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Građanski odbor za ljudska prava

REPUBLIC OF CROATIA; WAR AND VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS

 

Any wish you make will be fulfilled, but in a way that you will wish that you have never wished it at all.

Somerset Maugham: "Monkey Paw"

 

Zagreb, 1996.

Zoran Pusi?, president of CCHR

 

INTRODUCTION

 

The year 1989 was one of those rare, relatively short periods which are full of events that determine the history for the following decades.

 

Due to historic distance, our descendants might have a better view on the extent of changes that started in or around 1989 and might classify it as the border of human history; such as, for example, the events of which the bicentennial was celebrated in 1989. For the contemporary, 1989 was certainly the prelude to dramatic events; hundreds of millions of people were about to change convictions and values received through their upbringing, the way of life and the countries in which they lived. The events that followed were extremely tragic for a great number of people, especially for those from Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina; those events were not foreseen by both the people who initiated them and by those who would have been afflicted.

 

The 1989 was the year of hope for Croatia, at that time one of the Yugoslav republics. It was the year of hope that the birth pains of democracy would go around us and that the fresh westerly wind of democratic changes would take us to the safe European harbor. The storms were happening somewhere else. In the newspapers and on TV.

 

It seems that a picture of a lonely man standing at Tienanmen Square in front of the Chinese tanks with the big red stars,  shouting at them, was the image of the accumulated discontent of the peoples under the communist regimes. The events in Rumania, symbolized by Rumanian flags with the holes in the middle, fluttering in the wind of late November, warned that the accumulated frustrations could be solved in pain and blood.

 

However, not everywhere were the tanks and violence the language of power. In Poland, the united opposition with the Solidarity won the first free elections since 1947, thus defeating the ruling Communist Party and peacefully came to power.

 

The similar events took place in Hungary, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia... East Germans razed the Wall and the history,  as a lazy valley river whose dam was suddenly destroyed, 

turned into a flood and threw around all the boatmen who had been safely sailing it for years.

 

In Yugoslavia, the storm happened in the east. The Anti-Bureaucratic Revolution, a project to take the power in Serbia, Montenegro, Voivodina and Kosovo, quite skillfully led by the followers of Slobodan Milosevic within the League of the Communists of Serbia, opened the Pandora's box of militant nationalism.

 

The coal miners at Stari Trg stayed in the mines for days in order to show their protest against the political and physical violence against the Kosovo Albanians. When they finally came out, it was clearly seen on TV that some of them were barely alive. However, the media controlled by the Milosevic regime did not have a word of compassion for them. The news was broadcast that the miners had just pretended and were eating bananas in the mines. The overall blindness and insensibility for all those who were proclaimed enemies of the nation did not augur well.

 

At Gazimestan, celebrating 600 years of the Kosovo battle, Milosevic spoke about the battles yet to come, among which the armed ones were not excluded. A mass "happening of the people" took place in Belgrade; this was the only pro-regime rally in East Europe. It was required at the rally that the new political parties should be banned - in Slovenia and Croatia!

 

Meanwhile, the Prime Minister Ante Markovic introduced the convertible dinar in 1989; for the most people in Yugoslavia it was the first home convertible currency ever. The psychological effect was enormous and, according to the newspaper polls, Ante Markovic became the most popular person in Yugoslavia. It was evident that the Prime Minister and the majority of the Government were in favour of economic as well as political changes that would bring Yugoslavia closer to European Community.

 

The new political parties were established all over Croatia and Slovenia in 1989.  The newspapers (and to a lesser extent TV) began to have a critical view on political events; they published non-censored information while the interesting polemics showing different political viewpoints were held. The Slovenian star, a symbol of the League of the Communists of Slovenia, was painted yellow to show a tendency for European integrations; a lot of people thought that we finally reached the light at the end of the tunnel.

 

 

FIRST ELECTIONS AND THE VICTORY OF CDU (CROATIAN DEMOCRATIC UNION)

 

In its session of 10 December 1989, the Presidency of the Central Committee of the League of the Communists of Croatia decided to  call free and early elections in the Socialist Republic of Croatia. 10 December is the International Day of Human Rights; it seemed like a significant date for such a decision.

 

The 14th emergency congress of the League of the Communists of Yugoslavia was held in Belgrade in January 1990.

 

During 1989 the Slovenes became a target of more and more intemperate attacks in the Serbian regime newspapers because of the critical attitude of the Slovene politicians regarding Milosevic's policy at Kosovo. The Slovene delegation was assaulted in a brute and primitive manner at the congress which, by its dramatics, resembled Greek tragedies (the congress was completely broadcast on TV). Each proposal made by the Slovenian delegation was refused and they were completely outvoted. Two days later, the Slovenes left the congress, some of them in tears, and many delegates laughed at them and whistled them down. The Serbian and Montenegrin delegations wanted to continue the congress, as if nothing had happened, but the Croatian delegates insisted on ending the congress ("Or we will also leave"). The congress was suspended; this event is considered to be the end of the League of the Communists of Yugoslavia. Many thought of it as evil tidings that the outcome for Yugoslavia might be different from the European happy end.

 

In Croatia, the vast majority of Croats began to feel Milosevic's militant nationalism and his aggressive propaganda as an open threat. Some outstanding citizens of Croatia, though of Serb nationality, openly condemned Milosevic's policy. However, in places where the Serbs were the majority of population, the people were confused and frightened. The proportion of Serbs in the League of the Communists of Croatia was twice as high as the proportion of Serbs in the population of Croatia. Despite its bad sides, the League of the Communists of Yugoslavia was a guarantee for lot of them that the crimes committed against the Serbs in Croatia by the extreme Croatian nationalists in the Second World War would not happen again. The propaganda from Serbia about the Serb nationality being endangered, about the Slovenian treason, about the Croats being inclined to genocide and about Milosevic as the guardian of all Serbs, here was not counter-productive. For the first time in Croatia, the rallies condemning the Slovenian and Croatian leaders and openly supporting Milosevic were organized (in Karlovac and then at Petrova Gora). Similar rallies were held in the municipalities with the Serb majority; the Milosevic's pictures were always present, but also local and guest extremists, often showing the chetnik insignia, were louder and louder.

 

As it was clearly seen on the example of Serbia, the feeling of fear and jeopardy can easily be transferred into aggressive nationalism. Milosevic's faction in League of the Communists of Serbia cunningly used that feeling and took over the power in Serbia. In Croatia, where new political parties were founded daily, it would have really been strange that some of them would not choose to present nationalism, whether endemic or inducted by fear and jeopardy, as their program.

 

When the Croatian Democratic Union (CDU) appeared in public in 1989, few political analysts would grant them serious chances at eventual, hypothetical elections. The president of CDU, Franjo Tu|man, looked like some political original with his intemperate statements uttered in a ridiculous newspeak, full of Croatian archaisms.

 

In less then a year, this party developed from a total outsider to the leading opposition party to the ruling League of the Communists of Croatia - Party of Democratic Changes, won the relative majority  at the elections on 22 April 1990, won  absolutely the greatest number of seats in the Parliament thanks to the majority electoral system pushed by the communists.  How they did it was and still is analyzed and discussed. Beside the basic criteria necessary for a successful electoral campaign, e. g. enough money and determined leadership knowing its goals, two events might have been crucial for the CDU's success:

- statements made by the CDU officials, in the first place by Franjo Tu|man, who in its intemperance and radical views for the first time resembled the agitations from the "Serb" side.

Therefore, CDU emerged as a party that had a radical response to the threat by the "Serbs". (Milosevic's faction in Serbia won the elections following almost the same rules).

 

- the League of the Communists of Croatia was not prominent either as a determined opposition to Milosevic or by its pro-European orientation (compared to the League of the Communists of Slovenia).  The majority of voters felt the Croatian Communist Party to be the followers of the regime which had been in power for 45 years.

 

 

THE ESCALATION OF NATIONALISM AND WAR

 

Quite like the Milosevic regime in Serbia, the new Croatian authorities were not interested in Markovic's reforms in Yugoslavia. On the contrary, the election victory made the radical statements and requests by the CDU members legitimate. The Croatian emblem as well as the flag were changed; the flag began to resemble the flag of NDH ("Independent State of Croatia"-quisling regime under Naci Germany).

 

Pursuant to the new Croatian Constitution, the Serbs lost the status of a constituent nation and became equal with other ethnic minorities.

 

The personnel changes took place in the state administration, especially in the police where the percentage of the employed Serbs had been  a lot higher then their percentage among the population of Croatia; people started to lose their jobs according to the ethnic principle. (It has gone to such absurdity that four chauffeurs from the Ministry of the Interior, ethnic Serbs, with 20 years of experience were fired because "they did not adapt to democratic changes and failed to show the initiative and creativity at work, which influenced the activities of the Service as a whole.").

 

On the other hand, the fear, spread either by the Serbian propaganda or by louder and louder Croatian nationalism, was intensified in the municipalities with the Serb majority. The people felt JNA (Yugoslav People's Army) to be their only protection, and the influence of local extremists got higher.

The barricades as the resistance to the Croatian authorities were put up on the roads around Knin and Benkovac in August 1990; this resistance would turn into an armed conflict, the occupation of some municipalities where there was no Serb majority and the secession of 1/4 of the Croatian territory within a year.

 

The dramatic events of 1990 turned the light at the end of the tunnel from 1989 into a dark tunnel at the end of light.

 

Two nationalisms, incited by the majority of the media and a lot of politicians entered the phase of the positive feed- back. The extremists inducted one another and Croatia could not be prevented from slipping into the armed ethnic conflicts and the threat of the JNA intervention against Croatian government was less and less covered.

 

The conservative leadership of the JNA, who were reserved regarding the democratic changes "from the west" and the multi-party system, showed a total disorientation in a new situation despite their own slogan that "nothing should surprise them". Milosevic's post-communists rhetoric was sufficient to forget an impact of nationalist expansion that he had initiated. The army leadership directed all its anger to the Slovenian "star painted yellow" and to Tudjman's anti-Communist nationalism.

 

Beside their formal dedication to Yugoslavia, the JNA took one side. The Croatian Territorial Defence were disarmed while the army "protected" the areas in Croatia where the local Serb armed rebels (armed by the army) took power. After the proclamation of independence by Slovenia and Croatia on 25 June 1991, an armed action against these two republics began. The JNA lost the battle, it ended in the smoke and ruins of Vukovar and other towns and villages it shelled and demolished in Croatia. It thus destroyed Yugoslavia not only as a state but also as an idea for near future.

 

            VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS FROM 1991. TO 1996.

 

The armed conflicts, followed by an undeclared war, began in Croatia in 1991. This was the period of the most serious violations of basic human rights. The JNA, i.e. what the army turned into, was destroying the towns and villages in Croatia without any declaration of war; together with the Serbian paramilitary units, the soldiers killed and wounded large number of civilians, shot prisoners of war and the wounded from hospitals, evicted hundreds of thousands of people, mostly Croats, from their homes.

 

A lot of books have already been written about this war, as well as an immense number of reports on violations of human rights. Inspired by inciting and chauvinistic political speeches, people who had been neighbors for years and in whom fear and hatred awoke, did such atrocities to each other, the atrocities which were considered as not to be repeated again after the Second World War in this part of the world. For example, a report made by Helsinki Watch dated early summer 1991 describes some of those atrocities.

War and armed conflicts stopped (temporarily) in 1992 when the units of UNPROFOR took the Croatian borders of the area controlled by rebel Serbs and where "Republic of Serbian Krajina" was proclaimed.

All aspects of violation of human rights, from killing to "ethnic cleansing", took place in the Republic of Serbian Krajina for the whole period of its existence. The victims were mostly the people of "wrong" nationality, Croats, Albanians, Muslims. Few Serbs also suffered, those who dared to oppose the policy and methods of the Knin regime, the policy which was a sort of, not entirely centralized, military and police dictatorship.

 

The number of cases of violations of human rights had decreased in this area since 1992, not because of the change in the regime policy in Krajina, or because of the better discipline of the army and police force controlled by the regime. What happened was in fact an epidemic effect - the epidemic weakens when its actions decrease the number of potential victims. The majority of Croats were evicted, their houses were demolished or taken, and few that opposed all that were silenced.

 

In the part of Croatia controlled by the Croatian Government, the epidemic of violation of human rights was in its early ascending phase. More than 300,000 Serbs lived there; many of their fellow-citizens, driven crazy by both Serbian and Croatian propaganda, as well as by the real events and experiences, started to identify them with the aggressive policy against Croatia, and, consequently, with the crimes committed on behalf of that policy.

 

In autumn 1991 and during 1992, the killings and severe physical ill-treatment of Croatian citizens of Serbian nationality happened in many towns and villages in Croatia. The Serbs living in the areas close to the front lines were especially imperiled: in Vinkovci, Osijek, around Pakrac, in Sisak, Karlovac, Gospic and Zadar. Those who committed crimes and violated human rights in most cases belonged to the special units of the temporary Croatian Army (ZNG) and the police; they did it on their own initiative (as e. m. the shooting of prisoners of war in Karlovac or the case of the Zec family in Zagreb) or were ordered by the local commanders (as in the case of killing of several dozen civilians in the Pakracka Poljana or in Gospic). The victims were not in any connection with the crimes committed by the Serbian paramilitary units, except for one which for the militant nationalists became the one and only ethical criterion: the nationality.

 

In practice, the Croatian Government did not show a minimum will to protect its citizens who became the victims of violence because of their nationality. Among other things, this was the violation of the Constitution of the Republic of Croatia.

 

Another powerful institution, the Catholic Church, condemned the crimes committed by JNA and Serbian paramilitary units on Croats. However, this did not make any special effect on those who committed them. Where the Church could really help and influence, at protection of the innocent people in the areas controlled by the Croatian Government, and where its influence was rather significant, the Church kept intolerably silent instead of acting according to the basic christian values.

 

A small number of organizations for the protection of human rights were at that time founded in the larger Croatian towns. Their formation was initiated by the violations of human rights in their surroundings. Being a sort of grass root level organizations, they strive in the first place to help people in given situations. Their public warnings and critical address to the state institutions because of the violations of human rights scarcely appear in the newspapers.

 

The most frequent cases of the violations of human rights in which the members of the committees for the protection of human rights tried to assist were the following:

 

-          to obtain the Croatian citizenship ,

-          missing persons ,

-          evictions from (military) flats ,

-          failure to implement the court decisions, especially if

-          the perpetrators are the members of the military or       police ,

-          long-term prison sentences because of the conscience objection,       

-          demolition of property, especially blasting the houses ,

-          terminations of work contracts on ethnic principle ,

-          forced drafting of the Croatian citizens for the war in Bosnia 

-          political trials ,

-          acts and decisions contrary to the Constitution (e.g. the Act on Displaced Persons which,

when applied, legalizes the extortion  of private property),

-          expelling people from Croatia .

 

At the time they were founded, the committees for the protection of human rights had but few unexperienced members and no assets; menawhile, the number of cases of violations of human rights was extremely high.

 

The occurrence of certain forms of violations of human rights has decreased over the years, mostly because of the "epidemic effect" (e.g. most of the people who had not obtained the certificates of citizenship finally either get those documents upon the insisting of the committees for human rights or leave Croatia); also, the committees for human rights have gained experience and thus become more efficient.

 

From 1 to 3 May 1995, the Croatian Army invaded the part of Western Slavonia that the rebel Serbs had annexed to the Republic of Serbian Krajina in 1991, and restored it into the Republic of Croatia. Approximately 16,000 Serbs who had lived in the above mentioned area became refugees - either during military operations or even weeks after. As early as 8 May, certain committees for human rights from Croatia established their office in Pakrac, where local population was able to report about the violations of human rights and obtain legal assistance. Thanks to the determined and professional actions of the Pakrac Police, no serious violations of human rights occurred in the area of Western Slavonia after 8 May 1995.

 

The Republic of Serbian Krajina ceased to exist in the beginning of August 1995, after a massive action by the Croatian Army, known as "Operation Storm" (from 4 to 8 August). The whole territory except for Eastern Slavonia was restored to the Republic of Croatia. Approximately 160,000 people from the above mentioned area fled their homes. A considerable number of civilians was killed, especially when a line of refugees going towards Dvor was attacked.

 

Unlike Western Slavonia, serious and numerous violations of human rights were committed in Krajina after the military activities had ceased. The houses in Krajina were burning for months, the whole villages were put on fire (the UNCRO report states 22,000 demolished houses after the operation); hundreds of cars and lorries loaded with stolen goods and cattle were driven away before the eyes of police officers. A scarce number of people who remained in their villages, mostly old and disabled Serbs, were robbed and ill-treated. The number of murders has never been completely established. Until today, the international organizations and the committees for human rights have the information of about 130 - 140 murders. In January 1966, the Croatian Minister of Justice reported on 1,005 trials for the crimes committed after the "Storm" (25 murder cases).

 

By the end of August 1995, the activists of various committees for the protection of human rights went to Krajina in order to help the scarce number of elderly people who remained dispersed in the villages. The human rights activists carried out family reunions, registered the sick, distributed food and medicines, assisted in obtaining the certificates of citizenship, took their photos for identification documents, helped them with the firewood, wrote requests for the return of property, etc. They are financed either directly by some international organizations (e.g. OXFAM), or by the committees through the projects submitted to some foreign foundations (e.g. Civic Committee for Human Rights, Zagreb - Comité Catholique Contre la Faim et Pour le Développement).

 

Tens of thousands of Serbs who had left Krajina fleeing the military activities during the "Storm" now wish to return. The Croatian authorities have created insurmountable obstacles for those people, and in fact have made their return impossible (e.g.  a Krajina refugee to return to Croatia needed, among other things, a birth certificate which could be obtained at the place of birth and could be given only to himself). Until summer 1996, a few hundred people returned to Krajina. The situation in villages is far from being secure, the last double murder happened on 10 September 1996 in the village of Bukovica, municipality of Vrginmost. The victims were often very old people with no possessions, so the motive was neither robbery nor revenge.

 

Many places in Krajina are settled by Croats from Bosnia. These displaced persons who are now in the houses of the Serbian refugees outnumber the local population that remained; most of them are very much against the return of the Serbs who in fact are the owners of the houses in which they live. Should a larger number of Serbs return, many violations of human rights might be expected.

 

CONCLUSION

 

The non-governmental organizations for protection of human rights, usually starting from zero, gained experience, established co-operation with international community, some of them became anti-war and anti-nationalistic organizations; they in fact helped many people.

 

The governmental institutions with high-sounding names, such as Committee for human rights at the Croatian Parliament and Public Legal Officer were impotent organizations in practice; they do not provide any protection for the victims of the violations of human rights, but serve as "the Potemkin's village" for foreign delegations.

 

At the time of the events that are now behind us, the most  politicians from opposition, with few respectable exceptions, avoided to condemn the violations of human rights, counting that this would endanger their nationally constructive "image" among the voters. Today, after the signing of Agreement between two states, Republic of Croatia and Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, with drawn faces they have to listen to the lessons given by the politicians of the ruling CDU about "humanism and renaissance".

 

In the time that comes, the greatest exam for the Croatian Government as well as the Croatian opposition will be to make possible the return of all refugees and displaced persons who wish to return.

Also, everybody should do his best to bring to trial those who committed crimes. It is a request of elementary justice and we owe it to the victims in Croatia. It is also a commitment to future generations because no one has right to burden them with collective guilt.

 

The committees for human rights should, and probably will retain a sound distance with the state, opposition and national homogenization, knowing that for the mental health of a country and a nation, the most dangerous is the silence about violations of human rights committed on the behalf of that nation.

Građanski odbor za ljudska prava, Selska cesta 112 C, HR-10000 Zagreb • Tel: +385 1 6171530 / Fax: +385 1 64 13 626 • info@goljp.hr