When Jacques Paul Klein was commanding the UN mission in Slavonia, he personally selected GROM soldiers to take part in an extremely important operation.
“We first met ambassador Klein when we came to Eastern Slavonia in the fall of 1996. We were greeted by a well-built guy, wearing a leather flight jacket, sunglasses, and smoking a cigar. He had an aura of confidence about him,” says Col (Res) Piotr Gąstał, former GROM commander, Operations Officer with the Polish Military Contingent in Slavonia. “He was a big Texan guy, but his strength also came from within. He didn’t hesitate, he had a plan, he knew exactly what he wanted. Looking back, I’m pretty sure that we instantly liked him because he reminded us of someone... Col Petelicki, our first commander,” remembers Col Tomasz Gede, former GROM soldier, during the mission Deputy Contingent Commander for logistics.
Indispensable in Slavonia
Who was the man that impressed the special unit soldiers so much? It was Jacques Paul Klein, a retired major general, who earlier served in the US Air Force Reserve. He led UN missions in Eastern Slavonia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and in Liberia.
“It was obvious that Klein wanted and could do a lot. After the fiasco of the UN and UNPROFOR [United Nations Protection Force] mission, which, among other things, failed to prevent the Srebrenica massacre, UNTAES [United Nations Transitional Administration for Eastern Slavonia], with Klein as its leader, had a strong UN mandate and support of the US Department of State,” says Gąstał.
He was the kind of person that was needed in Slavonia – a region with turbulent history, and a lot of tensions, which arose after a signing the Erdut Agreement between the government of the Republic of Croatia and the local Serb authorities on November 12, 1995. On the strength of the agreement, Slavonia was annexed to Croatia. It was not an easy process, due to mutual hostility of the two nations, and so the UN was to ensure peace in the region. “Klein’s most important task was to withdraw Serb forces and peacefully reintegrate the region with Croatia,” explains the former GROM commander. There were about 6,000 troops in the area, including Belgians, Ukrainians, Jordanians, Pakistanis, Argentineans, Slovaks, Czechs, and Indonesians. They had tanks and combat helicopters at their disposal. Upon ambassador Klein’s explicit request, GROM was also deployed there. “Unfortunately, sometimes the situation requires someone to stand between the fighting nations in order to ensure peace,” says Gąstał.
The Polish Special Force Group detached from GROM was commanded by Major K. Their task was to protect Croats returning to Slavonia and prevent acts of terror. Soldiers stationed in the town of Erdut, located at the very border with Serbia. “We had to build our base alone, around an abandoned house, which was a former base of a paramilitary force called Tigers, commanded by one of Serbian warlords, Željko Ražnatović aka Arkan. He was a member of an extremist nationalist movement connected with the supporters of the Crvena Zvezda Beograd (Red Star Belgrade) football club,” says Tomasz Gede.
The house was located near a transit road between Slavonia and Serbia, and trafficking guns, petrol, wood, was a daily occurrence. Therefore, GROM soldiers were also responsible for capturing smugglers. “At that time we didn’t really see ambassador Klein. He was the head of the mission, and we were doing our job,” says Gede. There were situations, though, when Klein showed everyone how powerful he was. On Christmas Day in 1996, Croats expelled from their homes at the beginning of the war came to Slavonia to take part in a service said at the Franciscan monastery in Ilok, inhabited then by refugees from the Republic of Serbian Krajina. The Croats were guarded by Polish soldiers. A crowd of furious Serbs gathered in front of the monastery. “We managed to lead the Croats into the monastery using a side entrance,” remembers Gąstał. This, however, infuriated the crowd even more. “Stones flew at us and supporting Ukrainian troops, we were pulled into the crowd, so we had to use stun grenades. If anyone had started firing at us at that moment, they would have probably been shot down,” admits the former GROM commander. When Klein was informed of the unrest, he came to the site. “He stood before this enraged crowd and an unbelievable thing happened – he managed to convince the Serbs to back off. What did he tell them? That it will never by Serbia again, and that this was also the decision of their government,” recalls Gąstał. “Firmness and calmness were his biggest strength.”
Are You In?
In the meantime, Klein was preparing a special task for the Polish soldiers. “One day, he sent for our commander. I went with Major K. as a translator. We entered Klein’s premises, and he introduced us to a bunch of people – they were prosecutors of ICTY [International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia],” recalls Piotr Gąstał. They were talking about secret indictments, war crimes, until finally the name Dokmanović was mentioned.
“We had no idea who he was. We were given all the necessary information later,” admits Gąstał. Slavko Dokmanović was one of the people responsible for the massacre in the village of Ovčara in Croatia. On November 19, 1991, the Yugoslav People’s Army troops brought there several hundred men earlier forced out of a hospital in Vukovar. They were imprisoned, tortured, and later some of them were taken to a nearby ravine. There, troops shot 260 people and buried their bodies in a mass grave. ICTY prosecutors had evidence that Slavko Dokmanović, the then mayor of Vukovar, was responsible for the massacre. When during the mentioned meeting Jacques P. Klein asked the commander of GROM if they would take on the task of capturing Dokmanović, he had no doubts. “We were in, there was no other option. We knew why we were entrusted with this mission and how important and politically delicate the task was. Military units such as GROM are created exactly for this kind of operations,” says Gąstał.
Cigar for Victors
The operation was code-named “Little Flower.” It is said that Klein personally selected GROM to execute the task, since the unit had an excellent reputation in the UN after the mission in Haiti. “Operation Little Flower was shrouded in mystery. We were afraid that someone might give a heads-up to Dokmanović,” says Tomasz Gede. GROM soldiers prepared several versions of the plan to apprehend the war criminal. Klein studied them thoroughly. “He didn’t modify them, but asked about a lot of things and the commander of the Polish unit had to justify each of his decisions in detail,” says Gąstał.
The key issue was enticing Slavko Dokmanović, who then lived in Serbia, to Vukovar. “Serbia [then still Jugoslavia] was an independent country; international law didn’t allow us to execute the operation there,” explains Col Gąstał. Although Dokmanović did not know anything about the indictment, he had no intention of going back to the place where he had committed a crime. Therefore, in the spring of 1997, ICTY prosecutors initiated a certain game: they summoned him to be a witness against Croats who had murdered Serbs.
GROM soldiers hoped that Dokmanović would come, so they developed plans to apprehend him. They selected three places where it could be done and they all waited on standby. Unfortunately, “the Butcher of Vukovar” did not arrive. A new plan was developed. It assumed that Dokmanović would be arrested by the UN forces while attending a meeting of the commission analyzing information on crimes committed against Serbs. Again, Dokmanović did not appear. As it turned out later, the only thing that was of any interest to him in Eastern Slavonia was his estate. He agreed to become a representative of all Serbs who had lost their properties and were claiming compensation.
“We created a new plan. ICTY prosecutors were to go to Sombor, Serbia, where Dokmanović lived, and cross the Danube with him under the pretext of escorting him to negotiations regarding property. We were to prepare an ambush,” says the former GROM commander. One of the soldiers, the later commander of GROM, was selected to be the driver of the car in which Dokmanović was to travel. The plan assumed that when the car with the criminal got near GROM’s base, a truck would drive towards them from the opposite direction. Then – in order to avoid collision – the driver of the car carrying Dokmanović would turn abruptly, drive up to a designated place and brake sharply. The soldiers would then drag out the wanted criminal and arrest him. In order to keep the operation in full secrecy and not disclose what force executed it, half of the Polish contingent took part in sport competitions at the same time. That way the attention of not only the local community, but also the UN personnel, was effectively diverted from the operation.
On June 27, 1997, “the Butcher” entered the territory of Eastern Slavonia and got into the car driven by the Pole. He had only one bodyguard with him. Throughout the journey, the car was observed by snipers hidden along the route. They passed on information on the car’s current location, but also where exactly Dokmanović was sitting and how he was behaving. Every little detailed was significant. Everything went according to plan. When the car was going past the base, the truck drove out from behind the corner. The car with the Serb swerved and braked to a stop. GROM soldiers waiting in the base pulled out the criminal, put him next to the wall of a container and handcuffed. “It was worse with his bodyguard, a former boxer. His hands were so big that the wrists did not fit in the handcuffs. We had to use plastic ones. He also had a loaded gun on him,” recounts Tomasz Gede. One of the prosecutors read the text of the indictment. Dokmanović was very calm, he kept saying he was innocent.
The soldiers took him to the Croat side of the border. He was to be transported to Hague from the local airport located near Osijek. But then things got complicated. GROM’s medic said that the detainee must be given heartbeat stabilizers. The flight was delayed and Croats started taking interest in what was going on at their airport. There was jostling, and even gun threats. The pilot did not get permission for take-off. The situation improved only when Klein used his diplomatic channels and convinced Croats to give permission to fly.
Eventually, “the Butcher of Vukovar” was brought to Hague, where he awaited trial. He did not, however, live to hear his sentence, hanging himself in his cell in 1998. “We executed our task. Together with our commander, Major K., we went to Vukovar to report everything to ambassador Klein. He treated us with cigars, whisky, and thanked us. Nevertheless, the air was still thick. For us, the operation really only ended after a few more weeks, when the tension in the region slowly calmed down and threats towards the UN personnel stopped,” recollects Gąstał.
Medal for a Friend
From then on, Jacques P. Klein has been a great friend of Poland and an ambassador of GROM on the international arena. “He has often spoken well of Poland, Poles and GROM. We’ve heard from various sources that he holds us in high regard,” says Piotr Gąstał. Several GROM soldiers, after finishing their military service, for many years worked as the ambassador’s bodyguards. When in December 2018, in Washington, President Andrzej Duda honored Jacque Paul Klein with the Officer's Cross of the Order of Merit of the Republic of Poland, the participants of the operation of 20 years earlier were extremely satisfied. “For us, it was a symbolic closure of the UNTAES mission and Operation Little Flower, a salute to the person who has always been Poland’s great friend,” says Col Piotr Gąstał.
autor zdjęć: arch. Piotra Gąstała