Croatia Fights Back

"Pay attention ladies and gentlemen, and you will see with your own eyes that our army left the Serb areas untouched.

This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 21, 1995

"Pay attention ladies and gentlemen, and you will see with your own eyes that our army left the Serb areas untouched.This article was originally published in Maclean's Magazine on August 21, 1995

Croatia Fights Back

"Pay attention ladies and gentlemen, and you will see with your own eyes that our army left the Serb areas untouched." Dubravka Maric, a Croatian government spokeswoman, makes the promise as a busload of foreign journalists crosses Krajina's mountain passes in an air-conditioned tourist coach laid on for the occasion. They were among the first foreigners into the area where a lightning strike by Croat forces starting three days before, on Aug. 4, sent the rebel Serb population fleeing and returned the land to Croatian control for the first time since 1991. In a war that contributed the term ethnic cleansing to the popular vernacular, the Croats want to prove that their troops have not committed atrocities against Serbs. "You will see no burned houses," Maric vows over the bus intercom. "The Serb villages are intact." From the speakers comes the strains of My Homeland, a nationalist anthem written to inspire Croats during the 1991 Balkan war.

Minutes later the bus enters Plaski, a Serb-held village now abandoned but for a gaggle of Croat soldiers lounging on chairs or playing Ping-Pong on a makeshift outdoor table. The 2,000 or so Serbs of Plaski had apparently quit in a hurry. Washing still hangs from clotheslines and pigs wander loose in the streets. Looming over the centre of town is the steeple of the Serb Orthodox Church - every one of its windows broken. "Judging by its appearance, the Serbs did not use the church much," says Maric to explain its condition. But she falls silent as the bus passes house after house reduced to smoking rubble on the outskirts of Plaski. Flames still lick at the last remaining beams. Stone chimneys are the only reminder that the smouldering ruins were homes until Croats undertook the Balkan ritual of obliterating every trace of their enemy's presence.

Still, the official line remains unchanged. "But you saw, with your own eyes," Maric says later when asked about the contradiction between government statements and reality. "In those villages there was not so much as a broken window," she insists, shaking her head with a look of a frustrated mother dealing with a disbelieving child.

Krajina has been cleansed. The four-year-old Serb attempt to establish an independent republic on a huge swath of Croatian land bordering on Bosnia-Herzegovina fizzled out last week with far less of a struggle than military experts had anticipated. "It surprised us that the Serbs didn't defend Krajina more vigorously," said Maj.-Gen. Barry Ashton, the Canadian who is deputy force commander for the entire UN operation in the former Yugoslavia. "They had greater military capability than they showed, and the terrain favors the defender."

But the Krajina Serbs showed little stomach for a fight, especially when the rank and file saw their leadership leading the retreat into Serb-held parts of Bosnia for safety. Instead, tens of thousands of Serbs took flight, clogging roads in a desperate attempt to escape the advancing Croat and Muslim forces. Some Serb families were stoned or beaten along the way. A few were strafed by enemy jets that attacked the ragged column of cars and tractors leading the exodus. "We have a trapped, displaced population that is being shelled," said Jacques De Maio of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Zagreb. And UN headquarters received several reports from its own observers of atrocities committed by Croat troops.

In world capitals, diplomats chose to see the moment as a watershed in the Balkan war, a "window of opportunity" as U.S. Defence Secretary William Perry put it, to bring all sides to heel and strike a negotiated peace. The conventional wisdom was that the Croats' decisive victory had evened the balance of power in the region. A flurry of diplomatic activity followed. Russian President Boris Yeltsin invited Serb and Croat leaders to Moscow, but the summit was scuttled before it began when Croat President Franjo Tudjman refused to attend because his Bosnian allies had not been included. UN mediator Carl Bildt pronounced his own peace mission dead. He had become persona non grata in Zagreb for suggesting that Tudjman be charged with war crimes over the Croat shelling of civilians in Krajina. But the Clinton administration sent National Security Adviser Anthony Lake to Europe to pick up where Bildt left off, with U.S. officials signalling that a lasting peace was now possible.

As the participants jockeyed for negotiating positions, yet another chapter in the history of cruelty in the Balkans appeared to open. The United States, an ally of Croatia, released classified satellite photographs suggesting that Bosnian Serbs may have buried hundreds or even thousands of Bosnian Muslims in mass graves after overrunning the UN-declared "safe zone" of Srebrenica in eastern Bosnia last month. The photos showed freshly dug earth in positions where, several days earlier, other photos showed crowds of people gathered on a soccer field. Bosnian Muslims have claimed the Serbs massacred their captives in a field. UN officials demanded access to the area shown in the photographs, and officials of the International Red Cross, while saying they had no knowledge of mass graves, calculated that as many as 6,000 Muslims are missing in eastern Bosnia.

If there was a sense of urgency in the international community's reaction to events in Krajina, it may simply have been due to a sober realization that the Serb withdrawal had averted the potential for a wider Balkan war. The next flash point may prove more explosive. Serbian troops and tanks rushed last week to reinforce their defensive positions in eastern Slavonia, a fertile and oil-rich area of Croatia, which the Serbs also conquered in 1991. And the Croats dismissed suggestions that they had struck a deal with Serb President Slobodan Milosevic to swap eastern Slavonia for Krajina. Croatia still demanded the return of all its land, said Defence Minister Gojko Susak, and if negotiations fail, "we are ready to liberate the territory by force." In an interview in his Zagreb headquarters, Ashton told Maclean's that he did not expect "action by either side within days or weeks," saying that the buildup of forces had not yet reached a critical stage.

But the UN had no plans to stick around for another Serb-Croat war. Last week, UN Special Envoy Yasushi Akashi announced that the Croatian part of the world body's mission was over. UN troops had been dismissively pushed aside by Operation Storm, the Croat blitz into Krajina. Three peacekeepers were killed; others were shelled and overrun in their observation posts. "We are greatly offended by the way our soldiers were treated," said Ashton. "If the Croats wanted to solve this thing by military action, they shouldn't have asked the UN to stay. We will begin to repatriate people as soon as we can arrange ships and aircraft." The military mission in Croatia will likely be reduced to a few observers on some borders, although UN civilian human rights monitors and aid workers will stay. And Akashi suggested that the UN may use the momentary lull to scale back the size of its 28,000-member mission in Bosnia, which included 850 Canadians.

One trip along the windy, mountainous roads of Krajina shows all the evidence needed of the UN's ignominious treatment. Observation posts are abandoned, and some have been looted. At the UN checkpoints monitoring the now-obliterated zone of separation, concrete barricades have been pushed aside and black-on-white wooden UN signs lie in the dust. At the Bosnian border, the blue UN flag is gone. A white and red Bosnian flag snaps over a portrait of a stern-looking Bosnian President Alija Izetbegovic, framed and balanced atop the peacekeepers' white sandbags.

"This is Plitvicka Jezero National Park, a protected area with 16 lakes and two wonderful waterfalls," says Maric as the bus climbs through spectacular hills. "It needed protection from the Serbs," she says, pointing out damaged trees at roadside. Maric, a translator seconded, appropriately, from the defence ministry's department of military psychology, makes her announcements under the stony gaze of a colonel from the ministry. "I'm just here to give you the facts," she says. "These are not my opinions." That, she adds, "would be propaganda."

Not all propaganda is as benign as whether Serbs are cruel to trees. The Canadian troops in Croatia worried last week that they themselves might be casualties of war hysteria and lies. All parties in the conflict have accused the UN of conspiring with their enemies. And during Operation Storm, Croatian radio reported that Canadian peacekeepers were giving intelligence to the local Serbs. "They were just using that lie as an excuse to overrun our observation posts," said one Canadian soldier. But there were other worrisome developments that soured the climate between Canadians and Croats. A far right-wing Croat newspaper printed a totally erroneous report that Canadian troops had attacked a bus and killed 24 Croat soldiers. And a group of Canadian soldiers was, in fact, involved in a road accident that killed three Croats whose car slammed into the troops' bus. The father of one of the victims threatened to throw a grenade into a hotel housing Canadian soldiers. Worried about the security threat, some Canadian soldiers temporarily took to covering their maple leaf shoulder patch with gun tape.

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have a view of Bihac in the distance," says Maric as the bus crests a hill exposing the unprepossessing Muslim town that has become world famous for its three years of suffering at the hands of besieging Serbs. The view is from the mountaintop village of Licko Petrovo Selo, where Serb gunners used to rain shells down on Bihac, just across the Bosnian border below. Bihac was actually shelled from all sides, despite the fact that the UN had declared the town to be one of its six safe havens.

In Licko Petrovo Selo, newly liberated Muslims swarm over the homes of their former oppressors. "Some people in Bihac have actually starved to death," says the guide. "What you see is civilians and soldiers looking for food." The bus swerves to avoid a horse-drawn wagon overflowing with carpets and clothes. On the other side, two Muslim women lug away a small hot-water heater.

In Bihac, the joy in the streets under the late afternoon sun is palpable. An old man lovingly strokes and shows off the bicycle that has seen him through the siege - its front tire carefully patched with tape. For three years, the people of Bihac spent most afternoons in basements, sheltering from Serb mortars. Now, they are free to move about, paying no attention even to the sounding of an air-raid siren warning of a possible shell. "We always had food," says 17-year-old Senad Sestan, wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a wide grin. "But we didn't have security. We never knew when the shells would fall, and school was always interrupted by shelling."

Bihac's residents survived by eating whatever they could grow, and whatever they could buy from smugglers who broke the military cordon. "We bought food from the Chetniks," says Elvira Karac, using the derogatory name for her Serb enemies. "We bought whatever they would offer." Some of it was humanitarian aid stolen by the Serbs. Flour could cost anywhere from $200 to $1,000 for a 50-kg bag. Karac's small apartment was one of the few with electricity. "We are lucky to live in the city centre," she says. "We ran wires from the local TV station and stole their power." Although she had little food to cool, the power kept her refrigerator running.

As the sun sinks behind mountains that are no longer threatening, an aid convoy reaches Bihac for the first time in 18 months - food sent by Saudi Arabia to its Muslim cousins. The fighting had pitched Muslim against Muslim - one faction allied with Serbs, the other with Croats. Sestan claims that the Muslim fighters from the losing side can live in Bihac without fearing reprisals. But there will be no forgiveness for the Serbs. "We cannot live with our Serb neighbors," he says. "They have killed us and raped our women." A Bosnian soldier echoes the slim prospects for a hasty peace. "We are still at war," says 23-year-old Izet Reltic, leaning against a dusty car and watching the children of Bihac celebrate their new freedom. "There will be fighting until we liberate all of Bosnia."

The two-year-old Croat-Muslim alliance held through last week's fighting. But no one is sure whether it can last once the common Serb enemy is repelled. Suspicions abound that Tudjman is still intent upon carving Bosnia up with Serbia's Milosevic, although all political signals from Zagreb last week showed at least lip service to the Bosnian cause.

"If there are houses burning, it is the Muslims who are doing it," says Maric, returning to her theme as the bus heads back into Croatia and the town of Slunj. There, the troops who are drinking, dancing and firing their weapons in the air are undeniably Croats. The main grocery store has been looted down to the last four bottles of dishwashing soap. On the mountain road snaking out of town past convoys of Croat soldiers, abandoned livestock scavenge through burning houses. Darkness has fallen and the sky is a bright red from the flames devouring a roadside farmhouse. The bus intercom plays Louis Armstrong's What A Wonderful World.

The question preoccupying western diplomats and UN officials last week was whether there was any role left for international community in the former Yugoslavia. In Ottawa, foreign affairs officials said the future of the 2,100 Canadian peacekeepers in the region would be determined once the UN re-examined its mandate this week. But closer to the scene, there was a sense of events unfolding according to a strategy that was out of the international community's hands. "What has happened this week is just what Tudjman and Milosevic have wanted all along," said Tanja Tagirov, a human rights lawyer of Serb-Russian descent living in the Croatian capital. "They are realizing their dream of ethnically pure states."

Graham Day, a Canadian who heads the UN civilian affairs mission in western Slavonia, believes that the region's communities can return to their former ethnic mix some day. Most Serbs fled from that region when Croatia reasserted its control in May. "But ordinary people don't live in fear of their neighbors," said Day. "Anybody with clean hands can come back tomorrow - if the intimidation from their own leaders is not too overwhelming."

But the propaganda war to dehumanize and demonize the enemy is powerful. Both Tudjman and Milosevic exert tight control over their respective media. And tour guide Dubravka Maric deftly illustrated the prevailing attitude towards impartiality as the foreign journalists left her bus in Zagreb. "Remember to try to write a good story," she said.

Maclean's August 21, 1995