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Croatia: Anniversary of Operation Storm

On the 4th of August 1995 the largest European land offensive since World War II started in Central Croatia, in the area of Krajina. Until then Croatian Serbs were the majority population there, but a few days later there were no Serbian families left in this area. For that reason it was called Operation Storm (Operacija Oluja). Ante Gotovina, a General in the Croatian Army, led the operation and the International Criminal Tribunal for The Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) indicted him for war crimes.

The news portal about the Balkans BalkanInsight published an article last June titled “Ex – US Envoy: Croatia expelled Serbs” that stated:

Up to 800 ethnic Serb civilians were killed and some 250 000 fled Croatia when in 1995 Croat forces crushed the rebel Serb breakaway state that occupied up to a quarter of the country’s territory since it declared independence from Yugoslavia in 1991.

Drago Kovačević, one of the bloggers at the Serbian news portal B92, who at the time was the mayor of Knin, the main town in the Krajina region, reposted an extensive text he wrote in 1996 on the occasion of the anniversary of Operation Storm. He detailed the political circumstances in Krajina at the time and also described the beginning of the offensive:

[...] [Krajina] was assaulted at the crack of dawn on August 4, 1995. Knin was showered with very many rockets. In the hospital there were tens of people dying. The lights have gone out. Radio Knin has become silent. There was smoke and fire around. Columns of civilians have already started to leave Knin early in the morning towards the only remaining direction, towards [Lika]. The bombing lasted almost non-stop. There was no pause. In particular around the nearby TV station, the Police station and the northern barracks were fired systematically [...]

According to the aforementioned article from BalkanInsight, Peter Galbraith, former U.S. ambassador to Croatia, accused Zagreb last June of plotting and sanctioning the exodus of Croatian Serbs in 1995 to create an “ethnically clean” country. Speaking at The Hague war crimes trial of three Croatian generals (Ante Gotovina, Ivan Čermak and Mladen Markac), he said that the leadership headed by late President Franjo Tuđman used ‘Operation Storm’ to ‘cleanse’ Croatia of Serbs. His testimony came as a surprise, since when he testified at the trial of late Serbian strongman Slobodan Milošević in 2003 Galbraith had said Croatia was not responsible for the ethnic cleansing of Serbs.

Jasmina Tešanović, Women in Black activist, reposted in her B92 blog a Women in Black‘s statement (SRP), issued under the title “Anniversary of one more mass war crime”:

Thirteen years have passed since the Storm, the military-police action that caused the mass expulsion of the Serbian population from [Republika Srpska Krajina] region. During this action and immediately after it, members of the Croatian military and para-military formations killed many hundreds of civilians, mainly older people. The Storm is one of the biggest war crimes on the space of former Yugoslavia.

The protagonists of this operation, that were apparently directed to carry out ethnic cleansing, did not live to face justice. Today in The Hague there are trials that arise from command responsibility for some of them who are still alive such as Ante Gotovina. We are hoping that these trials will not end like some others and will not additionally discredit the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) as a deliverer of justice, we are warning that the International Community was also responsible for war crimes committed during the Storm, whose representatives were passively watching the killing of people, the burning of houses and the looting of property of the residents.

Holding all innocent victims in esteem, we have to mention Slobodan Milošević's regime and his satellites from Republika Srpska Krajina as well as Serbia's intellectual elite who were spreading propaganda for years about Serbs not being able to live with others nationalities and then, shortly before the Storm, they hypocritically renounced the project named Republika Srpska Krajina and left their people to be victims of ethnic cleansing. And then their false patriotism was shown. We, Women in Black, were meeting columns of refugees on the borders and were giving basic assistance (food, clothes and medicines) to them. Later we were visiting them in the refugee camps. The big usurper patriots were not to be seen anywhere. They showed up only when refugee men were to be arrested and transfered into the [Arkan]‘s military camp in Erdut or some other similar places.

Let the Storm be one more warning for us about how terrible the consequences of false patriotism based on financial and political interests can be in spreading hatred that leads regular people into tragedy, while at the same time making the criminal and intellectual elite wealthy.

Belgrade, August 4, 2008

Women in black, Belgrade
Serbia's network of Women in black

In his post titled “Which war crimes get prosecuted?”, Paul D'Amato analyzed the civil war in the former Yugoslavia. He wrote:

While it is true that the conflict in the region developed out of the ambitions of Slobodan Milosevic for a greater Serbia, uniting the Serbs of Serbia with those living in Bosnia and Croatia, Croatia’s nationalists under Franjo Tudjman were no less ruthless in their efforts to create a “greater Croatia,” based on the ethnic cleansing of Serbs from the Krajina and Serbs and Muslims from parts of Bosnia.

Paul D'Amato continued:

[...] From the start, there was the complicity of the Western powers in creating the conditions that made war and ethnic cleansing inevitable. As Phil Gasper wrote:

“In the end, Germany’s recognition of Croatia’s independence–without any guarantees of the Serb minority’s national rights in Croatia–made the outbreak of war and the disintegration of Yugoslavia inevitable. The same holds true for Bosnia. Germany and the U.S. recognized Bosnian independence even though the majority of Bosnian Serbs and Croats–about 51 percent of the republic–had rejected it. By doing so, they put their seal of approval on Bosnia’s descent into war.” [...]

He added:

[...] There is the direct complicity of the United States in the greatest single act of ethnic cleansing that took place during the war–Operation Storm in August 1995. [...]

Jonathan of the web site Belgrade Foreign Visitors Club looked back on Peter Galbraith's testimony at the trial of Ante Gotovina:

[...] Galbraith then addressed one of his previous testimonies, where he said the expulsion of some 250,000 Croatian Serbs did not qualify for ethnic cleansing, “although there had been crimes, committed either on the orders or with the tacit approval of the Croatian leadership, in the presence and with the participation of the military”. […] Galbraith [...] said that he and other American officials had information months before Operation Storm that there would be a military attack on the Serb Krajina. [...] But the U.S. never green-lighted the operation, he contended. However, since the U.S. administration knew the assault might be launched, “it expressly warned the Croatian authorities and president Tuđman of their obligation to protect the Serb civilians and prisoners of war. The atrocities like those committed in the [Medak Pocket] in 1993 were not to be repeated.”

In the first days after the arrival of the Croatian Army in Knin, Galbraith recounted, the reports of the U.S. embassy personnel indicated there were widespread killings of Serb civilians and destruction of their houses, “thus confirming that the situation in the field was exactly what the U.S. administration wanted to prevent.”

In Galbraith’s opinion, this happened “on the orders or with the tacit approval of the Croatian leadership, in the presence and with the participation of the military”. [...]

  • http://www.hudin.com Miquel Hudin Balsa

    Siniša, I have to say that I’m extremely bothered by this article. I find it unbalanced in that it does not cite the Croatian side of the argument despite being an event that occurred in Croatia.
    That initial point aside, it is also dishonest. The event that you’re talking about is one four day campaign in a war that lasted for five years. You don’t mention the initial reason for the Operation Storm offensive, which was the fact that Serbian forces forcibly took over the Krajina region in 1991, ran it, and expanded it in to Croatian majority regions, until 1995. These Serbian forces were just as guilty of ethnic cleansing as the forces of Operation Storm.
    I completely agree that the Croatian forces were overly brutal in their campaign to retake the region, which is why such commanders as Gotovina are standing trial in the Hague. Croatia has also been extremely poor in returning property to Serbs who were forcibly expelled from the region. This is rightfully getting in their way to EU membership. But at the same time, this was not part of a plan for a Greater Croatia. As per the Badinter Agreement of 1992, the boundaries of Croatia were defined as they were when it was a state in Yugoslavia. Yes, the Croats had Greater Croatia goals when it came to Bosnia Herzegovina, but so did the Serbs and not including this information accurately makes this article extremely one-sided and smacking of nationalist propaganda.
    You know as well as I do that the history of the region is extremely complex. Picking and choosing which bits of history to include when writing an article is disingenuous and quite frankly (and I apologize for being so blunt) no better than what Tuđman and Milošević did to start this unfortunate chapter of history in the Balkans, which I see for some continues to this day…

    Miquel

  • Sinisa Boljanovic

    Dear Miquel,
    I am so sorry because this post has been aroused your anger and bad feelings. Unfortunately, I think that almost every war stirs up terrible things such as mass killing, ethnic cleansing, destruction of properties and many others kinds of violence.
    I also think that there may not be any reason for killing of people, carrying out of war crimes, ethnic cleansing etc.
    I am not a historian and I don’t want to find any (historical) reasons for starting of war or some war operations, nor I would like to be a judge. For that there are relevant institutions.
    I was (am and will be) interested civilian victims and their families.
    I just want to remind readers of some events and terrible things which were done during the civil war on the space of former Yugoslavia in order they would not be repeated anymore.
    I also make an effort to be unbiased.
    Believe me, I spent several hours on August 4 using Google search option to find out some reactions by Croatian bloggers to 13. anniversary of operation Storm. Unfortunately, I had no success. I was not guilty because of that.

  • http://www.hudin.com Miquel Hudin Balsa

    Really, my only big issue with it is pulling the event out of context. You can’t take a sentence like, “He believes that people who say children are idiots are misguided.” and quote it as, “He believes children are idiots.”
    Again, while Operation Storm was a brutal operation by the Croatians, you can’t discuss it without historical context in which it happened, giving the story of what happened to the Serbs in Krajina and then allowing the reader to make their own opinions.

  • Mike Baresic

    For a more honest assessment of Operation Storm than the one provided here, see the analysis on the Bosnian Institute website, “The aim of Operation Oluja (Storm) was not to drive out the Serbs,” http://www.bosnia.org.uk/news/news_body.cfm?newsid=2459

  • Sinisa Boljanovic

    Miguel, I do not intend to discuss the latest history of the Balkans because in history, there should be a time distance to explain some events and developments with the assistance of numerous facts. You persistently insist on the case of such a brutal military operation as The Storm was, and I was persistently refusing up to this moment to get into the historical context just because of the reasons mentioned above. However, for the sake of our readers and with this I would finish my exposition on this topic, I would mention just one detail that happened most probably before January 1991, even though that date is taken as the official when talking about Martin Spegelj, close Franjo Tudjman’s associate, and the famous film recorded by counter-intelligence service of the Yugoslav National Army (JNA). The people of Yugoslavia saw that film and we were all appalled at the substance. Therefore, even in 1991, and I would emphasize this – before a single bullet was shot in Yugoslavia and before all war crimes committed later could be envisaged, the Socialist Republic of Croatia of that time, as one of the 6 republics of SFRY, was secretly importing weapons from Hungary, preparing for the war and ordinary citizens were not acquainted with that. Martin Spegelj, along with his associates, was the one who was preparing the war that took away thousands of lives. There is no reason that is more concrete for everything else that happened afterwards in the area of ex-Yugoslavia, except if you want to go deeper in the history, all the way to Jasenovac, for example, that you yourself wrote about and then search for why the reasons were created. However, as I already stated, this discussion is finished for me because I’m not a historian and I still do not have enough data and facts about civil war. I do not intend to use superficial information, and I was never a victim of propaganda that was lead along with that bloody war. I’ve always tried to be objective and did not want to hide horrifying crimes that were committed in the area of one of the most beautiful countries in the world – the ex-Yugoslavia (SFRY). This is why I wrote about the atrocities in Srebrenica and did not go into its pre-history, I also mentioned the atrocities in Bratunac but was not discussing the historical context, and of course, the atrocities committed during the military operation Storm belong in this group of the worst and I had no intention to remain silent on that, nor I had the intention to search for its causes. The fact is that the innocent people had suffered and that’s what hurts me the most, and all other stuff I would pass to the historians.

    You could read more about the mentioned film here:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/%C5%A0pegelj_Tapes

  • tvorevina

    A relevant scientific study on the subject was recently published in Croatia and I encourage the author of the article to consult it. The book was written by the sociologist Ozren Žunec and is called “Goli život – Socijetalne dimenzije pobune Srba u Hrvatskoj” (Bare Life – societal aspects of the Serb rebellion in Croatia). It’s a two volume book that is praised by the more independent intellectuals (the book received extremely little attention in mainstream Croatian media). (I don’t want to adverstise booksellers but you can find out more by using the standard totaliarian search engine:)

  • Sumar N.

    It’s amazing, this is the largest offensive since WWII and largest case of ethnic cleansing in the Yugoslav wars, yet it receives no attention in the media.

    That war was full of lies, hopefully the truth will be known soon.

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