News 05 Aug 15

Croatia Celebrates Operation Storm Anniversary; Serbia Mourns

Croatia staged a military parade to mark the 20th anniversary of its victory in Operation Storm, which defeated Serb rebels, while Serbia commemorated the dead and the refugees.

Sven Milekic, Ivana Nikolic
BIRN
Zagreb, Belgrade
Croatian tanks in the parade in Zagreb. Photo by Beta.

The Croatian authorities staged a showpiece parade in Zagreb on Tuesday evening to mark the anniversary of the operation in August 1995 which saw Croatian forces defeat rebel Serbs and retake 18 per cent of Croatia’s territory, effectively ending the war.

Thousands of spectators watched around 3,000 soldiers and policemen, 300 military vehicles and 30 planes take part in the event which began with the singing of the national anthem and the raising of a huge Croatian flag that was originally flown at a fortress in the town of Knin during the operation 20 years ago.

“This is a march of peace, not war; a parade of dignity with which we have shown that we appreciate and love our own. We grieve for every defender [Croatian soldier in the 1990s war] who has been killed, disappeared or gave his health for his homeland,” said Croatian President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, who opened the parade.

“We didn’t want this war, but we were forced into it and that’s the only truth. We defended ourselves and we’re moving on,” she added.

Grabar Kitarovic at the parade. Photo by Beta.

Representatives of the US, China, Poland, Lithuania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Albania and Macedonia were among the foreign officials who attended.

Croatian Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic said that Operation Storm was justified in order to keep Croatia “alive and complete”.

“Croatia isn’t celebrating war today, it’s not celebrating anyone’s suffering or persecution... is Croatia celebrating freedom and peace; celebrating victory with a pure heart, a turning point that brought an end to an ugly, imposed and particularly mean war,” Milanovic said.

Croatian generals Ante Gotovina and Mladan Markac were acquitted by the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia of committing war crimes against Serbs during the operation.

Gotovina, who attended the parade, said that Operation Storm was “the beginning of peace”.

“It solved the problem of the occupied territories, it defeated a force of aggression,” he said.

Vucic and Dodik throw weaths into the River Sava.

Photo by Beta.

While the anniversary was celebrated in Zagreb, Serbia held a commemoration event for more than 200,000 Serbs who fled Croatia because of Operation Storm, which Belgrade sees as large-scale ethnic cleansing. Over 600 mostly elderly Serbs who stayed behind were killed in the aftermath.

Serbian Prime Minister Aleksandar Vucic and Milorad Dodik, the president of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, led the ceremony on Tuesday evening at the Sremska Raca border crossing with Bosnia, where Serbs fleeing Operation Storm entered Serbia 20 years ago.

In front of a crowd of several thousand people, the two leaders symbolically threw wreaths into the River Sava from the bridge that the refugees crossed as they escaped.

Vucic said in a speech that it was “hard to find sadder day in recent Serbian history than this one”, and described the Croatian operation as “the biggest ethnic cleansing since World War II”.

“Today we are sending a clear message to the world - that the crimes should be forgiven but not forgotten,” he said, insisting meanwhile that Serbia wants good relations with Croatia.

Vucic and the Serbian Patriarch at the commemoration.

Photo by Beta.

Dodik praised Serbia for taking in huge numbers of refugees.

“Serbia did everything it could to accept the expelled Serbs and it was a refuge for all of them... This bridge represented everything back in those days: freedom, truth, peace, a safe escape from death,” he said.

Of the Serbs who fled, about 50,000 have since returned to their homes in Croatia.

The Croatian authorities are also planning a major celebration on Wednesday in Knin, a town which is one of the symbols of the 1990s war because it was the stronghold of the rebel Serbs until it was taken back at the start of Operation Storm.

A museum dedicated to Operation Storm will be opened at Knin fortress, where Grabar Kitarovic will also unveil a statue of 1990s Croatian president and wartime leader Franjo Tudmjan.

Wreaths will be laid at an event led by officials on the town square, then popular nationalist Croatian singer Marko Perkovic Thompson will headline a concert in the evening.

Knin officials said they expected some 100,000 visitors to attend the celebration.

In Belgrade on Wednesday, there will be a memorial service and church bells and air raid sirens will sound at noon in commemoration.

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