Operation Storm: Croatia’s Triumph, Serbia’s Grief
Croatia this week celebrates its defeat of Serb rebels during Operation Storm 20 years ago, but Serbia will mourn the hundreds killed and the 200,000 who became refugees.
BIRN Belgrade, Zagreb
|Croatian President Franjo Tudjman and general Ante Gotovina during Operation Storm. Photo: nato.hr|
Anka Bjelivuk was 47 when she and her husband took her daughter and a few belongings and joined a column of Serbs who were fleeing their houses in central Croatia on August 5, 1995,as Zagreb’s forces advanced with their heavy artillery.
“We lived in the Vojnic municipality, [Operation] Storm was already underway…We left the house together, we were on a tractor, my daughter was just a kid back then,” Bjelivuk recalled.
Since that day 20 years ago, Bjelivuk has been a refugee – and since that day, she has never seen her parents, her brother and his pregnant wife again. She only found out later from her neighbours what happened to them.
“A rocket hit them, this is how they were killed, somewhere while they were in a column [of refugees], somewhere around Zirovac [a village on the highway tow Bosnia],” she explained.
Their bodies have never been found.
“I still don’t know even today where they are. And I don’t think I will know until the rest of my life,” she said with a trembling voice.
Bjelivuk’s relatives are among the 600 Serbs who went missing during Operation Storm, when Croatian forces regained control of 18 per cent of the republic’s territory that had been held by rebel Croatian Serbs since 1991. The Serb rebels were routed and more than 200,000 people like Bjelivuk fled the country.
A disputed victory
|Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic during a goverment session on Operation Storm. Photo: BETA.|
Differing perceptions of Operation Strom have long been a bitterly divisive factor in relations between Croatia and Serbia.
Zagreb views Storm as a military triumph that liberated its territory from Serb aggression – the crowning victory of what Croatia calls its ‘Homeland War’ for independence from 1991-95.
“It was professionally and superbly conducted,” Sinisa Kralj, a retired Croatian artillery officer who fought during Storm, told BIRN.
“We were defending our country. The civilians who died – well, in every war a lot of civilians get killed,” he said. He insisted that he saw no brutal abuses of Serbs during the operation.
Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic has also described the war as “just, defensive and human”.
But for Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic, Operation Storm was “the biggest [example of] ethnic cleansing since World War II”.
While Croatia will celebrate the 20th anniversary this week, Serbia will solemnly commemorate the victims.
“We just want to mourn the expelled and killed Serbs and no one can stop us from crying for them and lighting a candle,” Vucic said.
These two rival viewpoints are almost impossible to reconcile, said Belgrade-based sociologist Jovo Bakic.
“The problem is that there still are whole families in Serbia that were expelled from Croatia and those people cannot forget what happened to them. But for Croats, [Operation Storm] is a myth that lies at the foundation of their state,” Bakic said.
Crimes go unpunished
|Operation Storm forced some 200,000 Serbs to flee their homes. Photo: rts.rs|
Croatian forces’ intensive bombardment on August 4 and 5, 1995 forced tens of thousands of civilians to flee in terror. Over the course of a day and a half, the Croatian army fired some 900 projectiles into Knin alone – the town which was seen as the Croatian Serb rebel regime’s capital.
After the mass of Serb civilians fled, the Croatian military and police embarked on the large-scale destruction and plunder of Serb property, killing 677 mainly elderly Serbs who had remained behind, according to the Croatian Helsinki Committee.
These crimes were extensively documented during a four-year trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague, but the evidence was not enough to convict two the top police and army commanders of Operation Storm- Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markac.
Although in its initial verdict, UN-backed court sentenced Gotovina and Markac to 24 and 18 years in prison respectively for staging unlawful attacks on civilians in four main towns in Croatia’s Krajina region, this ruling was overturned in 2012.
The UN-backed court’s appeals chamber ruled that the shelling of the four towns was not indiscriminate, no crime of deportation could be proved and there was no ‘joint criminal enterprise’ aimed at expelling Serbs.
Gotovina and Markac’s acquittal was warmly welcomed in Croatia, but in Serbia it was seen a miscarriage of justice and an insult to the Serb victims.
After they were freed, prosecutor’s offices in both Croatia and Serbia pledged that they would ensure justice for the Storm victims in their own courts, but neither has done much to fulfill those promises so far.
The Croatian judiciary has so far delivered only one final judgment for war crimes committed during and after Operation Storm. Former Croatian soldier Bozo Bacelic was sentenced in 2014 to seven years in prison for killing two civilians and one prisoner of war in Prokljan near the town of Sibenik.
An additional four war crime cases are ongoing before courts in Zagreb. In 2014, former soldier Rajko Krickovic was charged with shooting two Serb civilians and burning another one alive in the village of Kijani – the first case related to Operation Storm in which Serbia and Croatia worked together on the basis a war crimes cooperation protocol.
Some 40 other war crimes involving 200 victims connected to Storm are being investigated by Serbian and Croatian prosecutors. Several former Croatian troops have also convicted of killings after Operation Storm, but for aggravated murder rather than war crimes.
Jelena Djokic Jovic, a war crime trials monitor from the Zagreb-based NGO Documenta, said this was “a poor criminal proceedings statistic” for crimes that were undoubtedly committed.
She explained this by saying that there is still a “reluctance to prosecute crimes committed by domestic [military] units”, adding that no member of Croatian forces was convicted of war crimes in the whole of 2014.
No going back?
|Miodrag Linta, head of the Coalition of Serb Refugees.|
The Serbs who fled Croatia in August 1995 also face major obstacles if they want to return to their homes, says the Coalition of Serb Refugees.
Although the Croatian government claims that some 145,000 Serbs have returned, a survey by the UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, showed that only 50,000 have actually done so.
Croatian analyst Davor Gjenero said that until recently, Zagreb was actually trying its best to stop them.
“Until 2000, the return of refugees was systematically obstructed. After 2000 that kind of obstruction disappeared, but there is no real sustainable return. In these areas people, only elderly people have returned, mostly as these areas were completely destroyed,” Gjenero told BIRN.
“This is a fact Croatia still refuses to speak about,” he added.
The head of the Coalition of Serb Refugees, Miodrag Linta, said that many of those who fled are still fighting for the ownership rights of the houses and land they left behind.
“One of the key problems is unresolved property issues,” Linta told BIRN.
“There are some 10,000 Serb homes that have been destroyed, some 800,000 agricultural plots owned by Serbs have been confiscated, and more than 40,000 tenancy rights were removed,” he alleged.
Many Serbs from Croatia hoped that better days would come once the country joined the EU, but Linta said these hopes went unfulfilled. “The issue of Serbs expelled during Storm is still ignored,” he insisted.
Anka Bjelivuk said meanwhile that governments and media only remember the victims on the annual memorial day, and that Serbian politicians’ promises of help over the years have come to nothing.
“It is like we don’t exist. Whoever promised anything, lied,” she said.
Bjelivuk fears that she will never find the remains of her relatives who were killed, and that no one will ever establish who killed them.
“I would just like to find their bodies, but I doubt there is any chance that will happen. No one has tried to find their remains before, and I doubt they will do it now, after 20 years,” she said.