The War Crimes in Škabrnja

Škabrnja, a village located on a plateau in northern Dalmatia and inhabited by Croats, had long been a “thorn in the side” of Serbs who lived in surrounding villages. As tensions escalated in the autumn of 1991, rebel Serbs occupied and devastated Škabrnja as they committed a series of horrific crimes against the civilian population.

After the first shells hit the village on 17 September 1991, Marko Miljanić from the Zadar Police Department to organize the defense of Škabrnja and its surrounding area. It was not easy as there was little manpower and few weapons. The independent Škabrnja battalion numbered 950 men at most and held a 32-kilometre long line of defense. Of these, 240 defenders were in Škabrnja itself spread out along 6 kilometres of defensive lines. Many young men from Škabrnja had already volunteered for the military at the outset of war and defended Croatia on several battlefronts.

At approximately 7:30 AM on Monday, 18 November 1991 Serbian paramilitary units and the 9th Knin Corps of the Yugoslav People’s Army led by Ratko Mladić began a bloody campaign in Škabrnja by artillery, tanks, fighter jets and helicopter. On that day alone, 48 civilians and 15 defenders were killed in Škabrnja. Negzana Pavičić lost her grandfather, father, mother and husband Mile, who was killed before her very eyes, in the massacre as she and her two young daughters barely survived.

My village of Škabrnja was pelted with shells from all directions. My husband and I quickly grabbed the children and took them to the basement. Soon all the others who retreated from the entrance to the village arrived at our location. There were about fifty of us. We thought of fleeing but had nowhere to go. The Chetnik Serbian rebels surrounded the entire village with 29 tanks, transporters, and we had no idea how many troops they had. Our men had only 30 rifles but managed to resist them for about three hours. It was awful. As we were in the basement, we were unaware of what was going on… that there were so many of them and that our people had perished. We still had hopes of getting out and defending ourselves until three tank shells hit our house and we heard them shouting, ‘Ustashas, we will kill you all, come out and surrender.’ My father-in-law and husband then surrendered and said, ‘Don’t shoot, there are only women and children here, don’t kill them.’ My husband was killed in front of the house as they took us out of the basement. The children were crying and we were beside ourselves. They did not let us take anything… I took a jacket but had to throw it away. They shot us one by one as we moved from the basement to the street and we watched our relatives, friends and neighbors fall dead. My grandfather was among them. A Yugoslav officer then came and would not allow any more killing. They shouted that they would slaughter us all, kill us and taunted us that since we now have Tuđman and Croatia, perhaps those we voted for would come save us. As he held a knife in his hand, one shouted that he had not yet slaughtered anyone but would delight in killing me and my daughter. They took us to the military barracks in Benkovac and it was there that I learned that my father and mother had been killed, as witnessed by a fifteen-year-old child. There they monitored and interrogated us again. They told us that they were negotiating our custody and that they would hand us over to Šibenik or Biograd the same day. In the end they told us that our people would not take us and sent us to the Chetniks in Zemunik, mocking us that we must certainly know someone there.

In the days that followed, massacres and persecutions continued in the neighbouring village of Nadin and from occupation to the final liberation of the area in Operation “STORM”, the number of Škabrnja victims increased to a total of 86. This cruelty inflicted upon the inhabitants of Škabrnja was reflected upon everything in the path of the enemy, whose “scorched earth” policy included all livestock and property in the area as well.

There is a tragic judicial epilogue to this sad event. Only two people have served their sentences in Croatia for the war crime in Škabrnja as most of those convicted in absentia are inaccessible to the authorities. Milan Martić, former Chief of Police for the so-called rebel Serbian Autonomous Region (SAR) of Krajina was sentenced to 35 years in prison for crimes in Škabrnja by the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY). Ratko Mladić, who ordered the attack on Škabrnja has not been charged for this crime by the ICTY and will probably never be held criminally responsible.

Milković, Ante. Naša Škabrnja. Škabrnja: Općina Škabrnja, 2001.

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