was found guilty in 2007, but the UN tribunal reduced his sentence from 17 to ten years in 2010. He returned to Belgrade after serving two-thirds of his sentence in 2011, and has nurtured a close bond with the now-ruling Serbian Progressive Party.
Mrksic was sentenced to 20 years in prison in 2007. He died while serving his sentence in Portugal in 2015.
In January last year, a Serbian court jailed eight former members of the Serb Territorial Defence force in Vukovar for a total of 101 years for the massacre at Ovcara.
An atmosphere of ‘certain calamity’
Bojan Glavasevic, the son of Sinisa Glavasevic, left Vukovar with his mother and grandmother in the summer of 1991, before the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian paramilitaries launched their attack. Sinisa Glavasevic spent the last days of his life separated from his family.
“It was my first day of school when I saw him for the last time. These are not particularly nice memories, I must say. These were very difficult and sad moments,” Bojan Glavasevic, who is now an MP in the Croatian parliament, told BIRN.
“What we can hear from his reports is that children in Vukovar were condemned to just have one tablespoon of water per day. As it went on towards the end, it’s hard to imagine that it was better for anyone else than it was for the children,” he explained.
He said that in an atmosphere of “certain calamity and misery”, it must have been extremely difficult to keep one’s morale up and to “adhere to any kind of profession criteria or personal beliefs and standards that one thinks are carved in stone”.
Rehak told BIRN that Glavasevic and Polovina, who were very good friends at the time, were constantly out in the field, collecting information but also moving radio transmitters around the town while shells were falling.
“They went from one part to another [of the town] to gather information so that they could let the whole world and the Croatian public know what was going on in the Vukovar area,” Rehak said.
Rehak recalled that during the siege, the two journalists were wounded by shrapnel but that they went to the hospital to fix their wounds and shortly after that, they were on the move again.
In his reports, Sinisa Glavasevic was critical of the authorities at the time and claimed that they were not doing enough to save the town.
“If Vukovar falls, and if its citizens die in the massacre, which is clearly the enemy’s plan, then the culprit for this should first be sought in Zagreb, and then further afield, because they still have not supplied replies to the numerous messages sent out,” Sinisa Glavasevic said in his broadcast on Croatian Radio on November 9 , 1991 for.
Many recalled that Glavasevic’s reporting stopped being broadcast on Croatian radio when he questioned the role of the authorities in defending Vukovar. However, Zagreb-based independent station Radio 101 continued to broadcast his reports.
Rehak says he agrees with what Glavasevic was saying, and argued that he was censored.
“You’d been defending yourself for three months [in Vukovar] and no help was coming [from elsewhere in Croatia]. People were disappointed,” Rehak said.
A week before Vukovar fell, Sinisa Glavasevic went on Radio 101 to read a paraphrased version of French author Emile Zola’s famous open letter, ‘J’accuse’, accusing the Zagreb government of not helping Vukovar. Some attributed the text to Glavasevic, but even today it is not known exactly who was behind it.
“I accuse you, gentlemen, of letting them [people from Vukovar] starve while you were full, because you were in the warm and they were in the cold. While you quenched your thirst with drinks of your choice in the desired quantities, you left them to a tablespoon of water daily,” the letter says.
Bojan Glavasevic said that there were “many uncertainties” surrounding the ‘J’accuse’ broadcast.
However, he added: “I think we can reliably say that it reflects the feelings of the people who stayed in Vukovar.”
“How much it reflects the facts, I don’t know, it’s hard for me to talk about. It’s impossible for me to talk about,” he said.
A search for meaning amid conflict
Glavasevic he did not give his listeners dry reports from the field. During the toughest moments for Vukovar, as shells fell across the besieged city, he shared his own thoughts with his listeners, and read them his heart-warming stories.
“Vukovar must be the most honest city in the world, as every word is almost immediately mirrored in the heart. In Vukovar, it is impossible for someone to wish you good morning without actually meaning it,” he wrote in one of his stories.
After his death, the stories and his war reports were published in a book entitled ‘Stories from Vukovar’ in 1992.
Bojan Glavasevic said that his father’s literary efforts and his war reports have a greater meaning.
“‘Stories from Vukovar’ especially. These are texts that are distanced from direct everyday life and are directed towards a search for meaning in everything that has happened to him, and [the stories] are telling me more about him as a man,” he said.
Rehak, who was a physical education teacher in high school and had taught Glavasevic for two years, recalled that the journalist had previously been involved in acting and writing.
“Firstly he worked at the school. Before the war, he took a job at Radio Vukovar as an anchor and later, during the war, he became editor-in-chief of the station. And he did [his job] superbly,” Rehak said.
On November 12, 1991, Glavasevic sent his stories to Zagreb-based journalist and writer Mladen Kusec.
“Three days after that, listeners to Croatian Radio could hear one of Sinisa’s stories every evening,” Kusec recalled in the introduction to Glavasevic’s posthumous book.
The book has been published in five editions in the Croatian language and has been translated into English and German.
On the wall at the Croatian Journalists’ Association building in Zagreb, there is a memorial board with the names of Croatian journalists, cameramen, photojournalists and technicians who were killed during what is known in the country as the ‘Homeland War’.
On the board, Glavasevic’s name is listed alongside those of 13 other Croatian media workers who died.
But his son argued that his story does not fit into today’s dominant narrative about the 1990s war in Croatia, which he said as exclusively focused on military war veterans.
“I think there is no room in that discourse for the victims of war, and there is no room for peacekeepers,” Bojan Glavasevic said.
He recalled that his family was upset when war veterans used a recording of his father’s voice for a video advertisement in 2013 during their campaign against the introduction of bilingual signs in Latin and Cyrillic script on official buildings in Vukovar – a move sparked by legislation ensuring the rights of the town’s Serb minority.
“He was a man who studied in Sarajevo, he had friends who were Bosniaks, who were Serbs, who were members of all ethnic minorities, in former [Yugoslavia] and in the current state [of Croatia], and he certainly would not agree to give his voice [to that] and to give his ideas to those who are narrow-minded and nationalist,” Bojan Glavasevic argued.
“He was not that kind of man.”