August 15, 2010
Thousands of people across several Balkan countries have held services last week to commemorate those who died in Operation Storm 15-years ago. Like normal in Balkans the views what happened are almost opposite to each other. One side is celebrating victory, the other side has remembrance of those who died during the largest refugee crisis since Holocaust before Kosovo. The focal point was Republic of Serbian Krajina, a country or separatist region on the borderline of today’s Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which existence came to an end August 1995.
In Croatia, August 4 is celebrated as a Victory Day and Homeland Thanksgiving Day, as well as Veterans Day. Croatia’s Prime Minister Jadranka Kosor headed a delegation of high-ranking officials at Zagreb central cemetery to mark the military operation carried out by forces from her country and Bosnia and Herzegovina to retake areas of Croatia claimed by ethnic Serbs. She said on Wednesday the operation had been “a victory” over the policies of former Serb leader Slobodan Milosevic.
Masses were held at the same time in main churches in Belgrade and Banja Luka for about 2,000 Serbs who were believed to have been killed during the operation, according to Serbian non-governmental organisations. A day earlier, Boris Tadic met in Belgrade with family members of those who went missing during the operation, saying that “the crime must not be forgotten”
Croat member of the Bosnian three-partite Presidency, Zeljko Komsic, sent greetings to his Croatian counterpart, calling the day a day of biggest victory for Croatia, the day when your army in the best possible way showed what does it meant to protect homeland and democracy.
Before the war, 12% of Croatian citizens were of Serbian nationality. Half of them lived in the region called Krajina. Krajina was created by Austrians in 16th century as a military zone to protect the Christian West from the advance of Muslim Ottoman Empire. Serbian peasants that escaped Ottoman rule were given free land there in exchange for their military service. After the collapse of both empires Serbs remained living in there throughout both the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and the late Yugoslav communist state.
The Republic of Croatia declared its independence on June 25, 1991. By the end of the year, the Yugoslav People’s Army and different Serb forces took control of more than one third of the country, proclaiming their own independent state: Republika Srpska Krajina (RSK) with a capital in Knin.
After the peace agreement brokered by the European Community and the UN, implementation of the so-called Vance Plan started. It envisioned four “protected areas,” with a Serb majority, whose eventual status was planned be resolved through negotiations. In 1992 UN peacekeepers were deployed along the conflict lines surrounding the Krajina. Serbian residents inside Krajina conducted a referendum to declare their independence, printed their own currency, established their own militia (Vojska Krajina) and created a centre of government in the city of Knin. The Croatian military – aided by U.S. and German advisors – continued to build up its forces along the Krajina border.
In January 1993, Croatian forces – between 17,000 and 20,000 troops – launched a surprise attack against the Serb-held Krajina. The Serbs fought back and as part of a ceasefire agreement the area became a so-called “Pink Zone” placed under UNPROFOR protection, and within which the warring factions pledged there would be no fighting. UN Security Council Resolution 802 censured Croatia for the attack and ordered the immediate withdrawal of Croatian troops. At the Geneva Peace Conference on March 2, 1993, the RSK agreed to the Vance-Owen proposal that as the Croatian forces withdrew, only UNPROFOR, would occupy the territory formerly held by the Serbs prior to the Croatian attack. No final agreement was concluded until July 16. Croatian President Franjo Tudjman ordered all United Nations Protection Force (UNPROFOR) units to leave Croatian territory by March 31, 1995. The move, supported by U.S., gave the Croatian Government a green light to start their ethnic cleansing.
On August 2, negotiations took place in Geneva for Krajina to enter a political settlement with Zagreb. The basis for negotiations in Geneva was a modified version of the Z-4 (Zagreb 4 was mini-contact group including U.S., Russia, France, Germany) plan. The plan was meant to allow for the reintegration of the Republic of Serbian Krajina into Croatia by offering wide-ranging autonomy through most of Serbian Krajina. On August 2, Krajina Prime Minister Milan Babic publicly declared his acceptance the Z-4 Plan through negotiations with U.S. Ambassador to Croatia Peter Galbraith. Croatia refused to acknowledge the plan’s acceptance by Krajina authorities.
Later after 1995 events The Republic of Serbian Krajina Government-in-exile (“RSK”), a self proclaimed government in exile for the Republic of Serbian Krajina, called for the re-creation of the RSK on the basis of the 1994 Z-4 plan, which had called for Krajina to have a status of “more than autonomy, less than independence” within Croatia (btw Serbia made same offer to Kosovo Albanians during sc “troika” talks). However this government in exile has only marginal support among mainly nationalist politics in Serbia, Russia and Greece.
“Krajina is the reward for having accepted, under Washington’s pressure, the federation between Croats and Muslims in Bosnia.”( Stipe Mesic, former President of Croatia)
From 1992 Croatia’s government feverishly prepared for war, training its troops on the battlefields of Bosnia and staging quick, limited offensives at the strategic edges of UN-protected areas like the Medak Pocket attack in 1993. On May 1, 1995, Croatian troops tested both their readiness and the UN’s will by staging a strike at an exposed Serb enclave of Western Slavonia. The operation was code-named Bljesak – “flash,” or perhaps more appropriately, “Blitz” describing better Croatia’s old Nazi sympathies. The clear violation of the armistice went unpunished. The stage was set for Storm (Oluja).
On the 04.of August 1995, Croatian armed forces, with NATO’s approval and support, in the joint forces of Croatian defense council (Hrvatsko Vijece odbrane- HVO) and Bosnian (BiH) Army, launched an attack – Operation Storm (Oluja) in Croatia and part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This aggression was executed despite the facts that this area was under UN protection (Sectors South and North) and that RSK delegates, only one day earlier in Geneva with Croatian delegation, before UN delegates and in Belgrade before USA representative, as a leading NATO member, had accepted proposal of international community. The proposal was that negotiation regarding final political agreement about Krajina status is conducted plans.
During this operation, 2,650 Serbs (mainly civilians) were killed and some 250,000 were “ethnically cleansed” from their ancestral homes. Several thousand have disappeared, and their fate is not known to this day. This was the largest refugee crisis since the Holocaust, since World War II and until Kosovo war 1999. Most of the refugees ended in Serbia, Bosnia and eastern Slavonia. Some of those who remained were murdered, tortured and forcibly expelled by the Croatian Army and police. Of those expelled, just a handful have returned, in many instances their return being greeted with abuse and humiliation. For the vast majority, return to their homes and property is but a dream. (More about issue e.g. in my article “Operation Storm – forgotten pogrom” )
Some historical background
Croatian side has claimed that most Serbs leaved voluntary from Krajina during attack. That’s true and some historical background – especially the memories of Jasenovac – can explain this. Upon the occupation of Yugoslavia, the German Nazis and the Italian Fascists formed an “independent” state in Croatia, which was basically a Nazi puppet state. Immediately the fascist Ustashe government set up concentration camps, most notably at Jasenovac – a 3rd biggest extermination camp after Auschwitz and Treblinka. Nazi Croatian Ustashi forces slaughtered 300.000-700.000 Serbs, 30.000-60,000 Jews and 40.000-80,000 Gypsies (the exact amount varies depending from source) 65 years ago. Many Croats fled after the war through the “Vatican “Ratline” for Argentina and Juan Peron issued 34,000 Visas to Croatian war criminals. (more in “Jasenovac – Holocaust promoted by Vatican”)
The Nazi past still alive
Croatia was pro-Nazi during World War II, became independent in 1991 and sympathetic to that historical era in the 1990s – prompting Israel to hold off recognizing it until 1997. Since 2000, Croatia’s governments have denounced fascism. In spite of official public statements one alarming trend is (over)emphasizing Croatia’s Nazi past. From time to time some symptoms of this past are occurring also today e.g. in rock concerts and soccer matches and even with support of government (More e.g. in my article “Nazi’s funeral shadows Croatians past”). This said one must state that naturally there is extremists also in Serbia as well jihadists in Bosnia which makes reintegration quite challenging.
My point of view
As I noted in the beginning viewpoints about near history in western Balkans differ drastically and this aspect has great effect also today’s policy and possibilities to create cooperation tomorrow. For reintegration/reconciliation in my opinion is needed go into issues such as following:
- Missing persons: NGO VERITAS (Center For Collecting Document And Information) was established in late 1993 by citizens of the then Republic of Serbian Krajina – RSK. On the VERITAS evidences, there are names of 1,934 dead and missing Serbs from this action and later on. Among them are 1,196 civilian people, and half of them are older then 60 years. There are 524 women and 14 children among them. Association families of missing persons from Krajina, has still 2.627 missing persons in their data. Now after 15 years of uncertainty about the fait accompli of missing persons should be clarified.
- Property rights: The property laws allegedly favor Croatians refugees who took residence in houses that were left unoccupied and unguarded by Serbs after Operation Storm. Amnesty International’s 2005 report considers one of the greatest obstacles to the return of thousands of Croatian Serbs has been the failure of the Croatian authorities to provide adequate housing solutions to Croatian Serbs who were stripped of their occupancy rights, including where possible by reinstating occupancy rights to those who had been affected by their discriminatory termination. There is estimation that the value of Serb property in Croatia is worth 30 billion euros. and that this should be paid to the Serbs who lived in Croatia as a part of war reparations.
- Returns: According census on 1991 there were 581,663 Serbs out of 4,784,265 People in Croatia (12.16%) and on 2001 201,631 Serbs out of 4,437,460 People in Croatia ( 4.54%); these figures clearly show that refugees from Krajina are returning slowly if at all. As part of the settlement of the status of the expelled Serb people there has been initiatives that Croatia should pay war damage compensation for Serb people if their return is not possible. However war damage compensation for Serb people are probably possible only if Croatia or Bosnia did the same towards Serbia so prospects are not very promising. A housing programme in Serbia with possible international aid could be a realistic alternative for returns.
- History: In my opinion all sides – Serbs, Croats, Bosniaks as well jihadists, mercenaries and Nato – committed war crimes, ethnic cleansing or massacres during Balkan Wars. Today or maybe never there is no common truth about events. Some regional committee should anyway study this near history and find some common description for explaining it e.g. forwarding it in new schoolbooks so that ethnic tensions could decrease by avoiding most exaggerated tales.
- Justice: The trial of commanders of the Croatian Army, generals Ante Gotovina, Mladen Markac and Ivan Cermak, is underway in the Hague Tribunal, on charges of conspiracy to commit crime, aimed to permanently eliminate the Serbs from that part of Croatia and other war crimes. However, since the “Storm” no Croats have been tried before local courts for the crimes in that operation. I don’t put very much weight to ICTY rulings but however from my point of view the procedure itself brings more facts about events on the table, especially when both the prosecutor and defence have made their case. At best this can make easier to bring justice also to lower level.
Sources of this story e.g:
- Ari Rusila’s BalkanBlog
- VERITAS (Center For Collecting Document And Information)