Copyright © New York Times 1998
May 2, 1998
War Crimes Horrors Revive as Croat Faces Possible Trial
ZAGREB, Croatia -- In the fall of 1944, prisoners at the Jasenovac concentration camp in Croatia looked skyward as a lumbering U.S. bomber, crippled and spewing smoke, plummeted and crashed near the Sava River after an air raid over Hungary.
"Suddenly we saw three white parachutes," said Sime Klaic, 73, who was imprisoned in the camp, "and so did the camp commander, Dinko Sakic. He sent his guards to capture the Americans. When the aviators were brought to the camp, he was ecstatic.
"He paraded them past us, insulting and beating them," Klaic said. "They became his toys. He brought them out of their cells for three days to humiliate and abuse them in front of us. When he tired of the game, he ordered the guards to bayonet them to death and dump the bodies in a mass grave."
Sakic, 76, is one of the most important figures accused of war crimes from World War II still alive. Living in Argentina, he discussed his past in a television interview that was broadcast in April, prompting calls for his arrest.
The Croatian government, bowing to heavy pressure from Western governments and Jewish organizations, asked Argentina to extradite Sakic for a trial here, and Argentina has said it it will do so quickly.
Friday, Argentine police arrested Sakic. His lawyer said Sakic would not fight the extradition request, Agence France-Presse reported.
If a trial takes place, it would be a chance for Croatia, a country whose fascist past is the subject of revisionism here, to examine the horrors of the Nazi-backed government that ran the country during World War II.
But a trial for Sakic, Western diplomats cautioned, could be manipulated to serve the interests of nationalists like President Franjo Tudjman, who minimize the numbers of those killed by the government run by Croatian fascists called the Ustashe.
Croatian nationalists insist that communists and fascists killed on an equal scale in World War II. Tudjman, who has written books on the subject, has invested considerable energy in trying to rehabilitate the Ustashe government.
He also wrote a book in which he questioned the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust, and his invitation to the opening of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington in 1993 touched off a storm of protest. He attended and was jeered, and a few months later he apologized for the book.
Any trial of Sakic is certain to be highly divisive and emotional, publicizing Ustashe atrocities that some Croatian officials would prefer remain ignored.
Since independence from Yugoslavia in 1991, Croatian officials have granted fascist veterans lavish benefits, invited them to military celebrations and glorified the fighting prowess of the Ustashe forces.
A Jewish survivor said that in the summer of 1942 he saw Sakic oversee the execution of several hundred Jewish woman and children.
"I live across from a police station," he said. "I have seen the police give the fascist salute. I have heard them sing old Ustashe songs."
But he continued: "How do you expect me to speak publicly about Sakic? I have children and grandchildren. I want to live."
Sakic, in the television interview, denied that anyone was killed at Jasenovac when he was the commander.
The brutality of the Ustashe government, which oversaw the killing of 31,000 of Croatia's 39,000 Jews and about 200,000 Serbs, according to historians, is rarely mentioned in schoolbooks here. It is instead praised for seeking to build an independent Croatian state and for its battle against communism.
Several members of Parliament and Cabinet ministers, like Defense Minister Gojko Susak, whose brother and father were Ustashe officers, and Reconstruction Minister Jure Radic, publicly defend the Ustashe. Tudjman in 1992 named Ivo Rojnica, the former Ustashe military governor of Dubrovnik, as ambassador to Argentina, but the Argentine government refused to accept his credentials.
Andrija Hebrang, vice president of the governing Croatian Democratic Union, called Sakic "a victim of historical circumstances" who sought to "create an independent Croatian state with the aid of the Nazis, since communism was not an option."
Sakic has spent the last five decades living in Argentina and Spain, where he has busied himself in the life of the militant wing of the Ustashe exile community.
"Sakic was very young for such an important position," said Klaic, a Croat who spent four years in the camps after his older sister was executed as a communist. "He was arrogant and always impeccably dressed in polished black leather boots and a tailored black Ustashe uniform. We were emaciated, in rags and sick. He would stride past us looking as if he had stepped out of a fashion magazine."
From early 1942 to the autumn of 1944, Sakic was a deputy commander and commander of two concentration camps -- Jasenovac, where some 85,000 died, and Stara Gradiska. According to Jewish and Serbian groups, he was involved in the killing of tens of thousands of Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and communist partisans, often taking part in the clubbing, shooting and stabbing of bound prisoners.
He is also accused by camp survivors of killing in June 1942 one of Croatia's finest poets, Mihovil Pavlek Miskina, whose opposition to the fascists landed him in the Stara Gradiska camp while Sakic was the deputy commander.
One of Sakic's most notorious acts, camp survivors say, took place in the summer of 1942 when the Ustashe closed the Djakovo camp, which held Jewish woman and children. Some 1,500 prisoners were crammed into railroad cars and transported to Stara Gradiska, where Sakic met them with two large police vans, witnesses said.
"He directed his guards to pack women and children into the vans, fitted a rubber hose from the exhaust to the interior and drove around and around the camp until the passengers were dead," said Dr. Dragutin Roller, 76, who was a camp inmate. "They killed at least half the group like this as soon as they arrived."
There are many accounts of Sakic, seemingly on a whim, pulling out a pistol and shooting prisoners. He and several guards, former inmates say, often used rifles to shoot for sport prisoners who were sent out to work in the surrounding fields.
"My father came to the camp every two weeks with clandestine parcels from Jewish families who had relatives in Jasenovac," said Ana Juric Simuncic, 63. "He placed the parcels in a corner of the ferry, and inmates, who were used to pole the ferry boats back and forth across the Sava River, would try and take them without being seen. I and my brother were with my father on one of these trips when Sakic was on the ferry. Sakic saw one of the inmates picking up a parcel and shot him. The prisoner tumbled dead into the water."
Sakic, said to be terrified of the typhoid, malaria and diphtheria that raged through the filthy barracks, had all those who showed signs of illness herded to a house near an old stone tower he called "the hospital." Those taken to the house were killed during the night, former prisoners said.
He also often locked two or three dozen inmates in a room and denied them food or water, despite cries for mercy, until they perished, they said.
Sakic's prominence in the Ustashe movement came through his wife, Nada. Her half-brother was Col. Maks Luburic, who was in charge of the Ustashe secret police unit that oversaw Croatia's 27 concentration camps.
Survivors also accused Mrs. Sakic, who is not expected to be extradited, of crimes.
On nighttime killings, survivors said, Mrs. Sakic accompanied the commander of the woman's section of Stara Gradiska, Maja Slomic-Buzdon, who was tried and executed after the war, and the deputy commander, Milka Pribanic, now believed to be living in Germany. The women, joined by male guards, strangled their victims, most of whom were Serbs or Jews, with wire, they said.
"The Ustashe officers would walk slowly in front of us, point at a woman, change their mind, and then pick another," said Marija Cvetko, a Croatian communist who was in the woman's section. "Once they pointed at Stela Polak, a girl who slept in my bunk. I breathed a sigh of relief. That sigh has haunted me my entire life."
Of about a dozen survivors who were interviewed in Croatia, about half said they preferred not to testify against Sakic in a trial or speak publicly about him because they feared retribution.
"I am one of the few willing to be a witness at a trial," Klaic said, "as long as I can restrain myself from thrusting a knife into Sakic's heart."