Feature 05 Aug 15

Operation Storm Anniversary Shows Bosnia’s Ethnic Divisions

Politicians from different ethnic groups either celebrated Croatia’s victory during Operation Storm or mourned the Serb victims, highlighting divisions that still paralyse the country 20 years on.

Katarina Panic, Srecko Latal
BIRN
Prijedor, Sarajevo
Storm commemoration at Sremska Raca. Photo by Beta.

The president of Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity of Republika Srpska, Milorad Dodik, stood solemnly next to Serbian Premier Aleksandar Vucic on a bridge over the River Sava near Sremska Raca on Tuesday evening as the two Serb officials symbolically threw wreaths into the Sava river to mourn the victims of the 20th anniversary of the Croatian military’s Operation Storm.

“This bridge represented everything back in those days: freedom, truth, peace, and a safe escape from death,” Dodik said during the ceremony which commemorated more than 200,000 Serbs who fled Croatia because of the military operation in August 1995 and more than 600 mostly elderly people who stayed behind and were killed.

The same evening, some 320 kilometres to the west, Bosnia’s defence minister Marina Pendes and the chief of staff of the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, General Ante Jelec, joined Croatian dignitaries at a showpiece military parade in Zagreb to celebrate victory in the same Operation Storm.

Speaking to local media before going to Zagreb, Pendes said that Storm was a legitimate military operation: “Croatian territory needed to be liberated so that [Croat] refugees could return to their homes, and the [Croatian] state could get every inch of its territory back under its sovereignty,” she said.

Religious ceremony at the commemoration. Photo by Beta.

But her deputy, a Serb called Boris Jerinic, told media that Bosnian officials’ participation in the military parade in Zagreb, without official approval from Bosnia’s presidency or government, was a worrying precedent.

Jerinic said that the anniversary was not a cause for celebration but “a day of mourning because of the biggest exodus [of refugees] since World War II”.

These conflicting opinions, similar to the heightened ethnic and political tensions which have surrounded the recent 20th anniversary of the Srebrenica genocide, reflect the persistent divisions between Bosniaks, Croats and Serbs in Bosnia and Herzegovina which are exacerbated by rival views of wartime events.

“It is the reality of our region that we have at least three different views on such events and someone who is a criminal for somebody is always a hero for someone else,” the Croat chairman of Bosnia’s tripartite presidency, Dragan Covic, told local media. He added that he did not attend the parade in Zagreb because he was not invited.

Many Serbs who fled Croatia during the war finally found refuge in Republika Srpska. In the north-western Prijedor area alone, there are 700 Serb families from Croatia.

Serbs from Prijedor waiting for free transport to the commemoration at Sremska Raca.

Some Republika Srpska municipalities even organised free transportation for those who wanted to attend the commemoration on the River Sava at Sremska Raca. One bus was waiting at Prijedor bus station at noon on Tuesday, but was eventually cancelled because only eight people appeared, including only one Serb from Croatia.

Biljana Lukic, a Serb from the Croatian port town of Sibenik who now lives in Prijedor, said she did not even consider attending the ceremony at Sremska Raca, although during the war many members of her family fled from Croatia to Republika Srpska and to Serbia, where they still live today.

Lukic, like many others, believe that across the region politicians organise parades and commemorations to commemorate key historic events for populist reasons, but have effectively abandoned or forgotten ordinary people and their genuine, everyday needs.

“People have given up on politicians. People have lost their faith in politicians. People are completely disappointed and don’t care about anything,” Lukic told BIRN.

“It is good not to be forgotten, but it is too late now. I have to say that this [ceremony at Sremska Raca] is a little bit silly and ridiculous - a tragicomedy,” she said.

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