The Unbearable Lightness of Going to War – 30 years since the beginning of the war in Croatia

There is no doubt that the one who exaggerates with Serbian national identity

has a problem with their own identity, with who they are –

wars are caused by those who are at war with themselves.

 (Živojin Bata Kara-Pešić, Vreme, August 5 1991)


The war in Croatia was the first of the Yugoslav wars for territories. The forces under the control of Slobodan Milošević, or in close alliance with his regime, launched a widespread campaign to conquer territories in Croatia and surround the territory which would then be under the authority of that regime. Numerous studies and articles were written about Milošević’s motives, his colleagues from the YNA, as well as numerous political actors among the Serbs in Croatia. They very thoroughly analyzed various aspects in the motives of each actor and draw assumptions, more or less based on evidence. The motivation was not irrelevant, on the contrary. However, what remains are the effects of the war they caused, regardless of their motivation. Wars, the creation and the disappearances of countries are never pre-determined. There is nothing determined in history. Yugoslavia could have just as easily never come into being or never disappeared. If it had to end, it could have perhaps followed the path of Czechoslovakia (or at least the Soviet Union – with limited conflicts), or how it actually ended up. Everything that happened was the responsibility of those who made decisions (in polling stations, meetings or cabinets – the scale of importance of those decisions is a topic for some other article). Some will evade their criminal, political and moral responsibility. But historical responsibility cannot be avoided, regardless of personal motivation.

Serbia was drawn into the war deviously and by force, by its own leadership. The war was never declared, moreover, Serbia was not officially at war while coffins kept arriving daily. People were confused and crazed, torn between common sense and loyalty to their country and army as they were taught. The response to the draft was poor, based on the testimonies of Borisav Jović and Veljko Kadijević (only 10% in Belgrade). There were deserters from the army every day, sometimes entire units retreated (like the citizens of Valjevo), or mothers and wives used their bodies to prevent their loved ones from leaving (like in Loznica). The street light poles in Kragujevac were covered with lists of deserters, which was a desperate attempt of the local military regiment to force people to go and fight a war which wasn’t theirs. One soldier, Miroslav Milenković from Gornji Milanovac, kept stepping back and forth between two rows, those who were staying and those who wanted to desert. In the end he stood between them and shot himself in the head. Whole generations, especially urban youth, fled the country never to return.

Several hundred citizens of Belgrade threw flowers at tanks leaving for Vukovar. How many of them were convinced that those tanks were going in the right direction, and how many were doing it to comfort themselves that their loved ones will return from the hell of war, we’ll never know. The ugly image remains for the future, to remind us and warn us. The first anti-war movements and NGOs, anti-war protests in Zrenjanin, Novi Sad, Belgrade, Senta, candles ablaze in front of the Presidency of Serbia, the protest of Belgrade historians against the bombing of Dubrovnik – preserved the honor of Serbia during that mournful year. Opposing the shameful flowers on tanks, the huge graffiti on Petrovaradin Fortress – Shame on you, Novi Sad corps – sent the message that virtue hadn’t forever left these lands. Second Serbia was born from that virtue, clearly and precisely defined by Radomir Konstantinović – “it is the Serbia which refuses to make peace with atrocity.”

The tactic of war was aligned with the goals of war – confusing, dirty and with disregard for consequences. The remnants of the Yugoslav National Army (mostly reservists from Serbia and Montenegro, under command of the illegal “fractured” presidency), volunteers who were organized by different political parties and criminals, with the help of the Serbian security services, as well as units of local Serbs, attacked Croatia with full force from several sides. The Montenegrin reservists (reinforced by volunteers), encouraged by the war mongering of their leadership, led by Momir Bulatović and Milo Đukanović, burned and pillaged Konvale and the rest of the Dubrovnik coast, posed for photos with Tereza Kesovija’s underwear, carried stolen hams back to Nikšić and sang “Zeta runs through Montenegro, Neretva will too.” Finally, they shelled Dubrovnik itself, including the old city center, a monument of material heritage of global importance, under the protection of UNESCO. The poet Milan Milišić was killed by one of the grenades launched by the YNA. Again, in Cetinje, a brave and not at all small group of citizens led by Slavko Perović, proudly sang “From Lovćen the fairies call, Dubrovnik forgive us all.” There were those who felt deep regret and preserved the honor of the entire society and country, not just their own.

In August 1991, at the Northern front, a force of tens of thousands of reservists of the YNA, volunteers and local Serbs, with the help of artillery, air force and navy which acted from the Danube, came down on the baroque town of Vukovar, known before the war as the city with the most mixed marriages in Yugoslavia. After three months of systematic destruction of the city, an anchor for the TV Belgrade news, Miodrag Popov, declared in a formal voice: “Vukovar is now a destroyed but liberated city”. Innumerable victims fell as this small Danube town was razed to the ground, and nobody was ever able to understand the war tactic behind this atrocious operation. After the fall of Vukovar, YNA lead by officers Mileta Mrkšić and Veselin Šljivančanin, in an act of cowardice turned more than 200 imprisoned Croatian soldiers and civilians over to the local paramilitary unit, composed mainly of Šešelj’s radicals. They were executed by firing squad at the agricultural property Ovčara or killed in the hangars belonging to the company Velepromet. Individual perpetrators were convicted for this war crime in The Hague and in Belgrade, but not all the bodies have yet been found. No one was held accountable for the operation of destroying an entire city, neither the political nor the military leaders of Serbia and Yugoslavia.

There were numerous crimes in other parts of Croatia as well. Around 200,000 Croats and other non-Serbs were driven out of occupied parts of Croatia, many people were murdered and tortured in Voćin, Kostajnica, Knin, Škabrnja, Lovas, Nijemci, Beli Manastir… Cities such as Osijek, Zadar, Šibenik, Sisak, Karlovac were bombed indiscriminately, and many others with numerable casualties. The Croatian side responded in equal measure. Serbs were taken from their homes in Croatian cities (meaning those who didn’t oppose or show any disloyalty towards Croatia), tortured and killed. This happened in Zagreb, Osijek, Vukovar, Gospić, Split, Sisak, basically in every city. History will remember the crimes of the unit led by Branimir Glavaš in Osijek and Tomislav Merčep in Zagreb, but all over Croatia as well, as being particularly cruel. The murder of the Zec family from Zagreb, including the 12 year-old Aleksandra, committed by Merčep’s men in December 1991, will remain a lasting symbol of these crimes. The wheel of fortune in war will later turn to the other side, because the quasi-state which a part of Serbs from Croatia tried to create from the occupied parts of Croatia was unsustainable. The Croatian army and police would return all occupied territories through several actions, and around 250,000 Serbs would be driven out, while only a handful would return. Old people who remained in their villages became a target for the Croatian army and police and many of them were murdered in Medački Džep, Grubori, Varivode and other known and unknown places. Again, some of the perpetrators answered for these crimes in court, but many of those who were missing have never been found. The dual nature of the military-police action “Storm” (both a legitimate military action, and a collective act of atrocity to drive Serbs out of Croatia), as well as the war itself (both a Serbian aggression and a civil war within Croatia), will remain a topic of serious debates and fodder for future conflicts, (over)stated on one side, and silenced (this silence and avoidance will become the founding myth of the young state, according to Dejan Jović) on the other. As a result of the war, apart from the 22,000 dead and hundreds wounded, driven out of their minds and out of their homes, what remained was a deserted, ethnically clean and economically devastated territory, a centuries-long collective culture of Serbs and Croats destroyed and a future poisoned for innumerable generations to come.

The regime of Slobodan Milošević had many opportunities and used them (including all who supported and justified him) to prove its cruelty and ruthlessness during the 1990s, still, at the top of this infamous list remains the ease with which they opted for war in 1991. Academics, writers, painters, historians – all spoke with passion about the borders, the maps, the “Serbian lands”. They divided cities and villages, forests and fields, as though they were pieces in a board game, and not real places in actual life. The patriarch of the Serbian Orthodox Church sent a letter to lord Carrington in 1991, requesting a divide along with the claim that Serbs and Croats cannot live together. These terrible statements wiped out centuries of cohabitation between Croats and Serbs (with very few conflicts, up until WWII). These people studied maps, shapes and colors on a piece of paper, disregarding the fact that behind them were real people living their lives. Millions of lives and destinies, fears, hopes, worries, joys and sorrows, right and wrong decisions… They saw none of that as they drew their maps and “divided” what could not be divided without blood. 

In the name of their imagined place in history, in the name of their own power, fame and delusions of grandeur which drove them, they spurred the fears of Serbs from Croatia (“if you don’t rise up, they will take you like sheep to slaughter once again”, “Croats have always been a genocidal people since the 17th century”, “Serbian borders are marked by Serbian graves”, “Serbs are remnants of a murdered people”, and similar nonsense repeated like mantras to exhaustion), they played table tennis nationalism with their Croatian counterparts, provoked people to attack their neighbors as a preventive measure (“do onto others before they do it to you”). The response to the human rights violations of Serbs in Croatia and the dangerous messages of the nationalistic leadership of Franjo Tuđman was – war (with his aggressive rhetoric, violation of Serbian rights and the use of ominous symbols Tuđman gave a significant contribution to the success of Milošević’s way into war). The war was waged for territories, to rule over as much land as possible, and to make the ruler as important as possible in the eyes of those around him. Shameful excuses, like the prevention of a potential new genocide or evoking 19th century principles had now power over serious people even then, although they can still be heard to this day.

In the end, academics and patriarchs died peacefully in their expensive villas or prestigious capitol hospitals, surrounded by the care and affection of their loved ones and the attention of the public. Millions of Yugoslavs, victims of their deranged desires, died in the Vukovar dirt, in bombed lines of refugees or in the minefield of Lovas. The very idea of Yugoslavia, the most important endeavor of modernization which the Southern Slavs invented in their history, was killed in 1991. Kidnapping the name and the symbols of Yugoslavia (as Dubravka Ugrešić nicely put), Milošević’s camarilla used them to conduct a ritual killing of that country and the idea of equality of the people and the republics it consisted of. Thirty years later we all carry the heritage of the bloody war. The keepers of warmongering and the bearers of that militant politics in Serbia are now presidents, ministers, editors, officials, businessmen, professors, and generally people of high status. They are certainly richer and more powerful, but we are all as a society unhappier. And doubtfully smarter. I believe that the observance of various anniversaries in Serbia and Croatia this year will, unfortunately, prove me right.

Dragan Popović is a longtime activist for human rights and dealing with the past, who has worked in numerous civil rights organizations in Serbia and Western Balkans. He completed his BA and MA at the Faculty of Law in Belgrade and is currently working on a PhD in history at the Faculty of Philosophy in Belgrade. He is the author of many books, articles, studies and reports on transitional justice, human rights and minority rights, rule of law and civil society.

Translation: Luna Đorđević