Croatia – Facing the past

I was in Ahmići (Bosnia and Herzegovina) with around twenty activists from human rights organisations from Croatia, and then we also honoured the victims in Trusina (Bosnia and Herzegovina). There was a warm welcome in Ahmići, and the local population’s message was as follows: ”You were brave to come here. We thank you for sharing our pain.” We were particularly impressed by the message in Trusina, where the president of the association of victims stated the following: ”All victims are equally important, no matter what ethnic group they belong to. Every mother is equally lamenting their death.” A quarter of century has passed since the crime in Ahmići (Bosnia and Herzegovina). In this village in Central Bosnia, the Fourth Battalion of the Military Police of the Croatian Defence Council and ”Jokers”, a special purpose unit of the mentioned police forces, killed 116 Bosniak civilians, out of whom 32 were women and 11 were children (the youngest child was only three months old), in the morning of April 16, 1993.

Two hours after the crime in Ahmići, soldiers of the Armed Forces of Bosnia and Herzegovina, Zulfikar Unit, killed 15 Croatian civilians and seven soldiers in the village Trusina near Konjic (Bosnia and Herzegovina). The perpetrators of crimes in Ahmići and Trusina, in particular the commanders, were convicted to long-term prison sentences, and some of them were put to prison only after a long period of hiding, during which they were provided logistic and other forms of assistance by state bodies. The criminals from Ahmići were evading the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) for a while in Croatia, with the assistance of the government of the former Croatian president, Franjo Tuđman. The direct perpetrators of this war crime – Paško Ljubičić, Vlado Ćosić, Ante Slišković and Tomo Vlajić – lived under false identities in the suburbs of Croatian cities Zagreb and Zadar. The rescue operation of criminals from Ahmići was led by Markica Rebić, the former head of the military and intelligence service of the Croatian Army.

While referring to this experience, the renowned Croatian sociologist and my fellow traveller during the mentioned trip, Dražen Lalić (author of the research ”Facing the Past – Views and Opinions of Actors and Public in the Post-War Period”), stated the following in his text published in the newspaper ”Večernji list”: ”During the visit to Ahmići, I felt particularly upset. I understood the basic reason of my agitation as soon as I came to the spot: the crimes in that village were committed by men from my ethnic group; the fact that they were from another country does not change this fact. ”

As stressed by the colleague Lalić, irrespective of the fact that ”a criminal is always only an individual … and that it is not logical to bring moral accusations against a whole people (Karl Jaspers) ”, things are not that simple and that is the point where we come to what I consider extremely important in processes of facing the past, namely that ”although all persons belonging to a certain people are not guilty of crimes committed in their name, they should not feel fully innocent in this respect either. ”

I primarily intend to say that this form of purification should be expected from the leading members of a certain people. When it comes to the Croatian people, whether in Croatia or Bosnia and Herzegovina, it lacks politicians that would accept the mentioned humane and rational request, since numerous serious crimes were committed in the name of the mentioned people in 1990s during the wars throughout the former Yugoslavia. This has been particularly pronounced over the past years, especially in situations when the UN Hague Tribunal delivered judgments based on individual criminal liability, irrespective of the fact whether they were convictions or acquittals for the so-called ”our boys”. The tragic act of taking poison, committed by one of convicted perpetrators of war crimes in one of the latest judgments of the mentioned ad hoc UN tribunal in the case Prlić et al. [1], in case of which I was personally present in the courtroom during the delivery of the judgment, has shown that in this region, we still live in a culture according to which it is more important to fanatically prove one’s own ”truth” and heroism than take care of one’s own, people who love one and also people who trust one. This tragic individual act has unfortunately also deprived the victims themselves of the possibility to attain justice. As Mile Lasić, a professor at the Faculty of Philosophy of the University of Mostar, warned in an interview with ”Slobodna Dalmacija” at the end of December of last year, ”the Hague judgment in case of Croats from Bosnia and Herzegovina, burdened by the tragic act of suicide of general Praljak, will also contribute to the final victory of a selective culture of remembrance in case of all three ethnicities in Bosnia and Herzegovina, which means that victims will continue to be forgotten by all parties, and those responsible of the shame and regression to barbarism will be glorified as heroes. Contrary to a selective culture of remembrance, which is essentially consciously cultivated oblivion, a truly critical culture of remembrance primarily implies feeling ashamed of crimes and other atrocities committed against humanitarian law in our name.” He also added that ”we lament only our victims and celebrate only our heroes, who are usually mere executioners in the eyes of the one or the other ethnicity. ”

The mentioned judgment in the case Prlić et al. is still a subject matter of controversy in the Croatian public, although it is more than clear. The Appeals Chamber has reiterated the most important conclusions of the first-instance judgment regarding the international character of the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina due to the involvement of Croatia, which, as it was concluded, ”had actual power in some municipalities through the Croatian Defence Council”. It was also confirmed that also the president, Franjo Tuđman, but also other Croatian officials shared the goal of the joint criminal enterprise with the accused, as well as that in some municipalities there was a ”state of occupation”. Instead of regret, this time we again had the reactions of some of the most responsible politicians in Croatia and Bosnia and Herzegovina, who are denying facts established in court, whereby victims have been completely forgotten, although the facts clearly stated, more than ever before, that the mentioned judgment was primarily the responsibility of convicted individuals and the former political leadership of the Republic of Croatia, rather than of the Croatian people. Once again, there was no facing the facts on behalf of the community. Members of their own people, convicted war criminals, were instead victimised in a collective lamentation of the faith of the Croatian people, which could not have committed any crimes in the alleged defence war. As we have also seen based on the example of Serbia, in the case of Mladić and some other cases, politicians unfortunately continue to equate whole peoples to war criminals, which is inadmissible and shameless.

Nobody cares that facts established in the Hague judgments constitute an unfailing source of materials for fighting denial of crimes, for a detailed reconstruction of past and true facing the past. The Tribunal is not to be blamed that such sources are used very little or are not used at all today and that the public at large in the region, or those that shape the awareness of the public, are interested exclusively in the final outcome of legal proceedings – a conviction or acquittal and the length of sentence. In this, everything that has led to such an outcome is being neglected: all those facts from judgments, established in a rigorous process of adducing of evidence while at the same time fully respecting the rights of the accused.

Unfortunately, all of this is very difficult in Croatia. In June 2014, human rights activists invited the citizens of Zagreb to participate in a peaceful protest in front of the Zagreb cathedral entitled ”Standing in memory of victims of war crimes committed in the village Ahmići”.

Namely, Dario Kordić[2], who was convicted of war crimes in a final judgment, including those in Ahmići, came to Croatia in that period, after having served 2/3 of the prison sentence. The bishops of the Catholic Church in Croatia received him as a hero at the Zagreb airport, and at the Zagreb cathedral, a mass was held for the man who was convicted of a massacre of civilians in Ahmići by the Hague Tribunal. As concluded by the colleague Lalić, in Croatia, and the situation is no better in other former Yugoslav countries (in particular in Serbia, which initiated the wars in former Yugoslav countries), there is still a paradox according to which ”certain intellectuals, peace activists from the civil society, theologians, journalists, as well as others, who have in no way participated in the violence, feel responsible for serious violence and violation of human rights, while those that perpetrated the crimes or those that are politically or morally responsible of such atrocities, are denying that ‘their side’ even committed them or they are trying to justify them and glorify the criminals”.

On the other hand, the Croatian justice is still burdened by a large number of unprosecuted war crimes. Out of 490 registered crimes, in case of 169 crimes, the perpetrators are unknown. As time passes by, it will become increasingly difficult to investigate crimes committed at the beginning of 1990s, material evidence will become fewer and fewer, as well as survivor victims and witnesses. In its previous annual reports, Documenta issued admonitions in relation to the fatigue of both victims and witnesses, who have to testify on several occasions during criminal proceedings. In a large number of cases, members of Serb forces are evading the judiciary bodies of the Republic of Croatia, and they are being tried in absence, which highlights the need for improved regional cooperation. The trend of trials in absence constitutes a significant setback in the practice of war crime trials in terms of compliance with the principle of fair trial. For years, there has been no comprehensive legal framework that would guarantee the status and right to reparations for all civilian victims of war. Also, the process of ratification of the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Forced Disappearance has not been initiated and there was no adoption of a Law on Persons Disappeared in the Defence War. This legal vacuum makes it impossible for the families of more than 1600 victims to obtain recognition of the suffering and right to reparations.

Several cases of the Hague Tribunal, which also include the crimes committed in the Republic of Croatia, have not improved the processes of facing the past and taking a critical stance towards one’s own crimes. This has also not incentivised the Croatian judiciary to initiate criminal proceedings based on facts established in a final judgment and related to crimes that were committed. In the first instance judgment (Ivan Čermak) and final judgment of November 16, 2012, Ante Gotovina and Mladen Markač were acquitted, and the ICTY has ceded the continuation of criminal prosecution for unequivocally committed crimes to the judiciary in Croatia. The competent state prosecutor’s offices have issued only three indictments, whereas Croatian courts have so far delivered two final judgments regarding war crimes.

As Mirko Klarin, the founder of the Hague news agency SENSE, stated in one of publications of Documenta – Centre for Facing the Past, the human rights organisation at which I have been working for a whole decade and which deals with topics of war crime prosecution, prosecutor’s offices in the region have inherited from the Hague the cases of hundreds, if not even thousands, of suspects that have been investigated by the Tribunal’s prosecution over the past two centuries, but they were allowed to pass through its net estimated only for big fish. War crimes are not subject to statute of limitations and until recently, there were trials of persons accused of war crimes committed during World War II in Germany, Hungary, Italy and other countries. There is no reason for not having such trials in the region over the coming decades, too.

 Eugen Jakovčić / Documenta – Centre for Facing the Past   

Eugen JAKOVČIĆ, a journalist and activist of Documenta – Centre for Facing the Past. He established and implemented the media project CENZURA from Split for a number of years. During this period, he conducted more than 400 TV interviews and shows. He is a winner of the HND Forum 21 journalism prize for best TV shows. As an activist and journalist, he has been following topics related to the legacy of the war, human rights protection and freedom of the media. Since 2009 he has been working as a media coordinator at Documenta, participating in numerous Croatian and regional civil society initiatives regarding facing the past and human rights protection, and implementing some of the key campaigns of Documenta regarding the rights of civilian victims of war.