Sunday, October 23, 2005
Serb "soldier" unapolegetic to the end
Deathbed interview with Serbian who fled to Argentina and was wanted for execution of Albanians in Kosovo war of 1999.
Picture-A party of Serb militia fighters stand in front of a captured Albanian symbol. Among the most notorious militia commanders in Pec/Peje were Vidomir Salipur (center, standing) and Nebjosa Minic (standing, right). Minic called himself, Mrtvi, Serbian for "The Dead." In the lower left is Milan Kaljevic.
BY MATTHEW McALLESTERSTAFF
MENDOZA, Argentina -- The sallow skin on Nebojsa Minic's semi-paralyzed, skull-like face was tight and smooth over cheekbones, chin and the empty valleys of once-full cheeks. The Serb's large ears flopped against the hospital pillow like empty socks. You could have put your hand around his once-powerful, tattooed legs and almost touched thumb to finger. To make himself understood, he would nod or shake his head slightly. But even as the rest of his body was dying, the blue eyes of the man who in the Kosovo war of 1999 allegedly terrorized the town of Pec/Peje were still alive.
"Do you know that a lot of people hate you?" he was asked in a yes-or-no answer session on Tuesday night in his heavily guarded hospital room in the country where he had fled under a false passport in 2003.The blue eyes stared back unblinking, unapologetic, unafraid, and then they rolled up and to the left in a shrug whose message was clear: I don't care.
Minic, 41 died 48 hours later. His death from AIDS complications and cancer was long, painful and far from his beloved Serbia, but it provided him with an escape from the justice awaiting him in a court in his homeland, whose government had requested his extradition after he was arrested here in May.One of a growing number of suspected war criminals who have fled the former Yugoslavia for the sanctuary of foreign countries, Minic was the type of mid- to low-level killer in the Balkan wars who does not generally attract the kind of attention given to high-profile suspects like Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic, who has been charged with genocide.
Nicknamed "Dead," an acknowledged commander of a ruthless police and paramilitary unit called Munje, or Lightning, Minic was an unusually well-documented war criminal in spite of his comparatively low rank. Human Rights Watch and several reporters had amassed a large amount of material about his war crimes in 1999, including a 2002 book by this reporter that focused on his reportedly ordering the killing of an Albanian family after the cease-fire. It was for that crime that the Serbian government requested his extradition this summer, and it was that crime that spurred a local Argentine police official to pursue Minic, who was living in Argentina under a false identity.
Behind a family's death
Yesterday afternoon, the Kosovar Albanian man whose family Minic ordered killed, according to witnesses interviewed in 1999 and 2000, stood in his butcher shop in Pec/Peje and was told Minic was dead. He erupted with fury, using obscenities to describe Minic, shouting and waving his large hands around in the air of the butcher shop.Bala lost seven members of his family in the killing, including three of his five children."I wish he was here, in this shop without a rifle, only me and him, only me and him. I would chop him up ... What is justice? Justice would have been to bring him and the others to me. I would know what to do with them. I would put them into the meat grinder one by one."
On Minic's orders, witnesses and survivors said, two of his men lined up Bala's entire family on couches in their home and shot them with automatic rifles from close range.Many of the details of Minic's journey from Serbia to Argentina, a country that suffers from a long reputation of harboring European war criminals, remain vague and perhaps lost with Minic. But in Tuesday's interview, he acknowledged he had worked as a mercenary in Africa after the war in Kosovo.
Argentine police officials said Minic entered Argentina with a false passport after being in Bolivia and Chile.Minic apparently came here to collect a debt owed to another Serb in Chile, said Omar Perez Botti, who was head of local intelligence when he ultimately arrested Minic in May. Perez Botti said he believed that Minic and the Serb in Chile, Ivan Zorotovic Bozanic, were part of a larger network of Serbs in the region who help each other out, as former Nazis began to do in South America after World War II.
Hiding out in Argentina,the tall, muscular Minic, his body tattooed with dragons, scorpions and the faces of women, didn't speak Spanish, yet before long he had a local girlfriend. Like many others who met him here, Iris Palomares spoke on Wednesday about her former lover's charisma and ability to make her and others do what he wanted.Minic called himself Vlada Radivojevic then. He told the divorced Palomares that he had been a soldier in the wars in the former Yugoslavia and that he had left that country in search of a new life, trying to forget the horrors he had witnessed and the friends he had lost in battle. At times, he would sink into depression and even threaten to kill himself."He was always trying to make you feel sorry for him, trying to make you help him," Palomares, 52, a teacher, said in an interview in a local cafe. "I don't understand how as a grown woman I didn't see all this."
She let him live in a family house and loaned him the money to buy and run a pizzeria, which he named La Bomba - The Bomb.One night, when he had been drinking, the man Palomares knew as Vlada told her and her children he had a "war name" and would show them who he really was on the Internet. He was Nebojsa Minic, he said.They sat down at the family's computer and he tried to find himself online but somehow failed.The relationship soured. Minic left Palomares and began a relationship with another local woman, Anahi Escobedo, 55, who would nurse him until his death.
True identity revealed
Palomares tried to see him. She was furious and remembered that night in her kitchen when he had told her who he really was.This time, she went to an Internet cafe with the name and searched for Minic on Yahoo and Google. This time, she found him. There were numerous mentions of him on the Human Rights Watch site. She printed out some of the information, including a photo of the man she had loved holding a machine gun, a cigarette dangling from his lips, glaring at the camera.
Vlada, according to the information online, was a war criminal named Nebojsa Minic. Among other alleged crimes, he had ordered the killing of Isa Bala's family.Palomares took the information to the police in early March and, later that month, it landed on the desk of Perez Botti. He began to investigate and found irregularities and inconsistencies in the documentation that surrounded this Serb immigrant's presence in Argentina. He became convinced that Radivojevic was Minic and put him under surveillance.
On May 12, Perez Botti obtained an arrest warrant for Minic. The same morning, word came through to his office that the Serbian authorities in Belgrade had a match for Radivojevic's fingerprints. This man was Minic, the prints confirmed.
Minic in custody
Minic was arrested at about 10 a.m. at a local hospital where he had gone because he was feeling extremely unwell. He had AIDS and had developed Hodgkin's disease, doctors told him.With Minic in custody, Perez Botti realized something unsettling: There were no warrants out for him. Neither the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague nor the Serbian courts wanted him.Daniel Wilkinson and Bogdan Ivanisovic, researchers at Human Rights Watch in New York and Belgrade, respectively, worked to change that. After months of advocacy and phone calls, pushing and prodding, the Serbian government requested Minic's extradition.
But by late summer, Minic's medical condition meant he was never going to make it back to Serbia. The legal process continued, Minic's Argentine lawyer fought for his release, and Minic told Escobedo over and over that all he wanted was to go home to die.His latest court appearance was scheduled for Oct. 28. But on Tuesday, in his private room, guarded by five police officers, Minic was obviously living his last days.
No remorse for his past
Without realizing he was being interviewed by a reporter whom he reportedly was keen to kill at one stage, Minic agreed to answer questions, again answering or nodding only "yes" or "no". He did not know the Bala family. He knew one of the two gunmen and other members of Lightning. He did not feel guilty about anything. He was a patriot. He was a soldier. And no, there were no rules in war.
There were no criminals and no crimes in war. Killing children was not a crime in war.He believed in God and was a Serbian Orthodox Christian. God loved him. He knew he was about to die. He was angry that Serbia lost the war, angry that the Albanians won Pec/Peje, angry with God.
Yes, he killed people. He didn't know how many. He knew Arkan, the notorious leader of Serb paramilitaries in the Balkan wars. But he didn't like him or work for him."I'm no criminal," he said, barely audible.Did the Albanians deserve to die?"Partly," he croaked.
Escobedo held cigarettes to his mouth and he coughed deeply in his skeletal chest. He grew tired of talking. He had not confessed. He had not shown remorse.He died Tuesday morning at 8:45 a.m. Escobedo was holding his hand as it went limp. His eyes were open.
A nurse bustled along the corridor and said she wasn't sure how they were going to identify him on his death certificate. They still weren't sure who he really was. The coffee mug by his bed had "Vlada" written on it.Minic had said to both of his girlfriends that he liked Mendoza because the way the Argentine plain met the foothills of the Andes reminded him of Pec/Peje, where the Mountains of the Damned tower over the town."I think we'll cremate his body," Escobedo said, gently stroking Minic's left foot.
She looked down at the man she loved, the man so many in Pec/Peje and beyond detested. "We'll throw him among the mountains like he wanted."
Special correspondent Enver Doda contributed from Pec/Peje.