news 12 Aug 13

Refugee Killings Controversy Haunts Croatian Serbs’ Memorial

Police guarded Serbs holding a religious service to commemorate those killed during the Croatian army’s Operation Storm in 1995 after war veterans threatened to disrupt the ceremony.

Boris Pavelic

About 20 Serbian war veterans and relatives of victims attended an Orthodox mass on Saturday in the central Croatian village of Zirovac to commemorate Serbs who were killed in August 1995 during Operation Storm.

They were guarded by police because Croatian war veterans had threatened to forcefully prevent the planned unveiling of a memorial plaque to those killed during the operation, which saw Croatian forces take back territory which had been held by Serbs since 1991.

War veterans’ associations bitterly opposed the idea of installing the plaque, calling it a “falsification of history”, and the planned unveiling was ultimately cancelled.

The commemoration was organised by Zeljko Vukelic from the Serbian city of Novi Sad, the president of the Association of Participants in Armed Conflicts on Former Yugoslavia Territory.

“We are not coming to Croatia to provoke anybody. We just want to pray for the killed and missing Serbs from Operation Storm,” Vukelic told Croatian daily Slobodna Dalmacija.

Vukelic said that about 350 Serbs were killed “by Croats and Muslims” between the Croatian towns of Glina and Dvor, close to the border with Bosnia and Herzegovina, during the mass exodus of Serbs from Croatia sparked by Operation Storm.

During Operation Storm, Croatian and Bosnian forces operated together against Serb forces on both sides of Croatian-Bosnian border.

One Croatian veteran, Ivica Pandza, who has investigated the conflict in that area for years, told media that he had collected “reliable documents and shots” showing what happened to the column of Serb refugees who were killed while walking from Glina to Dvor towards Bosnia.

“Those documents shows that the crime against those refugees was undoubtedly perpetrated by the Serbian unit commanded by Yugoslav army general Mile Novakovic,” Panzda said.

Pandza also accused Vukelic of being the wartime commander of the 21st commando squad of the Serbian Krajina army, part of the Serb force that controlled the territory in Croatia before Operation Storm. Pandza said the squad was “organised and equipped by the Serbian military counterespionage service”.

Vukelic did not deny this, but insisted that he “didn’t violate the laws of war”.

Meanwhile, a Croatian war veterans’ association from Koprivnica hit back at Vukelic on Monday by demanding that his home city, Novi Sad in Serbia, erect a memorial to Croatian civilians killed by Serbs when the Croatian town of Vukovar fell in 1991.

“If former Serbian aggressor Zeljko Vukelic together with his association can come to Croatia without any problems, then there is no reason to prevent the town of Novi Sad erecting a monument in memory of Croatian victims on the day of the occupation of Vukovar,” the veterans’ group said in an open letter to the mayor of Novi Sad.

The controversy about how the Serbian refugees were killed in August 1995 near Zirovac remains one of the unexplained mysteries of Operation Storm.

Serb sources claim they were killed by Croatian and Bosniak forces, while Croatian war veterans and official sources claim that Serbian tanks overran the refugee column in their rush to withdraw to Bosnia after the Croatian military victory.

On the 18th anniversary of Storm on August 5, Croatian human rights associations warned in an open letter to the authorities in Zagreb that “even 18 years after the Storm operation, we still lack detailed analysis of all victims and all crimes perpetrated during and after the operation”.

A total of about 700 Serbs are believed to have been killed during the operation and about 200,000 forced from their homes.

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