It’s high time for us to become individuals and stop being ethnicities

It’s Saturday evening, April 23rd 2016 at the A3 café-club in Knin, and young people are pouring in. The concert of the band Darkwood from Sinj is about to begin. I came to Knin on some other day intentionally to avoid the anniversary of Oluja. We are sitting with the 48-year-old local the late Dragan Babić, who regularly comes to all the concerts at A3, where he also participates in the pub quiz with his team “Conscientious Objection” (Priziv savjesti). With him is his 18-year-old nephew, who doesn’t like country music that most of his peers listen to, so he goes to concerts with his uncle. He sits there quietly, drinking his juice and listening to the music, nodding his head to the beat. Unlike Vukovar, there is no discussion about whose café belongs to whom and which ones are for young Croats and which for Serbs in Knin. But the ownership of Knin is a persistent question, says the late Babić. “That’s how it began in 1991 and continued after 1995 – who is a local, who was born here, who is an outsider, who a returnee, and did Knin even exist before 1995, who has a claim to what and where do they each rank in the hierarchy. We are all hostages of politics, without exception, and it’s high time for us to become individuals and stop being ethnicities. That’s how we would disarm the politicians,” says the late Babić. Everyone you talk to in Knin complains about the omnipotent politics which goes so far that, reportedly, even the president of the bicycle club cannot be someone without a party membership. This is not a metaphor, it is an actual problem for both locals and newcomers, Croats and Serbs and Bosnians. Interpersonal relationships, which is what we were interested in, are not a problem for them and when you ask them about it they all seem to begin their reply with a shrug. Knin, at least on the surface, is not bothered by that. Perhaps the citizens of Knin find it easier to be friends with each other because a good part of them don’t know each other “from before”, they didn’t live there before nor during the war. Knin is not the area of their trauma. Croats began leaving in 1991, Serbs in 1995, then Croats began coming back from 1995, and then Serbs, albeit not as many, began coming back around 1997. With all that immigration and emigration, Knin’s demographic has changed so much that domicile citizens are now a minority. According to the census from 1991, there were 12 331 people living in Knin, 9 867 of which were Serbs, 1 660 Croats and 381 Yugoslavs, meaning there were 80% Serbs, 13% Croats. According to the census from 2011, Knin has 15 407 citizens, of which 3 551 (23 %) Serbs and 11 612 (75%) Croats. There are no more Yugoslavs, and among the 2% of “others” are mostly Albanians.

Dragan Babić the late is a Serb from Knin. He was 23 years old and living in an apartment with a right-of-occupancy in the city when the war started. He survived the Krajina period, as he claims, mainly thanks to the alcohol supplies which helped him forget the present. “We used to laugh at Knin being the capitol of the Republic of Serbian Krajina. What kind of capitol doesn’t have cigarettes at the corner store or electricity if it doesn’t rain? And all the people in power were guys we used to know as losers. Mile Martić was a cop, a jackass, who’d chase kids around and then beat them”, he says. He fled to Belgrade during Oluja, but he didn’t feel alright there. “They used to call us Knindža, we had a lower status in Serbia than Croats who’d come to Croatia from Bosnia. Not only did they give us nothing, they’d arrest us and send us to war in Bosnia. I knew I’d come back soon enough, not because it’s good here, but because it was really bad in Belgrade. Even if there was nothing but grass to eat, at home at least I had a roof over my head,” he says. When he came back he couldn’t return to his previous apartment, just like most Serbs who had a right-of-occupancy before the war. He lives with his parents, he is unemployed, but occasionally works as a physical laborer abroad and spends time with the same people as before the war, what few still remain.

It was raining when we met Zvonko Brečić, a history teacher at the Knin “Lovre Montija” high school. Like most citizens of Knin, Brečić wasn’t born there. He estimates that around three fifths of today’s Knin population is new, moved there after Oluja. He arrived in January 1996, several months after graduating in Zadar. They asked him to come, because there weren’t enough teachers in the school and he needed a job. “The city was in chaos at the time. People were breaking into homes of Serbs who had fled, and I was told in the Municipality to break into an empty apartment. It was normal then. Supplies were not coming in. I had only two students in fourth grade of high school. Around that time the first wave of newcomers began to arrive, from Dalmatian cities, as well as Slavonija and Zagorje, and then in 1997 and 1998 Bosnian refugees began coming back from Germany, and then another wave of people came in from Drvar. It was mostly peaceful, but the question remains what sort of peace it was,” he says. What kind was it, we ask. “What little remained of the Serbian population was frightened. There were no incidents, there still aren’t, but how can you establish trust within a dominant nationalistic rhetoric? How can there be trust even now, when you can hear “Za dom spremni” at a Thompson concert, or when Ruža Tomašić says that anyone living in Croatia who isn’t a Croat is a guest? If we keep hearing that the Law on Amnesty should be abolished, what is that if not fear-mongering and sending the message that not everyone is equal? We know that a significant portion of the Serbian population, voluntarily or not, participated in the war in Krajina, but we must determin who is to be held responsible for what. if someone committed crimes, they must be sanctioned for it, amnesty doesn’t include war criminals. Several years ago a meeting took place at the school assembly hall about the trial of Gotovina and members of the associations of war veterans played videos of Šešelj swearing and disrespecting judges in The Hague. The crowd went wild. It was a bizarre situation in which Croatian veterans were cheering for Šešelj. Or in 2009 when a lot of voters came in from Serbia for the local elections, so the media made a sensation of Serbs from Serbia making decisions in Knin, when in fact it was the SDSS directing them to vote for the Serbian representative who was the HDZ candidate for deputy Mayor, so they were actually voting for HDZ. What we have here is predator provincialism – a bit of fuss, a bit of Ustasha-fascsm, a bit of blatant pillaging,” he says. He never had any trouble teaching about the Homeland War, but that curriculum came at the end of the school year when nobody cares much about new lessons. There is a much greater conflict on the topic of Partisans and Ustashas, especially in the last several years, he says, and especially in the past several months since that chapter of history has once again been publically reopened and muddled.

“Students believe that Croatia in Yugoslavia wasn’t exactly the real Croatia, and that the National Liberation Army was Serbian, or actually Chetnik, because they see it as the same thing, the Ustashas were the victims… But I have no professional problems with that, I can explain all of it to them,” he says. Mirko Antunović, the principal of the Lovre Montija high school where Brečić teaches, says that there were sometimes tensions among the children, but not as much now. “There are no open conflicts in Knin, but secretly nobody likes each other: local Serbs don’t like Bosnians, Bosnians don’t like Janjevci, Janjevci don’t like Serbs, and everyone despises atheists. There is the least tension is between Serbs and Croats, because they both have the Knin identity and a common memory. They remember the wall by the University where they used to spend time and make out, and now ‘these new guys’ are ruining it”. says Antunović, who is himself an outsider. He moved to Zagreb from Kiseljak as a student, and then to Knin in 2003. He’s been the principal since 2012.

“None of my friends ever asked me what I did during the war, during Krajina. That is never the subject of conversation. Nor do we ever speak about what happened in ’91 or ’95. During Krajina my wife, a Croat, used to work in the Municipality, and she wasn’t the only one. I was a gym teacher. My work obligation saved me from the front. They called me a Tuđman supporter because I believed that separation was a stupid idea, but I think that nobody seriously believed in it. I left Knin on the day of Oluja. I didn’t plan on leaving, but then my Croatian neighbor started panicking hysterically, telling me to go, that she refuses to watch me get butchered, so I thought that perhaps she was right and I left. Knowing what happened after Oluja, it was a good decision. The army was waiting for us in Serbia, paramilitary units and who knows what else, so I hid in a small village near Novi Sad to avoid mobilization. They even checked our documents on the way to Serbia, and anyone from Croatia got sent directly to the front. I wanted to return as quickly as possible, because we had nowhere to live there, no work, with two children and no help, and in Knin we had a house, my wife’s parents, so we could at least survive somehow. But it wasn’t easy leaving Serbia. Because my wife is Croatian we requested family reunification and that’s how I returned in 1996. The city was devastated, empty, it was a sorry sight, but there were no problems, apart from people being afraid. Additional fear came from informative interrogations that Serbs were requested to take part in. I attended one in Zagreb, where a police officer became angry because I didn’t know anything, and then another one in Knin when a guy at the police station told me I had 24h to leave Knin or he’d beat me up. He told me that I would never find a job there. I know that man, his son was my student, now I teach his other son. It’s not pleasant being threatened like that, not even on the street but in a police station,” Branko Vasiljević, gym teacher at the Kralja Zvonimira high school, tells us. It took him ten years to find a job after coming back, and now he is the only one employed in his family. We spoke about the Serbian Cultural Society “Prosvjeta” buiding in the Gojko Šušak street. The Cyrillic part of the title at the entrance is spray painted black. “It’s been like that for a year or so. There is no point in changing it they’ll just do it again,” Vasiljević says calmly. A large street-level window of the office is covered by bookshelves ever since a brick went flying through the glass. But Vasiljević still claims that the people in Knin are much more relaxed than the politics which is trying to maintain tensions. Apart from that event at the police station, I never noticed that Knin has serious ethnic problems. We all share the same problem – unemployment, which is why many are leaving. In my chess club we have trouble making a team with the same six people, because they keep moving away.”

We ask him how Oluja may be commemorated so as to be acceptable for Serbs in Knin. “More decently, with less triumphalism, the Zagreb Philharmonic could play Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and to have Serbs included in some way – but the precondition for that is to first express remorse for all the people who were killed for no reason. It meant a lot to me when the former president,   Ivo Josipović, mentioned the victims a few years ago in Knin and when he attended the reveal of the monument to victims in Varivode. Such political gestures can have a much greater impact than court rulings, which are quickly forgotten. Politicians dictate the climate, which then spreads to other aspects. In any case, I would like to see some commemoration for Serbian victims in Knin.”  

“Will that time ever come?” we ask

“It will”, he says with certainty.


“Probably when it stops being important to anyone”, he gives a slight, almost bitter smile.

The following evening, at the A3 café we meet two girls who wish to remain anonymous. They are in a good mood, both employed, happy with their lives in Knin. They tell us about how Knin smells in spring when everything is in bloom and when the Krka river overflows, but also how the wind brings “the scent of a city which no longer exists” from the abandoned houses in the old part of the city. One of them fled Bosnia as a child. They went to Slavonija first, and then to Knin. She studied in Zadar. “I never felt like I belonged in Slavonija or in Zadar. They kept asking me where I was from, and then snorted when I’d tell them I came from Bosnia. It wasn’t like that in Knin, I immediately fit in. Everyone here is from somewhere else. I never felt some ethnic tensions among us young folk, although my father didn’t take it very well when he found out that my boyfriend is a Serb. He prevented me from seeing him, there was a lot of crying, but then he met him and accepted him. My father was in the Croatian Defense Council and my mom was 28, just like I am now, when she fled Bosnia with two children, not knowing whether her husband was alive or dead. If I had been through what they had been through I don’t know what I would be like. That’s why I never thought my father was a fool, just that he needs some time”, she says, raising a finger in the air to get our attention. “What is it?” we ask. “Listen to the song”, she says. The song “Zemlja” by EKV is playing. 

Barbara Matejčić

Independent journalist and editor focused on social subjects and human rights. She has received the “Marija Jurić Zagorka” award for best written journalism in 2013 (Croatian Society of Journalists, 2014.), the “Krunoslav Sukić” award for encouraging peace, non-violence and human rights (Center for peace, 2013.) and award for best coverage of LGBT topics in Croatia from 2000 to 2010 (Zagreb Pride, 2011.) Source: