For the past few weeks, I have been diligently preparing to write these few dozen lines of thoughts that I had been offered the opportunity to share. In classic historian fashion, this involved studying available sources about those several days in August 1995 and the ensuing consequences. Soon enough, I realized that I had to take a step back and ended up with various handbooks on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia and the most commonly used legal terms (in some less lucid moments, I regretted not choosing law instead of political science as my field of study). Additionally, I delved into literature that would provide me with the context in which the military-police operation Storm was planned and executed.
However, as one of my professors often said, at some point, I had to interrupt the comforting process of browsing and note-taking and confront the relentless whiteness of the screen. The idea was as follows: I would present the reader with all that I had read and provide my text with ruthless legitimacy via facts. This was even more important because I was guided by the data from the research paper “The War of the Nineties from the Perspective of Youth in Croatia,” published last year by the Youth Initiative for Human Rights, which showed that one in two inhabitants of Croatia aged 18 to 30 is not familiar with the fact that there were killings of civilians after Storm.
This data is undoubtedly disheartening, but I don’t think we should be shocked by it. On the contrary, it is the result of a thirty-year-long, meticulously and consciously built narrative about the war. And what is history if not a grand narrative? This narrative or history – whichever you prefer – has found its place in every sphere of life in Croatia, so it is not surprising that young people complete their primary and secondary education in blissful ignorance of the crimes committed by the Croatian side.
The war belongs in the past, and the youth are the future, so they shouldn’t be burdened with it, you might say. But even if we put aside growing up in a post-conflict society and all the burdens that carries, it has been shown that among young people, ethnic distance is much more pronounced than among their parents, mainly because they lack the experience of living in a multi-ethnic community. The previous sentence is the result of a thirty-year-long, meticulously and consciously built policy that places an ethnically homogeneous Croatian Croatia on a pedestal.
In such a process of creating history, it is almost impossible to talk to younger generations about the six hundred killed Serbian civilians and two hundred thousand displaced people whose return was systematically obstructed through more subtle legal and bureaucratic methods like the Citizenship Law, or less subtle ones, which through looting and destruction of their remaining property actually put an end to what was left of primary social relationships – impossible, that is, without also admitting that, regardless of the conclusion of the Gotovina et al. trial that the goal was not the permanent removal of the Serbian population from Krajina, it turned out to be quite convenient that it happened that way.
As I hinted at the beginning of this text, I planned, somewhat conservatively, to present what I had read and thus contribute to sharing information that might not be known to the reader. But somewhere along the way, I realized that it would be to some extent a way of escaping into a protected, ivory tower of facts. Besides, the data exists, and it is relatively easy to access it, so it seems more important to address the political climate that allowed for the ignorance of half of the young people in Croatia, and the easy forgetfulness of those to whom age cannot serve as an excuse.
Among the ruling political elite in Croatia – the ones who should be the main bearers of the process of dealing with the past – there was a shift three years ago towards timidly abandoning the almost anthological phrase about the purity of Storm, which caused a public discussion about Serbian civilian victims, ultimately leading to Andrej Plenkovic’s visit to Varivode. Note that the existence of victims was already mentioned in the Croatian Parliament’s Declaration on Storm from 2006. However, it was a watered-down phrase calling for the condemnation of “every individual and all crimes that actually happened during and after the operations Flash and Storm, whose victims, unfortunately – as is usual in wars – were innocent and powerless civilians,” but without a clear indication of who committed those crimes, with what objectives, and who those civilians were.
Almost three years later, a video became available to the public in which Dario Kordic, one of the leaders of the Croatian Community of Herzeg-Bosnia and a convicted war criminal for the deaths of Bosniak civilians in Bosnia and Herzegovina, clearly states that “every second” of prison and war was worth it and that he would “do it all over again.” You may wonder what Kordic has to do with Storm. Indirectly, nothing, but the reaction of the Croatian political leadership to his statement – or, more accurately, the lack of reaction – speaks volumes about the readiness to extend a hand of reconciliation only when victory is unquestionably on our side, or more explicitly, when it is not legally challenged by the courts. Only then is it possible to assume the role of a gracious winner who, well, admits that there were indeed crimes and expresses regret for that (but, if we want to be nitpicky, doesn’t actually offer an apology!). In simpler terms, various Kordics and similar figures and the attitude towards them are all actually indicative of how far Croatia has come in accepting its own crimes.
But it seems that nothing is new in the east either – as I was writing this text, it was announced that the nationalist performance that takes place in Serbia every year regarding Operation Storm could potentially reach its peak this August with the commemoration of the Day of Remembrance for the Victims and the Displaced in Storm in Prijedor, a city where during 1992, the Keraterm, Omarska, and Trnopolje camps were established, and where Bosnian Serb armed forces killed over three thousand non-Serb civilians, predominantly Bosniaks. As if it wasn’t hypocritical enough that Serbs who fled Croatia due to Storm were treated in Serbia as second-class citizens at best, and deserters who were then forcibly mobilized and sent to the battlefields in Bosnia and Kosovo at worst. Such political decisions perfectly illustrate the selectivity of the victim culture present in Serbia.
It is easy to slip into a perverse competition to see who will better present the culture that we have been feeding on for the past thirty years – we have the culture of victory, and the Serbs have the culture of victimhood (although it should be noted that the culture of victimhood is present in Croatia as well, but it mostly hibernates during the spring and summer months). Let’s imagine them as two pumped-up guys entering a bar, sucking all the air out of the room in their desire to prove themselves, leaving no space for someone who would bring awareness of the complexity of the war, its victors, and its victims, as well as the importance of taking responsibility for how we will treat them. Because, considering the data from the War of the Nineties and allowing myself to assume that the situation among young people in Serbia is not drastically different, it is clear that this might not be the case if there was a willingness to create that space in our imaginary bar.
Senna Šimek (1998) graduated in political science from the Faculty of Political Science and is currently completing her graduate studies in modern and contemporary history at the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences in Zagreb. She is employed at the Youth Initiative for Human Rights Croatia.
Translated by Luna Djordjevic