RECOM Reconciliation Network

Antonela Riha


Forgotten In the Storm

20 years have passed since Oluja, but by following the media and listening to the politicians speak, one could easily get the impression that the war has never really ended. And yet the experience of times past tells us that, out of political interest, if nothing else, the passions will wane and the rhetoric become more moderate, while the refugees will be completely forgotten until the next anniversary.


Antonela Riha For RECOM


In the past couple of days, it has been the exiled Serbs who have been spoken about the least. In the general hypocrisy shrouding the victory celebrations of one side, and the mourning ceremonies of the other, it was once again the politicians who were the loudest, competing over who could demonstrate national solidarity – along with their own personal power – with most passion and pathos.

It all ended with an exchange of diplomatic demarches between Serbia and Croatia, each accusing the other of provocation and the hate speech, which, during the two day-long commemoration of Oluja [“Storm”], could be heard and seen not just in the streets, but also coming from political podiums – and without a single word being uttered about the much anticipated reconciliation and regional cooperation.

In this contest of striking statements, it’s hard to choose just one. “We celebrate the return of our lands and the victory which broke the very spine of Milosevic’s Greater Serbia policies. Oluja prevented another genocide”, said Kolinda Grabar Kitarović, the President of Croatia, addressing the crowd from the fortress of Knin. To which Tomislav Nikolić, her Serbian counterpart , responded that the Croats “had fallen so low… as to celebrate the creation of an Ustaše state, recognized only by Hitler… and to use a military parade to send a message to all the expelled Serbian survivors: don’t come back, or this will happen all over again.”

In Zagreb, people are scandalized by Vojislav Šešelj’s latest performance. Along with twenty or so of his supporters and unimpeded by the police forces present, he once again burned the Croatian flag in front of the country’s Serbian embassy. In Belgrade, they are embittered by the celebrations in Knin, where tens of thousands of people, including the mayor, Josipa Rimac, sang along with [ultra-nationalist singer] Marko Perković Tompson, shouting Ustaše slogans, and calling for the lynching of Serbs: “We Croats don’t drink wine, we drink the blood of Knin’s Četniks instead“.

The whole front page of Zagreb’s Jutarnji list daily of August 5th had the words “Days of Pride” printed on it. The following day, Belgrade’s Informer used its front page to openly threaten: “What would happen if there were a war? – Croats, you wouldn’t stand a chance”, and then went on to compare the weapons on each side, concluding that “our army was significantly stronger than Croatia’s”.

This holiday of celebrations in the name of “victory, gratitude to the motherland and the glory of Oluja” has apparently also kicked off the Croatian election campaign, as the HDZ, to the applause of those gathered, unveiled a monument to Franjo Tuđman in Knin, while Prime Minister Zoran Milanović was booed off the stage for having gone through the fiasco of failing to get any of Croatia’s wartime western allies to take part in the military parade held the day before in Zagreb.

Serbia and Republika Srpska declared the 5th of August a day of mourning “in remembrance of all the killed and exiled Serbs”. Serbia’s Prime Minister Aleksandar Vučić and the President of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, then went on to cast wreaths of flowers into the Sava from the bridge in Sremska Rača. In his speech, the Prime Minister said that “it would take 4,000 pages to record the names of all those exiled or killed, and six days and six nights just to read them out loud”. He continued: “I would like to take this opportunity to ask those celebrating Oluja – why don’t you celebrate for six whole days and nights in remembrance of each person you drove out of their home?”

With regard to ‘‘remembrance’’, in the Belgrade media we could see images of columns of refugees on tractors, but, on the other hand, nothing to remind us of the fact that those same Serbian refugees were not allowed to enter Belgrade, or that they were housed in dirty industrial warehouses and abandoned motels, far from any human settlement, or that they were being sent to Kosovo in order to “balance out” its majority Albanian ethnic composition.

Nor was there any mention of the forced enlistment of refugees that took place in August and September of 1995, when they were being summarily arrested (at group housing centers, busy marketplaces, and even on public buses) and sent off to fight in Bosnia and Croatia. And then, there were certainly no stories of how Željko Ražnatović Arkan abused them at his training camp in Erdut, forcing some of them to bark and to live in doghouses. Thanks to the HLC (which filed claims on their behalf), 721 of them were in the end able to sue the state and win; but the damages awarded were pitiful and miserly. The rest will never get the chance to sue, as all their cases are now well past the statute of limitations.

In the Belgrade media, one could find only a handful of reports on the lives of returnees to Krajina, or of those of the several families that stayed behind at the Center for Refugees in Krnjača, near Belgrade, and have been surviving day-to-day ever since. Nor is there a single word to be found in the Croatian media about all the rights they have been denied to this day, nor about why they would rather not return to Krajina or Slavonija.

In Croatia, several NGOs staged a protest against the military parade in Zagreb city center, lighting candles and holding vigil for the victims of Oluja. They were constantly exposed to insults because of a sign they used, which read: “The war is over, now go home”. In the days leading up to Oluja’s 20th anniversary, film director Oliver Frljić also found himself under fire over his decision to stage a performance piece titled “The Second War” at Rijeka’s National Theater, involving five women of different nationalities who spoke about their war memories. In the end, the event had to be held under police protection from angry, unsatisfied and aggressive members of “the Armada”, a Croatian war veterans’ association.

In Serbia, there were no dissenting voices to be heard in the context of the monolithic, organized expression of sorrow – not even from the political opposition to the government, which never thought to bring up the question of the responsibility of Serbia’s current leadership for the fate of the missing Serbs from Krajina. There was virtually no one there to remind Tomislav Nikolić and Aleksandar Vučić of the maps of Greater Serbia they used to wave alongside Šešelj, as they led the Serbs into yet another war. Very few people even noticed that the actual number of casualties of Oluja has not been determined to this day.

Both the Croatian and the Serbian sides agree that, during those two days in August of 1995, more than 200,000 Serbs were driven out of their homes in Krajina. Croatia, however, celebrates the occasion as a war victory, despite the fact that these people from Krajina left their homes without taking up arms or offering any resistance, and without the help of the armies of Slobodan Milošević’s or General Ratko Mladić’s, both of whomwholeheartedly helped them organize an insurgency against the new Croatian state four years earlier.

With respect to the number of those killed during Oluja, the records differ significantly, depending on the source. The Office of Croatia’s State Attorney went public with the official number of 217 killed, while the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights alleges 677 cases of civilian deaths. In Serbia, the Veritas NGO claims that the total number of those killed or disappeared during Oluja was 1,852, including 1,078 civilians. The state of Serbia has yet to deal officially with recording any of Oluja’s casualties.

20 years have passed since Oluja, but by following the media and listening to the politicians speak, one could easily get the impression that the war has never really ended. And yet the experience of times past tells us that, out of political interest, if nothing else, the passions will wane and the rhetoric become more moderate, while the refugees will be completely forgotten until the next anniversary.


     The author is a journalist from Belgrade


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