Feature 01 May 15

The Contested History of Croatia's Operation Flash

Croatia is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the victorious military operation which it says liberated its territory, but thousands of Serb civilians who fled in fear say their suffering has been ignored.

Sven Milekic
The Croatian Army during Operation Flash. Photo: Beta.

The 20th anniversary of the operation is being marked on Friday in Okucani, the biggest town in the western Slavonia area that was taken back by Croatian forces on May 1 and 2, 1995.

Croatia’s political leadership - President Kolinda Grabar Kitarovic, Prime Minister Zoran Milanovic and parliamentary chairman Josip Leko - will be present to mark the occasion while will include a Catholic mass for killed soldiers and a music and sports festival.

According to the state and Croatian fighters, Flash was a well-executed military operation which marked the beginning of the end of the war in the country.

During the operation, 7,200 Croatian soldiers and policemen defeated the army of the self-proclaimed Republic of Serbian Krajina and recovered control over 500 square kilometres of territory in western Slavonia which had been held by Serb forces since autumn 1991.

According to Croatia’s data, its forces lost 42 men during the operation, while Serb military losses are unknown. Around 30,000 Serbs left the territory after the operation, mostly for Bosnia and Herzegovina or Serbia.

Croatian general Marijan Marekovic, who participated in the operation, said on the 18th anniversary in 2013 that Flash was highly significant in several ways.

“It was important that after two years of peace - because after the Medak Pocket [military operation] in 1993, we spent time just training soldiers - Croatia showed it can do it,” Marekovic said, explaining that Croatia’s forces had to prove that a large-scale operation can be conducted successfully.

“Also, we needed to learn the lessons that we learned for another operation, a much larger and crucial one for the country - Storm,” he added.

The Croatian military operation Storm in August 1995 ended the four-year-long occupation by Serb rebels, with Croatia regaining control over 20 per cent of its territory.

Battlefield movements during the operation. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Serb civilian victims say however that they have failed to get justice for what they suffered during the operation.

On May 1, 1995, according to Zagreb-based NGO Documenta and HHO, the Croatian Army killed 22 civilians, including 11 women and three children, in the village of Medari near Nova Gradiska in western Slavonia.

Two sisters, Radmila and Mirjana Vukovic survived the massacre by chance because they went to high school in a nearby town in Bosnia and Herzegovina. Their father, mother and seven-year-old sister were killed that day.

“It’s horrible, horrible... I don’t know what to say. We cannot come to terms with that fact,” Radmila Vukovic said, crying as she spoke.

“The fact that no one was found responsible for it after 20 years - it’s horrible,” she said.

The bodies of her relatives were exhumed in March 2011. Vukovic said that the case was still in the pre-investigation phase.

“I cannot believe that 20 years have already passed, it seems like three or four years have passed,” she said.

Vukovic and her sister sued the Croatian state in September 2006 for non-material damages for killing their family. But the case was dismissed by the municipal court in Nova Gradiska for being “without legal grounds” in November 2009.

Before the court’s decision, the Croatian state attorney office rejected an out-of-court settlement because the Medari killings are interpreted not as a war crime but as ‘collateral damage’ during the fighting.

Vukovic said that she and her sister still have to pay around 3,150 euro in court fees. She added that because they have not paid yet, their family house in Medari is under threat of seizure.

They have filed a complaint, asking for the state to write off the court fees, but have not received any official response, she said.

The number of Serb civilians killed in the operation remains unclear.

According to the Serbian NGO Veritas, 283 people were killed, while the Croatian Helsinki Committee for Human Rights, HHO, says the figure is below 90.

No one has been convicted of any of these killings in Croatia.

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