Sven MILEKIC | BIRN, Dublin
On September 1, 1991, Viktor Nogin and Gennadiy Kurinnoy, experienced war reporters for the All-Russia State Television and Radio Broadcasting Company, were driving in their blue Opel Omega through the Banovina region of central Croatia.
Croatia, then still part of crumbling socialist Yugoslavia, was in the middle of a war between newly-formed Croatian forces and local rebel Serbs, who were helped by the Yugoslav People’s Army, JNA.
Banovina was at the epicentre of the war at the time, with various Croat and Serb regular and paramilitary units holding villages and controlling roads. This is why the Russian reporters went to Banovina to witness the fighting there.
Immediately after leaving the town of Hrvatska Kostajnica on the Bosnian border, the reporters came across a barricaded checkpoint in the village of Panjani. When they drove closer to the barricade, some of the soldiers shot at the car, wounding the journalists.
As their car stopped a few dozen metres away, a soldier came up to the driver and demanded documents from the wounded Nogin. On seeing their passports and press cards, the soldier said that they were Croatian spies and shouted “fire” to his men.
“Don’t shoot, we’re your brothers,” were the last words Nogin shouted, in Serbo-Croat, before they were mowed down by rifle fire.
The killing of Russian journalists Nogin and Kurinnoy in Paljani in September 1991 remains unresolved despite much of the evidence pointing to a unit of rebel Serbs as the perpetrators.
Croatian, Serbian, Bosnian and Russian authorities have been cooperating on the case, but the truth about the two men’s deaths remains shrouded in mystery almost three decades on.
The Croatian Journalists’ Association, HND says that according to its records, which are not complete, 14 Croatian reporters, cameramen and technicians were killed in Croatia during the war.
A total of 13 foreign reporters were also killed, including the two Russians. Serb paramilitary commander Dragan Vasiljkovic, alias Captain Dragan, was found guilty of an attack in the town of Glina in 1991 in which the German journalist Egon Scotland was killed – the only person to be convicted of responsibility for a reporter’s death during the Balkan wars.
A lone campaigner for an investigation
After the reporters did not show up in Zagreb or Belgrade back in September 1991, the Soviet authorities opened an investigation into their case on September 4.
Some ten days later, the Soviets received information from imprisoned Croatian soldiers from Kostajnica who remembered the two journalists visiting their positions in the town before embarking on their dangerous trip towards Petrinja.
Meanwhile, both the Croatian and Serbian authorities blamed each other for the men’s murders.
All these details about the case would probably have remained unknown to the public if not for a book entitled ‘The Black Folder’.
In 1991, the author of the book, experienced Russian journalist and university professor Vladimir Mukusev, was a deputy in the Supreme Soviet, and followed the case from the very beginning.
While at first the USSR showed an interest in the investigation, after a few months the state became preoccupied with its own disintegration.
“All these activities stopped four months after the tragedy [journalists’ murder] in Yugoslavia, with the USSR disappearing from the world map as a state in December 1991,” Mukusev told BIRN.
He explained that political structures in the newly-established Russian Federation were not interested in pursuing the investigation.
Documents in the possession of Russian institutions show that soon after the crime, Yugoslav People’s Army investigative bodies did investigate the case and claimed that Croatian forces killed the journalists.
The investigators claimed that the remains of the reporters’ burned-out car contained the partial remains of Croatian soldiers who the car for military purposes after the journalists’ murders and were then killed by Serbs.
Initially, state officials told Mukusev that the potential disclosure of the ethnicity of the killers would get in the way of Russia’s foreign policy in the Balkans.
After the investigation reached a stalemate in March 1993, Mukusev managed to push for the establishment of a special parliamentary commission for investigating the disappearance of the two journalists.
There were several reasons that pushed Mukusev to pursue the truth, he explained.
“The first reason is deeply personal. Viktor Nogin was my close friend. Our families were friends,” Mukusev said, adding that they worked together during the war in Afghanistan in the 1980s.
The father who never came back
Ivan Kurinnoy, now a professional photographer, was ten when his father Gennadiy went missing. Ivan had been living in Belgrade since August 1991 with his mother Galina and sister Maria and was enrolled in school there.
“I remember it was September 1, 1991, the first day children go to school. I remember the last time I saw my father, he put me on a bus with the other schoolchildren. We went for an excursion and he went to work,” Ivan Kurinnoy told BIRN.
“As I was ten years old, I was too young to understand what ‘missing in action’ means. I remember that almost every day, news was coming from different sources, saying that either they [Kurinnoy and Nogin] were being hidden or kept somewhere,” he said.
With hindsight, Kurinnoy understands the position of his mother at the time, who often told him that they “almost found them” and that “it’s just a matter of a few days” before they were found alive. His mother “didn’t know who to believe anymore”, he said.
He recalled that it was more than a year later when the family lost all hope of finding Gennadiy Kurinnoy, after the director of the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service, Yevgeny Primakov, told them that the reporters were no longer alive.
A key witness’s mysterious death
Amid all the information and disinformation, Mukusev’s black folder was getting thicker and thicker as the Russian lawmaker ignored advice that the case was “politically sensitive”.
In August 1993, the Russian embassy in Belgrade received information from a potential direct witness to the crime.
Stevo Borojevic, also known as Cuk (Owl), who presented himself as a former JNA soldier, testified about the case in the town of Novi Grad – in Bosnia’s Serb-dominated Republika Srpska – before a representative of the Russian embassy and counterintelligence officers.
Borojevic claimed that in September 1991, a special police unit of the Serbian Autonomous Region of Krajina, a wartime Serb rebel statelet in Croatia, shot the journalists.
The unit, often called Kaline Komogovina, was commanded by another man who was also called Stevo Borojevic, but was nicknamed Gadafi. The unit was allegedly directly subordinate to Milan Martic, who was the Serbian Autonomous Region of Krajina’s interior minister and later became the rebel statelet’s president.
In 2008, the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia found Martic guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity against non-Serbs in Krajina in the period from 1991-95, and sentenced him to 35 years in prison.
Borojevic (alias Cuk) testified about the journalists’ murders, saying that their car was burned and then dumped the same day the reporters were killed.
He claimed that the reporters’ bodies were then reburied at another location – which he marked approximately – while the partial remains of some Croats were planted in the car to support the story that Serbian paramilitaries had shot Croatian soldiers who used the reporters’ car after their deaths.
Borojevic (alias Cuk) said he was ready to testify for the parliamentary commission in exchange for a financial reward which he would use to flee the Balkans.
In a matter of days, Mukusev, accompanied by a representative of the Russian prosecution and two counterintelligence officers, left for Republika Srpska via Belgrade.
As there were no flights to Belgrade, the delegation had to take a train and they arrived three days expected, only to find out that Borojevic (alias Cuk) had been shot dead at his home in Republika Srpska.
Many years later, Mukusev is convinced that Borojevic (alias Cuk) would have been a crucial witness.
“He knew well that he would have it [the financial reward] only after his information was verified. He didn’t have any reason to lie. He could only get rewarded for the truth,” Mukusev explained.
A death threat from Milan Martic
Despite the witness’s death, Mukusev decided that he had go to Krajina in order to investigate the case there.
Upon arriving in Krajina, the Russian delegation went to the murder scene, where the remains of the burned-out car were still visible on the road. Unfortunately, the witness’s testimony about the approximate location of the buried journalists could not help the investigators find their bodies.
The Krajina local authorities were friendly but not eager to help, repeating the official version that Croats were the killers.
After a few days, Mukusev and his delegation decided to meet Martic himself. He was told by Martic’s office that they would meet in an alleyway in Banja Luka in northern Bosnia.
On the day of the meeting, a military jeep arrived and Martic got out. He was dressed in a military uniform, with two bodyguards armed with AK-47s.
“I give you and your investigators 24 hours to get lost from here. Do you understand?” Martic told Mukusev.
When Mukusev tried to start a conversation, Martic elaborated on his threat.
“If you don’t leave, bear in mind that others will search for you for much longer than they have been searching for the journalists. And they won’t be able to ever find you either. Do you understand now?”
Despite the threats, Mukusev decided to stay in Krajina and investigate the case further, with the counterintelligence officers looking after his team’s security.
Political ructions disrupt investigation again
Going through the documentation in the Krajina prosecution office in the town of Glina, Mukusev’s team realised that the position of Croatian and Serbian forces had been switched on a map that was a vital part of the case file.
Instead of going from Serb to Croat positions, the journalists were actually travelling the other way, towards a Serb checkpoint, where they were killed. This is why the police in the town of Kostajnica had to reopen the case.
Mukusev got in contact with Zoran Prlina, who allegedly witnessed the killing of the journalists when he was a Serbian soldier. Prlina was assigned to drag the journalists’ car with his tractor a few kilometres down the road, he and another man dumped it on the bank of a river.
Prlina’s testimony only differed from that of Borojevic (alias Cuk) in certain details and therefore sounded credible.
Prlina gave only the approximate location of the journalists’ grave and asked for 5,000 German marks for his testimony. As he feared revenge from his former fellow combatants, he asked that the investigators did not immediately launch an exhumation at the site, but make it look like they found it by chance.
As the investigators were digging however, the political circumstances again changed dramatically.
When new Russian President Boris Yeltsin dismissed the Supreme Soviet in October 1993, Mukusev instantly lost his deputy status and all authority over the case.
After an advice from the Russian embassy, Mukusev arrived to Moscow only to witness a complete lack of interest in the case.
In an attempt to push forward the investigation, he met Yeltsin’s assistant, Yuri Baturin, who rejected his pleas.
“Come on Volodya [Vladimir], you must understand it all. If they [perpetrators] were Croats, we could develop your case. But Serbs… do you want the whole world to hear that Serbs killed [their] Russian brother?” Baturin said.
“Our [Russian] interests in the Balkans don’t allow the results your investigation to be revealed,” was the feedback that Mukusev said he got from other relevant government bodies.
He also realised that his tapes of the testimony of Borojevic (alias Cuk), which were returned to him by the prosecution office, had their crucial, most controversial parts removed.
Meanwhile, state-controlled media tried to discredit the findings of his investigation.
After two decades, a small step forward
In 2004, Mukusev first visited the site of the murder, almost a decade after the rebel Krajina statelet ceased to exist.
In 2011, he published ‘The Black Folder’ in Russian, and a small memorial to the reporters was erected at the place where they were killed.
The memorial effort came from Croatian war veteran Ivica Pandza, also known as Orkan (Hurricane).
In March 2017, Putin posthumously awarded Nogin and Kurinnoy with the Order of Courage – a political breakthrough in the recognition of their victimhood.
“It’s a good thing symbolically, especially for my mother, that after 26 years, the government at least did something to remember them,” Ivan Kurinnoy said.
However, he added, the award “doesn’t mean that the government is going on with the investigation”.
The investigation continues
Throughout the last decade, Pandza has continued to investigate the case on his own, gathering documentation from Krajina’s institutions.
His insistence that all the evidence points towards the Serb rebels as being the killers, provoked Russian ambassador Robert Markaryan to write an official reaction piece Croatian daily newspaper Jutarnji list in 2011. In it, Markaryan stated that “the nationality of the military units that committed the crime was never established with certainty”.
Pandza insisted he never had any personal political agenda in investigating the crime.
“I am not against Serbs, I am against criminals. And this unit, they were nothing more than a gang of criminals,” he told BIRN.
He claimed that this is evidenced by the multiple crimes that Kaline Komogovina unit members have been accused of or tried for, as well as documentation from other bodies and individuals in Krajina complaining about the unit’s criminal behaviour.
Meanwhile the Croatian state attorney’s office has been working on the case since the mid-1990s, but it appears that investigative activities have intensified since 2011.
That year, the state attorney’s office wrote to the Russian prosecution office, naming alleged former members of the Kaline Komogovina unit as having knowledge of or being connected with the crime, and asking to interview Mukusev and members of his team.
Simultaneously, the state attorney’s office reached out to its counterparts in Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia, as all the potential witnesses were living there.
As a result of this cooperation, Prlina testified again in 2011 before the Higher Court in Belgrade, where he repeated his testimony – although at this hearing, he did not claim to have seen the murder with his own eyes.
As to what happened to the remains of Nogin and Kurinnoy, the Croatian authorities claim they were exhumed while the wartime Krajina rebel statelet still existed, then moved to a secret location in Serbia and reburied.
Meanwhile, a new trial of former Kaline Komogovina unit members is pending before Zagreb county court for a crime committed in November 1991 in the village of Kostrici, only a few kilometres from the place where the journalists were killed.
Members of the Serb unit – some of whom are mentioned a document sent to the Russian prosecution in 2011 – will be tried in their absence for the killing of 15 civilians in Kostrici, including nine women and two children aged two and five.
The Russian prosecution reopened the case in 2016, but Ivan Kurinnoy said he wonders why the Russian authorities did not try to interrogate Martic about the issue during his time in detention at the Hague Tribunal, as allegedly the Kaline Komogovina unit was directly subordinate to him.
When it comes to the remains of his father, although he and his family would like to have them found and brought home, he said that he is not sure “how possible that is”.
Despite all the years that have passed, Mukusev said he still hopes to see a trial for the journalists’ murder in Croatia.
“Now we need to create a joint investigative team with Croats, Bosnians, Serbs and Russians. To gather all the materials and to conduct a full and comprehensive investigation into the crime to hand it over to the national court. But something tells me this will not happen,” he said.