I’ve come to save you, he said.

11. May 2021

It is very unusual to find yourself “on the other side” of “glorious” Croatian (and not just Croatian) military victories, among those against whom the victories are being celebrated. It is clear who was defeated, but there is always the question of whether anyone actually won?

We arrived in Pakrac from Brčko, where we had attended the commemoration to mark 29 years since the killing of dozens of civilians on the Brčko bridge. “We” are a mixed group of war veterans (ARBiH, HVO, VRS) and peace activists brought together through the Centre for Nonviolent Action. For us, actions to mark sites of atrocities and attending official commemorations have become par for the course, we have been doing them for years, they are one of the ways we endeavour to show compassion with families of victims and mourn the loss of human lives, whosever they may be. They are also opportunities where we call for the prosecution and punishment of those responsible, if it is still absent. We see this as a necessary form of pressure on institutions to do their job. We mourn together, and together we seek justice, for all.

So, my shock was all the greater when, on one such sad occasion, we arrived in Pakrac, to the 26th anniversary of the Croatian Army’s Operation Flash (1 – 3 May 1995). We did not, however, join the celebrations. In every one of its “glorious” military actions, the Croatian Army had killed civilians, and this one was by no means an exception. We had come to talk with those who lived through and survived this operation and to pay our respects together to those who had been brutally killed.

“Remember history, don’t repeat it”

That is how our friends and organisers from the Serb National Council called this study visit. We had come to learn. I am well-versed in Bosnian crimes, but the crimes on my own side, Croatian crimes, are rarely spoken about, and since I left to live in Bosnia, I no longer even ask, I’ve given in to my powerlessness to change anything. So, I must admit that it was only the other day that I learnt of the prison in Bjelovar, the collection centre in Varaždin and the prison in Požega. People could be gone for months, people could be gone forever. I didn’t know that the RSK Army included Hungarians, and Croats, and other nationalities. On the slopes of Psunj, it wasn’t easy to pick a side. I didn’t know that Kraguj used to be home to many households that kept up the mačkare [carnival] tradition, which was destroyed, along with good neighbourly relations, back in 1991. We also heard what we had heard countless times before when meeting minorities and those who used to be refugees – that help was given where it was unexpected, and injustice came from where you were counting on justice. That there are no differences between people and that no one wanted this. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

We had gotten lost looking for Kraguj and our hosts. We asked some workers fixing the road in Pakrac for directions. “Kragujevac?!” they said, baffled. They’re not from around here, I thought. And neither am I. It was a warm spring afternoon and all the hills were wonderfully lush, the sheep, horses, the breeze carried scents of better times past.

There is this legend among Croats in Croatia when it comes to the Croatian Serbs. It is not old, it only dates back to the 1990s, which makes its mythical status all the more surprising, because we have all had an opportunity to meet a real, even a genuine Serb man or woman. Our own, or of a Bosnian or Serbian variety. The legend, however, warns that they are so bloodthirsty that blood runs down their chins. So what if a few of them are disappeared as ‘collateral victims’ of an otherwise legitimate military operation, or not even as collateral damage, but as just deserts? We did not know, and in all honesty, we did not care how people lived in occupied Krajina. For us, Krajina was and remains a black hole, together will all its inhabitants. That is probably the first stage of death, when someone denies you exist.

We found out that all our collocutors had heard Franjo Tuđman’s call for them to remain, but that few had believed him, and that by 1995, all had been disillusioned. Among those who had heeded his call and remained, not so much out of trust, but due to old age and sickness, some were killed on their thresholds. There were also those who did not get away on time, among them both the elderly and children. We visited the grave of little Milka Bosanac, the girl killed in Operation Flash on the playground in Šehovica. Her mother succumbed to her injuries a while later. Her father had been killed already back in 1991, in the crime against the civilians of Grahovljani.

Excess of memory, dearth of history

The captured members of the RSK Army we spoke with had surrendered, it was a demilitarised UNPA zone, Sector West, and they were not significantly armed, having surrendered most of their weapons to the UN a few years earlier. They were split up, some taken to the prison in Bjelovar, some to the collection centre in Varaždin, and some to the prison in Požega. Sometimes for months without an indictment. We also heard about who dealt beatings and who didn’t. Who lost their mind in prison. Who never came back. The people we spoke with are not criminals, this bears repeating. Though they were put through “extensive and difficult” interrogations by investigative authorities, no crime could ever be proven, because they had never committed any crime. Except for the greatest crime in the eyes of the state – rebellion. This offence will later prevent them from accessing employment and from returning and rebuilding. It turns out, however, that they will face the most difficulties in trying to ensure the prosecution and conviction of the perpetrators of war crimes against Serb villagers in the area of Pakrac and Okučani. Serves them right, you may say, why did they start it in the first place? What was it like for people who were expelled in 1991 and could never return?

As to who started it, and when, that question is far from simple. It’s impossible to ignore the fact that every family here has someone who ended up in Jasenovac, or someone who put people in Jasenovac, but then there’s also a significant number of those who died for the Partisan cause. In fact, if you’re from these parts, you become very cautious with ready generalisations of Ustashas, Chetniks, etc. History did not start in 1991 anywhere, least of all here. The proximity of Jasenovac follows you around like a shadow through these villages and you become painfully aware of its insignificance in the daily life of the rest of Croatia. Jasenovac is the lesson we still haven’t learnt. 83,145 victims identified by name to date, of that number almost 50 thousand Serbs. So much for images of bloodthirstiness. None of this is any justification for any other violence, but if we do not try to understand what happened, someone else will come along with their own interpretation.

There’s another Croatian legend that says “they were killing us in the 1990s and now they walk free in Croatia”. Such is the attraction of the criminal nature of others that we forget to ask ourselves: who is responsible for prosecuting those criminals? Or, do our criminals walk free in Croatia, too?

When we ask them why they came back, they tell us this is their home, their land, their grandfathers and great-grandfathers are buried here. But many people have left, “not just ours, but theirs too, especially lately.”

What shocked me most, perhaps, was my inability to speak. I’d noticed it first among our hosts, how they would skip over some words, not utter them, avoiding or leaving sentences unfinished. Still, we understood each other. Among the rights the defeated are denied is the right to name the phenomena and events in their lives, since these may sound scurrilous to the Croatian public. Believe me, I wanted to say to them, here I am, I’m listening to you now, and I hear you, and I can barely breathe from the guilt, I am so immensely sorry for everything you went through. But why should these people be responsible for absolving me? The injustice would not have been laid to rest.

Petar Vukotić, father of Dušan Vukotić, was captured by the Wermacht in 1941 as a member of the Yugoslav Royal Army and taken to a labour camp in Germany. In 1941, Dušan’s mother Desanka was taken to Jasenovac together with her sisters and mother, then later to Stara Gradiška, from where she was deported to Germany. Both of them survived and returned to their home country after the war. They lived in Paklenica until 1991 when they became refugees and went to stay with relatives in Belgrade. I guess we weren’t thinking about them back when Franjo Tuđman was toying with the idea of reinstating the Ustasha-era currency, or a certain Ustasha émigré from Canada.

Dušan lived and worked in Novska. Given that he was a member of the reserve police force, he was warned that it would be wise for him to volunteer for the Croatian Army, which he ended up doing. Pakračka Poljana was already known about. He thinks this is what saved his life, but could not help his parents. Early in 1995, not being able to bear staying away from home any longer, they returned to Paklenica. The other villagers knew their son was in the Croatian Army, they had all kinds of difficulties. But they endured, just so they could see their son on one of the rare encounters at the improvised border, because they did not believe he was alive. They ended up brutally killed in the basement of a relative’s house where they had been hiding, together with Pantelija and Vjera Kovačić, from the advancing Croatian Army. This was when 13 civilians were killed in Paklenica.

Dušan waited 18 years for the opportunity to identify the bodies of his parents. For ten years, he fought a legal battle to pressure the Republic of Croatia into investigating, finding and convicting the perpetrators. Dušan’s father had been born in 1919, his mother in 1925. He lost in court and had to cover the costs himself. This is common, he tells us, you simply stand no chance. “You should forgive as much as you can, so you don’t go crazy and harm yourself. But you shouldn’t forget.”

As he tells us this, we are standing on the land of the Serb Orthodox Church. To our right is a small chapel, usurping the land. Seems this isn’t just a Bosnian curiosity, Amer comments. The symbolism was not enough, apparently, because we soon discovered that part of the land was also usurped for a Catholic graveyard. Still, it doesn’t seem the concept worked out too well, the graveyard appears unused. In retrospect, you come up with a million questions, but believe me, when you’re there, you can’t speak.

We walk away from the house in whose basement the crime was committed. The driveway is neatly mowed, though the house itself is in a thicket. We said hello to the neighbour, a congenial man with a moustache surrounded by his sheep and lambs. I’d clear it up, he says, but I’m not allowed, it’s not mine. “I’d like to help, I just need permission.” The owner, we find out, inherited the house, but lives abroad and rarely visits. We talk about the tragic depopulation of these parts. “Oh, the good old days,” Ivica the neighbour says, “we’d get together and in three hours we’d have this lamb here skinned and roasted. Neighbours, friends.”

The day before we spoke with bishop Jovan Ćulibrk and he told us nothing was more important than neighbours. Originally from Gradiška, bishop Jovan cares for the welfare of his Serb and Croat people in this area, and not just here. Namely, we used to be aware, but today we forget the crucial contributions of the Serb people to Croatian culture through the centuries. The Bishop’s Palace houses an old manuscripts library. In addition to old manuscripts from the 16th century, early printed books in Serbian and a Byzantine collection, the diocesan library also keeps rare editions, journals from a number of countries, a collection dedicated to the Holy Land and Christianity in the Middle East, a collection of Judaica, first editions of Voltaire, Rousseau, but also Nietzsche…

This invaluable treasure was saved by Ivan Hiti, a soldier of the Croatian Army, when he refused to follow orders from (the generally unhinged) General Korade to burn down the library. Hiti’s portrait adorns a wall in one of the rooms of the Bishop’s Palace, along with other deserving citizens, scientists and dignitaries, people who had recognised the social value of this cultural heritage and the fact that it was being preserved precisely in Croatia. Instead of high honours, Croatia gave Hiti a dishonourable discharge from the army and the inability to find work again.

Loved ones are missed the most around the holidays

Especially those no longer among the living, even more so those whose loss weighs heavy on us due to the difficult or unknown circumstances of their deaths. At the Lenten mass for the dead at the Temple of the Holy Greatmartyr Dimitrius in Okučani, we remembered the killed and missing and honoured their lives and deaths. On the way to the temple, we were rerouted through backstreets under police escort, because preparations to celebrate Operation Flash and the arrival of the president and prime minister were well under way. In the temple courtyard we found HTV broadcasting vehicles covering the celebrations from Okučani.

According to data from the Serb community, within 36 hours, more than 10 thousand Serbs were expelled from Western Slavonia, at that time part of RSK and under UN protection, and 238 were killed or disappeared. The fate of only 162 victims has been brought to light since then[1].

Their names were read out at the end of the service, in front of the cross in the temple courtyard. The inscription on the cross reads – To the victims of the 1991-1995 wars. We laid roses and paid our respects, but the last farewell was interrupted by deafening noise from the neighbouring Catholic church, a call for the mass service dedicated to the homeland and those killed defending it. As you may have guessed, the Catholic church is twice the size of the Orthodox church, and juts out onto the street. And as I’ve mentioned, it also has a modern sound system fit for concerts. In addition, part of it also encroaches on the land of the Serb Orthodox Church. But who has the right to complain?

None of those present were visibly disturbed or particularly surprised by this rude interruption. Today is that kind of day, they said, when they celebrate and we mourn. It is distasteful to dance on graves, I think to myself as I go out to the main street to see the commotion. I talk with the security staff, they tell me it’s over, everyone was there. They find it strange that I’m asking about the president and the prime minister, seeing as I’d just come from the Serb Orthodox church courtyard. They’re not unpleasant, though. The HTV crew keep to themselves.

We later find out that the partisan monument and ossuary for the remains of fallen fighters and victims of fascist terror in the Okučani area had been usurped for years. In 1995, the monument was removed and replaced by an almost identical one, but this time dedicated to Croatian defenders killed in Operation Flash, and instead of a five-point star, it now featured a marble cross. Years passed before it occurred to anyone to also honour the partisans whose bones had been laid to rest in the ossuary. The ossuary was renewed in 2019, but this time without the partisan monument. The defenders were given another monument, right next to this one. The monument is titled “Crystal Cubes of Serenity”. Perhaps it’s some sort of euphemism for the army.

“Here come our guests for Easter!” Milena exclaimed when we appeared in her yard in Čovac. Coffee and Easter eggs. “Dig in, kids,” she said, “my people, even those who could’ve made it, won’t be coming now, on account of corona.”

When we ask her about Operation Flash, she tells us how she was working that day, “even though it was May Day, it was a working day. Over in Gradiška, at the bank. I took the car, I drove a Yugo, I didn’t know what was happening. Then the detonations, they wouldn’t let me through at the checkpoint, said I had to pay. I told them I was coming through one way or another, so they removed the barricade and I drove through. Grandpa here (she indicates her husband, sitting next to her) didn’t want to, but later had to.” Old bedridden grandma was left behind, she was burned in the house.

We came back in 2008, when we got funds to reconstruct the house.

It’s better now than it was before when we just returned. No one takes any notice any more, doesn’t matter what you are. There used to be 120 families here, now there’s no one to greet you on the street. We used to have 150 pigs, and you’d drive them through here, never any problems. Until 1991.

We continued on towards Vrbovljani, talking with many more people about many more things, about Jovan Rašković, cultural autonomy and the Z-4 Plan. About the interim police, and again about rights that remain inaccessible. The silence of empty Slavonian villages rings out with unfreedom, a life full of obstacles and sideways glances, and the experience of repeated and systematic discrimination. How long should a person atone for their sins? While criminals enjoy the protection of the state.

“I’ve come to save you”

We reach Medari. Of the 24 people who found themselves in the village at dawn on 1 May 1995, Croatian soldiers killed 22. Only two girls survived, sisters aged 6 and 4.

“That morning, we woke up early, before six, Zvjezdana tells us. Mum had gone to work in Okučani (she worked as a community nurse with UNHCR, the mother adds) and Dad was out in the yard getting wood for the fire, to make us breakfast. We heard some noise and saw the army in the yard. ‘Željko, surrender!’ they were shouting, someone was calling him by his name, so they knew him. My father was unarmed, he just had the keys to the house in his hand. He put his hands up, but they killed him, he fell over the kitchen threshold. I was 6 years old, I understood right away what was happening. Instinctively, I put my hand over my sister’s mouth so they wouldn’t hear her scream. I covered my mouth too. Later, when they went from house to house, to see if anyone was left over, I guess, we hid in the wardrobe. A Croatian soldier found us. I told him, ‘Please, don’t kill us, we didn’t do anything to you!’ But he said, ‘I’ve come to save you,’ and he took us to the Red Cross. We never found out who he was.”

“You know, people are only divided into human and inhuman. Just human and inhuman, no other way,” she concluded.

Today, Zvjezdana lives in Germany with her family. “I wanted to live in my village, but all the doors were closed to us. We tried for years, without success, to be recognised as civilian war victims.” Zvjezdana’s mother explains that they are essentially trying to get a death certificate with the precise date of Željko’s death – 1 May 1995. “The only death certificate we can get in Nova Gradiška is dated 3 May, which no longer has anything to do with Operation Flash,” she added.

Although it is known which HV units were on the main lines of attack in the area – the 81st Guards Battalion, the 5th Guards Brigade, and parts of the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Guards Brigade – not only have the perpetrators not been prosecuted, but the entire case is still in the pre-investigation phase. It’s still not time?

The family of the murdered Željko Dičak no longer expects to see justice. “But recognition would mean a lot to us,” Zvjezdana says, “recognition that the crime happened.”

As we talk, we are watched over by the bullet-riddled angels of the Orthodox Church in Medari that was destroyed in the war and never reconstructed. If I weren’t afraid that what is left of it would be swallowed up by trees and undergrowth, I’d think the ruins of the church would perhaps be the best monument, a reminder of the madness and misfortune we are capable of producing.

Even when they are not openly hated (that is reserved for the right wing), the citizens of Croatia, even the Croatian president himself, expect these people to bring down the government of Andrej Plenković at the very least. Or rather, they conceal such expectations behind supposed disappointment with the participation of the minority in government, treating it as if it had the power to rule, or at minimum, berating it for being compliant and condoning the policies of the ruling HDZ. Namely, we pretend not to know that the only way for the minority to survive is to formally support the government. As is the case with all other minorities in Croatia, but those other minorities just don’t happen to be a thorn in our side. All those minorities, however, were also part of the government of Zoran Milanović, as much as he would like to forget that.

It was most clearly visible on Easter morning as we were leaving Pakrac and Okučani. As we were leaving Croatia, we heard news of chauvinist-leaning “hooligans” marching through Borovo. Before going to lay a wreath in honour of Croatian police officers killed in the war, which was the nominal reason for their visit, they marched through Borovo singing bloodthirsty ballads beneath people’s windows. On Easter morning. And under police protection.

Even though the event was condemned by the Croatian government, neither the minister who came to Borovo for the commemoration, nor the president felt any need to support their fellow citizens of Serb nationality or to guarantee their security. The minister referred to the event as “disturbing public peace and order”, while the president, once again, ended up blaming the whole thing on Serbs. Namely, he claimed that the police that was protecting the criminal march was actually Pupovac’s police as much as Plenković’s (whereby he delegitimised one of the institutions of law and order). As proof of “consistency in failure to act”, he berated Pupovac’s police for not removing the monument to Vukašin Šoškočanin, considered responsible for the murder of Croatian policemen, which, therefore, “disturbs and provokes”.

The fact that the leader of a Serb paramilitary unit who died in 1991 has a tombstone in Borovo has been used for years to justify violence against Serbs in the area. So, we should ask Milanović why he did not remove it during his mandate as prime minister. When the police was his.

What is this about, then? What is the crime for which these people must so ruthlessly atone? In Okučani, in Borovo. In Lika and Banija. In Kordun.

There is no amnesty for war crimes. Right?

You will hold it against me that this text is guilty of the same omission of which I accuse official Croatia: I’ve written nothing about the suffering of Croats in this area, about Croat refugees and people expelled from their homes. It is not my intention, or that of the people we spoke with, to neglect their suffering. Every one of our collocutors, every single one, told us of at least one instance when friends and neighbours, and even strangers from the Croat side stepped in to help. Every single one of us wants to stop the repetition of evil once and for all, and we want to be the ones to stop it, so that it never happens to anyone else again. But no one ever asks the people here, no one ever asks them anything about their Croatian homeland or the dead for whom they seek justice.

We have been condemning them for over 30 years for beliefs we assume they must have held back in 1991. No one asked me either when they changed my language, my history and social order. Or when they wanted to annex Herzegovina to Croatia, no one asked me. I have never in my life voted for HDZ or Franjo Tuđman. Is it written on my forehead?  Is my crime that I have allowed Croatia to turn into what we are living today? Yes, it is also mine, because I was not loud enough or brave enough to stand up to it. At the end of the day, I left because it had become unbearable for me. Such a human failing, isn’t it?

For those who wonder at my choices, believe me when I tell you that compared to Croatia, Bosnia is a free country. True, minorities and returnees suffer equally, and in Bosnia too people rarely live together anymore. But there is at least the possibility of bringing criminals to face justice, whatever side they may belong to. It is not strange or uncommon to mourn “their” victims too and pay our respects to them, and truly mean it. Abolishing the principle of impunity in Bosnia has made us free people, thanks to the Hague Tribunal.

In Croatia, such freedom does not exist, in Croatia there are first- and second-class citizens. But at least there’s an order, you might say. Are those the European values we hear so much about?

[1] The exact number of victims has not been ascertained, for more on estimates and available data, see: https://www.portalnovosti.com/tamna-strana-bljeska


Marking unmarked places of suffering

Biber – short story contest

Culture of remembrance