Our accusations that the New Independent State of Croatia is not different from its World War II namesake should not be taken lightly.  The case of Dinko Sakic illustrates it quite well. 

Dinko Sakic's Portfolio 

Dinko Sakic's Portfolio
From the Press
Srpska Mreza

Copyright Washington Post 1998

May 7, 1998

Croatian Reckoning
By Benjamin Wittes

Early last month a man named Dinko Sakic told a television news program in Argentina that he had been the commander of the World War II-era Croatian concentration camp known as Jasenovac. Sakic's statement provoked only a ripple of international attention, and to many people, his case must seem like just another war crimes case. It isn't. If Dinko Sakic is the man he claims to be, he is one of the outstanding war crimes suspects alive in the world today.

Even among those who know about the Holocaust, Jasenovac is not a household name. The vast majority of those killed there were not Jews but Serbs, so the camp has never been central to most Holocaust historians. Unlike its counterparts in Poland, Jasenovac was not set up and operated by the Nazis themselves, but by the local administration -- the collaborationist government of the so-called Independent State of Croatia, which was led by the dictator Ante Pavelic and his party, the Ustashe.

Those for whom Jasenovac is central -- Serbian and Croatian nationalists, communist propagandists and apologists for fascism -- have almost uniformly produced distorted, ideological histories. For this reason, there is no generally accepted figure for the number of people -- Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and Croatian opponents of the Ustashe government -- murdered at Jasenovac. Croatian nationalists put it as low as 60,000. Serb nationalists put it as high as 700,000. The truth is probably somewhere in between. What we know for sure is that the Ustashe's brutality stood out even in an era of uncommon brutality, and that its commanders were war criminals of the highest order.

The recent television interview was not the first time Sakic has publicly embraced his past. In 1995 a Croatian newspaper published an interview with him in which Sakic claimed to have served at Jasenovac between 1942 and 1944, first as the camp's deputy commander and later as its chief. He denied that there were any mass killings there, saying that while people did die at Jasenovac, "it was a legal institution, founded according to the law. . . . Jasenovac was no kind of sanitarium, but it was also not a torturing place as presented by the Serbs."

Far from being repentant, Sakic actually professed to be "proud of my past, of everything I was doing." If he could live his life over, he said, "I would do the same."

While Sakic denies that any atrocities took place at the camp, what he admits is quite startling. In his 1995 interview, he describes himself as the "assistant" to a man named Maks Luburic, to whose sister he was also married. Sakic describes Luburic warmly as his mentor and as a humanitarian -- "a protector of the Jews," in Sakic's words. He calls himself Luburic's most trusted and "closest co-worker."

But not everyone familiar with Luburic's work shares Sakic's high opinion of him. Luburic, after all, was one of the men who ran the Ustashe camp network. As one observer wrote of him in 1943: "On his orders, 80,000 people were liquidated in Alt-Gradiska, 120,000 in Jasenovac, and 20,000 in the other camps. [Luburic] personally took part in these slaughters; a big sadist. Neurotic, pathological personality . . . and the driving force for the bloody developments in Croatia."

This description, by someone who is obviously appalled, comes not from a human rights organization but from a Nazi intelligence report on Ustashe officers -- a report that was discovered by a Justice Department historian during the investigation of former Austrian president Kurt Waldheim. Another character reference comes from Luburic's own mother, who is quoted in the memoir of the moderate Croatian nationalist leader, Vladko Macek, as saying that "if only a small part of what people say about him is true, I wish I had never seen the day I gave him life."

It is, of course, premature to proclaim Sakic's guilt. What look like open-and-shut war crimes cases are not always quite what they seem. Still, it is hard to fathom how Dinko Sakic would not be a major war criminal unless he is either lying about his identity or hallucinating a past he did not live. The Justice Department's Nazi-hunting unit, the Office of Special Investigations, takes his claim seriously and has barred him from entering the United States. And though the documentary record corroborating Sakic's claim -- that part of it, anyway, that is readily available -- seems rather thin, his name does appear repeatedly in a Yugoslav history of Jasenovac that predates Sakic's own disclosures by several years.

Sakic's allegations against himself demand a thorough investigation and whatever prosecution the evidence will support. The Croatian government is seeking Sakic's extradition, and Argentina has arrested him. Sakic is not opposing the extradition, saying he wants to prove his innocence.

Croatia has often been accused of failing to come to terms with its fascist past and even rehabilitating the symbols and leaders of that past. Putting Dinko Sakic on trial would be a healthy exercise in staring history in the face, as well as a small gesture toward justice.

Copyright Srpska Mreza 1998