In the first of a two-part series, BIRN reports on how Dinko Sakic, the last living commander of Croatia’s World War II concentration camp Jasenovac, was tracked down in Argentina and extradited 20 years ago.
“I am a Croatian patriot who fought for his people. That’s how I started. I was a man of trust,” an old Croat émigré, sitting at his home in the small coastal town of Santa Teresita, some 350 kilometres south of Buenos Aires, proudly told journalist Jorge Camarasa.
Camarasa’s report, aired on Argentinian Canal 13 TV in April 1998, at first looked like a piece about Croatia as Argentina’s footballing opponent at the upcoming World Cup in France that year.
However, Camarasa soon changed the direction of the interview.
“You were in Jasenovac?” the journalist asked, and the old man first acted as if he hadn’t heard the question correctly and only agreed after it was repeated.
“You were the camp commander at the end?” Camarasa continued.
“No, I was the director, not the commander, for only 100 days. Look, while I was [in charge], no guard or administrative official could even touch a prisoner, whether he was a Jew or something else,” the old man replied.
Camarasa’s report for Argentinean TV revealed that the 76-year-old émigré Dinko Sakic was, in fact, the former commander of the World War II concentration camp Jasenovac, which was managed by the Croatian fascist Ustasa movement.
In their Nazi puppet state, the Independent State of Croatia, NDH, the Ustasa passed racist laws and persecuted Serbs, Jews, Roma and anti-fascists. At Jasenovac alone, the Ustasa killed over 83,000 people, without having permanent gas chambers.
According to the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, which is dedicated to hunting down Nazi criminals and collaborators across the globe, Sakic was the last WWII concentration camp commander still alive.
By 1998, Sakic had lived in Argentina for over 50 years, but this was the first time that he came under the international media spotlight.
When Camarasa initially located Sakic, he got in contact with the Wiesenthal Centre, and together they prepared to make the report. For months beforehand, Camarasa read testimonies of Jasenovac camp survivors, getting familiar with the context.
Sakic quickly became a major story in the Argentinean and international media, and the Wiesenthal Centre pressured Buenos Aires to arrest him.
The elderly Croat disappeared for a few days, and reporters speculated that he might be hiding in neighbouring Paraguay. Some Croatian journalists even travelled to Argentina in an attempt to locate and interview him.
Croatians divided over case against Sakic
Even before Sakic’s arrest, questions were being asked about whether he should stand trial before a court in Croatia or Yugoslavia, which by 1998 only consisted of Serbia and Montenegro.
Many in Croatia looked at Belgrade’s request for extradition as an anti-Croatian provocation connected to the war which had ended three years earlier.
Efraim Zuroff, the head of the Wiesenthal Centre in Vienna, explained that in the end, he advocated Sakic’s extradition to Zagreb, because at the time that “the lesson of Jasenovac” was more needed in Croatia than in Serbia.
“Also, in Croatia, we [the Wiesenthal Centre] still had some leverage, as Israel still had not created full diplomatic relations with Croatia,” Zuroff told BIRN.
“Croatia didn’t have any choice but to put him on trial. Croatia wanted to join the EU, the NATO, so they couldn’t allow a commander of a place like Jasenovac to go around free,” he said.
Even Croatian President Franjo Tudjman reassured Israel that he wanted Sakic to be tried in Croatia, and Zagreb formally asked for his extradition on war crimes charges.
After Croatia’s formal request for his extradition, Sakic came out the hiding and police arrested him at his house. As he was getting into a police car with a grin on his face, locals shouted “murderer” at him.
As the extradition process continued, Croatian politicians were somewhat split over the case.
Vice Vukojevic, a high-ranking official of the governing Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ and head of the parliamentary committee for researching WWII and post-WWII victims, claimed that the case was a result “of international pressure on Croatia” that had “gone too far”.
“Through a case against a single man, whose guilt is yet to be established, a whole burden of accusations against the country is being launched. I am for processing all potential war criminals. However, do you know even a single participant in the Second World War who was on the Allied side who was later prosecuted for war crimes?” Vukojevic asked.
In an opinion poll of 300 people carried out by daily newspaper Vecernji list, 43 per cent supported Sakic’s extradition, while 23 per cent were against - the rest did not have an opinion. Almost 60 per cent thought that the Sakic case was the result of international pressure on Croatia, while only 8.3 per cent thought it was not.
Many in Croatia claimed at the time that the case was intended to depict the country as ‘pro-fascist’, despite its strong WWII anti-fascist movement - although during the 1990s, many anti-fascist monuments in the country were damaged, destroyed or removed.
Anticipation rises as extradition date nears
For days, Croatia media speculated about the exact day of Sakic’s extradition. Argentina had specified that Croatia had until June 27 to pick him up in Buenos Aires.
Boris Vlasic was a journalist for the Croatian newspaper Jutarnji list at the time, and was sent to Buenos Aires to cover the story of Sakic’s extradition.
As he was late for his original flight for Argentine, he had to buy a new ticket. When he did, by chance he saw the date on for which the Croatian Interior Ministry had bought three tickets from Buenos Aires to Zagreb – for Sakic and two policemen escorting him. Vlasic bought the ticket for the same flight.
“For days, the guys from the newsroom in Zagreb nagged me with information from sources that he will be extradited on this or that day, and that I should be ready to react. However, I knew the exact day he was coming, so I was calm,” Vlasic told BIRN.
On June 17, media reported that Croatian police would escort Sakic on a plane, via Germany, to Zagreb.
During the flight, Vlasic went up to Sakic and asked him how he felt about coming back to Croatia.
“Sakic, an old man, said something like: ‘I am happy because I am returning to my homeland,’” Vlasic recalled.
“An old man, with badly-dyed hair, going to another country in chains, to be tried for war crimes, says something like that. I think he had a different perception of where he was going,” he added.
On June 18, 1998, exactly 20 years ago, Sakic landed at Zagreb airport, to stand trial for the crimes he committed over 40 years beforehand.
Besides the many policemen, judicial officials, his brother Tomislav and lawyer Ivan Kern, there was almost nobody waiting for him at the airport - just two of his sympathisers, one of whom was holding up a sign that said: “Dinko Sakic, welcome to the Homeland.”