The Likes of Me

The Suitcase
in English, French
A couple of days ago, the two former members of the Croatian military won a “not guilty” sentence in the Hague international war crime tribunal.

I was not present in the general headquarters of the Croatian army while they were deciding on their “Operation Storm” action of 1995. I don’t know if the telephone rang there. I also don’t know if President Bill Clinton personally told them to go ahead with the largest land offensive since World War II, because the CIA would help. That is what certain Serbian newspapers published recently.

I have a remarkable lack of knowledge about world paramilitary conspiracies, secret chambers in the Vatican, mysterious double-agents doing their jobs badly… Generally, the things I know are in the public domain, because people said these things publicly and I took notes, or because I was just personally standing there.

Consider those days in August 1995, when that “Operation Storm” took place. I stood at the border between Croatia and Serbia, watching the endless caravan of people fleeing on truckbeds, in their cars, on foot, in nightgowns, in torn Serbian uniforms, with guns and babies. I talked to those people. I took photos: I personally saw newborn refugees carried in shoe boxes, babies who were born during the exodus of ethnic Serbs fleeing the Croatian army.

I saw angry Serbian soldiers tearing off their military insignia because they were given orders by their military to abandon the region without fighting. I also saw people being given food and shelter by the local Serbian population. I heard the refugee stumbling towards an unknown destiny, since they had lost everything.

Operation Storm put a swift and sudden end in to four years of fighting for Serbian autonomy inside Croatia. The plans for a Greater Serbia torn from the fabric of Yugoslavia had been crushed by 150,000 Croatian Army troops. I heard the fleeing Serbs saying how rich and happy they had been in their rural homes. They had Croatian accents — if you ask me, that is, a woman with a Belgrade accent. They’d been born in Croatia of a people established there for centuries, but they were keenly aware of being Serbian Orthodox non-Catholic non-Croats.

They rejected a Croatian identity and passport, preferring their own rules and ideas. Their most important aspiration was to live within the Greater Serbia promised to them by Milosevic and his generals. Some were kissing the Serbian flag and the picture of Milosevic. Most of them were tearing the flag and swearing at the broken promises and the reeling military defeat of their beloved leader.

Later, I saw the endless caravan of Krajina refugees being routed by the Serbian police outside Belgrade. Only those Serbs who had relatives in the capital were allowed enter the city. Naturally scarcely any of them could prove that. People within Belgrade did not see or hear the refugees, except for what the official Milosevic tv or radio allowed. Of course that was a thoroughly censored version of events.

I don’t know where those people ended up. Their exact number is vague, it varies in the telling, from two hundred thousand to half a million displaced ethnic refugees.

Croatia Mon Amour

in english, en francais, na srpskom

I am happy to be a loser. I am glad that I come from a country, Serbia, which lost all the wars of the nineteen-nineties. I am rejoicing every day of the year that there are fewer and fewer nationalist holidays which celebrate civilian heroic losses and phony war victories. No one celebrates the historical loss of democracy which such events bring.

I am happy that I spent this summer in Croatia, on the Adriatic coast, the coast of my youth, where I first learned how to swim, kiss and drink.  The coast where my late father grew up and studied, and where he fought the Second World  War against Fascists and Nazis.  I had dreamed of retreating to that blue coast some day, in order to live in truth, justice, and peace, and maybe get some writing done.

History has changed Croatia.  I passed the national day of the Croatian liberation, the Fifth of August, in a region where that clash of arms was keenly felt.  The days of gunfire of Operation Storm were few, but the lasting effect was the massive exodus of the ethnic Serbian population from the Croatian territories.

Fifteen years ago, I was near that war border, meeting Serbian refugees, fleeing soldiers in trucks and cars, civilians on foot, women in their nightgowns with babies in their arms.  People without homes, money, food or water, with bitter, desperate faces.   Those Croatian Serbs were sacrificed by the civil war.   First they were exploited by their own Serbian nationalist government as proxies for a guerrilla war.  Then they were crushed and scattered by a newly armed and capable Croatian regular army.   Finally the treaty of Dayton signed in 1995 legalized the ethnic cleansing throughout the Balkan region.   So they knew their ancient homes and fields no more. More

Carnival of Ruritania

Photo by Bruce Sterling

At dawn, I crossed the border between the bad wild Serbs and the good little Croats in the center of Europe. My Serbian passport was closely scanned by Croatian police — especially the page with my permanent US visa. The Serbian bus featured American movies and apt professional smugglers hauling big checkered plastic bags: “all purpose bags,” they call those.

Immediately after arrival I checked out the bathrooms of modern Croatia: they were clean! They had seats! The local pop music sounded sweet, like Italian canzona. A Serbian bus station would feature dirty squat toilets and a turbo folk version of Bosnian rock. More


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