Defending the Homeland War: A View from Croatia
Issue #63, April 2003
The Homeland War
In Croatia, the leading news story at the end of March 2003 has not always been the war on Iraq. It was for a few days. The night of the first bombing and at the beginning of the ground offensive, some Croatian journalists were in place to report from Amman and Kuwait City and they were well supplemented by the barrage of reporting from Western news organizations. So the first few days and indeed the first weekend of the war, the war on Iraq remained the lead.
However, in its second week, the war on Iraq is the second story. Some evenings this week, the main television news, Dnevnik, has taken close to ten minutes to even mention Iraq.
All over Croatia people have taken to the streets. They've not been out in the thousands, not even in the hundreds in most places, but the presence of dozens and dozens of protestors blocking major thoroughfares in a country that has virtually no highways can be quite disruptive. Some of them are in wheelchairs, and police clearing protestors in wheelchairs makes for good photos.
This type of protest has been happening whenever a Croatian soldier is found guilty of war crimes and is given any kind of prison sentence. The veterans of the Homeland War come out in defense of their comrade in arms and the most effective way they have found to get attention is to block the roads. In the second week of the US-led war on Iraq, the Croatian veterans defending the memory of their Homeland War has been leading news story.
Three men were sentenced on March 24th 2003 in a court in Rijeka. They were part of what was known as the "Gospic group", Croatian soldiers and officers accused of having committed war crimes, namely for involvement in the massacre of Serb civilians in the heavily contested town of Gospic in late 1991.
This was a time when Croatia was trying to break away from the then-existing Yugoslavia. Croatia had declared itself independent, but members of the Serb minority in this newly founded Croatia were not going along with this and were keeping their allegiance with the Milo?c government in Belgrade. Through the Yugoslav People's Army and through paramilitary groups, Serbs, breaking away from the erstwhile breakaway Croatia, were holding major swathes of Croatian territory, laying siege to Croatian cities. They had virtually cut the fledgling country in two. These were desperate times for the inexperienced and ill-equipped Croatian army in besieged cities like Vukovar, Zadar, Karlovac and Dubrovnik. Of the Croatian territory that was not occupied or under direct siege, more than two-thirds was easily within striking distance of Serbian short-range missiles. Many Croats then and today credit these men of the Gospic group as having kept an important piece of territory in Croatian hands throughout the time of the Serb occupation of their country in the first half of the 1990s. In other words, very many Croats consider these men as key figures in the defense of their homeland, and of these, a minority feel strong enough about it to take to the streets to fight for their "war heroes".
The ICTY and International Pressure
Most Croats see the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) in The Hague as very necessary. After all, they are waiting for the grandmaster of the Serb devastation of their country, Slobodan Milo?c, to get what is coming to him. But, while the Gospic group was tried within the Croatian domestic court system, it almost goes without saying that these men necessarily had to have been found guilty. Otherwise, The Hague and the Western powers behind the ICTY would have come down on Croatia hard. In order to appear balanced and to appear to be not just out to prosecute Serbs, the ICTY, Croats claim, goes after their homeland defenders and a guilty verdict must be found. And so, guilty they were found, with three Gospic defendants receiving sentences of ten to fifteen years.
Then the street demonstrations begin, the roads are blocked, as happened the last time a Croatian war hero was sentenced for war crimes. Veteran's groups accuse Croatian President Stipe Mesic and Prime Minister Ivica Racan of groveling to the West. One local veteran leader uses inflammatory rhetoric, threatening that one day soon Mesic and Racan will be having breakfast with recently assassinated Serb Prime Minister Zoran ?indic.
A majority of Croats recoil at this type of threatening language, assuming that the speaker is not much more than the illiterate football hooligan type of person he appears to be. In Knin, a town historically contested between Serbs and Croats, some of the local unemployed and bored young men find this a cause to make some noise about, much to the disgust of other locals who would like to believe their town could rise above the din.
The Gospic Group Verdict and the Iraq War
Yet, at present, this leading news story, the sentencing of the Gospic group, may be in a position to get more attention than at anytime in the past. These "war heroes" and their supporters can garner greater sympathy because this is being played out with a world backdrop of the second leading news story: the United States bombed a marketplace in Baghdad killing fifteen civilians on the same day as the Gospic protests began. The US military spent most of that day denying that it was their mistake, instead blaming the Iraqis, claiming that Iraqi artillery had misfired. Ultimately, however, as various international news organizations have explained it, the responsibility appears to rest with the American forces.
Outside of peak daily viewing times, Croats have been able to follow US and British movements in Iraq via real time rebroadcast of various Western news channels, including American, British, French and German news, on Croatian state television's third channel. The former of the these offerings (including CNN and at least once, Fox News) has, very obviously, given us the American view of the situation, emphasizing the need, the will and the relative success of American forces in achieving their military objectives as they, implicitly, "do the right thing" and inexorably move towards victory in Baghdad. Meanwhile, the European channels tend to emphasize problems and humanitarian problems. The move towards victory is not presented as inevitable, but instead a shadow of doubt exists in French, German and even British reporting, a doubt not just in the ultimate successful outcome of the mission, but also with the mandate itself as the question is implied: "Is this the right thing to do?"
Croatian friends point out that CNN cannot be considered credible and that the American view is preposterous. In my workplace, they long have teased me, asking "How did you elect that stupid cowboy?" But the teasing was getting more pointed recently as US posturing grew. In the weeks leading up to the war, as the US was trying to pressgang countries into its coalition and into allowing US military the use of airspace and military bases, the questions were increasing. "Why are the American people letting them get away with this? Why are they tolerating this 'cowboy' war?"
Because the American media are telling them that it must be, I answer that Saddam should not be appeased, that he has ties to Osama Bin Laden. "But you have free media, you have so many choices in your radio and television news, you have so many newspapers, don't you? You have 100 channels on your televisions, doesn't anyone see what is going on?" I try to explain about the consensus reached in the United States, about the market-driven media, about the insular nature of US public opinion, and about American exceptionalism.
In a nationwide address on the eve of the war, Croatians heard President Mesic call the war on Iraq "illegitimate" without a United Nations mandate. Other politicians have given the US more support for its war than their president, but most of this support is tepid at best. There's almost a palpable feeling of arms being twisted behind backs when a politician gives his or her non-negative view of the war. Or there's the feeling of a backroom deal — indeed, the word is out that the leading political party in Croatia to come out in favor of the US war on Iraq already has campaign funds in the pipeline from the United States.
At the same time as US forces have been killing Iraqi civilians and we've been seeing their spokespeople prevaricating, Croatian people have seen their army officers sentenced to prison terms. It's hard for intelligent people not to make some kind of connection. Whether my Croatian friends and colleagues seen the Gospic group as guilty as sin or as the war heroes that the protestors seem to see, there's no hiding the fact that these Croatian soldiers are being held accountable for their actions. The question I have had to deal with from Croatians is this: is there anyone, is there any power that is or will be, ultimately, holding the Americans accountable?
Guilt and Hypocrisy
I believe the "Gospic group" may have gotten off lightly. I haven't paid much more attention to the trial than the average Croat, but some journalist friends more in the know have told me about the intrigue and attempted cover-ups concerning war-time Gospic, including the car-bombing death of a suspect that seemed to be turning state's evidence. One friend was a young journalist reporting from Gospic during the darkest moments of the war and still appears to feel some guilt by association with these men. They helped look after her safety in the besieged town, but she knows that there were things that she was not to supposed to ask about and therefore did not, things that were coming out in the trial a dozen years later.
Most with whom I regularly talk see the guilty verdict as necessary. Indeed, a poll conducted at the same time as the protests shows that most Croats support the idea of trials for war crimes, despite the sympathy for Gospic group defendants. The war to defend the homeland was an ugly affair, Yugoslav against Yugoslav, Croat against Serb, neighbor against neighbor. Lines were drawn too easily around ethnicity, but those lines were badly drawn in geography and history, hence a dirty war, as all wars will be.
Those adamantly protesting the sentencing of the Gospic group would like to think in unsullied terms of good versus evil, as if Croats could have done no wrong in fighting for their homeland. Most Croats take a more sophisticated view and therefore support the war crime trials even when they know that the guilt of some Croats thereby may be established. Having pride in their young nation, having pride in its strength and its future, they can withstand if the truth will out. While a peaceful breakaway from Yugoslavia, a velvet break-up would have been the path chosen by all but the most militant Croats, the militant likes of Slobodan Milo?c would not let that happen. Croats take pride in having won a war for their independence that makes sense to them.
By contrast, the US war on Iraq does not make sense in Croatia. No one sees this war in black and white, as if the US is the will of all that is good and Saddam Hussein is all evil. The words used to justify the war — "freedom," "liberation," and "democracy" — spoken with an American accent, are being diluted more and more as US forces appear to be colonial conquerors, chasing oil. Croatian friends ask me about this: as US-supported international aid organizations take up office space and drive around Knin in SUVs twice the size of average people's cars, they carry with them the mandate of creating "democracy," "civil society," and a "free press." But how can Americans discuss these issues in Knin, Croats ask, when American democracy is failing so badly in allowing such an unjust war to proceed?
As some Croats block the roads to protest the judging of their soldiers in Gospic and as some Croats accept the verdict as a necessary step in bringing their country into line with modern states, few, if any, can find it acceptable that the Americans do not have to submit to international scrutiny. It is unacceptable that they can act without a United Nations mandate, that no power exists that can be in a position to judge the war on Iraq and deliver sanctions based on these judgments. No one can check the bombing of marketplaces, no one can check to be sure that civilians are not maltreated, other than the Americans themselves.
Here in Croatia, in the second week of the war on Iraq, the hypocrisies of the American position reflect a glare that makes me shield my eyes as I look towards my indefensible homeland.
Dickie Wallace is a US citizen living and working in Knin, Croatia. He is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.