Western Balkans

Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

, by Tina Fistravec

Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to observe the biggest state celebrations in Croatia. More precisely, I was in a little coastal town Biograd on August 5th, when Croatia celebrates its state holiday of “victory and national memories”. The day remembers one of Croatia’s biggest and most successful military operations, but also the most disputed one - the “Storm”, which took place in August 1995 and brought about the re-conquering of the so-called “Srpska Krajina”in the territory of the ex-Yugoslav Republic of Croatia.

The Croatian Army managed to push the entire Serbian Army as well as around 200.000 civilians [1] to the areas of Bosnia and Hercegovina, and “clean” the area by murdering and forcibly expelling the remaining Serbian population. For those familiar with less politically correct phrases and closer to the region, the Operation Storm is quite famous for its ethnic cleansing techniques. The operation is also known for sending General Ante Gotovina straight to the Croatian star skies and to the top wanted list of the war criminals of the International Criminal Tribunal for former Yugoslavia.

Personal experience

Without going into the complex details of the international law issues this case implies, I want to focus on my personal experience observing the national celebrations of the mentioned state holiday and throw in a few comments in the light of Croatia’s open path to the EU.

As somebody more or less familiar with the issue of Ante Gotovina, you will not escape the big posters celebrating his importance already on the first walk through the little town. Phrases like “No surrender, no treachery!” or “Ante, our hero!” will stay in sight wherever you go. Besides the omnipresent posters it gets especially interesting for a foreigner around the mentioned holiday. The local and national newspapers were filled with articles justifying the operation and the role of the Croatian Army, and some comments were on the verge of the tasteless and questionable media coverage (I can still clearly remember a profile article of a boy who turned 18 during the operation, and has celebrated his birthday by burning 18 Serb houses and killing 18 Serbs. The local newspaper was portraying him as a war hero in 2006.) The radio plays only Thompson’s songs for days to come. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the name, Thompson is a very popular Croatian singer, labeled by some as the greatest Ustaš poet. Everybody knows the lyrics by heart, and I tell you, some are not easy to digest for someone who does not share the nationalistic energy. Young boys are screaming “I will kill a Serb!” on the streets like it does not matter what they are saying. Everybody’s out, everybody is celebrating. I would not want to be a Serbian caught in the middle of these parties, and honestly, the whole celebration period was a shock to me.

A local friend of mine said that although it was not his war, since he was too young to remember what was actually going on, many of the locals still live with a very clear picture of the war and the aggression that took place. And those pictures are being carried over to the young generations, borne even after the war. I cannot help to think that it will take generations before the hostility towards the Serbian nation will cease, but I guess that is the normal regeneration time after the war - although only with appropriate peace-building measures! I am not sure what those are for Croatia, but I am guessing one of the indirect might be its path towards the EU membership, negotiations of which started not long ago, in October 2005.

EU’s role

However, according to the last Eurobarometer only 34% of Croats think that the membership in the EU is good for their country. The link between their collaboration with the International Criminal Tribunal in Hague and the European Union conditioning seemed to have been established quite quickly and for many Croats the path to the EU might mean giving up the proudness of some of their very recent and hurting war memories. Their understanding of national survival and patriotic pride is already going a different path of what the international community wants them to understand as remedy for war crimes and respect for human rights, the same community who is trying to pay its dues for not delivering when there was time to (that being at the start of the wars in 1990). Yet these are the same reasons why the Croatian authorities themselves have not yet impartially and justifiably addressed the issue of war crimes committed during the 1991-95 period (or are doing that with a very slow pace)! The patriotic and nationalistic movements within are just too strong and every government that would be too keen on doing so, would have consciously risk its fall.

The political elite in Croatia is setting high-flying dates for the entry (2008 as the most quoted date), however, it is very likely that they will not live up to their promises. Croatia is on its “European” path, no doubt about that, but it will be a long and entangled road, I fear. Not so much in the economic and purely political sense, but in changing the political culture of the nation and true democratisation and peace-building of it, which Croatia still needs very much.

The EU should offer its complete support to the processes of full democratisation and recovery, because it can do so, and there should be no hesitation or doubt about that. The EU can and should look less like a patron and more like an older brother.

Read more about it at:






- Ante Gotovina: Hero or Villain?!, source: Flickr


Your comments

  • On 24 August 2006 at 20:13, by Frank Vinko Mustac Replying to: Reply to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    A piece of critical information missing from this article, and also missing from the many I’ve read on Croatia’s 1995 Operation Storm, is that from 1991-1995, prior to the storm operation, ethnic Serbs in Croatia, with hefty assistance from both paramilitary units from Serbia proper and the Milosevic-controlled Yugoslav Army (JNA), killed at least 10,000 Croatians and forcibly displaced, “cleansed,” some 220,000 Croats from about one-third of Croatian territory.

    There is also evidence that Serbian military authorities in the so-called Srpska Krajina ordered the evacuation of the entire Serb population there.

    Unlike the poorly armed Croats defending the city of Vukovar, which fell after a three-month siege in 1992 and resulted in thousands of Croatian refugees leaving the city on foot with only the clothes on their backs, the much better armed Serbs in Krajina chose to retreat and the population was evacuated in cars, trucks and on tractors, which were also filled with possessions—further evidence, circumstantial perhaps, that the evacuation was planned ahead of time.

    It is estimated that at least 1,000 Serbs suspected of committing major war crimes against Croats from 1991-1995 left with the Serb evacuees and most probably escaped prosecution forever.

    Many of the Serbs from Krajina will not return to Croatia because they know that if they do, Croatian authorities will arrest and prosecute them.

    One important reason, that has not been well publicized, for a refugee return rate that is slower than what the international community would like to see is this fear of prosecution.

    Although perhaps grudgingly, Croatia has fulfilled its obligation to the ICTY and has and continues to prosecute Croatian citizens suspected of war crimes.

    It is unfortunate that some media outlets in Croatia are promoting those who allegedly committed crimes during the war as heroes.

    I believe that the supposed national extremism that author Tina Fistravec witnessed is not a phenomenon prevalent throughout Croatia. Nationalism does run high in the Zadar area, perhaps because major military operations took place there during the war.

    But there is also a deep frustration among many Croatian citizens that Serb refugees are being repatriated to Croatia while major Serb war crimes suspects like Mlatko Radic and Radovan Karadzic still remain at large as fugitives from the law, and the thousands of Serbs who escape prosecution when they left Krajina in 1995 will probably never be brought to justice.

  • On 24 August 2006 at 23:21, by Mike Baresic Replying to: Mass Graves in Slovenia

    Dear Ms. Fistravec:

    Your assertion that the Croatian Army “pushed” 200,000 Serbian civilians out of Croatia is simply an untruth (out of civility I will not go so far as to say it is a lie). I challenge you to provide evidence to support this defamation.

    While I understand that similiar allegations have been made by Carla Del Ponte against Ante Gotovina (although not even she goes so far as to claim 200,000 civilians were ethnically cleansed), you should be more cautious about taking such allegations as “truth.” They are simply allegations, which I believe the evidence will show are false allegations. Carla Del Ponte also accused the Bosnian General Sefer Halilovic of war crimes, and Halilovic was acquitted in November 2005. Accordingly, reliance on Hague indictments is not enough to support such radical allegations as you have made in this piece. If you have evidence for your assetions, please provide them as I would like the opportunity to rebut.

    Finally, Croatians take pride in Operation Storm because it is the Operation that liberated their country from four years of mostly brutal occupation. As a comparison, Gotovina is charged (I believe falsely) for the murder of approximately 150 Serbs after Operation Storm. Between 1991 and Operation Storm, more than 15,000 (Fifteen THOUSAND!) Croats were murdered in areas occupied by rebel Serbs, and more than 4000 are still missing. Croatians should indeed be proud of their own liberation from such a hell.

    And in celebrating their own liberation, Croatians are actually behaving EXACTLY like Europeans and in line with so-called “European values,” not in contradiction to them. After all, Europe and the US celebrate as great victories the victories over Germany and Japan in WWII and their liberation from fascism, despite the fact that the allies committed war crimes in places like Dresden and Hiroshima.

    To use an example that may be closer to home to you, is Slovenia really a country of “European values” given that Yugoslav partisans executed tens of thousands of civilians and POWs in Slovenia (from Maribor to Austria), and yet Slovenia has done nothing to bring to justice the still-living perpetrators of these crimes? Before you start looking to find skeletons in Croatia’s closet, perhaps you should look in the mirror? Please see the link at the bottom of this post for more on mass graves in Slovenia.

    Finally, I attach an email written by Roy Gutman, a journalist who won the Pulitzer Prize for his discovery of Serb concentration camps in Bosnia. Mr. Gutman’s analysis of the indictment against Gotovina should give pause to anyone who recklessly relies on Carla Del Ponte to defame Gotovina, Croatia, and the truth about Croatia’s suffering from 1991-95.

    From: Roy Gutman <[log in to unmask]>

    To: Andras and other list readers

    Glad to see there is a debate running on the Gotovina indictment; I think a debate is appropriate in this case, not only to look at the specific charges but more important at the approach the Tribunal took in crafting this indictment (and possibly others). I should start by saying that judging from what was posted of the interview with Jutarni List, my comments to their reporter were compressed, and qualifiers and caveats dropped. Thus the paraphrase in the subject line above should have contained a qualifier that based on the material thus far made public, there seems to be no basis...

    I of course do not know what is in the compilation of evidence that the prosecutor presented to the judge prior to issuance of the indictment; it is not a public document. And I am not sure when it will become available, as it presumably contains testimony from protected witnesses. Thus it is possible if and when Gotovina appears at the Tribunal and the material is presented to him, we still will not know what was the factual basis for the indictment; possibly not even until the trial. What if the compilation of testimony is as weak as the indictment? Is the idea to wait a few years to straighten it out?

    The problem is that the indictment is sketchy and does not to my reading lay out the individual criminal responsibility of Gen. Gotovina for the crimes listed. And it has a profound flaw, namely the reference to deportation and displacements as a result of crimes which occurred after said deportation and displacements. There may be a case for alleging command responsibility, but from what I know of the general’s whereabouts and activities at the time of the killings (I believe he was in Bosnia), the political status of Krajina after Operation Storm (the conflict was over, whatever the indictment may say, and it was under at least nominal civilian control), and the circumstances in which the worst crimes, namely the murders, were committed, even that may be a stretch. Until now, my general impression was that the office of the Prosecutor made a determined effort to proceed along the lines of accepted fact and to drop indictments which did not satisfy the toughest criteria; in this case, it seems to be flying in the face of established fact, particularly on the issue of displacement/deportation. So I am most intrigued as to the content of the compilation of evidence; but as a member of the public I have no recourse but to remain intrigued, possibly for years to come.

    The Tribunal and specifically the office of the prosecutor can of course stand on their rules and reveal nothing of the content; but a better course would be to take account of the controversy engendered in its indictment. The reasons go beyond the issue of justice or injustice in one particular instance. The standing and impact of this Tribunal, more than any national court, rests on its high reputation in international public opinion. This Tribunal after all has the unique function in international life of establishing the historical truth of a complex set of disputed events; in that context, the search for truth is not just the end product, but must be obvious in the interim proceedings. The obligation not only to do justice but be seen to do justice at every point is all the greater for a new institution in its first years of existence. It sets the precedent, positive or negative, for any further adjudication of international humanitarian law whether in an ICC or ad hoc bodies.

    Further, and here I have to respond to Andras directly, I think it is incumbent on observers, be they reporters, jurists, academics, interested parties or other members of the public, to raise questions when they become apparent. There has not been enough close examination of the Tribunal and its procedures in the popular media. Particularly now that it is finally getting the top defendants it has sought or should have sought for years, the Tribunal is in the spotlight. Its proceedings have to appear to be unimpeachable.

    Roy Gutman

  • On 25 August 2006 at 02:11, by Alex Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    Dear Tina, Let me start by saying that, yes I am Croatian. I’m proud of my country and it’s people.

    I have been involved in the fight for Croatian independence and freedom long before the war began.

    There are a few points I’d like to make regarding your article “Croatia: Stuck between war memories”.

    1. Regarding Thompson. I know the man personaly, so I can say with confidence that he is a patriot. Loves his country, his people and every blade of Gods green grass in the land. He has never proclaimed himself as an Ustasa. Rather it is both the patriotic and the nationalist groups of people that have called him that. Why? Because his message has always been for the freedom and independence of Croatia. And like any other country in the world (U.S., France, China and yes even Serbia), it too deserves those basic things that are taken for granted by people these days.

    2. Ante Gotovina. He will be found guilty in Hague, regardless of his guilt. It’s a price he’ll have to pay and he will do it gladly because it’s for his people, that he has served bravely.

    3. Operation Storm. I don’t remember seeing you there, Tina. I don’t remember you having sleepless nights in the field, waking up to find your friends dead. Throats slit in the middle of the night. I don’t remember you walking into a village to find it dead. Women, children, elderly, butchered, burned, raped. I don’t remember you trying to gather all the different parts of people so they can be burried with some dignity and respect.

    We can spend the rest of our lives talking about who did what to whom. I know that I have personaly suffered at the hands of the Serbs and yes, I will teach that to my kids and my grand kids. Because they have to know the truth. But I will also teach them respect and tolerance for all people, be they Serbs, Muslims, Black, White, whatever. But they have to know the truth because that’s the only way for them to learn. Learn from our experiences and our mistakes and our victories.

    Both sides did terrible things during the war. And the individuals responsible for it are and should be punished, but not the whole nation.

    Operation Storm was and excercise in ethnic cleansing. It was a strategic, military campaign to free certain parts of the country and stop them being taken away by a foreign power. Simple as that. Whilst there were few individuals that did commit crimes against humanity, overall the operation was without major incidence. By the time, the Croatian Army rolled into the Serb occupied teritory, most of the civilians had alrady left. Most of them never even saw a Croatian solider let alone being forced to leave by one. The Serb civilians were informed by their authorities that they should evacuate because the ’Ustase’ are going to slaughter them. The ones that stayed behind, weren’t forced out. If they wanted to leave, they could. The ones that wanted to stay, have stayed and are still there. Those that left, had a guilty conscience of what they or their side have commited against the Croatians and their land. Remember Vukovar, Pakrac, Knin, Sisak, etc.?

    4. Croatians fought for their freedom, their land. They did not invade another country, they did not leave their borders. They simply wanted to govern themselves, to choose their own future and to be free to say ’I’m Croatian’, ’I’m Catholic.’. Be free to sing their songs and to teach their kids their culture.

    5. The Croatian government is determined to join the EU. Why? Because like the rest of the smaller European countries, it sees the EU as the only way to survive in todays world of empires and the might dollar. I personaly believe that joining the EU will play a negative impact on Croatia. Politicaly, and more importantly, culturally. This evidenced already in the Western European Countries. The EU is trying to make us believe that we are all the same, that everything should be open to everyone. This is wrong. The Eu should be trying to instill respect and tolerance and appreciation amongst it’s members as well as the rest of the world. Not trying to blend everyone into one nation. Every nation has it’s own beauty and charm, that should be praised and preserved not distilled and watered down.

    These are just some of mythoughts. You may agree or disagree with them, and that’s fine. That’s freedom. That’s you right. That is everones right. That is what Croatia fought for.

    All I would ask of you Tina, is that you do more research on you articles. That you pay respect to the people and places you write about. And don’t fall into the trap of writing sensationalism. There are enough politicians and lawyers out there to twist the truth and tell us lies. Don’t become one of them. Be the voice of truth and reason. Be human.

    Thank you for you time.

  • On 27 August 2006 at 19:57, by Bowden Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    I would like to add a few words of support for the author’s article. Ms Tina Fistravec highlights most clearly some of the deeply worrying aspects of Croatian society more than 10years after the end of the conflict in Yugoslavia.

    1. Thompson is without a doubt the most unpleasant ’popular’ singer in the former Yugoslavia. His lyrics are packed with metaphors of hate and intolerance. It is one thing to love ones country and another thing to promote violence and ethnic intolerance.Imagine someone singing about killing Black or Jewish people? Why this is any different? Something like this would never be tolerated in any civilised society. As a Brit who lives in the former Yugoslavia and has spent years studying the region it makes me very sad to see his continued popularity, and is symptomatic of a society and country that has totally failed to evaluate its actions in the war of 1991-1995.

    2. Ante Gotovina will be found guilty if the evidence is properly evaluated and examined. Croatia should not scream and shout that it wants to see Serbian or Bosnian Muslim soilders and military official brougt to trial if it is not able to see its own people brought to trial. The continued nationalism in Croatia which incouraged its people to identify as ’total victims’ has blinded a large proportion of the nation to concepts of guilt and responsibility. Croatia needs to wake up to its role in the war and the pain and suffering that was caused by the hand of the Croatian army. That is the sign of a modern European society.

    3. It must not be forgotten that Operation storm was the single largest mass-movement of people Europe has seen since the end of the Second World War. You comment that the operation ’was without major incidence,’ and that most of the Serbs had left by the time the Croatian army attacked. Both of these statements are either made through pure ignorance or deliberate. Does not the recent footage of the abuse and murder of Serbian civilians in the Krajina not raise any questions for you? Or the fact that for several days before Storm the croatian army made anouncements of how they would kill and destroy the Serbs living there? Operation storm was one of the most criminal acts commited in recent history. The ‘regaining’ of territory by expelling and killing people is an absolutly savage thing to celebrate. Croatia often likes to regrad itself as ‘above’ its neighbours Bosnia and Serbia, yet there is no such celebration or veneration of crimes in either of these states. In fact there is far healthier and balanced examination of past events in these states. This is largely due to the fact that the nationalist galvanisation of the 1990s in Croatia is still very much a current feature of post Tudjaman Croatia. A society that claims ‘critisim of Gotovina is criticism of everything Croat’ is creating for itself massive problems for the future.

    4. You claim that Croatia simply fought for its freedom and did not invade another country. Well both of these statements are incorrect. Croatia fought a war against its own population with the simple aim of removing or politically destrying around 25-30% of its own people, hardly an act of ‘freedom.’ To claim that Croatia did not attack another country is also wrong, and it typical of a country that also cannot come to terms with its role in the war in Bosnia (an independent country after all). The conflict with Bosnian Muslims that Tudjman seemed so desperate to see occur, and this is proved from his writings in the early 1980s, killed more Croats than occurred during the 1991 conflict with Serbs in the Krajina. Furthermore, Croatia did not hold back from shelling the territory of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, so to claim that Croats simply fought a Serbian ‘invasion’ is completely wrong.

    I believe that the European Union should be far stronger in making Croatia accept back those Serbian refugees who want to return, and making sure that they are safe in Croatia. There are hundreads of thousands of Serbs who still own property in Croatia. The EU should do everything in its power to make sure that all Serbs who want to return to, or sell their homes, farms or businesses in Croatia can do so. This will be a first step on the road to Croatia’s self-examination of its own less than inocent recent past, and a big step towards tolerance in the region.

    As things stand now, Croatia is far from being a country ready for EU membership. Maybe a good starting point would be realisation that Croats can be guilty too!

  • On 28 August 2006 at 18:15, by Mike Baresic Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    Dear Mr. Bowden:

    Your post is replete with factual errors, and as a result it lacks credibility. First, Operation Storm was not the “single largest mass-movement of people Europe has seen since World War II.” After NATO troops took control of Kosovo in 1999, more than 190,000 Serbs fled Kosovo for Serbia even though Kosovo was under NATO control at the time. I don’t see many calls for indictments of NATO’s leadership, however. Second, you properly state that the flight of Serbs from Croatia was a “mass movement,” but conveniently leave out the fact that this “mass movement” was caused by the orders of the “Krajina Serb” leadership to evacuate, and not by Croatian forces. As a scholar of “south slavic” history, I suspect that you know that the Serb leadership ordered evacuations of its own population whenever the leadership could not continue to hold territory as “pure Serb.” For example, Serbs fled Kosovo in 1999 on orders of their own leadership; they ordered Serb civlians to evacuate the Sarajevo suburb known as Ilidza in January 1996 after the Dayton agreement was signed and after NATO troops took control of Sarajevo; and they ordered the evacuation of the so-called “Krajina Serbs.” Third, you claim that “several days before Storm the Croatian Army made announcements of how they would kill and destroy the Serbs living there.” This is untrue, and I challenge you to provide one shred of evidence for this claim.

    The former U.S. Ambassador to Croatia, Peter Galbraith, testified under oath in the Milosevic case at the ICTY that “Croatia did not ethnically cleanse the Serbs. The Serb population had already left by the time the Croatians arrived, and so therefore it was not ethnic cleansing.” This is the truth, Mr. Bowden. While your post clearly demonstrates an ideological slant, it lacks any substantive analysis of the events in question or any facts or evidence to back up the ideology. Until you can demonstrate facts that controvert, for example, Amb. Galbraith’s sworn testimony, your opinions appear to be without foundation.

  • On 28 August 2006 at 20:48, by Mike Baresic Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    Dear Mr. Bowden:

    P.S. You write: “Does not the recent footage of the abuse and murder of Serbian civilians in the Krajina not raise any questions for you?”

    The recent video footage is of crimes being committed by BOSNIAN MUSLIM forces, and is being investigated by the war crimes investigators of Bosnia-Herzegovina for eventual trial in Bosnia. The videos have nothing to do with Croatian Army forces committing any murders. Accordingly, your reference to these videos displays either an ignorance of the content of the videos or else a malicious attempt to misrepresent the contents of the video in an effort to defame Croatia.

  • On 29 August 2006 at 18:46, by Tina Fistravec Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    Common reply

    First, let me start by saying that I was amazed by how much response my commentary caused. Never mind the attitudes or sides taken, it clearly shows one thing (which also proves me right from the start) - the topic is very much alive and disputed even today.

    Before commenting only on a couple of things (since it is impossible to answer all issues raised in the forum) I wish that people were more precise when reading my article. I had a feeling that people read what they wanted, not what was actually written, when reading many of the replies. I did not do an overall analysis of the war that took place in the Balkans in 1991-95, I did not take sides, I just described the state of mind you can still find today (and have pointed out where exactly), and I sincerely do not know where many of the readers read my favouring of Serbia, since I deliberately left out any comparison or commentary on what Serbia did or is going through today. At no stage did I deny the wrong doings of Serbs. But! I firmly believe that there is no war where only one side is to blame for all atrocities; a war is always and without a doubt a state where all sides usually use acceptable (if there are such) and unacceptable measures of warfare, and that the biggest victims are always innocent civilians. Which is also true for the Balkans.

    However, I also firmly believe that the post-war state can only be solved by accepting this and finding forgiveness. Individual and community “liberation” can only come from admitting that both sides did atrocities, that both suffered, that both need to move on and find peace in mutual co-habitation. That is why generations need to change, where lessons learned are not forgotten, but the anger is. That’s why celebrations of WWII today are not filled with hatred toward the Germans, but with hope for future prosperity and peace that was found after WWII.

    As for many of you who attacked my claims on numbers and facts of the Operation Storm, let me just say that I was basing them on the articles of Amnesty International, which - at least for me - is a respectable source to use these kind of information. I did attach one link, there are more to be found if you will do the search.

    Most of all, the point of the article being not who did what and who is to blame for happenings in the 1991-95 period, but where the future lies, which I point out at the end of it. I wish the debate would move more into the direction of EU-Croatia relations today.

    Best and thank you for your energy!

  • On 30 August 2006 at 21:03, by Mike Baresic Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    Dear Ms. Fistravec:

    Thank you very much for your reply. I wish to point out only a few things in response. First, you point out that you “at no stage denied the wrongdoing of Serbs.” True. But you never mentioned the wrongdoing of the Krajina Serb leadership between 1991-95, and so your initial article makes it appear to the uneducated reader that on August 5 Croatia and Croatians celebrate the “pushing of 200,000 Serbs into Bosnia” and celebrate Operation Storm, an operation “quite famous for its ethnic cleansing techniques.” By failing to note the suffering Croatians endured from 1991-95 and the fact that every Aug 5th Croatians celebrate their own liberation from this suffering, your article makes it appear that Croatians celebrate and commemorate ethnic cleansing. Which is simply untrue. Moreover, the fact is that 200,000 Serbs were not ethnically cleansed by Croatia, but were withdrawn by their own Serb leadership.

    Next, you state that in no war is only one side to blame for all atrocities. True, but no one ever disputed this in reply to your article. However, crimes need to be put in context, and no context was provided in your article. What would you say if someone tried to argue, “Yes the Germans committed crimes, but so did the Allies. Let’s both move on and find peace in mutual cohabitation.” I suspect that you, and most civilized Europeans, would find such an attempt to compare and equalize the crimes of the Germans and the Allies to be morally reprehensible. Similarly, Croats (generally) do not dispute that crimes were committed by the Croat side. Indeed, to the best of my knowledge Croatia is the only country in the former Yugoslavia to have tried and convicted one of its own generals (Mirko Norac) for war crimes. What Croatians do dispute is the effort to create a moral equivalence between Serbia and Croatia, which is the same as creating moral equivalence between Germany and the Allies concerning crimes committed in WWII.

    You also write that celebrations of WWII are not filled with hate towards Germans, but with hope for the future. Once again, true. But you must remember that Germans have acknowledged their crimes and have spent sixty years trying to make amends (which in light of the scale of the atrocities can never be atoned for). Moreover, Germany and the Germans have never argued, “Yes Germans committed crimes, but so did the allies (in Dresden, etc).” In contrast, Serbia and the majority of Serbs to this day refuse to acknowledge the scope of the crimes committed by the Serbian regime and their satellites between 1991-1999 in Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and in Kosovo. Furthermore, under international pressure and in order to ensure the return of Serbs to Croatia, in 1997 Croatia passed a law granting full amnesty for Serbs who committed crimes in Croatia between 1991-1995. The comparison to Germany, therefore, is inappropriate and incomplete, because it is difficult if not impossible to reconcile yourself with a group (the majority of Serbs) who not only does not want your forgiveness (as the Germans sought forgiveness), but also deny that the crimes were committed by Serbs and have nevertheless been given amnesty. On top of that, they then claim that it was the Croats who were the war criminals responsible for all crimes.

    I ask you, Ms. Fistravec, what would the WWII celebrations be like to day if Germans to this day (1) did not seek forgiveness from France, Britain and the rest of Europe and humanity; (2) denied war crimes were committed by the Germans; and(3) claimed that it is the Allies who were the true war criminals in WWII? I suspect that, in fact, there would indeed be animosity towards Germans at WWII celebrations, and there would be little celebration of the future. And I would remind you that, even though most fair minded individuals will acknowledge that the Allies committed war crimes against Germans during WWII, Germans have neither sought, nor obtained, an apology from the Allies. Therefore, mutual exchanges of regret between Serbia and Croatia for war crimes would in effect be a perverse expression of moral equivalence, would be a distortion of the historical truth, and would be inconsistent with the development of German-Allies relations since the end of WWII.

    As for the Amnesty International report, I have read the report and find nothing in it that suggests that Croatia “pushed” 200,000 Serbs to flee, which was the basic premise of your article. AI does state that crimes were committed against Serbs AFTER Operation Storm, and I (like the majority of Croats) believe that such crimes such be punished. But these individual crimes after Storm cannot serve to re-write history, because the overwhelming majority of Krajina Serbs left before the Croatian Army arrived (as testified by Ambassador Galbraith).

    And these crimes cannot serve to diminish the legitimate right of Croats to celebrate the operation that liberated them from four years of hell on earth. This point was left out of your piece, and it is this point to which I objected.

    I appreciate your comments and trust that you will take my opinions as constructive and healthy debate, which is the spirit in which they were given.

  • On 30 August 2006 at 21:49, by Bowden Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    Mr Baresic.

    I would argue that my post carries more weight than you give it credit for and would like to counter some of your criticisms. By highlighting the fact that almost 200,000 Serbs were forced from their homes in Kosovo it seems as if you are trying to “quantify” mass movements. Until the NATO bombing of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia in 1999 and the resulting chaos in Kosovo Operation Storm could well be the largest mass movement of people, and is still larger than the numbers who had to flee Kosovo. Certainly the speed and the ‘efficiency’ of Operation Storm is unmatched in Post War Europe. In history Operation Storm should be the symbol of ethnic cleansing. You also claim that you don’t hear any calls for the prosecution of NATO generals, I would urge you to investigate further for there is a desire, if not an actuality for this. Some of Krajina Serbs were encouraged to leave their homes by their leadership for the single reason that they had been warned of what could happen if they stayed in their homes. The fact that they “left” does not mean that they chose to leave. Leaving the Krajina for most of them was a way to save their lives. Running in fear is the same as running from actual violence. One of the largest lies from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia has been the idea that Operation Storm was aimed at the Liberation of territory. It is well known that the aim of Operation Storm was to see the end of Serbian rebel military control within parts of Croatia to help force an end to the war in Yugoslavia. At that point in time the Croatian army was not able to do it on its own, so that’s where America steps in. To put it simply, logistics and organization as well as weapons came from American help, so naturally the American ambassador could be considered less than impartial. We mustn’t forget that ethnic cleansing in Croatia was more than just Operation Storm. The cases of ethnically motivated murders and intimidation in towns such as Zagreb, Zadar and Split are something Croatia takes little interest in remembering. Actually, some figures would claim that Zagreb had almost as large a Serbian population as Knin in 1991, however due to intimidation and the nationalist climate of the 1990s the population has decreased to only 18,000. This can be verified through in the Croatian census. Operation Storm was the most high profile act of ethnic cleansing committed by Croatia, however the departure of urban Serbs is an important and often neglected subject. Croatia under Franjo Tudjman propagated the idea of acceptable revenge, because the state and the people had suffered to. However a society that cannot, after almost of decade since Tudjaman’s death, begin to contemplate its own responsibilities in causing pain, death and destruction is not, in my opinion, evidence of a particularly healthy society. There is already a substantial analysis of events and evidence of Croatia’s crimes, and those Croats willing to look outside the scope of Croatia’s exclusivist society and to investigate and analyze what was done in their name will find interesting and painful answers.

  • On 31 August 2006 at 19:39, by David Neuwirth Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    Dear Tina. I support your article despite the commentaries from the Croatian side. I understand, the conflicts on Balcan are very complex issues, marked by diverse understanding of the terms such “heroes” and “war crimes”. But, this summer I had the opportunity to participate on an enormly interesting seminar in Romania with the theme “Migration - the foreign home” organized by the Robert Bosch Foundation. There I met two wonderful people, a Serb and a Bosniak, who communicated with each other without any problems, became close friends and told a lot about their family histories and the war. I witnessed, how the Serb complained about “Republika Srbska” and cursed Milosevic, and how the Bosniak did the same about Izetbegovic. Yet, they both complained also about the radical attitude of Croatia, in particular about the Nationalism, that is still present in the country’s politics. The Bosniak told how Croatian hooligans march through the Muslim neighborhouds of Mostar and vandalize its historical centre. I am not the one to judge, yet I would not critisize you for telling your personal experience, on the contrary.

    P.S.: The Serb and the Bosniak are now preparing a camp for small children from the three ethnical groups - Croatians, Serbs, Bosniaks - which will take place in Serbia or Bosnia, with the aim to find understandings and abolish prejudice from the early age..

  • On 31 August 2006 at 21:07, by Mike Baresic Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    Mr. Bowden:

    Let me first note that you did not respond to my challenge that you provide a shred of evidence to support your initial assertion that the Croatian Army threatened to “kill and destroy the Serbs” living in so-called Krajina in advance of Operation Storm. That having been said, it is you and not I who tried to “quantify” mass movements, when you in your initial post labeled Operation Storm the “single largest mass-movement of people Europe has seen since the end of the Second World War.” I pointed out (quite correctly) that this assertion is false, and that more Serbs fled Kosovo in 1999 than Croatia in 1995 (yes, the numbers that fled Kosovo are in fact larger than the numbers that fled Croatia). Furthermore, if you are asserting (as I believe you are) that NATO should also be held responsible for the “ethnic cleansing” of Serbs from Kosovo, then I think you should come right out and say this.

    Third, you now acknowledge that “some” Serbs fled on the orders of their own leadership. You claim, however, that the Serbs fled out of fear of the Croatian Army, and therefore the Croatian Army is guilty of ethnic cleansing. Your proposition is prepostorous as a matter of law. For example, suppose it is January and I am walking past a bank wearing a ski cap and heavy winter jacket. I had placed in my jacket pocket a small umbrella that fits in the pocket but produces a visible bulge to the outside observer. As I am walking past the bank, a customer exiting the bank sees me and, mistaking my umbrella for a concealed gun, believes I am about to rob him. He immediately throws a bag full of cash at me and starts to flee down the street. At this point, am I guilty of armed robbery? Of course not. The fact that the bank customer believed I was robbing him is not my fault. Now suppose I decide to keep the money rather than reporting it to the bank in an effort to locate the bank customer. Does my subsequent decision to keep the money make me retroactively guilty of armed robbery, because I have decided to keep the "fruits" of the customer’s mistake? Of course not. I may be immoral, but I am not guilty of armed robbery. Accordingly, your claim that “running from fear is the same as running from actual violence” is untrue.

    You also write that, “one of the largest lies from the conflict in the former Yugoslavia has been the idea that Operation Storm was aimed at the Liberation of territory. It is well known that the aim of Operation Storm was to see the end of Serbian rebel military control within parts of Croatia to help force an end to the war in Yugoslavia.” I’m not sure what your point is here, or what distinction you are trying to make. The objective of Operation Storm was to liberate (Croatian) territory BY ending Serbian rebel military control within parts of Croatia and to help force an end to the war in [former] Yugoslavia.

    As for Amb Galbraith, he is no more or less credible than Yugonostalgics who, in their pining for the long lost communist Yugoslavia, paint with a broad brush in labeling anyone who had a role in dissolving Yugoslavia a “war criminal.” I would also note that Pulizter prize winning journalist Roy Gutman, who was in Knin at the time, has critisized the allegation that Croatia ethnically cleansed the Serbs. As for your claims about the “ethnic cleansing of Zagreb,” please provide the actual census figures. For your information, many people of mixed marriages prior to 1991 declared themselves as “Serbs” because it was more beneficial to be a Serb in Croatia under the communist system than a Croat. After 1991, many of these same individuals decided to claim the nationality of the other parent (Croat) because this ethnicity became more beneficial after 1991. This can best be seen at Zagreb University’s records in 1992, when specific students who were “Serbs” in 1991 became “Croats” in 1992. This does not demonstrate that “ethnic cleansing” took place in Zagreb, because the people are still there.

    As for your final comments about a “healthy society,” let me repeat what I wrote earlier. Croatia and Croatians are behaving EXACTLY as the victorious Allies did after WWII. Do you believe that your home country, Great Britain, has “contemplated its own responsibilities in causing pain, death and destruction” to Germans in WWII, particularly in places like Dresden? You might also say that “Brits willing to look outside the scope of Britain’s exclusivist society and to investigate and analyze what was done in their name will find interesting and painful answers” concerning Britain’s role in Dresden and other German towns and villages. Do not misunderstand me. I am not suggesting that Britain needs to undertake this, I am merely pointing out the hypocrisy of the position you espoused in your post. Croatia and Croatians need to prosecute individual crimes committed in the fog of war, but they should not-and will not-allow these individual incidents to defame the defense and liberation of their own country from the fascism of Milosevic, Karadzic, Mladic, Seselj and Arkan. Just as Brits do not allow Dresden to defame their valliant efforts in defense of their country (and Europe) from the fascism of Germany.

  • On 1 December 2006 at 23:19, by Milos Labovic Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    As a Serb, I found myself in a specific situation in this debate.

    The Croats, just as the Serbs are quick to point fingers to the other side as soon as light is shed on their atrocities.

    Whenever atrocities are commited there are no “but’s”, there is no space for counterargument.

    It should be

    We are ashamed as a nation, as a people for what we did. POINT.

    For the sake of healing, for the sake of Europe, for the sake of Serbia as well as for the sake of Croatia, I as a Serb am willing to take that route.

    And so should the Croats, or any party or nation that has commited crimes.

  • On 26 August 2007 at 18:16, by damir Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    sure hand over karadzic and mladic and well talk!!!!! 2 of the biggest war crimnals out there

  • On 15 November 2007 at 17:24, by ? Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    I just wanted to point out no matter what happend during the war there is no way the the Croatian goverement or its people can justfy celebrationg an event which diplaced thousands of people. We are in the 21st century,both sides should take responsibility, be ashamed and find a way to reconcile.I am discusted at what I saw on TV and everyone in Croatia who took part needs to take a good long look in the mirror. How could you?????????

  • On 18 December 2007 at 21:31, by ? Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    First things first people; 1-Croatia did not start this war,as Srbia did not let them out of SFRJ. 2-It was a Constitutional right of Croatia to leave the SFRJ. 3-SFRJ started in the late ’89 to empty the National-Guard weapons magazines in Croatia,for what reason do you think?? 4-When the Srb’s in Croatia “founded” the so called “republic of srb krajina”,the were armed shortly after by the Yugoslav Army! 5-The role of the Yu Army was supposed to be “imetermediate”. 6-The Yu Army joined the srb krajinic’s shortly after,arming on this way the Srb’s. 7-Croatia had to defend itself,as we “Democratic Western’s” gave them a weapon embargo. Leaving the Croat’s un armed against the FOURTH largest Army in Europe!(nice moove!) 8-The dead Croat body’s confirm who started the “killing fields of Europe” in the ’90-s,the Srbs. 9-War break’s loose and the Croat’s are Defending theyr land against the fouth biggest Army in Europe,DEFENDING. 10-Nowing alot about WWII,i’ve never read or heard about a Allied General that stood in frond of a court for War Crimes,not even Russian one’s that orderd they’r men to rape,steal and kill German’s in Berlin.... Only A.S. war criminals did,however war crimes where committed on BOTH SIDES!(I’m Dutch,and i know!)

    So what the fuzz here about the Croatian General’s?? Where are the ATTACKING General’s of the Yogo Army?? It’s 70% of the DEFENDING Croatian force we have here in the Hague! Should that not be at least the other way arround?? How can this be JUSTICE to the Croatian side?? Did we FORGET VUKOVAR?? Ofcourse they are annoyed by the failure of the International Tribune at The Hague,seuwing the Croat’s,but not the Srb’s who started the damn war!!

    The Croat’s love theyr Generals,as we love ouwr’s,and the Srb’s theyr’s,that’s normal. The statement they make with these picktures of Mr. Ante Gotovina is; He’s in jail,as the agressor’s are still at large!! Karadzic and Mladic,Milosevic escaped the dance,and the Vukovar 3 got a SHAMELY LOW CENTENCE for the thing’s they did for they’r Greater Srbia as they called it,what ment 2/3 of Croatia to the Srb’s! Operation “Storm” ended this at last,as again the world stood by and did nothing.(don’t think that the U.N. did any good here,they are a shame for the international effort to help,a lousy excuse that only helped the Srb’s!(and i know,I was here!!)(Srebrenica!!)

    Can you please do your HISTORY on something before you make a public oppinion on such a delicate matter?? You all talk so easy about it,where have you been when the war was going on here?? Why did you not sit in your car,went over there to investigate what was going on,so you could make a relevant story,based on fact’s,and not beleave’s??(one visit and like you know all...ha,ha...)

    History will be rewritten on the break-up of the SFRJ,sooner or later the truth will come out! And than it will be..“ach,that’s so long ago...”


  • On 19 December 2007 at 08:44, by Peter Matjašič Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    Thanks for your contribution and expressing your views. We are all aware that this topic is an extremely delicate one. But even though I personally share a lot of the content you mention, especially the unfairness of not implementing the equal treatment of aleged war-criminals even though that’s being preached. But the author of the article simply stated her point of view based on her perception of a particular moment in time and analysed that. And surely by being open to dialogue and mutual respect for different opinions her contriution is as valid as everyone elses. In today’s world we aim to object to any kind of war-crimes and want to bring those who committed them to trial, thus even though it might be understandable and legitimite to defend ones lives and country, war-crimes are to be avoided if possible. And if committed by whoever that person should be brought to court and proven guilty or innocent. In the case of former Yugoslavia its of course very painful and delicate that those generals starting the war and doing the worst crimes are still at large...

  • On 6 January 2009 at 09:41, by Observer Replying to: Croatia: Stuck between War Memories and the Future

    As an outside observer who had only a very peripheral view of that tragic series of small wars, I find the real tragedy to be unknown too many. The REAL tragedy was that two CHRISTIAN nations, Croatia and Serbia, fought each other, and were demonized for the sake of setting up a small Islamic nation inside the boundry of Europe. No one much cared in the international news about how many Croats or Serbs were killed; only the dead of Bosnia-Herzegovina mattered, as horrible as the methodologies used against them may have been...I understand that the rifts between the Serbs and Croats go back very far...but you were ALL cheated and stolen from, in a historic sense, by the Ottomans...this, then, though no one in today’s politically correct, Sharia-loving, multi-culti Europe will admit it, is the TRUE tragedy.

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