News 18 May 15

20,000 Mourn Croatia’s Dead at Controversial WWII Site

More than 20,000 people came to the town of Bleiburg in Austria to mourn Croatia’s defeated Nazi collaboration forces and civilians killed by Yugoslav Partisans 70 years ago.

Sven Milekic
BIRN
Bleiburg
The central stage on Bleiburg field.

People from all over Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and other countries gathered at a field near the town of Bleiburg in southern Austria on Saturday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the killings at the end of WWII.

At the commemoration organised by the centre-right Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, party and the Catholic Church, the archbishop of Zagreb, Josip Bozanic, led a holy mass for the troops and civilians who died.

“Today we have gathered in this field where... the Bleiburg tragedy of the Croatian people began - a crime against humanity which was systematically carried out by the Yugoslav army under the sign of the red five-pointed star,” Bozanic said during the mass.

Fleeing troops from the Nazi-aligned wartime Independent State of Croatia, NDH, along with other collaboration forces from Serbia and Slovenia, accompanied by thousands of civilians, surrendered to the British Army and Yugoslav Partisans in Bleiburg on May 15 1945.

The captives were then taken back to Yugoslavia by the Partisans. Estimates of vary, but according to Croatian historians, around 30,000 of them were killed on the way, most of them in Tezno and Macelj in Slovenia.

Bozanic said that the end of the war and the start of Communist rule in Yugoslavia marked “the beginning of the persecution, imprisonment and killing of innocent people”.

“We need a shift from all evil ideologies; fascism, Nazism, and Communism. In our country, soaked in blood, it is important to seek the truth,” he said.

He called on the Croatian authorities to work towards finding the remains of all those killed along the way from Bleiburg – a route referred to in Croatia as “the road to Calvary”.

Dragan Covic, the Croat member of Bosnia and Herzegovina’s tripartite presidency, recalled how the killings were a taboo topic during what he called “five decades of Communist repression” in the former Yugoslavia.

“For mentioning Bleiburg, one would end up in a communist prison,” he added.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic did not attend the ceremony after making an unannounced visit to pay tribute on Thursday last week.

Instead she sent as her representative Bruna Esih, president of the Hrvatski krizni put association dedicated to preserving the memory of Bleiburg.

Esih complained that the left-wing-majority Croatian parliament ceased to finance the Bleiburg commemoration event in 2012.

“There is no power which can deny the right of a nation to pay its respects to its fallen ones; there is no power which could be more strongly unified in its striving to claim that right,” she said.

A Muslim imam is always present at the annual ceremony because a number of Muslim Bosniaks from Bosnia and Herzegovina were also executed along the way.

The mufti from Zagreb’s Muslim community, Aziz Hasanovic, attended this year and noted that émigré Croats, descendants of people who survived the killings, had kept the memory of Bleiburg alive until the end of Communist rule.

After the speeches, delegations laid wreaths and paid their respects at the central Bleiburg memorial.

After laying a wreath, the president of the Croatian HDZ, Tomislav Karamarko, said that society should accept that Yugoslav Partisan leader Josip Broz Tito was responsible for the crimes.

“Croatian social democracy will never be a true social democracy until it renounces the criminal Josip Broz Tito; only then, a Croatian left will be born,” Karamarko told journalists.

Over the years, the Bleiburg commemoration has attracted further controversy because some people who attended dressed up in the uniforms of Croatia’s wartime Ustasa troops and directed hate speech against Serbs and Communists.

At Saturday’s commemoration however, only a small minority were dressed in Ustasa uniforms, while Ustasa songs were only sung in a nearby food and drink tent.

The central stage on Bleiburg field.
Man holding a flag from an association of 1990s war veterans.
Stalls offering T-shirts dedicated to the 70th anniversary of Bleiburg.
Bleiburg merchandise stalls.
A stylised Maltese cross with red and white checks, characteristic of the NDH and the hiistoric Croatian coat of arms.
Ustasa songs could be heard in the drinks tent.
A lot of young people attended the event.
Various organisations from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina sent delegations.
Flags of Croats coming from all over the world could be seen at Bleiburg.
Various Croatian symbols were on display.
Official flag of Croatian Defence Council, HVO, a Croat force in the 1990s war in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
The flag of a Croatian far-right party, Croatian Pure Party of Rights, with the Ustasa slogan "Za dom spremni".
Anti-government placards were also present at the event.
"Croatian communists still expel their own people today" says a German Croat emigre banner.
Anssociation from Tenja in eastern Croatia advocates a memorial centre for the killed and missing from the 1990s war.
The same organization asks why Croatia rehabilitates Serb war criminals and normalises relations with Serbia.
Photos and names of Croats missing from the Tenja municipality from the war in the 1990s.
Participants record their memory of the event.
Croats from Livno in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
People pray during the mass for the dead.
This year's commemoration was one of the biggest ever.
The central stage during the holy mass.
A priest reads a prayer.
The archbishop of Zagreb, Josip Bozanic, leads the prayers.
Catholic symbols were highkly visible at the event.
Organiszations and individuals brough wreaths to place at the central memorial.
Guards in historical uniforms next to the central memorial.
Dragan Covic, a member of the presidency of Bosna and Herzegovina, makes his speech.
A mufti from Zagreb's Muslim community, Aziz Hasanovic, leads a prayer.
People wearing hats typical of the Croatian region of Dalmatia.
Man wearing a cap of the Domobran unit of the NDH army.
People came from all across the region.
People carrying flags of units from the 1990s war.
People were trying to get close to the central stage and the monument.

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