War Veterans Visit Croatia -Daruvar, Pakrac and Lipik
With our partners, war veterans, formerly belonging to VRS, JNA, VJ, AR BiH, HVO and HV, we visited Daruvar, Pakrac and Lipik. The CNA team comprised Nenad Vukosavljević, Adnan Hasanbegović and Amer Delić. There was twenty four of us in total.
On the first day of our visit, we met with our hosts, members of the Association of the Croatian Officers’ Corps in Pakrac, Željko Špelić, Marijan Čapek and Stipan Grgić, and members of the HVIDR branch in Daruvar, Krešimir Ivančić, Saša Premec and Marko Čolić. They welcomed us and expressed their readiness for cooperation and dialogue, saying they were sorry that there were no veterans of the Serb Krajina Army (Vojska Srpske Krajine, VSK) among us, these being their direct former enemies.
The meeting was also attended by the Mayor of Daruvar, Dalibor Rohlik, who welcomed us and expressed support for our activities. Himself a war veteran, he said, “We must never stop working on promoting peace, we should have long been concerned over the events from the past 60 years. In Croatia, we still quarrel over 1941-1945.”
We set off to visit sites of memory and suffering during the war in the morning on 8 September 2016. We first laid a wreath at the Monument to Fallen Defenders of Daruvar 1991-1995, and then we went to the nearby baroque castle of Count Antun Janković, dating back to 1771, but which now serves as a museum. Inside the castle, with its high ceilings and ballrooms, is the Permanent Exhibition The Homeland War in Daruvar. According to our hosts who maintain the exhibition in this memorial room, they did not want to separate civilians and soldiers, and they did not want to serve spreading hatred, but only the truth about the war and remembrance of its victims. Numerous documents and photographs testify to loss of life and the intensity of the conflict in the wider Daruvar area in the period from 19 July 1991 to 1 May 1995. I was drawn to a photograph showing bodies with hands tied behind their backs and gunshot wounds to the head. These were civilians killed on 11 May 1994 in the village of Batinjska Rijeka by members of Serb formations. I asked whether anyone had been held accountable for this, and one of our hosts, Krešimir Ivančić, said, “No, no one.” He pointed to one of the bodies and added, “That’s my father, Zdravko.” We watched a 12-minute documentary about the war in Daruvar, but to me it felt hours long. Again, there were difficult scenes of bombing and killing, time heals nothing, memories from my war are brought back.
On our way to Pakrac, Željko Špelić took on the role of our guide and, as we agreed, he narrated the events that took place at the sites we were passing and we stopped at sites he selected to pay our respects to the victims. We drove down roads where once there were barricades where people were threatened and killed, he showed us where ambushes were set up and where battles were fought. “We were here, and they were over there,” he would say. “That’s all I know from our side, but I know almost nothing from theirs. Now, when I talk about the victims, I am talking about civilians and soldiers from the Croatian side. Later, we will go to a place where Serb civilians were killed in a war crime.”
Bučje – In this place, from August 1991 until January 1992, under the administration of the military formations of the Serb Krajina Republic of the time, a camp was set up, mostly for Croatian prisoners of war, including some civilians. Among the prisoners were also some Serb civilians who refused to join the VSK. Between 200 and 250 people were imprisoned there in total. The precise number of those killed in the camp is unknown. To date, 3 bodies have been identified, and 21 persons are registered as missing. All that is left of the former prison camp building is one wall. There are two memorials and a small chapel in the courtyard.
Kusonje village – the site where 18 members of the Bjelovar HV brigade and two members of the Croatian Police were killed. In the village, at the time with a majority Serb population, they fell into the ambush of Serb military formations. The village was later taken by Croatian forces, and in neighbouring Rakov Potok, a mass grave was discovered with the bodies of the twenty men killed in the ambush.
Rakov Potok – we visited the two monuments. One commemorates the members of the Croatian Army and Police killed in the ambush in Kusonje, whose bodies were found in the mass grave at that site. The other commemorates 12 members of the Virovitica HV Brigade who went missing in the area on 29 December 1991. They were later found dead.
Pakrac – the police station building related to the events of 1 March 1991, which is taken as the unofficial start of the war in Croatia. Stipan Grgić, who was a participant in the events as a police officer at the time, described the way the situation developed in those days. There were not casualties in the clash between them and the JNA, but soon real combat started. The first victim in the Pakrac area was killed on 9 June 1991. It was Croatian police officer Vlado Laučan.
Lipik – a city completely destroyed during the war. In Croatia it has the status of the first liberated city in the Homeland War.
Fishery near Marino Selo – Within the Fisherman’s Cabin complex, an improvised prison was set up in 1991 for Serb civilians from the villages around Pakrac. Two former members of the military police, Tomica Poletto and Željko Tutić, were convicted for the war crime in Marino Selo and sentenced to 15 and 12 years in prison, respectively. The were charged for torturing 23 Serb civilians, and killing 17. Nearby is the Pakrac Field, also a site known by a war crime against Serb civilians committed by members of the Croatian Special Police, the so-called merčepovci. The precise number of victims has not been determined yet (more than 70 in total), and the Croatian wartime deputy minister of the interior, Tomislav Merčep, was convicted of this crime and sentenced to five and a half years in prison.
These things require courage, a firm decision to look to the future in which we will not have to fear that our children will bear arms against each other. Sometimes such activities are not met with approval in the local communities, but as one of our hosts said, “We will feel the consequences of this event. Some may spit at us for doing this, but we can defend ourselves from them. We had heart enough during the war, and we have it still. I am always prepared to talk to someone from the other side, provided he did not commit crimes.”
It was important for us that our first visit to Croatia came at a time when the political relations between Serbia and Croatia are at their lowest since the war and when relationships between Bosniaks and Serbs have been increasingly tense because of the referendum and the warmongering rhetoric in the media. The war veterans are committed to continuing their mission as a warning about how fatal war is and how precious peace is. “My wish is for politics to never make the decisions, but only sober-minded people. This war brought nothing good, we all went through this area and saw a mass of empty factories, none of the politicians care about this, and it’s the same in all of our countries. The friendships made at places such as these last and that is the main value,” said one of the participants, a war-veteran from Šamac.