News 05 Aug 17

Croatia Honours Operation Storm Victory, Mourns Deaths

Politicians celebrated the 22nd anniversary of the victorious military Operation Storm, saying it allowed Croatia to become a modern European state, at a commemoration which this year was almost free of extreme nationalist outbursts.

Sven Milekic
BIRN
Zagreb
The Croatian leadership during the national anthem and raising of the flag. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Stipe Majic.

In the presence of the country’s entire political leadership, war veterans and about 8,000 people in the southern town of Knin on Saturday, Croatia officially celebrated its victory over Serb rebels in 1995’s military Operation Storm.

Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, Prime Minister Andrej Plenkovic and parliament chair Gordan Jandrokovic laid wreaths and paid their respects at the monument dedicated to the victory on Knin’s central square.

Grabar Kitarovic said that Croatia hopes that one day even Serbs will celebrate Storm as the operation that “ended Greater Serbian aggression”.

“As far as Croatia is concerned, we are sorry for every life, both Serbian and Croatian, and for all who died in Storm and the Homeland War [Croatia’s 1990s war] in general,” she said.

Grabar Kitarovic concluded that she agrees with Knin’s mayor Marko Jelic, who said that officials should pay respect to Serb victims of the operation – several hundred of whom died during and after Storm.

In his speech, Plenkovic said that Storm prevented a potential genocide being committed in the western Bosnian town of Bihac, which at that time was surrounded by Serb forces.

“Storm prevented another Srebrenica [from happening]. It will remain remembered as the biggest victory in Croatia’s history,” he said.

Plenkovic explained that Croatia was seeking “democracy and independence” while bring confronted by “brutal aggression” of the Serbian regime led by Slobodan Milosevic.

He added that there “wouldn’t be” the same present-day Croatia, a member of the EU and NATO, without Operation Storm.

He also said that Croatia is seeking to become a country in which “all minorities are integrated into the society”.

Patriotic songs

Military parade through Knin. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Stipe Majic.

The celebration began in the morning with a military orchestra playing Croatian patriotic songs on Knin fortress, overlooking the town.

Croatian 1990s war veterans on motorbikes, as well as soldiers representing all the troops that took part in Operation Storm paraded through the town centre.

Military planes did aerial acrobatics, while US-made Kiowa Warrior helicopters made their first public appearance since being acquired from the US last year.

The ceremony included the traditional raising of the Croatian flag on Knin fortress – as soldiers did on August 5, 1995 – with the national anthem playing.

This year’s central event took place in the fortress, instead of on the central square, which some critics saw as a way for politicians to avoid potential expressions of dissatisfaction from the public, as a smaller number of people can fit in the fortress.

After the speeches, representatives of units that participated in the operation paraded from the fortress to the central Catholic church, where a service for those who were killed was held.

Unlike last year, as well as the 20th anniversary in 2015, the event was not seriously marred by nationalist incidents.

Seven people who shouted the 'Za dom spremni' ('Ready for the Home(land)') slogan used by the WWII-era fascist Ustasa movement on Knin's central square were quickly arrested by police.

This year’s celebrations will also not include a concert by Croatian nationalist singer Marko Perkovic Thompson, whose performances have been banned across Europe banned due to pro-fascist incidents and whose concert in Knin in 2015 was marred by anti-Serb chants.

Thompson will however be playing in the town of Slunj in central Croatia on Saturday evening - an event also sponsored by the state.

In a press statement on Saturday, Croatia’s Serbian National Council NGO expressed its regrets for all the victims of the 1990s war in Croatia.

While stating that with Operation Storm, Croatia “regained its territorial integrity based on the resolution of the UN”, it also said that it is hard to comprehend all the destruction and crimes committed during and after Storm.

“It is our duty to insist that all victims have the right to memory and all people are entitled to a peaceful life,” it said.

The Serbian National Council will commemorate the killed and missing Serbs in the village of Uzdolje near Knin on Sunday.

Humanitarian crisis

Kiowa Warrior helicopters fly over Knin. Photo: Anadolu Agency/Stipe Majic.

During Operation Storm, Croatian forces regained territory controlled since late 1991 by rebel Croatian Serbs, who had been helped by the Yugoslav People’s Army and Serbian paramilitaries.

As well as committing large-scale crimes against Croats, the rebel Serb authorities expelled between 200,000 and 250,000 non-Serbs from their unrecognised wartime statelet, the Republic of Serbian Krajina.

After peace talks failed, Croatian special police units and army troops crushed the rebel Serb fighters between August 4 and 7, 1995, and retook all of their territories except ones in eastern Croatia.

The operation led to a humanitarian crisis, as up to 200,000 Serb civilians left Croatia during and after the operation.

Croatian forces and unknown perpetrators also killed a number of Serb civilians during and after the operation; the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights has accounted for 677 victims.

But the Croatian state attorney’s office said in 2012 that there were 27 war crimes committed against 167 people.

The Croatian judiciary has convicted only one person for war crimes committed during and after the Operation, while the bulk of Croatian politicians never visit events commemorating killed Serbs, which causes regular rifts between Croatia and Serbia.

Because of this, some NGOs organise alternative commemorations or awareness-raising campaigns, like the Women’s Network of Croatia, which organised an anti-war protest on Friday, which passed off peacefully unlike a similar event last year.

For the second year in the row, Zagreb-based NGO Youth Initiative for Human Rights, ran an awareness-raising campaign demanding the government to issue an apology to the victims.

The Initiative on Thursday handed over 600 signed citizens’ apologies to a Belgrade-based victims’ association Suza.

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