The Last Commandant

Dinko Sakic Faces Trial At Age 77

Dinko Sakic is one of the last living commandants of a World War II concentration camp. Now 77 years old, he is on trial in Croatia for crimes against humanity--crimes he allegedly committed at a camp called Jasenovac. 60 Minutes II Correspondent Peter Van Sant reports.

A little more than 50 years ago, tens of thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands, of people were murdered there, victims of the Croatian government, then allied with the Nazis.

Dinko Sakic's fate rests on the testimony of old men. These men have not forgotten him, or what they say happened when he was commandant.

Today, Jasenovac seems too peaceful to have been the "Auschwitz of the Balkans," as it was called. For four years during World War II, it was the site of the largest concentration camp in Croatia. By 1944, when Dinko Sakic was promoted to commandant at the amazingly young age of 22, the camp was already a notorious killing ground.

Although the vast majority of victims were Serbs, Jews, Gypsies and communists were also slaughtered here. Dinko Sakic is on trial for the deaths of more than 2,000 such prisoners.

"He was commander of Jasenovac. He must have known about everyone who was killed," says Dragan Roller, one of only a handful of people today who can bear witness to what Sakic did at Jasenovac. Roller is Croatian, but in 1941 he also was a communist, which made him an enemy of the fascist Croatian government and its Nazi allies. Roller spent three and a half years at Jasenovac.

Almost immediately, he realized that Jasenovac was a death camp. On his second day, Roller says, he watched as a guard ordered a prisoner onto the ground, took out a knife and slit the man's throat.

Like most murders at Jasenovac, that murder was a one-on-one execution. There were no gas chambers. Because of a shortage of bullets, inmates, including women and children, were mostly killed with crude weapons, like knives worn on the wrist that were designed to make slashing throats quicker and easier. It was standard equipment during the time Sakic was commandant.

Then, at the end of World War II, Dinko Sakic disappeared.

For more than 50 years he was forgotten, except in the painful memories of those of his victims who survived. Then, for reasons known only to himself, Sakic re-emerged in Buenos Aires on Argentine television. Last spring, after living openly for more than 50 years under his own name, Dinko Sakic spoke to Argentine reporters, at first denying and then admitting he had been in charge at Jasenovac.

"I don't have any reason to hide that, because I carried out my duties," Sakic said during the interview. "Look, during the time that I was there, there was no guard and no administrator that could touch a prisoner, any prisoner."

Sakic was asked if he has a clear conscience. "Very clear, very clear," he replied. "Because I saved and helped whoever I could. I saved many peope."

The reporter pointed out that there were people who died in the camp. Said Sakic: "Yes, but of natural causes."

Josip Erlih was sent to Jasenovac when he was only 15 years old. The causes of death, he says, were anything but natural: "The majority of killings were done by hand, with mallets or with axes, sticks, hammers--with all imaginable tools. By hanging, too. With nails through the mouth into the brain. Horrifying things they did. Very few were killed with guns."

After more than a half century, Erlih says he still recognizes the face of Dinko Sakic from video taken recently. He says he personally saw Sakic commit murder. Erlih says the first time he saw Sakic kill was in 1944 when a group of prisoners were ordered to line up outside their barracks.

"We were terrified," Erlih remembers. "One of us poor creatures soiled his pants, I believe. Another man smiled at him or something like that, and an officer said to Sakic that they were laughing at him. Sakic shot them right on the spot."

"He would have us believe that while serving as a senior concentration camp official. . . that bad things didn't happen," says Eli Rosenbaum, director of the Justice Department's Office of Special Investigations, which prosecutes war criminals. "That's ludicrous."

Jasenovac is known as a horrible place, he says: "Jasenovac is the most infamous place in the history of Croatia. It is a word that sends a chill up the spine of anyone who knows anything about World War II in the former Yugoslavia."

The region is rich in history--and in hatred, which is rooted in ethnic and religious differences. Croatians are largely Roman Catholic, while most Serbs are Christian Orthodox.

Today, at the age of 80, Mihaljo Maric still vividly remembers when Dinko Sakic ordered 22 inmates to be hanged in front of the other prisoners. One man, Milo Bosckovic from the province of Montenegro, refused the noose and asked to be shot.

"Sakic stood in front of him and told him to turn around so he could shoot him in the back of the head," Maric says. "He replied, 'No, I am Montenegran and we look death in the eyes. And I want to die as Montenegran.' And then Sakic took his gun and shot him straight in his forehead."

Today, the horrors of Jasenovac are documented in a dimly lit hallway in Belgrade, the Serbian capitol of Yugoslavia, at the Museum of Genocide Victims. Here you can see brutal photos of Croatian soldiers apparently posing with their victims as trophies.

"They didn't do it just because they had to do it, they enjoyed. . . killing these people," says Milan Bulajic, the museum's director.

Bulajic says that he has documented the murders of nearly 20,000 children, and that he's still counting. The total number of victims at Jasenovac--men, women and children--remains unclear. Estimates range from a Croatian count as low as 20,000 to the more than 700,000 victms claimed by the Serbs. Bulajic thinks the Sakic trial can help establish the truth.

Says Bulajic: "Dinko Sakic is a man of the great responsibility. He was not only responsible from the command position, but he was a man doing crimes himself."

Sakic's appearance on Argentine television was his undoing. It created a public outcry for his arrest. An Argentine police manhunt eventually found Sakic hiding in his own home. He was arrested.

Last June, Argentina extradited Sakic back to Croatia to stand trial for war crimes. A strange, smug smile on his face was becoming the trademark of his public appearances.

A half a century after he escaped, Sakic was back in Zagreb, the capital of Croatia. He arrived home to a Croatia that is again an independent nation following its bitter and brutal civil war with Yugoslavia. The atrocities that occurred in the '90s, says Rosenbaum, had their roots in the '40s.

"I think one needs to look at how Serbs saw World War II ending," Rosenbaum says. "What they saw happen was that virtually the entire leadership of this monstrous Croatian state that had brutalized, tormented and committed mass murder, primarily against the Serbs, that leadership was able to get away."

Dinko Sakic's return to Croatia is a painful reminder that the Croatian government had allied itself with Adolf Hitler. Sakic's trial is forcing Croatians to confront a past most would rather forget.

There are some who now worry that trying Sakic in Croatia, his native land, will result in whitewash, not justice. But Dragan Roller thinks most Croatians will see the truth no matter what happens at the trial.

Now on trial for crimes against humanity, Dinko Sakic declined repeated requests for an interview. In court, Sakic said he is not responsible for any of the deaths at his camp. If convicted, Sakic would at worst spend the rest of his life behind bars, because in Croatia, there is no death penalty.

  • CBSNews.com staff CBSNews.com staff

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