From the ruins of Operation Storm

Published - August 18, 2018 07:41 pm IST

 Croatian soldiers celebrating their victory after retaking the town of Dubica, on the northern Bosnian border, on August 5, 1995.

Croatian soldiers celebrating their victory after retaking the town of Dubica, on the northern Bosnian border, on August 5, 1995.

The air was still and the streets of Zagreb bore little sign of life on Sunday, August 5, a public holiday marking the Homeland Thanksgiving Day and Operation Storm of 1995. The capital was bereft of pompous celebrations but Croatian flags hanging over nearly every shop, bar and house marked a crossover of patriotic football jubilations with the anniversary of Croatia’s independence from Yugoslavia.

Homeland Thanksgiving Day is mostly glorified by Croatian politicians, said Nikola Puharić, Director of Programmes at the Croatia unit of Youth Initiative for Human Rights (YIHR). “They push it as the most important holiday and as a message of unity.” Every summer, Croatia-Serbia relations heat up as the former celebrates independence from Serbian aggression , while the latter mourns the humanitarian crisis that unfolded.

The 1991-95 Croatian War of Independence claimed 20,000 lives in Croatia. During Operation Storm, which ended the war in Croatia’s favour, over 2,00,000 Serbs were forced to flee the country and hundreds were killed.

Apologising for war crimes

Mr. Puharić’s NGO and other organisations have been urging the Croatian government to formally apologise for the war crimes. This year, YIHR’s campaign involved a handbook for politicians titled “How to Apologise for Crimes”, which lists the best reconciliation practices. But such pleas have fallen on deaf ears. At the commemoration ceremonies held in Knin, the two military officials who led Croatia’s campaign, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač, were given state honours. Both were tried at The Hague between 2008 and 2012 for committing war crimes. When their initial convictions were overturned in 2012, they were welcomed back to Croatia as heroes.

The Croatian state has honoured many military officials involved in other wars and has held more ostentatious celebrations in the past. “The celebrations used to be more flamboyant and politicised some years ago,” said Tena Prelec, a specialist in Southeast Europe at the London School of Economics. At last year’s celebrations, there were “patriotic” memorabilia such as effigies of Ante Gotovina on sale and also a few flags of the World War-era fascist party Ustaša, she said.

Ms. Prelec’s “Nations in Transit” report noted some worrying instances of growing far-right tendencies among some groups in 2017. This included burning of copies of Novosti, a left-of-centre Serbian minority newspaper; and installation of a Ustaša-era slogan at the Jasenovac memorial by Croatian war veterans and right-wing politicians. This phenomenon was epitomised with singer Marko Perković Thompson’s participation in the homecoming festivities of the Croatian football team. Mr. Thompson’s concerts and songs are infamous for their anti-Serb chants and Ustaša-era songs. In 2015, he performed at the official celebrations at Knin and was cheered by over 90,000 people. Notably, his artistic career began during the Homeland War, in which he also served. For more than a decade, he has held an annual fund-raising concert to mark the Homeland Thanksgiving Day. Nearly 80,000 fans attended this year’s concert. The police noted the use of four banned symbols and a song with a Ustaša salute.

As it happens every year, the heated bilateral rhetoric over the events of 1995 will cool with the onset of autumn. However, the growing acceptability of the far-right in Croatia’s political and cultural life remains a challenge for the country.

Mahima Jain is a freelance journalist and was recently in Croatia.

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