Comment 08 Nov 10

Tadic Lays Ghosts of Croatia’s War to Rest

Serbian president’s statesmanlike apology, in a town that symbolises Croatia’s wartime suffering, has opened a new chapter in relations between these two distrustful neighbours.  

Drago Hedl

What was once seen as impossible, unthinkable and unreal finally occurred on November 4 in Vukovar, eastern Croatia. There, where members of his people killed more than 200 Croats in November 1991, Serbia’s President uttered words of apology and repentance.

The arrival of Boris Tadic in a town that for Croats is a symbol of death and suffering, and his bowing to the memory of the victims, cannot be compared with anything else that has happened in relations between Croatia and Serbia in the last two decades - since these two countries, 19 years ago, in a bloody war, severed ties with the joint state in which they had lived until then.

The President’s words, spoken with a bowed head, at the place where more than 200 wounded people from Vukovar hospital and the town were executed, was of immense historical significance. It is a gesture of which only great statesmen are capable, recalling the historic action of the West German Chancellor, Willy Brandt, when he knelt before the monument to Jewish victims of the Warsaw ghetto.

“I came here today to bow before the victims and intend to pay them respects,” Tadic said. “In bowing to the victims, I came here to once again send words of apology, express my regret and create the possibility for Serbia and Croatia to turn a new leaf in history,” he added.

Later, when he laid a wreath bearing the inscription: “To the innocent victims, President of Serbia Boris Tadic,” he continued: “The confession of the crime, apology and regret, create conditions for forgiveness and reconciliation.”

Hours later, on the same day, about 50 kilometres away, in Paulin Dvor, near Osijek, where in the night of December 11 and 12, 1991, the Croatian Army killed 19 civilians in revenge, Croatia’s President, Ivo Josipovic, bowed to those victims. “The crime deserves condemnation, the victims our piety, and those left behind by the victims our apology,” he said.

Both presidents have thus proven what Josipovic said on that historic day: that for Serbia and Croatia, burdened for years by the consequences of a horrific war, “a different policy is possible, a policy of peace and friendship”.

Tadic arrived on Croatia across the river Danube on The Dove, a vessel whose name carries a good deal of symbolism. In crossing a river that has divided the two neighbouring countries for so long, on a ship bearing the name of the bird that is the symbol of peace, he created a firm bridge of reconciliation.

When he stepped onto the right, Croatian, bank of the river, the 50 or so people waiting there greeted him with applause.
Tadic’s words of apology at Ovcara, where after the fall of Vukovar, on November 18, 1991, more than 200 people were killed, were the crucial point of his visit to Croatia. But his meeting with representatives of associations and families of victims was equally important.

Together with Tadic’s visit, a package of 25 documents taken after the fall of Vukovar from the town hospital was returned. These documents may help uncover the fate of at least some of the 1,024 missing people for whom Croatia is still looking. For the families of victims, along with the apology that they accepted, it could mean much relief.

Some of the families of the victims present at Ovcara, while Tadic was laying his wreath and saying his apology, turned their backs on him. A smaller group of protestors, mostly members of the far-right Croatian Party of Rights, carried placards slogans protesting against the visit.

But although the event was assessed as high risk and was guarded by strong security forces, the seven-hour visit to Vukovar and Paulin Dvor passed off without incident.

“The important thing is what he said; we have been waiting for this for 19 years,” a mother of one of the defenders killed during the siege of Vukovar said.

Similar words were heard in Paulin Dvor after Croatia’s President apologised for the killing of the innocent victims there. “After this, it is somewhat easier,” a man who lost two members of his family in Paulin Dvor said.

Croatian officials greeted this important event, saying it turned a new leaf in relations between two neighbouring countries.

It was a rare moment when both government and opposition agreed on something. The deputy speaker of parliament, Vladimir Seks, from the ruling Croatian Democratic Union, HDZ, called Tadic’s statement “excellent” and “a worthy statesmanlike gesture that did not contain only regret but also apology for the innocent victims.”

Zeljka Antunovic, from the opposition Social Democratic Party, sounded a similar note: “An apology requires courage. I hope that the each day to come will be marked in accordance with this apology.”

The media also hailed Tadic’s visit as historic. Davor Butkovic, from the daily Jutarnji list, described Tadic’s visit “as an event of exceptionally and highly positive significance”, expressing hope that it may “at least partially help remove the huge mistrust that still exists in places, especially in Vukovar, between Croats and Serbs”.

From the daily Vecernji list, Jasmina Popovic said she believed that after Tadic’s bow to victims and words of apology at Ovcara “the demand for new apologies would become obsolete”.

Judging by what a dozen young representatives of human rights associations from Belgrade, Zagreb and Vukovar did on the day of the meeting in Vukovar, the presidents’ words of reconciliation had a strong effect.

Members of generations that at the time of the Vukovar tragedy were only just born or only few years old dropped white roses from the bridge over the river that the victims of the Ovcara crime had to cross before they were executed. For this generation, on which the future depends, it was clear that Tadic’s and Josipovic’s words had additional power and meaning.

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